As always, now that the first winter test has been and gone we’re none the wiser about the respective pace of the 11 teams on the Formula 1 grid. However, now that 10 of those 11 teams have confirmed their driver line ups – the exception being Force India, who have yet to announce who will race for them alongside Paul di Resta – we can be much more certain about who will actually be on the grid come the opening race in Australia in about a month’s time. Unusually, of the 21 seats that have been filled, nearly a quarter are filled with rookies.
Indeed, once Force India confirm their driver line up, the number of rookies on the grid may well increase to six – more than a quarter of the field – if, as seems quite likely, Jules Bianchi gets the nod. For now, though, I’m going to ignore Bianchi and instead look at the five confirmed Formula 1 rookies for 2013. Let’s focus on these F1 novices and assess their chances.
I’ll start with Williams’ young Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas. Bottas is unique among this year’s crop of rookies as he has never competed in Formula 1 feeder series GP2. The Finn was, though, crowned GP3 champion in 2011 and makes up for his lack of racing in GP2 with three years spent with Williams as a test driver. This will mean that Bottas will have had some considerable input into the design and development of the Williams FW35 – the only 2013 car still to be unveiled – and will know exactly what to expect from a car that, because of his input into its design and development, is likely to suit him.
Despite his lack of recent racing experience, GP3 aside, let’s not forget that Bottas does have a fair amount of Formula 1 experience. The 23 year old took part in 15 Friday free practice sessions in 2012, on top of his other duties as a test driver, and was impressively faster than race driver Pastor Maldonado in six of these free practice appearances. The Finn is certainly rated very highly by Williams and it will be interesting to see how he fairs against former GP2 champion, and Formula 1 race winner, Maldonado. I expect that the two will be closely matched and that Bottas may even outpace his more experienced Venezuelan team mate. I would be far from surprised if Bottas ends the season as top rookie.
I expect that the other contender for the top rookie crown come the end of the 2013 Formula 1 season will be Esteban Gutierrez. Sauber’s new race driver, like Bottas, has been with his current employers for quite some time. The 21 year old Mexican first tested for Sauber, in their former guise as BMW Sauber, in 2009 and, again like Bottas, has been with his team as a reserve and test driver for the last three seasons.
Unlike Bottas, though, Gutierrez has not had much Formula 1 free practice experience, appearing only once in FP1 in 2012, deputising for his unwell compatriot, Sergio Perez, in India. Gutierrez does, though, have the edge on Bottas in terms of recent race experience, having come home third in last season’s GP2 championship, ahead of his team-mate James Calado, the same team-mate that Bottas beat to the GP3 championship a year earlier. Gutierrez has big shoes to fill at Sauber, though. His fellow Mexican Perez was outstanding in 2012 and was rewarded with a move to McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton. It remains to be seen whether Gutierrez can rise to the challenge. He was inconsistent in GP2, and I expect that 2013 may well be a tough year for him, especially alongside Nico Hulkenberg – a former GP2 champion and a Formula 1 pole sitter.
The remaining three 2013 rookies fill three of the four seats at the two remaining ‘new’ Formula 1 teams – Caterham and Marussia. The first of these is Luiz Razia, who was only confirmed as the second Marussia race driver last week. Like Gutierrez, Razia competed in GP2 last season, finishing runner up in the championship with four race victories. The Brazilian also has some Formula 1 experience as a test driver, first with his current team in their former guise of Virgin racing and, more recently, with Team Lotus, which has now become Caterham. Like Gutierrez, his only experience of Formula 1, other than a young driver test, was a single free practice outing. For Razia, this came at the 2011 Chinese grand prix.
Going head to head with Razia at Marussia is another rookie, Englishman Max Chilton. Chilton, at 21 years of age, is a couple of years younger than his Brazilian team-mate, who he competed alongside in last year’s GP2 series finishing the championship in fourth place at the end of the season. Chilton has been with Marussia as their test and reserve driver since last year’s Japanese GP and, like both Gutierrez and Razia, he took part in a single Friday free practice session – for Chilton, this came at the Abu Dhabi GP. It should be an interesting battle between the two rookies at Marussia and it’s pretty tough to predict who will come out on top. It may well be the case that the one who loses out may also lose out on an F1 drive in 2014. One thing’s for sure, though, we’re highly unlikely to see either Razia or Chilton, battling with Bottas and Gutierrez to be the top rookie.
That leaves us with one more F1 novice to assess; Caterham new boy Guido van der Garde. Van der Garde is the fourth of our five rookies to have graduated from GP2 and, at 27 years of age, the Dutchman is the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, with Formula 1 experience as a test and reserve driver as long ago as 2007, with Spyker (now known as Force India). It is perhaps telling that van der Garde has not made his Formula 1 breakthrough before now. Despite his experience as Caterham’s test and reserve driver last season, the Dutchman did not take part in any Friday free practice sessions, which places him at a slight disadvantage in comparison to his peers. I doubt that this will prove crucial though, and it will be interesting to see how well van der Garde does in comparison to 2012 F1 rookie Charles Pic.
Of the five rookies, I feel that van der Garde is the one that’s most likely to struggle. Much will depend, of course, on how competitive his Caterham CT03 is in comparison to its rivals. Despite now entering their fourth year in the sport Caterham, and the other remaining new team Marussia, have failed to break through to challenge the more established teams. This places their drivers, and especially the rookies, at a distinct disadvantage. Unless one of these teams has made huge strides forward, I imagine that we’ll see van der Garde, Chilton and Razia competing for the wooden spoon at the end of the season.
As I’ve indicated, though, I expect more from the two rookies driving for more established teams. On ultimate pace I think that Bottas has the edge over Gutierrez, but it’s very tough to tell. We have to go back to 2009 to see when these two last went head-to-head for a full season and it was Bottas that came out on top in the Formula Three Euroseries. Whether it’s Bottas or Gutierrez that takes the rookie crown will depend largely on how good their cars are. The Sauber C32 certainly looks to be the most innovative of this year’s crop of F1 cars, but Williams have yet to show their hand. As always, though, nothing is certain in the unpredictable world of F1.