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Analysis: Is it harder than ever for young drivers to reach the top in Formula 1?

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Analysis: Is it harder than ever for young drivers to reach the top in Formula 1?
Jan 10, 2016, 11:14 PM

Max Verstappen’s 2015 campaign was a breakout success, with the Toro Rosso rookie enjoying one of the most promising debut campaigns in recent me...

Max Verstappen’s 2015 campaign was a breakout success, with the Toro Rosso rookie enjoying one of the most promising debut campaigns in recent memory.

However, recent history suggests that it may take Verstappen - and his pacy team mate Carlos Sainz - multiple seasons to convert this promise into podiums, wins and championships. The pool of winners at the top is now seemingly more stagnant than at any other time in the past twenty-five years, with only three new race winners minted in the past six seasons.

Here, we assess some of the factors which have contributed to this ‘locking out’ of the front of the grid and consider whether it’s tougher than ever for emerging young drivers to reach the top in F1.

We always like to give readers what they want and this analysis is based on a suggestion from one of our readers over the Christmas break.

Kevin Magnussen

Rookies getting results

Verstappen’s maiden campaign was a sensation as much for stylistic as statistical reasons, with his points haul making him the second highest scoring rookie - behind Kevin Magnussen in 2014 – since the points system changed in 2010. But the Dutchman didn't get a podium; his best was two fourth places.

Magnussen finished second on his debut at the 2014 Australian GP, but his was the first rookie podium in six years since Nelson Piquet Jr. at the 2008 German GP. Piquet’s second place finish was one of 20 rookie podiums in the years 2000 – 2008, indicating a clear pattern of debutants finding it much harder to reach the rostrum in recent history.

Piquet was also the last rookie to begin his career in a race-winning car, although the full debut campaigns of Lewis Hamilton (2007), Juan-Pablo Montoya (2001), Jacques Villeneuve (1996), David Coulthard (1994), Damon Hill (1993), and Michael Schumacher (1991) show that opportunities for drivers to enter the sport in winning machinery were much more prevalent in the past.

Although the points system has changed, the grid size has remained relatively static – meaning that championship position can be used as a consistent variable for assessing performance. The years 2000 – 2008 saw four drivers (Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Juan-Pablo Montoya and Jenson Button) finish their rookie year in the top ten in the points standings, but no debutant has achieved this feat since – again demonstrating the increasing difficulty new drivers have in making an impression at the sharp end of the grid.

Juan Montoya

Breaking into the winner's circle

If the chances of a rookie hitting the front during their maiden campaign are slimmer than ever, what of the prospects for young drivers converting promising performance into podiums, poles and wins over the following seasons?

The current decade has seen just three new race winners minted, only two of whom – Pastor Maldonado and Daniel Ricciardo – have made their debut since 2010. Ricciardo is the only new race winner in the past three seasons, with the dominance of first Red Bull and then Mercedes creating a virtual stranglehold on the top step of the podium.

By comparison, the decade 2000 – 2009 saw 14 new winners anointed representing 10 different teams, of whom two - Lewis Hamilton and Juan-Pablo Montoya – took victory in their debut seasons.

Daniel Ricciardo

The three new race winners since 2010 (Ricciardo, Maldonado, Nico Rosberg) on average took 3 seasons to earn their first podium, 3.5 seasons to earn their first pole and 4.3 seasons to claim their first win.

On the other hand, the 14 first-time race winners in the decade 2000 – 2009 on average took 2.4 seasons to reach the podium, 3.8 seasons to take their first pole and 4.8 seasons to earn their first win.

Vettel and Alonso both won in their second season of F1, Hamilton was highly unusual in winning in his first year, but he did come straight in with a winning McLaren 2007 car.

The figures for 2010 onwards are distorted somewhat by the fact that Maldonado’s sole career podium, pole and win all came in one race during his second season – with the small sample size of three winners simultaneously highlighting and statistically disproving the notion that it’s more difficult now for drivers to make an impact at the sharp end of the grid.

Fernando Alonso 2005

Longevity and reliability

The overall number of race winners as a percentage of drivers on the grid has held relatively steady over the past ten years, with the grid at the most recent race in Abu Dhabi boasting 8 race winners, 9 pole-sitters and 13 podium finishers from 20 starters.

To take a sample from 10 years ago, the 2005 Chinese GP contained a comparable 10 race winners, 11 pole-sitters and 14 podium finishers from 20 starters.

The key difference is that of the 10 winners on the grid a decade ago, seven had taken their maiden win in the preceding five years, while in contrast, of the 8 winners on the current grid only three won their first race within the previous five seasons.

The low turnover is a manifestation of the fact that on average drivers come into F1 at a much younger age and enjoy longer careers than even twenty years ago. Alonso, Button, Rosberg, Hamilton, Raikkonen and Vettel are among those still racing who made their F1 debuts aged 22 or younger, and they have dominated the available seats in race winning cars in recent seasons – winning 104 of the 115 GPs since 2010.

One other factor to consider is reliability, which allied with stagnation in turnover at the sharp end of the grid further reduces the opportunity for drivers to accelerate their career development with podiums and victories.

The 2015 season saw 81.4% reliability (percentage of race starts classified as finishers), closely matching the average reliability rate for the 2010s (81.7%). Only six seasons in F1 history have seen finishing rates above 80%, with five of these seasons coming since 2010.

In contrast, the 2000s saw an average race finishing percentage of 70.8%, and this figure in the 1990s was just 53.8%. More finishers means fewer attritional races and, by extension, the high reliability helps perpetuate the status quo at the front of the field.

It does appear to be harder than ever to reach F1 at all due to the need for pay drivers even in solid midfield teams and even tougher to reach the front. On the flip side, F1 currently has a clutch of established superstar drivers and the experience of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso in particular shows that young drivers can win early and go on to have long careers. It's just that there is a blockage in the system which makes life doubly hard for the talented young drivers of today.

Data, analysis by Will Saunders.

What do you think? Are the older drivers in F1 holding on too long? Or have we not had as many talented drivers lately as when Hamilton or Montoya came in? Leave your comments in the section below
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Series Formula 1
Drivers Max Verstappen Shop Now
Tags innovation