Which Formula 1 Rookie Class Is the Best Ever?

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2016

Michael Schumacher (foreground) and Mike Hakkinen combined for 111 wins in their F1 careers.
Michael Schumacher (foreground) and Mike Hakkinen combined for 111 wins in their F1 careers.PIERRE VERDY/Getty Images

There have been plenty of memorable rookie seasons in Formula One history, from Jackie Stewart's five podiums in 1965 to Jacques Villeneuve pushing Damon Hill to the wire in 1996 to Lewis Hamilton's remarkable podium streak that left him one point short of the title in 2007.

But not every future star shines so brightly in their rookie season. Some, such as Fernando Alonso, start their careers in uncompetitive cars. Or others, such as Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel, make their debuts partway through a season, limiting the number of races they start in their first year.

But the point of this article is not to determine which drivers were the best in their rookie seasons, rather looking at each rookie class as a whole and deciding who went on to have the most succesful careers.

Before we examine the records, though, a few notes on the criteria. First, the 1950 class was not considered—it was the first year of the F1 world championship, but many of the drivers were already grand prix veterans.

Was Juan Manuel Fangio really a "rookie" in 1950?
Was Juan Manuel Fangio really a "rookie" in 1950?MOLTER/Associated Press

Second, for the purposes of this analysis, each driver's rookie season is the one in which he made his grand prix debut, even if he only made a cameo appearance that year. For example, Mario Andretti only entered one grand prix in 1968, but we considered that his rookie year. Any other definition—that a driver must have entered, say, half or three-quarters of the races in a given year—seems too arbitrary.

Finally, the names for each rookie class in the table below refer only to the drivers from that year who went on to win at least one F1 race.

With that in mind, here are the top F1 rookie classes, ranked by number of grand prix victories:

Best F1 Rookie Classes
YearGrand Prix-Winning DriversWinsDrivers' Championships
1991Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen1119
2007Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Heikki Kovalainen867
1980Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell825
2001Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya593
1984Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger513
1978Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Didier Pironi, Rene Arnoux384
1965Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme354
1960Jim Clark, John Surtees, Richie Ginther323
1970Emerson Fittipaldi, Clay Reggazoni, Ronnie Peterson, Francois Cevert, Peter Gethin312
1971Niki Lauda253
1972Jody Scheckter, Carlos Reutemann, Carlos Pace, Patrick Depailler251
Wikipedia

The top of the list is probably not a surprise. Schumacher alone won more races in his career than any other rookie class combined. And when you add two-time champ Mika Hakkinen's 20 wins, no other rookie class comes close to 1991.

The 2007 class, which includes Hamilton and Vettel, is a decent bet to eventually eclipse the totals from the '91 group. Both men are driving competitive cars and are just 31 and 28 years old, respectively. They have plenty of years remaining at the top of the sport.

Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell highlight a strong 1980 class, which also includes Stefan Johansson (sort of—he tried, but failed, to qualify for two races that year). Both Prost and Mansell are in the top 10 on the career-wins list, making 1980 the only class beside 2007 with that distinction.

Also of note, Desire Wilson—one of just five women to enter an F1 race—made her only appearance that year, failing to qualify her Williams at the British Grand Prix.

Nigel Mansell leads Alain Prost at the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix.
Nigel Mansell leads Alain Prost at the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix.AFP/Getty Images

Interestingly, no rookie class has produced three world champions, although seven classes have two champions.

The 1970 class is notable because, with five, it contains the most grand prix winners. Emerson Fittipaldi is the only drivers' champion from that group, although Ronnie Peterson finished second in 1978, the year he was killed following a crash at the Italian Grand Prix. Clay Regazzoni was also close to titles in 1970 and 1974.

Technically, the 1950 rookie class featured more winners, with 14 (six of those 14 did not win a grand prix but rather won the Indianapolis 500 when it was part of the world championship). If we did count the 1950 group in our standings, it would place fourth, with 70 wins and eight world championships (five for Juan Manuel Fangio, two for Alberto Ascari and one for Nino Farina).

Finally, the 1971 "class" is unique on our list in that it contains just one grand prix winner: Niki Lauda. However, Lauda's 25 grand prix victories matches the combined total of the 1972 class—which includes Jody Scheckter, Carlos Reutemann, Carlos Pace and Patrick Depailler—for 10th place.

Niki Lauda at the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix.
Niki Lauda at the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix.Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Red Bull advisor and compatriot of Lauda Helmut Marko also made his F1 debut in 1971, although his career lasted just 10 races before a stone thrown up by a car he was trailing left him blind in one eye.

Based on their number of victories, the 1991 group, which includes Schumacher and Hakkinen, is by far the best rookie class in F1 history. However, Hamilton and Vettel have a chance to close the gap significantly over the next few years.

And what will become of the more recent rookies?

This year's debutants are Pascal Wehrlein and Jolyon Palmer (with one more Manor driver yet to be announced).

The last group to boast a grand prix winner is the 2011 class, with Daniel Ricciardo and Pastor Maldonado combining for four wins thus far.

Perhaps 2014's class, including Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat, will also produce race winners, although the 2015 group might be even stronger. Toro Rosso's Max Verstappen has already been marked for greatness, and his team-mate, Carlos Sainz Jr., looked strong in his debut season, as well.

But will any of these groups ever be mentioned in the same breath as those in our list above, as some of the greatest rookie classes in the history of F1?

 

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