Monday, February 22, 2010

New Kids On The Block

Last year, it seemed that the in-season testing ban, combined with the severe restrictions on race-weekend mileage imposed by the limits on engines and gearboxes that a team could use over the course of a season, had together frightened F1 teams away from hiring drivers without previous F1 experience. Doubtless, there was a fear that the lack of opportunity for drivers to get seat time in a Grand Prix car would seriously hamper any newcomers and Toro Rosso were alone in turning up at Melbourne last year with a driver who had never taken a Grand Prix start before - Sebastien Buemi. Others came in over the course of the year, as first Toro Rosso and then Renault became disillusioned with the drivers they had started the year with and replaced Sebastien Bourdais with British F3 champion, Jaime Alguersuari and Nelson Piquet Jr with Romain Grosjean, while Toyota drafted Kamui Kobayashi to fill in for an apparently injured Timo Glock but in comparison with previous years, last season was not a vintage one for fresh talent.

This year, though, there will be at least three drivers making their F1 debut in Bahrain in just over two weeks time, and possibly more if Campos, Stefan GP or USF1 defy the odds and make it to the grid this year. The three drivers who will definitely be there are the men who finished first, second and third in this year's GP2 championship, Nico Hulkenberg, Vitaly Petrov and Lucas Di Grassi.

Forced to pick one of these three as the man most likely to establish himself as a real star of the sport, I'd have to choose Willi Weber's latest protege, Hulkenberg. He is, after all, managed by the man who plucked one Michael Schumacher from obscurity, but more importantly than that, he won last year's GP2 championship fairly convincingly at his first attempt, despite the fact that most of his rivals were in their second or third year in the category, and comprehensively overshadowed his team mate Pastor Maldonado, who had been thought one of the fastest drivers in the series. He's also a previous winner of the F3 Euroseries, and helped Germany to the A1GP title back in 2006/07, while still a teenager.

The Williams seat looks like a good bet for the youngster too. The Williams FW32 should be competitive enough for him to show what he's capable of, but not so quick that he'll face the presssure of being thrown straight into a potentially title-winning team while he's still learning the ropes (although this didn't seem to do Lewis Hamilton any harm). In Rubens Barrichello, he's got a team mate who is vastly experienced, knows how to set up and develop a car, and who is fast enough that beating him will gain him credibility in the paddock, but who, crucially, is now going into his 18th season in the sport and who is almost certainly not quite as quick as he used to be. If Hulkenberg is really as good as his junior career suggests, he should be able to get the better of Barrichello from time to time, at least by the second half of the season.

The man whom he beat to the GP2 title, Russia's first F1 driver, Vitaly Petrov, will have a harder time at Renault. The Renault R30 is, on the balance of probabilities, likely to be about as competitive as the Williams, but if you were a young driver going into his first F1 season and you were given the choice, you'd probably prefer to be paired up with Barrichello than with Robert Kubica, a man whom many (including myself) see as being in the same league as champions Alonso and Hamilton. And that's before you take into account the fact that the second Renault has proven to have been something of a poisoned chalice. Add to that the fact that, unlike Hulkenberg or Di Grassi, he has little previous F1 testing experience, and he faces a very steep learning curve indeed. Perhaps the fact that Petrov Sr. is reported to be putting up £10m for his son's drove will ensure that he gets a decent shot.

But even if he does, is he quick? It's hard to say. When he arrived in GP2 back in the middle of 2006 he appeared to be a rich kid who was desperately out of his depth - perhaps not surprising when you consider that he had little single-seater experience beyond 'Formula Lada Revolution', whatever that may be. He stuck at it and learned the ropes, though, winning his first race in 2007, becoming a more regular front-runner in 2008 and finishing runner-up last year, something which suggests that, whether or not he's really from the very top drawer, he knows roughly what he's doing. And when you consider that he's a late starter, considerably less experienced than most racing drivers of his 25 years, he could yet turn out to be better than his junior career has suggested. There's no doubt he got the drive ahead of more obviously qualified candidates thanks to Daddy's millions, but it's now up to him to prove he deserves to be thought of as more than just a pay-driver.

Lucas Di Grassi wound up third in last year's GP2 championship and is the final member of this year's rookie trio. The Virgin VR01 is a rather less enticing prospect than a Williams or a Renault drive, but the vast pool of young drivers chasing a small number of race seats, an ambitious young hopeful would probably be well advised to take any seat going. And he might be feeling very glad he didn't sign for USF1 or Campos right now. Di Grassi has never struck me as being a really quick driver, a decent journeyman, but not someone whom I'd expect to see emerge as a regular race winner. In GP2 he's always been there or thereabouts, somewhere near the front, but even in the year he spent with multiple title winners ART, he never established himself as a regular winner.

It was a steady points-scoring approach that enabled him to come close to snatching the 2007 title from his Virgin team mate, Timo Glock, but the German driver always looked a good deal quicker, and frankly it would have been a travesty had Di Grassi snatched the title from under his nose simply because his ART machine never broke... He was reported to have been well respected as a development driver when he was a tester at Renault, though, and that could turn out to be more important than those last couple of tenths of outright pace in his new role at Virgin. On the plus side, the car hasn't looked too slow out of the box at Jerez, and it looks as though Nick Wirth's gamble on building a car without reference to a wind-tunnel just might pay off, but so far, the car has proven woefully unreliable.

If he wants to establish a long term future in F1, Di Grassi will have to do what he couldn't do in GP2 and get on terms with Timo Glock. In the first half of the year, he might be given the benefit of the doubt, but F1 is an unforgiving world and if he isn't matching Glock by the second half of 2010, he'll never be anything more than a journeyman in the eyes of the Grand Prix paddock. His task is the same as that facing Hulkenberg, and most dauntingly, Petrov, to get on terms with a much more experienced team mate. It's asking a lot, but since Lewis Hamilton rewrote the rules as far as what can be expected of a talented newcomer, anything less may not be enough.

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