From a teenager to a Le Mans-winner: Reviewing F1’s 2017 rookies


Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Formula 1’s batch of newcomers in 2017 have certainly been an eclectic batch of characters, and they have certainly enjoyed greatly varying debut seasons. With all due respect to Canada’s reigning FIA European Formula 3 champion, Lance Stroll was not the debut that was most hotly anticipated by the fans. McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team recruit Stoffel Vandoorne had steam-rolled the opposition en-route to the 2015 GP2 Series title, and as the man who won on debut in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2, and scored a point on his F1 cameo in Bahrain, there was every expectation that the Belgian would hit the ground running in 2017.

And yet, the first half of Vandoorne’s rookie season produced very little to write home about. Albeit under the most difficult of circumstances; team-mate to Fernando Alonso and in a team fatigued by a third depressing season mired in Honda’s power unit miasma; the Belgian not only suffered an alarming pace deficit to his prodigious team-mate but made errors like a needless collision with Felipe Massa in Spain. He was superbly fast in Monaco; a lap in Q2 to threaten the pace of the Red Bulls was a terrific effort; an effort rather spoiled by a heavy crash just moments later.

Stoffel would hail an improvement in Austria before out-qualifying Alonso at Silverstone en-route to his first ever Q3 appearance. As the McLaren improved in the second half of the season, so did Vandoorne, culminating in a superb pair of seventh-placed finishes in Singapore and Malaysia. At Sepang especially, the Belgian looked the quicker McLaren. Overall, it was solid, if unspectacular, rookie campaign, but one driven with a level head that yielded promisingly consistent results.

Credit: McLaren Media Centre

In stark contrast, Lance Stroll’s debut season saw some truly stunning peaks and some utterly demoralizing troughs. For the most part, it was a thoroughly underwhelming campaign that saw a level of erraticism and unpreparedness that we haven’t seen from a rookie in very long time. The teenager arguably spent the season vindicating the suggestion that he should have raced a preparatory season in Formula 2. A tendency to relapse into an over-aggressive driving style when behind the curve and problems with properly modulating the steering and the pedals impaired his qualifying efforts throughout the entire season.

And yet, the very same driver produced some uber-mature points-scoring finishes in Canada and Mexico, qualified on the front row in the torrential rain of Monza, and became the youngest ever driver to score an F1 podium having kept his nose clean amid the chaos of Baku. In the pouring rain, on the perilous streets of Azerbaijan and under the pressure of his home race; under the very circumstances that ought to have exposed his inexperience, he excelled. On a perfect Spanish afternoon, on a circuit where he had tested extensively, he was passed by his team-mate despite Massa having lost fifty seconds to an early race puncture.

That is the paradox of Lance Stroll. The finest moments of his rookie year have come in situations where many might have expected him to flounder, but he has instead been able to excel on instinct alone. That arguably suggests that once he can suppress some of his overly-aggressive bad habits, Stroll has the potential to blossom into a very fine young driver indeed. However, in 2017, the aggregate picture of the Canadian’s triumphs and travails paints a picture of a driver with fundamental developmental challenges ahead, a challenge that won’t be helped if he is partnered by rookie Sergey Sirotkin in 2018. Vandoorne produced a more professional, polished performance, and was by any measure the rookie of the year despite Stroll’s podium glory.

Credit: Andrew Hone/Williams

However, Vandoorne and Stroll were not the only drivers to make their debut in 2017 (granted, Stoffel made his debut in Bahrain in 2016, but there is such thing as poetic license). After Friday practice in Melbourne, Pascal Wehrlein was mysteriously sidelined by a relapsing back injury despite having purportedly driven the second test in Barcelona without any discomfort. Parachuted into his seat on Saturday morning was Italian Ferrari-affiliate Antonio Giovinazzi, who produced a terrific campaign to challenge Prema Racing team-mate Pierre Gasly for the GP2 title in 2016.

In qualifying in Melbourne Giovinazzi produced a stellar effort, and came within an error at the penultimate corner of out-qualifying Marcus Ericsson and seeding through to Q2. That alone was enough for the paddock to start to link the Ferrari driver with a permanent drive with the Ferrari-powered team. A pair of almost identical crashes in his second outing for the Sauber Team in China, plus yet another crash in a practice outing for Haas in Hungary almost certainly contributed to his failure to capture a drive with Sauber in 2018.

Elsewhere, with the loss of Carlos Sainz Jr. and with Daniil Kvyat chronically underperforming, Scuderia Toro Rosso found themselves in the quite unprecedented scenario of needing an entirely new driver line-up just in order to complete the season. The most natural graduate was reigning GP2 champion Pierre Gasly. The Frenchman was the most senior driver in Helmut Marko‘s junior conveyor-belt and had built on his GP2 triumph with a title run in Japanese Super Formula that might have succeeded had the finale at Suzuka not been rained-off by a typhoon. He looked to compare well to Sainz in Malaysia and Japan before the Spaniard left the team.

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Also joining the team for the final four races of the season was formerly spurned Red Bull protege Brendon Hartley. Quite extraordinarily, the Kiwi had also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and taken the FIA World Endurance Championship crown in addition to making his F1 debut in 2017. Indeed, Hartley would dovetail his new F1 commitments around his incumbent Porsche LMP1 programme, conducting a seven-week, seven-race intercontinental marathon. His reward would be a full-time F1 campaign alongside Gasly for 2018.

Evaluating the duo’s performances is almost impossible given how badly power unit unreliability truncated the final races of Toro Rosso’s season. However needless to say that neither did anything groundbreaking and it does seem gratuitous that Kvyat could steal a point in Austin whilst the pair otherwise didn’t get anywhere near the points as the Faenza-based squad rather limped over the line. The inexperienced duo faces an uphill challenge in 2018, both to get themselves up to speed, but also with the cloud of the Honda power unit hanging over their heads.

Indeed, all of F1’s 2017 newcomers are facing imposing challenges for 2018. Stroll has the prospect of being Williams’ most experienced driver in 2018 and potentially tasked with leading the team. Vandoorne will have to rejoin the fray with Alonso, but in a car that could well be capable of podiums. Giovinazzi will have to start again from zero in his campaign to earn a drive in F1. Job security is happily a very alien concept at the pinnacle of motorsport.