Opinion: F1's future is bright – very bright
By Chris Medland | RACER magazine and RACER.com F1 correspondent
With confirmation (at long last) of Lance Stroll’s seat at Force India comes completion of the 2019 Formula 1 grid, and with it the final statistic that shows a growing trend towards youth in the series.
In 2018, the average age for an F1 driver was 26.7 years old.
Next year, that will be, err, 26.7 years old…
So, no, it’s not that one.
But it is the statistic that of the 10 teams on next year’s grid, five of them will be running a driver aged 21 or under, and two of those – Ferrari and Red Bull – won races this year.
It’s somewhat ironic that the one ‘junior’ team – Toro Rosso – will not have a driver 21 or under, and a pairing with a combined average age that is higher than the senior Red Bull duo. But Alexander Albon will still be just 22 when the lights go out in Melbourne, and is one of 12 seat changes over the winter from which only Mercedes and Haas will emerge with an unchanged line-up.
McLaren, Toro Rosso, Sauber and Williams will all have rookies in their line-ups, while Ferrari and Red Bull will each have drivers who have completed just one full season in F1.
So, why the faith in inexperience? Well, for one, there’s the Max Verstappen effect. Verstappen is the Red Bull driver who fits into the 21-and-under club, with teammate Pierre Gasly set to turn 23 before the season gets underway. It’s easy to forget Verstappen’s tender age, but he was born a little over three years before Kimi Raikkonen made his debut in F1…
And yet Verstappen has shown an outstanding ability that is delivering benefits to all young drivers. Sure, he still makes mistakes, and it could be argued that his excellent run of form from the Canadian Grand Prix onwards was a sign of him maturing after a difficult start to the season, but Verstappen started delivering on such a high level from the second he arrived in F1 that it encourages other teams to also put their faith in youth. You won’t get the finished package, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good enough already.
The sporting adage of ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ has tended to be reserved for smaller teams in F1. The FIA moved to limit just how old you have to be by implementing the minimum age of 18 following Verstappen’s arrival, but that hasn’t put teams off. And another reason there seems to be a different approach this year is due to the competitive levels of the teams themselves.
Verstappen’s success with Red Bull has made other teams less nervous about gambling on youth. Image by Mauger/LAT
Numerous rookies over the past five years got their chance with a team such as Manor, Caterham or HRT. But there are no smaller teams in the sport anymore; no backmarkers with which to cut your teeth.
Williams finished bottom of the constructors’ championship in 2018, but it still scored points on three occasions, and on average its lead car in Q1 qualified 102.22% off the fastest time in the same section. Hardly need for the 107% rule right now…
So there’s no obvious candidate for a young driver to head to. They all need to be ready to fight in the midfield alongside some seriously experienced and highly-rated competition from the word go. And all the signs would suggest the new generation taking hold of the sport are here to stay.
Charles Leclerc has had a brilliant season, and is fully deserving of his Ferrari seat. Expectations were already high when Leclerc joined Sauber, such was the dominance he displayed in Formula 2 in 2017, but he dealt with that pressure even during a slightly tough start to the year and improved quickly.
Young drivers tend to reveal their potential in flashes, leaving teams waiting for them to produce on a more regular basis before entrusting them with a seat. Leclerc showed both his talent and the consistency required as the year went on. By the end of the season, Sauber arguably had the quickest car in the midfield, and Leclerc duly delivered seventh place in four of the final six races.
Those results came after his being confirmed as a Ferrari driver, and while the move to Maranello will means that the pressure increases tenfold, Leclerc has a history of rising to the occasion.
Perhaps Gasly is the more traditional example of an inexperienced driver, and should be treated that way when he steps up to Red Bull. In his first full season, the Frenchman pulled out some sublime performances, including Bahrain where he was fourth, and Hungary and Monaco where he was sixth and seventh respectively.
The Toro Rosso Honda wasn’t always the most reliable car from a power unit point of view, and nor was it especially consistent from track to track. While it’s tough to judge whether Gasly is yet ready to score major results week in, week out, he did so when the big points were on offer this year, and that’s a positive sign for 2019.
While Alexander Albon will race at Gasly’s former team – and with the jeopardy that a Toro Rosso contract always brings – you could argue that Antonio Giovinazzi faces the toughest job of all at Sauber. Albon has received an unexpected chance and goes up against a more experienced teammate who is under pressure himself in Daniil Kvyat. But Giovinazzi has been preparing for the Sauber role all year, despite not actually racing himself.
Giovinazzi will carry high expectations into 2019 at Sauber. Image by Mauger/LAT
That sharpness may take a little while to come back, but the Italian will also be following in Leclerc’s impressive footsteps. His momentum has been halted somewhat by two years away from single-seaters (his two appearances in place of the injured Pascal Wehrlein at the start of 2017 aside), but he has clearly impressed both Sauber and Ferrari enough in that time to be entrusted with the seat.
Where Giovinazzi is helped is by having Raikkonen as his teammate. More focus will be on the Finn, and there’s no disgrace in being beaten by a world champion who has been in very good form for Ferrari of late. Beat him, however, and you look like a bit of a hero…
It’s a similar situation for George Russell at Williams. Leclerc has set the standard for the F2 champion being promoted to F1, but there is going to be a significant amount of interest in what Robert Kubica can do in his remarkable comeback to the sport. Russell can learn from Kubica’s experience but will also have a good chance of getting the better of the intra-team battle, and beating someone of Kubica’s standing – even a Kubica coming off a long sabbatical – would only help his own reputation.
Russell also comes into his rookie season having beaten Lando Norris in F2 this year, and the McLaren protege will be looking to respond next season. Initial hype around the 19-year-old has been tempered by McLaren’s history with young drivers in recent years, but there is a different atmosphere around the team to the one Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne found.
Gone are brash statements and unrealistic targets. McLaren goes into the winter knowing it still has fundamental issues to resolve and a lot of rebuilding to do, and any forward progress next year will be seen as a success. That should grant Norris the time needed to develop in tandem with the team, and while Carlos Sainz is clearly talented, he lacks the experience of a Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button, who could still shine amid McLaren’s slump.
Factor in the lack of backmarker teams, and you have rookies with more competitive machinery that will often be fighting for similar pieces of track during 2019.
None of this guarantees success, of course, but it all adds up to an exciting platform on which to judge a new wave of talent. So many have been given a chance, and they all appear capable of taking it.
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