Albert Park has played host to its fair share of impressive rookie performances over two-and-a-bit decades in its traditional curtain-raising position on the grand prix calendar.
The inaugural race back in 1996 saw Jacques Villeneuve claim an impressive pole-position on his debut before going on to finish second in the race.
Five years later Kimi Räikkönen‘s debut courted controversy courtesy of his lack of experience leading up to the race; he’d competed in just twenty-three races before Sauber introduced him to the Formula 1 grid. The Iceman finished sixth that day to silence his critics and begin an impressive career that continues to this day.
Remember Lewis Hamilton‘s debut back in 2007? The McLaren rookie qualified fourth and caught everyone’s attention at the start of the race by cruising around the outside of his two-time world champion team-mate, Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton finished on the podium that day, a feat matched by another McLaren rookie at Albert Park in 2014 when Kevin Magnussen stunned the F1 fraternity with a sublime debut performance.
It’s part of the intrigue heading in to a new season; how will the new boys fair? Well, the 2019 Australian Grand Prix played host to not one but four* rookies. Here’s the lowdown on how each new star performed.
(*Yes, we know that one of our rookies has seen F1 action before, but with just two races in 2017 under his belt, we’re still counting him as a fresh-faced rookie.)
Lando Norris – McLaren F1 Team
The only teenager on this year’s grid, Lando Norris‘s arrival in Formula 1 has been greatly anticipated. The McLaren Young Driver won six titles between 2015 and 2017 before stepping into Formula 2 last year where he finished runner-up in the championship.
He’s a keen sim-racer, praised for his strong GIF-game on social media but had never before raced at the tricky and bumpy Albert Park circuit.
It’s a track that wouldn’t think twice about throwing you at some fans’ barbecue should you make the slightest error, but Norris barely put a wheel wrong all weekend.
In qualifying, an area in which Norris lost some form in 2018, he was sensational. With his much more experienced team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr. eliminated in Q1, McLaren’s hopes rested entirely with their rookie.
Norris qualified eighth, McLaren’s first Q3 appearance in Australia since 2014.
In the race itself, Norris showed maturity at a turn one that’s often fraught and littered with the broken carbon fibre. Although he lost two positions, he kept his front wing.
Points on debut where on the cards for Norris until he got stuck behind the struggling Antonio Giovinazzi. As the Italian dealt with aging tyres and a damaged car, Norris was leap-frogged through the pit-stops by Lance Stroll, Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly to ultimately finish twelfth.
“I’m annoyed with myself as there was more potential,” said Norris.
A point-less debut it may have been but nonetheless, Lando Norris has arrived.
Alexander Albon – Scuderia Toro Rosso
Into the lion’s den that is the Red Bull Young Driver programme enters Alexander Albon, the first Thai Formula 1 driver since Prince Bira in 1954. He came third in last year’s Formula 2 title race and across the Australian Grand Prix weekend rivalled Daniel Ricciardo for F1’s Biggest Smile Award.
A crash at turn two in Friday’s first free practice session may have wiped off his front wing but did nothing to dent that smile. That crash was about the only error from Albon’s weekend, a debut that saw him out-qualify Toro Rosso‘s yardstick Daniil Kvyat.
From thirteenth on the grid, like Norris, Albon showed maturity at turn one to keep all four wheels pointing in the right direction. But again, with Norris, Albon was caught in the Giovinazzi train which ultimately cost him a real chance of scoring points.
Instead, Albon came home fourteenth while his team-mate Kvyat scored a point for tenth on his latest comeback. Regardless, Albon’s pace and maturity suggests he could be in for an exciting year as Toro Rosso find themselves fully embroiled in the intense mid-field battle.
“I think we could have had points so that stings a little, but it was a good experience and I came away with a clean weekend, relatively speaking!” said Albon.
Antonio Giovinazzi – Alfa Romeo Racing
How good does that sound? Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing. An Italian in an Alfa, an Italian back in Formula 1.
Yes, his official debut was in Australia two years ago when he deputised for the injured Pascal Wehrlein but this year sees the start of Giovinazzi’s first full-season.
He gets to F1 on merit; anybody who saw his run to second in the Formula 2 championship in 2016 (then called GP2) will know this. But his 2019 Australian Grand Prix wasn’t quite as impressive.
If, like us, you consider him a rookie, then he was the only one of four to fail to out-qualify a team-mate. But when that team-mate is Kimi Räikkönen, there’s no shame in that.
From fourteenth on the grid Giovinazzi appeared to be doing his best Jarno Trulli impression as by mid-race his Alfa Romeo became a rolling road block and a train of drivers struggled to overtake him.
In truth, Giovinazzi was attempting an alternative strategy to most by running a lengthy stint on the medium tyres. It also emerged post-race that his Alfa Romeo had suffered floor damage from the very start of the race after running over the stricken front wing of Daniel Ricciardo.
“It was a tough race,” said Giovinazzi. “I picked up some damage to my car on lap one and after that it was challenging to stay up to speed.”
The Italian finished the race fifteenth, ahead only of the struggling Williams Racing cars while Kimi claimed points in eighth. But with a clean race, Giovinazzi has the pace and tenacity to become a star of the mid-field during 2019.
George Russell – Williams Racing
Speak to anyone in the Formula 1 paddock and they’ll tell you that George Russell is a superstar. The twenty-one year-old claimed back-to-back GP3 and F2 titles before making the step up to Formula 1 with Williams.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that Williams haven’t provided George with a car capable of matching his talent. But that gives him a clear target: beat team-mate Robert Kubica.
Kubica’s comeback following his serious injuries sustained eight years ago has been well documented, and whether he’s still the driver he once was or not, he provides Russell with a target for which to aim.
Although languishing at the rear of the field in Australia, George comfortably beat Kubica; he out-qualified the Pole by 1.7seconds and finished easily ahead in the race after Kubica lost his front wing on the first lap.
Quite rightly, George isn’t thrilled to be fighting over last position but until Williams makes massive headway he can’t expect much more from what is likely to be a frustrating rookie season.
“I am not interested in fighting Robert for last, we need to work together to make this right,” says George. “Overall, I can be proud and pleased with myself because we went into this weekend knowing what to expect and I achieved pretty much all of my goals.”
Next stop for Formula 1 is Bahrain on 29-31 March, at a circuit on which all four rookies have experience, so expect another strong showing from the new class of 2019.