Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Les Autres

I had intended to pontificate at length on the subject of team orders and the FIA's dubiously motivated 'investigation' into Mclaren's activities at the Monaco Grand Prix. Thankfully, however, as I was bashing out my vitriolic rant, news came through that the FIA had seen sense and let the matter lie. Its a shame that we didn't see a fight all the way until at least the second set of pit stops at Monte Carlo, but there's to my mind a pretty significant difference between asking drivers to hold station and asking them to swap positions.

So instead, I feel it is time to take a break from what is a rather fascinating four way battle for supremacy at the front of the field, and in particular the relentless attention being given to one Lewis Hamilton and focus for a while on how the other new boys are doing.

Though you might not know it if you only ever read the popular press, there have been four other rookies, or near rookies on the grid this season. If you have the dubious pleasure of picking up the ITV coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking Lewis Hamilton the least experienced driver in the field, but in fact, the man with the least previous experience of powerful single seaters, let alone F1 mileage, is Spyker new boy Adrian Sutil.

Sutil, unlike Hamilton, has hardly had an error free start to his F1 career (offs in four of his five Grands Prix so far). On the plus side, though, he has looked very fast from the off - comfortably outpacing his more experienced team mate Christijan Albers. And remember, Albers had little trouble seeing off Monteiro last year. At Monaco, he went one better and outqualified Takuma Sato and Ralf Schumacher. Frankly, being anywhere other than on the back row is always going to be a pretty impressive achievement in the primitive and underfunded Spyker .

Even the mistakes are somewhat more excusable given his more limited testing mileage, the fact that he is trying to make a name for himself in a desperately slow car, and the fact that those at the wrong end of the grid are far more likely to get caught up in opening lap chaos.

The other absolute beginner on the grid, of course, is Heikki Kovalainen. Unlie Sutil or Hamilton, he has very extensive F1 testing experience, having been Renault's official test driver throughout last year. However, one wonders if this was necessarily the best preparation for his first F1 season, or whether it has simply left him race rusty, and unused to driving at the full potential of the car. Testing doesn't normally involve driving at 10/10th, and perhaps after a while it becomes habit-forming. Certainly this might help to explain not only his performance, but also the rather lacklustre start of F1 returnee Alex Wurz over at Williams.

In a way, I feel rather sorry for the Finn. If Hamilton had not come along and redefined what it is possible for an F1 novice to achieve, then Kovalainen's performances in the Renault perhaps wouldn't look so bad. Sure, he was awful in Australia and utterly anonymous in the midfield in Monaco, but in Bahrain and Malaysia he looked the equal of the vastly more experienced Fisichella, and in Spain he actually appeared the quicker of the two.

Given that Fisichella has comprehensively outpaced all but one of his former team mates, including Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, that's perhaps not bad going for a newcomer. Or it wouldn't be, if it wasn't for the fact that said former team mate is himself being given a much harder time by another new boy than Fisichella ever managed to give him. Which, if nothing else, has raised the bar for what is possible for a rookie in the right car, even against the most experienced of team mates. Perhaps he is suffering for the fact that this year's Renault is emphatically not of the same kind of quality as the 2006 car. Certainly it has been said before that while anyone with enough natural talent can be quick in a good, quick car, experience comes to the fore in getting the best out of a more troublesome machine.

Aside from the genuine debutants, there are two nearly new boys - men who have raced before, but who are doing their first full season this year. Anthony Davidson's F1 career, until this year, had been brief and disappointing. Two outings in the second Minardi in 2002 both ended in the gravel trap while a one-off run with BAR in 2004 lasted just a handful of laps before the engine gave up. His potential, therefore, remained something of an unknown when he was announced as Takuma Sato's partner at Super Aguri.

That, to some extent, is how he remains. There has been little to separate him from his more experienced team mate, but it is very hard to know how well, or how badly, the Super Aguri pair are doing. They are in effect running a well proven car on a very minimal budget with the wrong tyres on it. When Davidson or Sato start mixing it with the Williams and Toyotas, it is hard to know whether that is because they are doing an outstanding job, or because a year old Honda on Bridgestone tyres with a group of experienced ex-Arrows men doing the engineering is a pretty serious proposition.

Similar question marks surround the performance of the other nearly-new boy, Robert Kubica. Some people expected that, given his explosive debut last year, he would blow Nick Heidfeld away this season. It hasn't quite worked out that way. The BMW has proven to be a seriously competitive piece of kit, but it has generally been the hitherto anonymous German who has got the most out of it. It is hard to know quite why this should be - perhaps Heidfeld has found having Kubica alongside him a wake up call, perhaps after 8 years in F1, he is finding that having a competitive car has sparked his motivation. Or perhaps Kubica, like Alonso and Raikkonen, is simply struggling to adapt to the very different demands of the new Bridgestone rubber.

Whatever way one looks at it though, the mixed fortunes of what is to my mind, the most promising set of F1 rookies in a very long time is a significant story in itself. It would be a shame if it were entirely lost in the hype surrounding the undoubtedly highly talented Lewis Hamilton.

Post Script - Motorsportsramblings will take a one week break next week. I'll tell you why when I get back...

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Anonymous Clive said...

I think Sutil is showing what would have happened to Hamilton had he started in an uncompetitive car - seriously quick at times but accident prone thanks to trying too hard. The two have raced together in lower formulas and they both say the other is very fast.

There is a rumor that Ralf has two more races to come good at Toyota or he's out and the word is that Toyota would steal Sutil from Spyker in that event. Now, I ask you, if you were Sutil, which would you choose? Toyota looks the obvious choice but, judging from their season so far, it's not a huge improvement on Spyker...

I suspect that Kovalainen is overrated because of his spectacular testing times with Renault last year. It is easy to forget that all test drivers shone because they had unlimited new tyres, engines, etc. And Fizzy's competent performance this season really shows the difference between someone who knows the ropes and a rookie, no matter how much testing experience the noob has had.

Kubica is in a similar position to Kovalainen - a little more race experience, since he started last year, but essentially flattered by his times in testing. I think the Pole has more talent than Kov, however, and will press Heidfeld hard in the second half of the season.

Davidson is the real enigma. He ought to be very good but has been slightly disappointing so far. A few more races might see the best emerge in him.

But the real hope for the future has yet to get a race seat in F1 - Gary Paffett. His record is seriously impressive and I have a feeling he could be a revelation if anyone gives him a drive.

It's a huge crop of new talent out there, isn't it? Most unusual for so many very good youngsters to arrive at the same time.

4:42 AM  

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