Will Gray

Gray Matter: The new boys

Will Gray

Despite nine seat changes on the grid this year, just two new drivers and two returnee 'rookies' will join the field — so who are they and what can they be expected to achieve?

Arriving in F1 these days is not easy, with limited track time and few opportunities to experience the machinery before getting stuck into racing.

The two newcomers have at least had some time in an F1 car, but they and the two returning 'rookies' (he's returning, but we don't count Kimi Raikkonen as a rookie!) will all have their work cut out against challenging team-mates.

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2011 Test Abu Dhabi Red Bull Vergne - 0
Jean-Eric Vergne - Newcomer

Vergne arrives at Toro Rosso with a very similar career path to his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, just running one year behind.

Ricciardo won the Formula Renault title in 2008, was British F3 champion in 2009 and finished runner-up in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2009. Vergne was second rather than first in his Formula Renault season in 2009, but then matched Riccardo up the ladder.

Although Vergne has limited amount of time in an F1 car — one young driver test and three Friday practice sessions for Toro Rosso and one young driver test for Red Bull — he spent much of last year working on set-ups for Red Bull Racing on their F1 simulator.

That experience — both in terms of track layout awareness and car engineering — will be invaluable when he joins Toro Rosso, where he will be under extreme pressure to perform.

The team's decision to ditch their two previous drivers because they weren't progressing shows they are ruthless. Right now, Ricciardo has the edge having had 11 races already with HRT. Vergne's first challenge will be to eradicate that advantage; his second will be to establish himself as the team leader. But by all accounts, he has the talent and the confidence to do just that.

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2010 Arden Charles Pic - 0
Charles Pic - Newcomer

Between his advisor, former F1 winner Olivier Panis, and his godfather, former F1 driver Eric Bernard, Pic is not short of F1 advice.

He is one of a number of French drivers coming through the ranks, but with a record that is satisfactory rather than sensational he is currently at the back of the pack.

Sixth and third in Formula Renault 3.5 followed by 10th place in his first GP2 season and fourth last year, when he dropped away having briefly lead the championship, do not suggest sparkling performances. Monaco, perhaps, may be his chance to shine as he won there in both categories.

It's likely that his Marussia car will not help him make a mark either. Virgin (Marussia's predecessor) struggled in the last two years and although experienced former Renault chief Pat Symonds is now overseeing the team's machine, ditching the CFD-only design policy, it is unlikely their budget will be enough to progress.

With his French rivals Grosjean and Vergne racing for Lotus and Toro Rosso respectively, Pic's Marussia machine is unlikely to put him in a position to challenge them.

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Lotus Formula One driver Romain Grosjean Switzerland posses during the presentation of the Lotus Formula One Team 2012 at the Jerez race track in Jere
Romain Grosjean — Returning rookie (seven previous races)

Grosjean made his F1 debut with a Renault team in turmoil back in 2009, replacing Nelson Piquet Junior after the young Brazilian was booted out of the team as part of the Singapore Grand Prix race fixing scandal.

It was a baptism of fire as he came in alongside Fernando Alonso and it was not a success — 12th was his best grid spot and 13th his best finish in his seven races. In comparison, Alonso had four top-ten shoot-outs and four points finishes. But, to be fair, that is Alonso.

He didn't set the world alight in his early career, but a slow build grew to see him become champion in F3 Euroseries, AutoGP, GP2 Asia twice and GP2 last year. It's not a bad tally, and it certainly shows he can do the job in the right machinery.

But again, he is in a team that, last year at least, went into freefall. And if being put up against Alonso in his fist F1 foray wasn't enough, he now sits alongside returning champion Kimi Raikkonen.

That could be a blessing, however — and if he can do to Raikkonen this year what Rosberg did to Michael Schumacher at Mercedes over the last two seasons, he could just secure his long-term F1 future.

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Sahara Force India Formula One team driver Germany's Nico Hulkenberg speaks during a television interview after unveiling the team's VJM05 car during
Nico Hulkenberg — Returning rookie (19 previous races)

Dropped by Williams for last year because he could not pull together the budget to beat Pastor Maldonado to the seat, 'the Hulk' spent the season 'testing' for Force India and now steps up to the race drive.

He has a full season of F1 to his name — making him more experienced than Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso — and in that full season he scored 22 points and one pole position.

Hardly a rookie then, but the young German, who is now 24, still has something to prove as he had been tipped to be a sensation when he arrived in F1 and has been knocked down the order in the new generation of German racers by Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel.

He is another champion graduate from GP2 — having won it in 2009 — and he returns to the grid alongside Paul di Resta, the Scot who, it's pretty fair to say, was at least a match for the seat's former incumbent Adrian Sutil in his debut season last year.

The internal battle between this pairing is going to be interesting — and if Force India can continue their upward trend, racing alongside di Resta's could just entice the best out of Hulkenberg. Another pole position could be a tough ask, but a championship finish above di Resta should enable the German to re-establish his F1 career.

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