Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The New Boys

In last week's Autosport, Mark Hughes asked whether the current crop of F1 championship contenders might just be the strongest that the sport has ever known. Such a suggestion will inevitably raise the hackles of the beard stroking senior citizens who insist that nobody's ever really matched Moss, Fangio, Clark or Stewart but I think there just might be something in it. What, though, of the generation that will one day supplant them? Who will eventually do to Messrs Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Button, Kubica and Webber what Prost did to Lauda, Senna to Prost and, had Senna lived, what Schumacher might have done to Senna?

Is there anyone among this year's crop of F1 debutants who might one day be World Champion? It's too early to say, though I suspect that the answer to that question is 'no', but, as the season races headlong towards its halfway point, how are Petrov, Hulkenberg, Kobayashi, Di Grassi, Chandhok and Senna getting on?

The man with both the most difficult job and the best equipment of the bunch is Russian Vitaly Petrov. On the one hand, the Renault is, in Robert Kubica's hands has twice proven good enough for a podium, a car quick enough to enable a promising youngster to show what he is made of. On the other hand, he's having to learn his trade very publicly, and in Robert Kubica he has a team mate who's about as fast as anyone on the grid. And thanks to Lewis Hamilton's performances against Alonso in 2007, the F1 world is less inclined to give new drivers the benefit of the doubt if they are not immediately on the pace than might once have been the case.

At no time has Petrov looked like he would get on terms with Kubica, and while Kubica lies seventh in the driver's championship, Petrov has scored points on just one occasion. He has, though, shown flashes of real pace - scoring points in China and looking very quick there when it rained. Unlike almost everyone on the F1 grid, he didn't spend his entire childhood at the wheel of a go-kart and indeed, before he began racing in GP2 in 2006, he hadn't done much outside of the hermetic world of Russia's Formula Lada. As such, he might have more scope to improve than any of the other debutants. And if not, well, rumour has it he (or his father) is paying a lot of Renault's bills, so he might be given the benefit of the doubt.

Over at Williams, GP2 series champion and former A1GP star Nico Hulkenberg has been rather closer to his team mate's pace than Petrov has ever managed to be. On the other hand, in his 18th season in F1, I'm not convinced that Barrichello is quite the opponent that Kubica is, and thus far, the veteran Brazilian racer has generally had the upper hand. To be fair, it is almost certainly harder for a rookie driver to come in and trounce an experienced team mate in a slow, troublesome car, than in a really well set-up machine like the 2007 Mclaren but I still can't help thinking that if Hulkenberg were really the 'new Schumacher' then he would by now be outpacing his team mate.

That's not to say he might not establish himself as a solid GP driver in the mould of a Heidfeld or a Glock or, for that matter, a Barrichello. After a shaky start to the season, he qualified well at Monaco (though damage picked up at the first corner ensured he got no further than the tunnel come race day), was unlucky but quick at Montreal and was on course for a solid points finish in Valencia until his car packed up on him in the closing stages of the race. If, by the end of the year he's regularly matching Barrichello and if, crucially, he can keep his car out of the tyre walls, he will have done enough to show he belongs in F1, if not necessarily, that he's a future star.

A man who did look to have real star quality when he stepped into the Toyota vacated by Timo Glock at the end last year was Kamui Kobayashi. Immensely combative, what was all the more impressive was that in only his second F1 race, he was outpacing his highly rated team mate Jarno Trulli, and finished up with a very solid sixth place in Abu Dhabi.

This year, though, in a rather uncompetitive Sauber, Kobayashi has done little to remind us of those startling debut races. He's been outqualified 5-4 by veteran Pedro De La Rosa, a man who, at 39, is surely with the team more for his vast experience in car development and his testing skills than for his outright pace. Given that, before he was parachuted into Toyota last year, there had been little in his junior career to suggest he was anything more than a competent journeyman, having hardly troubled the front runners in what was not the most competitive GP2 grid the sport has ever known, dark whispers have circulated that the Toyota he drove in Abu Dhabi might not have been 100% kosher. That, anxious not to see another team pull out of F1, the stewards might have been prepared to look the other way. To my knowledge, there has never been any serious evidence to back up these claims, but equally it's hard to deny that Kobayashi has frequently looked a little out of his depth in F1 this year.

Again, though, there have been odd flashes of promise when the cards have fallen his way, or when the Sauber has been dialed into the circuit properly. At Barcelona, which places a premium on aerodynamic efficiency, and where a lack of low speed mechanical grip matters less, it was Kobayashi that got the Sauber into Q3 for the first time all season, and it was Kobayashi, too, who scored the team's first points of the season in Turkey.

His drive of the season, and it just might have saved his drive, came last weekend at Valencia. He qualified badly, but when the safety car came out after Webber's accident, the team rolled the dice and opted to keep him out on the harder tyres while everyone else took the opportunity to make their mandatory stop. He ended up third, and to my surprise (and surely that of most people watching) he stayed there, easily able to keep Jenson Button's Mclaren behind him. When he finally pitted, 5 laps from the end, he fell to 9th, but where everyone else struggled all afternoon to overtake on a circuit hardly conducive to it, Kobayashi, armed with new soft tyres, forced his way past Alonso, and then did for Sebastian Buemi's Toro Rosso at the very last corner to finish 7th. For the first time we saw flashes of that form which so captivated us when he made his debut with Toyota. A mercurial, intermittently brilliant Japanese driver who lacks consistency? A bit of history repeating...

The three drivers making their F1 debuts with the new teams have life much more difficult in one respect, and much easier in another. On the one hand, nobody expects that Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna and Lucas Di Grassi will be able to achieve anything much in HRTs and Virgins that are the thick end of 5 seconds off the pace. But at the same time, it's hard to see what they can do to make a name for themselves.

Di Grassi is teamed up with Timo Glock, the man who beat him to the GP2 title back in 2007, and once again it has been the German who has generally had the edge, outqualifying his Brazilian team mate 8-1 so far . Di Grassi has often been as much as a second a lap off his team mate's pace. It's not clear, though, whether that's an entirely fair comparison. Virgin Racing is hardly Mclaren or Ferrari. They're not really in a position to field two equally competitive cars, and they've been desperately playing catch-up on the development front ever since they lost most of their winter testing to recurring hydraulic problems. They made life still more difficult for themselves by building a car with too small a fuel tank to go the distance, and developments to address these problems, as well as to improve the performance of the cars, have not always been available at the same time for both drivers. Glock had a long-wheelbase VR01 with its larger fuel tank from Spain onwards, while Di Grassi had to wait until Turkey. I don't know whether the same delay has applied in respect of various aerodynamic updates, but it may be that the gap between the two drivers is not as large as it appears. F1, though, is a harsh world, and as long as Di Grassi is being outpaced by Glock, he's unlikely to get a chance with a more competitive team.

Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna were previously team mates at ISport in GP2 a couple of years back. Then, as now, it's Ayrton's nephew who has generally had the edge over the son of the former Indian Motorsports Federation, though as with Glock and Di Grassi at Virgin, it is hard to know whether this is a reflection on their relative pace, or simply the luck of the draw with a slow and unreliable car. To be honest, I've never been entirely convinced that either really has what it takes to be in F1, although they've both generally kept out of trouble and the HRT is such a dog that the credentials of those driving it is rather a moot point.

On balance, I don't see anyone among the current crop of rookies who is likely to match the drivers at the front of the field at the moment. That, though, is not necessarily a sign that the sort is in trouble. There are always fallow years: did anyone of any real note emerge between 2003 and 2005? But perhaps I'll be wrong. The second half of the season will give us a clearer idea.

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