With the big technical changes coming in 2014 that will put a lot of financial strain on Formula 1 teams, 2013 could have been simply an extension of last year’s season in terms of sporting regulations and the machines on the grid. Thankfully, these machines will be handled by a new bread of drivers, who – it’s fair to assume – will spice up the upcoming eight months in F1.
It is the way of any sport: a veteran sportsman departs, a new, young talent appears in its place; a turnaround that takes place on yearly basis. Last year’s most obvious departure was Michael Schumacher’s second career retirement, which would have potentially created a place for a newcomer – if it hadn’t been already booked by Lewis Hamilton, a significant reinforcement to the limping Silver Arrows, whose team principal Ross Brown must be ever hungry for another title since his one-off champion venture, Brawn. In turn, McLaren having lost their Wunderkind were rather unlikely to invest in new blood, if they still wanted to stay in the title fight; some doubted that their choice of former Sauber’s driver, Sergio Perez, would be a capable substitute to keep McLaren in contention – doubts which will remain until the season properly kicks off, although the Mexican keeps his spirits high:
“Tomorrow may be a tricky day for us, because our car isn’t yet as competitive as it’ll become, but our aim will be to score points with both cars so as to keep in touch with the teams who currently appear to be a little way ahead of us in terms of performance,” he said after the interrupted Saturday qualifying in Australia.
The other top teams kept their key players to themselves, despite a great uncertainty over Massa’s Ferrari seat and a lot of speculation about Vettel’s move to the Prancing Horse – still ongoing, anyway. Even Lotus’s rookie who caused a fair amount of chaos and frustration among other drivers, Romain Grosjean, kept his place next to the championship podium finisher, Kimi Raikkonen. Toro Rosso also decided to give its young squad another year to gather up some more points, and experience.
Out of the mid-field teams there was Force India who kept everyone asking about their driver-line up until the very last winter test in Barcelona, after Nico Hulkenberg’s early decision to move sideways and take one of the two empty Sauber seats. Paul di Resta had to do most of the testing of VJM06 on his own, waving off journalists’ nagging on who he would like to be partnered by, until the team finally made an interesting decision to bring back Adrian Sutil after a year of banishment for misconduct in his private life.
But with all this moving around like pieces on a chess board, there were still a few empty seats up for grabs at the end of 2012. Most of these seats had been freed by drivers who could not sustain their presence with a considerable financial input – such as in the case of Kamui Kobayashi or Bruno Senna – and, logically, had to be covered by those who could.
Their teams, respectively, opted for some young talent: Sauber paired up Hulkenberg with their reserve driver and 2012 GP2 second-place finisher, Esteban Gutierrez; whilst Williams’s surprise Spanish GP 2012 winner Pastor Maldonado is being joined by Gp3 2011 champion, Valtteri Bottas.
There’s no denying that smaller teams such as Marussia and Caterham need as much talent as they need resources to stay with their head above water in the Formula 1 business. Hence the employment of a Fromula Renault 3.5 star (2008) and their 2012 reserve by Caterham – Giedo van der Garde, or another GP2 boy and their last year’s reserve, Max Chilton, by Marussia. The Banbury team’s second choice was highly controversial, as they signed up Force India’s reserve (and their “spare part” after choosing Sutil), Jules Bianchi, in the very last days of winter testing – and this after having confirmed Luiz Razia as their second driver. The team was allegedly forced to terminate Razia’s contract, most likely due to overdue payments. This was a very quick turnaround: one rookie for another, in the space of a few weeks, which only highlights the financial troubles of some F1 teams.
Out of the lot, Bottas is considered the only new F1 driver chosen for his talent than the financial backing they’re bringing in – although, of course, he didn’t get the seat based on his skills alone. The Finn has also had most starts in a Formula 1 car out of the five newcomers, having substituted Senna 15 times in the first Friday practices last year. Maybe no wonder then, that in the weather-disrupted qualifying for the fist race of this season in Melbourne Bottas was the only rookie who made it into Q2 – even leaving his more experienced (and frustrated) team-mate Maldonado in a disappointing 17th grid place for Sunday.
There’s not much one can expect of a rookie experiencing his first taster of a Formula 1 car: the most advanced machine in motor sport in an utterly team-dependent environment. In a very unrepresentative testing in cold winter conditions – with free refuelling and without a race-start simulation – it is virtually impossible for a newcomer to get a good grasp of the reality of F1 racing. All rookies agree that they’ll make mistakes at first and aim to learn their way to better performance.
If they fail to impress, we can surely expect some comebacks, as we learnt from the examples of Sutil or Schumacher. Kobayashi and Senna are staying close to the action – both having taken on roles in the World Endurance Championship (the former, most notably, with Ferrari); and there even is a woman, Susie Wolff, hoping to make her way onto the grid in a Williams.
We might see the first glimpse of a rising star in Melbourne or follow one gradually climbing up the grid position throughout the year; with little expectations, these new guys have nothing to lose and all to win this year. At the same time, they shouldn’t be underestimated: Sebastian Vettel entered the sport from Formula 3 series to become the youngest winner – in historic Monza – in his first full year in Toro Rosso in 2008 – from where the only way was up.
Just look how far being a rookie got him.