When the 2014 Formula One season begins in two weeks in Australia, there will be three rookie drivers on the grid. Although each had some experience in an F1 cockpit prior to this year, the three preseason tests in Spain and Bahrain were their first opportunities for extensive running.
Speaking to the official F1 website after the first test, one of the rookies, McLaren's Kevin Magnussen, said, "The reality is that lap count is more important than lap time right now." That has been a constant refrain, even from the teams that have been quick in the preseason.
Given that caveat, though, what can we tell about the new drivers—Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso, Caterham's Marcus Ericsson and Magnussen—based on their testing performances?
One of the biggest talking points of the preseason tests has been the problems with the Renault engine and the lack of running for Renault-powered cars. As recently as last Thursday, Autosport was reporting that the French engine manufacturer was still working out some of the problems.
Toro Rosso and Caterham are both using Renault engines this year, and both had limited track time, particularly at the first test, in Jerez. Magnussen, meanwhile, in his Mercedes-powered McLaren, was able to put in a significant number of laps at all three tests.
Here are the lap totals for each of the rookie drivers:
|Preseason Testing Lap Totals|
|Driver||Jerez||Bahrain 1||Bahrain 2||Total|
Although all the drivers are learning to cope with brand-new cars this season, it is especially important for the rookies to get as much time as possible behind the wheel.
Ericsson, with four seasons in GP2, has the most experience at the highest level of the three rookies. Still, he acknowledges that there is a steep learning curve between the F1 feeder series and the real thing.
Asked by Formula1.com about the criticism that the new F1 cars may not be much quicker than GP2 cars, Ericsson responded, "Totally not! The 2014 cars are a world away from a GP2 car. ... In the car you have so many more controls, so much more downforce, power and braking ability. There’s really no comparison. "
Kvyat, who spent last season in GP3 and Formula Three, and Magnussen, who won the Formula Renault 3.5 title, will be making an even bigger jump for 2014.
Aside from putting in the most laps amongst the rookies, Magnussen is also likely to have the best car of the three this year. Although McLaren had a down season in 2013, they have looked on form throughout the tests. In fact—although we are once again reminded to disregard lap times—Magnussen put in the fastest lap of any driver at the first test in Jerez.
Of course, Magnussen also has the most experienced teammate in Jenson Button, and he will face the most pressure, driving a car that should be in contention for podiums and victories.
Ericsson, the oldest and most experienced of the rookie class at 23 years old, can only be as good as his car. Caterham is still looking to score its first points in F1. An increase in performance relative to the field is a possibility for this season; a quantum leap, though, is highly unlikely. Not when the top teams are spending three or four times as much money.
Kvyat, the second Russian driver in F1 history, is only 19 years old. His lack of overall experience, coupled with the relatively few laps he completed during the preseason testing, may hinder him, particularly at the start of the season.
On the other hand, Kvyat is also the only rookie with driving experience at a grand prix weekend. Last season, he was behind the wheel of a Toro Rosso for free practice in the United States and Brazil.
Still, with limited running during the tests, Kvyat was unable to complete a full race simulation. When asked by the official F1 website how he felt about missing that opportunity, he responded, "That is not a positive, but that is how it is. ... The next time it won’t be a simulation—it’ll be the real thing—and I am ready for it!"
Of course, we will not really know whether any of these drivers are truly ready until the times actually count—for qualifying and the race in Australia.
And when that time comes, the battle for the unofficial title of rookie of the year will be one of the interesting sub-plots in what is shaping up to be a very entertaining season.
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