After the usual suspects like Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel the most followed drivers on the grid are the rookies. Everybody is excited as to how the new lad will perform. Although having performed well in the feeder series such as GP2, Formula Renault 3.5 (a necessity if you have to make it into F1, on most occasions even if you have lots of cash), it is not a given that he will be able to live up to the demands of the pinnacle of motorsport.
But when one does and outruns everybody’s expectations, he becomes a true star. Such was definitely the case with Lewis Hamilton when he missed out on the championship by just a single point. Apart from Hamilton, there have been others who have put in equally good performances during their debut season and here we take a look at them:-
Most fans will be able to identify themselves with Hamilton the most, so it is appropriate that we begin with him. And why not. A spectacular record of 4 wins, 6 poles and 12 podiums- 9 of them being in his first 9 races! Had it not been for the intra-team battles at McLaren, he could have become the first and only rookie champion till date. Many would argue that he had the fastest car most of the time but still being a match to the defending double-world champion is no walk in the park. Although he was the victim of some rookie mistakes such as running into the gravel at the pit-entry in China, nobody can belittle his stupendous achievements during that year.
He raced in only 8 of the 13 races during the 1970 season and still came 3rd in the championship, just 7 points behind teammate Jacky Ickx who competed in all the races. He stood on the podium 4 times with one of them being a win- the best that a rookie could ever imagine: for Ferrari at Monza in front of the adoring Tifosi. Had Regazzoni competed in all the races of the season, he definitely would have given Ickx as well as Rindt a run for their money. Another guy who had the golden opportunity to become world champion in his very first season.
There is no doubt that he owed much of his great debut season to the Williams car with which his teammate Damon Hill won the championship. But there is no taking away credit from the man who achieved one of the rarest of feats- pole position in his very first race! Only bad luck with an oil leak prevented him from equaling Giancarlo Baghetti’s record of winning his first ever race. Nevertheless, he was a match for Hill throughout the season and only the Brit’s metronomic consistency prevented Villeneuve from winning the title. He ultimately finished 2nd in the championship 19 points behind Hill. The goal of becoming world champion was finally achieved next year, in 1997, like Hamilton in equally dramatic fashion.
In earlier days, drivers tried their hands at all possible forms of motorsport but rarely did they achieve success in multiple formats. Not John Surtees though. Having won a staggering seven championships on two wheels, he wanted to establish himself in the four-wheel racing world. The statistics for the 1960 season- 3 DNF’s and 1 2nd place don’t do justice to Surtees’ heroic efforts.
Before jumping to any conclusions, it is important to know that Mr. Surtees won motorcycle championships in both the 350cc and 500cc categories in 1960- the same year he made his Formula 1 debut. So, he had minimal preparation time for the races but still managed a 2nd place in only his 2nd outing- mind you, a full month and a half after his first! He followed that up with a pole position in the next race. His performances didn’t go unnoticed and he grew from strength to strength in the following years finally becoming the only person ever to win world championships both on two wheels and four wheels.
This is the guy who rejected a drive in one of Colin Chapman’s cars alongside the great Jim Clark. A stupid decision? No! The extra experience he gained by not racing in Formula 1 that year stood him in good stead later on. Stewart was a man determined to win championships and there were two clear reasons behind not taking up the Lotus drive: first, as already mentioned, more experience; second he was not ready to play second fiddle to Chapman’s darling. Sometimes you just wonder how could a guy take such wise and measured decisions before even getting a faint taste of the sport. And if he had the ability to take such decisions, who would stop him from succeeding? Answer: No one!
The results immediately started to show when he joined BRM in 1965. 5 podiums including a win, finishing 3rd in the championship just 7 points behind his much more experienced world champion teammate Graham Hill. 3 years later he joined Matra and the rest is history.
Some of you might argue that ‘technically’ Guiseppe Farina was champion on ‘debut’. That is a valid point but here we are talking about those who joined Formula 1 after the inaugural season in 1950. Other than the above mentioned drivers, there have been many other notable performances by drivers in their rookie seasons- some showcasing tremendous skill such as Michael Schumacher, some outperforming the car – Mark Webber, others outperforming both the car as well as teammate- Fernando Alonso, but when you combine them all there are none better than our selected top 5.