There aren’t many drivers who enter Formula 1 in a front running team and have the opportunity to fight for the world title in their debut season. In the last 38 years (since Bernie Ecclestone has taken over running the sport) it has happened only twice, with Jacques Villeneuve coming into the dominant Williams team in 1997 and Lewis Hamilton arriving in McLaren in 2007. On both of these occasions the rookie drivers ended up in second place in the title hunt, but went on to take the title the following year.
Most drivers do not have such an opportunity, and need to demonstrate they have the talent needed in order to earn a seat at a front running team. Looking at the world drivers champions since 1978, only the 1978 champion (Mario Andretti) also made his debut in the champion constructor team, but this was a decade earlier with Lotus in a one off race at the United States Grand Prix. With Andretti concentrating mainly on USAC racing, it was several years before he committed to a full season in Formula 1.
Sebastian Vettel had the next best start, when he substituted for the injured Robert Kubica in the BMW Sauber team in 2007. This team finished second in the constructors championship that year, so it gave Vettel a good car to demonstrate his abilities for his solitary drive. This enabled him to replace Scot Speed at Toro Rosso for the last seven races of the season, and once he won his first race for the team the following year, promotion to Red Bull was always on the cards.
Two world champions made their debut in the third placed constructors’ team. Jody Scheckter (the 1979 title holder for Ferrari) started in 1972 with McLaren, while 2009 champion Jenson Button got his break with Williams in 2000. In Scheckter’s case, it was a one off drive at the last race of the season and he had a sporadic following season with the same team only racing five times before landing a full time drive with Tyrrell in 1974. The 1973 season was marked by the British Grand Prix where Scheckter spun on the opening lap and caused a massive pile up which prevented ten cars from taking the re-start. For Button his debut season was promising, scoring points on six occasions, but was only ever a temporary stand in for the team while they waited for Juan Pablo Montoya to finish his contract in the US but had done enough to secure a drive with Benetton Renault the following year. 2001 was disappointing though, dropping to 17th in the driver’s title, with just a single points scoring race (a fifth place in Germany). The following year was better, recovering to seventh place ahead of his team mate, and allowed him to move to BAR for the following season.
There have also been three world champions who started in the fourth best team in their debut year. Niki Lauda had a one off drive for the STP March team at his home Grand Prix in Austria in 1971, before a full time drive with the team the following year. By 1972 the March team had dropped to sixth in the constructors championship, and Lauda had yet to score. Moving to BRM for 1973 resulted in only a single race in the points (a fifth place), but it was enough to get him signed by Ferrari for 1974. Alan Jones did four races for Hesketh in 1975 who were fourth in that years constructors championship. However he failed to score any points, and only finished one of those four events. He then moved to Graham Hill’s Embassy Racing team, and did the next four races which he managed to finish every one, even picking up two points for fifth place in Germany in his final race that season. The following year he signed for Surtees scoring on three occasions followed by Shadow in 1977 before going to Williams in 1978 where he won his championship in 1980. Kimi Raikkonen is the other driver to debut in the fourth placed team. In his case it was Sauber in 2001 amid a lot of controversy over whether he should be allowed a super license. As Raikkonen had only driven a two litre Formula Renault previously, Max Mosley was against issuing him the necessary license to compete in Formula 1. Once on the track though he showed he had the talent required to conduct himself at the top level, scoring points in his debut race and finishing tenth overall. This performance impressed McLaren enough to buy out Raikkonen’s Sauber contract and allowed the Finn to move up the grid.
Again there are two champions who started with the fifth placed team in the constructors title. Nigel Mansell (1992 champion) made his debut at Lotus in 1980 with a couple of races in a third car. While he retired from both events he did get a full time drive for 1981. He progressed over the following seasons with the team before moving to Williams in 1985, where he was able to start winning, and soon to be in championship contention. The other driver debuting with the fifth best team is Michael Schumacher, who made a one off appearance for Jordan in Spa. While he failed to even complete one lap of the race, his seventh in qualifying was enough to get him the Benetton drive for the remainder of the season. His debut win was exactly a year later, and championships soon followed.
No recent champion has started in the sixth placed constructor, however Ayrton Senna did make his debut in the seventh placed constructor (Toleman) in 1984. The car may not have been very good, but Senna made the difference, he scored 14 of the teams 16 points that year including three podiums (half points for the wet Monaco and third places in Britain and Portugal. Unsurprisingly he was picked up by Lotus (then a front running team) for the following season.
Two recent champions have started in the ninth placed constructor. Alain Prost made his debut in 1980 with McLaren, who were having a bad year. Prost scored on four occasions with his best result a fifth place. He moved to the Renault team (and turbo power) the following year, and nearly won the championship for the French team in 1983 having lead going into the final race but turbo failure before half distance ended his title hunt. Mika Hakkinen is the other champion to have started in the ninth best team, on this occasion it was 1991 with Lotus. Unlike his team mates, Hakkinen did at least have a drive for the whole season, but was still able to score only once, fifth place in San Marino. He stayed at Lotus for a second year before signing up for McLaren in 1993. This was the year that Ayrton Senna left it very late to decide where he wanted to drive (Williams as they had the best car, but not as team mate to Alain Prost), so McLaren signed Hakkinen to partner Michael Andretti just in case Senna went elsewhere. When Senna stayed, Hakkinen was left without a drive. Andretti didn’t manage to adept to Formula 1 as well as his results in CART had indicated, and he withdrew before the end of the season. Hakkinen’s first qualifying for McLaren impressed as he beat Senna and forced the Brazilian to up his game.
Nelson Piquet made his debut in 1978 in a one off drive for the 13th placed team Ensign. In the German Grand Prix he qualified 21st and retired with engine failure. He then did three races that season with McLaren before signing with Brabham for the final race of 1978 and the following seven seasons, winning his first title in 1981.
That leaves three recent champions who made their debut in teams that did not even score any points in their debut years. Keke Rosberg started in Formula 1 in 1978, racing for Theodore in South Africa for a single race, he then did three races for ATS (Sweden, France and Britian) before switching to Wolf for three races (Germany, Austria and Netherlands) finally finishing off 1978 with the Canadian and USA Grands Prix back with ATS. Wolf did finish fifth in the constructors championship in 1978, but neither Theodore or ATS scored. Rosberg did seven races in 1979 for Wolf, still failing to score before two more successful seasons with Fittipaldi. None of this indicated the success he would have in 1982 winning the title with Williams. Damon Hill made his F1 race debut with Brabham in 1992, eight times he was entered for a Grand Prix that season, but the car was so poor that he only managed to qualify it on two occasions, finishing both times outside of the points many laps behind the leader. These performances would not have earned him a drive in a top team, instead it was his role as the Williams test driver (an unpopular job in the days of separate test teams pounding around the tracks of Europe most days, but at least drivers got useful time in an F1 car) that allowed him to demonstrate his abilities and earned him the job as team mate to Ayrton Senna in 1994. Following the tragic death of Senna at Imola, Hill became the de-facto team leader, as new test driver David Coulthard got promoted to the race team. Fernando Alonso made his debut at Minardi in 2001. The perennial back marker team were unable to score any points that season, and Alonso was signed to the Renault team as a test driver for 2002. The year out from racing didn’t hurt Alonso’s career and he finished sixth in the championship in 2003 winning his first Grand Prix.
So it would appear that it doesn’t matter where a driver starts his Formula 1 career, if they have the necessary talent they can get themselves into a winning team (either by signing to the best team or helping the team they are in develop). The seats available for next season would appear to be towards the back of the grid (those at Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari already full), but this shouldn’t put off talented rookies from making their mark in the sport. It is true that many more drivers start in back marker teams than front runners, partly because of the reluctance of the bigger teams to sign an unknown quantity, but also because so many smaller teams rely on sponsorship provide by the drivers, and many cannot afford a complete season. So if you were an aspiring young driver with a budget, would you sign for Manor for 2017, or hold out hoping to land a bigger team?