Amidst all the hubbub over the start of Formula One’s new “green” era, this year’s crop of rookies put on a marvellous display during the Australian Grand Prix, with one even setting a new Formula One record in the process.
They say experience is a driver’s greatest asset when faced with such massive changes to the regulations, as we’ve already seen in the past few weeks. While there is some truth to this theory, there isn’t a whole lot for the veterans of the sport to go on besides knowledge of the tires and development skills this year. Conversely, the theory surrounding rookies in the thick of new regulations is that they have less habit to overcome; they aren’t in a routine when it comes to driving style for a certain era of racing. This supposedly put them in good stead for the challenges of the 2014 season.
Because of this, it was almost impossible to know which drivers would excel and which drivers would struggle in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. What we did know was that, whatever the result, it would at least give an indication, albeit blurry and premature, of who to watch out for during the season.
There were varying levels of hype surrounding Kevin Magnussen, Daniil Kvyat and Marcus Ericsson. One was occupying the seat formerly held by McLaren’s last World Champion and partnering the last World Champion other than Sebastian Vettel. The second – well he is in one of the most cutthroat and unforgiving environments in Formula One: Toro Rosso. It doesn’t take much to convince the bigwigs at Red Bull that you aren’t cut out for the sport, and when you are up against a fast teammate who is already using his last chance himself, the pressure is extreme. Finally, the third driver is part of a team who has had lofty goals in F1 ever since it joined the sport in 2010. After many fruitless attempts at breaking into the midfield, the team owner has said that this year is it, the final year they will fight this losing battle. To be responsible for the team’s ultimate fate in the sport is a heavy burden to bear, especially for a rookie.
Nevertheless, these three youngsters took their responsibilities in their stride, not only showing well against their teammates, but impressing the field as a whole.
First, Marcus Ericsson’s performance must be recognized. The competitiveness of his car is such that he will rarely be the main topic of a race weekend, but his debut was by no means invisible. A good start for the Swede sent him up to the low teens in the running order, with various retirements allowing him to enjoy a good amount of time in 11th place. While he was never going to stay there for long, it did allow him to show a glimpse of what could come this season. With the team’s reliability issues hindering almost all of their running during practice, it could be reasonably assumed that with sufficient practice time, these types of performances could happen on a regular basis.
One major record that fell was courtesy of Kvyat who, having never driven on the Melbourne circuit, managed to qualify in the top ten in extremely tricky conditions and finish the race in the points having contested a whole other set of tricky conditions. That the record for the youngest driver to score points was previously held by Sebastian Vettel only serves to underscore the weight of this accomplishment.
Kvyat had an impressive weekend from the start. He was consistently near his teammate on lap times in practice and lapped within two tenths of him in qualifying. When the lights went out on Sunday, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, taking the fight to the likes of Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen. He didn’t let himself get carried away though, and avoided some of the small mistakes that held his teammate back from a better position at the end of the race. His performance was an excellent example of control-under-pressure, a hard thing to master at the tender age of 19. His defect to Vergne at the flag was to be expected considering his inexperience. But this was much more than a sold debut race. It set the tone for more similar performances and proves wrong the critics who felt Antonio Felix da Costa was the better candidate for the second seat at Toro Rosso.
Kevin Magnussen also enjoyed a great debut as he drove his McLaren Mercedes to third place from fourth on the grid. Much like Lewis Hamilton did on debut back in 2007, he turned more than a few heads. If you noticed some similarities between those two results, I can assure you so has Kevin. The constant reminder of the parallels between his and Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One debuts have put some pressure on the Danish youngster, but he seems to be unfazed by any sense of duty to emulate the 2008 world champion’s performances.
Like Kvyat’s, Magnussen’s race was one of controlled aggression. After nearly turning the most impressive debut race in history into the most embarrassing debut race in history at the start, Kevin drove like a seasoned veteran, balancing, to near perfection, tire life, fuel consumption and the overall mental taxation of driving a Formula One car. Because of the works Mercedes’ pace advantage over the rest of the field, Kevin was never in the running for the win, but his charge to the podium is just as good and reveals just why McLaren were so keen to get him into a race seat this season, whether at McLaren or any other team.
We sometimes lose sight of the fact that F1 rookies are the future of the sport we love. With the advent of “pay drivers”, rookies are often viewed as a nuisance, just getting in the way of drivers who deserve to be here. While one of this year’s rookies is here for financial reasons, there is no denying the fact that, after all of their debut performances, they deserve to be in the sport.
Images courtesy of McLaren Mercedes and Caterham F1 Team.