Formula One: Who Is The Best Rookie Of The Modern Era?

Geoffrey HuntonCorrespondent IMay 14, 2008

Greetings, and welcome back to the second edition of The Slipstream.  Sorry for the lack in coverage of Turkey but I was away on business for a few days. 

I would like to thank everybody who read up on my first article—and as the title suggests, this edition will track an in depth analysis of the 1996 rookie season of 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve (JV, and 2007 rookie sensation and world title runner-up, Lewis Hamilton (LH). 

I would like to thank the hard workers of Formula One database that provided the statistics for this article. They can be reached at their URL of  Also, some information was also taken from Villeneuve:My First Season in Formula One, written by JV with contributions from Gerald Donaldson. 

Pre-Formula One Careers

When tracking the early careers of the two drivers being analysed, it is clear to see a common theme.  Both of these men, like all F1 drivers, have been developed from an early age to drive at the highest level of motorsport. 

Lewis' career up to F1,which started in 2002 reads like a military campaign, where the critical strikes were carried out with devastating accuracy and effect.  It seems that whatever series LH enters in, he becomes a force to be dealt with even before the end of the first race. 

From his rookie title win in 2002 with Formula Renault, he advanced to Formula Three Euroseries where he spent two years and winning the title during his sophomore season.  F3 would be the only professional series where he would spend more than a single season in before getting to F1. 

LH stepped into a prime drive in 2006 with the Direxiv GP2 team and captured the GP2 title.  The Direxiv team, once rumored to be the foundation for a McLaren F1 "B" team is known for polishing up drivers for F1.  Speculation clouded the young driver, until Turn 1, Lap 1 of the season's first race in Albert Park. The rest is history...

Villeneuve took a longer and more diverse path into F1.  He would take his first major step towards F1 in 1992, where he competed in the Japanese Formula Three Championship.  He gain the attention of many insiders and team bosses when he took second in the championship with three wins. 

1994 would be another big year for the French Canadian, winning Rookie of the Year honors in the the CART open wheel series.  His sophomore season in CART would see him crowned champion with four wins, including the Indy 500. From road course karting to open wheel oval racing, JV was able to adapt and then win in almost every series he entered before testing for Williams in late 1995.

1996 would see the return of the Villeneuve name to the F1 grid, this time on a Williams Renault.  What is unique about JV's pre-F1 experience is the fact that he is the son of what many consider to be the best driver never to win the World Championship, Ferrari driver Gilles Villeveuve.  Born into the glitz and glamour that is F1, Jacques saw the world of motorsport take his father's life and in the same token, grant Jacques some of his more treasured memories. 

Advantage: Jacques Villeneuve


The 2007 Rookie Season of Lewis Hamilton

Car: McLaren MP/4-22

Teammate:Double World Champion, Fernando Alonso

Considered to be one of the best seasons in F1's storied history, there was as much action on the track as there was off.  Following the impressive display of speed and pace in the season's first race, Lewis' first win became just a matter of time, an issue of "when" not "if". 

The question of "when" was answered in the chaos that was the Grand Prix of Canada—ironically, a race that JV never was able to win.  His teammate, Alonso had a horrid race, placing sveenth and many pundits started to see the silver on Hamilton's car shine just a bit brighter than on Alonso's.  

Hamilton followed up his win in Canada with a memorable slipstream duel on the front straight at Indy, where him and Alonso nearly touched tires at 215 mph. Lewis, having led in the standings since very early in the season, was being talked about as the first driver since Jacques Villeneuve to have a chance to win the title in his freshmen year.  

The second half of the season made the first half look like a mid card bout before the main event.  Both Ferrari and McLaren exchanged wins, slugging it out until the Grand Prix of China, where Lewis stood to make history after his rain soaked victory at Fuji a week earlier. 

Then he beached his McLaren in the gravel just outside the pits.  History had been made and lost that day.  Brazil gave the fans a three way showdown that ended in epic fashion.  Hamilton, ended up runner up by only a single point.


The 1996 Rookie Season of Jacques Villeneuve

Car: Williams Renault FW-18

Teammate: Damon Hill

1996 was a season that saw a few changes on the grid in Melbourne.  Michael Schumacher had just joined Ferrari and had taken his world title that he won with Benneton in 1995, to Maranello. 

Damon Hill, runner up in 1994 to the title in a very controversial race to Michael Schumacher, was yearning to stand out from his own father's shadow, former multi-world champion, Grahm Hill. 

So it would be two second generation F1 drivers, Jacques, son of Gilles and Damon, son of Grahm leading the Williams team in 1996. 

Having set the pole and the races' fastest lap, JV almost completed the triple threat but it was not to be.  With his engine clinging to life, Jacques was ordered to allow Damon to pass him in the final phases of his first race, finishing second, the same step on the podium that Lewis Hamilton would take 11 years later.   

Jacques' first win would come just three races later at the new Nurburgring circut in Germany.  He would finish in grand fashion, just .720 seconds in front of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari.  He would go on to win three more races but would never lead the driver's championship.

LH and JV share the ignominious distinction of never being able to win their home race.  JV came closest in his rookie season by placing second in Montreal, Hamilton finished off the podium at Silverstone and to the disapointment of David Hobbes and millions of other Britons. 

Villeneuve's  title hopes would end during the final race at Suzuka, where he crashed out.  Jacques needed Hill to crash out and to also finish second or better in order to become world champion in 1996.  



Considering that both LH and JV were seated in the best car on the grid at the start of the season, considering that they were driving with much more experienced teammate, and also considering the length of both driver's seasons, it can be determined that Lewis Hamilton had the better rookie season. 

Despite the presence of Michael Schumacher during JV's first season, it was Damon Hill who provided the most competition to Villeneuve, not Schumacher.  1997 would be a different story however.

The main pillar for my conclusion rests upon two points.  The first point being that Hamilton managed to lead the world championship for a majority of the season.  Despite JV and LH having a relative equal amount of wins considering the differences in season length, LH was always being chased by the current world champion, Fernando Alonso. 

My second point is the fact that Hamilton finished second to Raikkonen in the final WDC standings.  Hamilton effectively lost the title in China, but still had to only finish in the low points to hoist the crown.  A first lap tussle with Alonso and depending on who you ask, a rookie mistake or malfunction gave Raikkonen the perfect storm to win the race, and the championship.  

Both drivers shocked the racing world in their debut season.  JV has a heartier resume, listing the Indy 500 and F1 World Championship under his achievements, along with his diverse racing experiences, but Lewis Hamilton is the better rookie, having almost done the unthinkable in his rookie season. 


Thats it for this week's Slipstream.  Next week all of you are in for a double shot of the 'stream as the run up to Monaco kicks into high gear.