Top 10 Most Outstanding Rookie Performances in F1

Lewis Hamilton
He came into Formula One as a star. The publicity around him was huge, as he was the very first black driver to ever set foot into the Great Circle. He won every championship he participated in on his way to Formula One. And he was about to partner the two-time champion that ended Michael Schumacher's dictatorship in Formula One in consecutive years, McLaren's newly-signed Fernando Alonso.

But he coped with the pressure in the best way possible. He stepped on the podium in his very first Formula One race and won his first grand prix some 5 races later. And it wasn't just a fortunate accident. He continued his great form throughout his rookie year and eventually came in 2nd place at the finish line, only one point behind title holder Kimi Raikkonen (4 wins).

However, the thing that marked his Formula One debut was the famous feud with Alonso. Having joined the Woking based team as a reigning champion, the Spaniard believed he was entitled to the Number One role. Ron Dennis, on the other hand, had other plans. With Hamilton being his protege and all, Dennis tried his best to give the young Brit equal chances for the championship.

And that was not all. The spy-gate in which McLaren were found guilty of purchasing illegal information from rivals Ferrari brought the British team the largest fine in the history of the sport - $100 million. Throughout the investigations, Ham stood by his team, while Alonso conditioned his support to the No 1 status. That never happened, however, and the team returned the favor to Hamilton.

With 2 races remaining, Hamilton was leading the championship by a comfortable 13-point margin to Raikkonen. Somehow, he let that lead slip away and lost the title in Brazil, after a race filled with incidents. However, he managed to score the same number of points as Alonso, driving the same equipment and benefiting from the same updates throughout the season. One year later, after Alonso was gone, he finally became world champion. The first Briton to become F1 champ after Damon Hill, the youngest F1 champion of all time and the first black driver to win the F1 title.

Emerson Fittipaldi

It was the famous Colin Chapman who discovered Emerson, as he was winning his way through the Formula Ford championship in Europe. The Brit spotted the Brazilian in the late '60s and gave him a drive in the second part of the next season, as he was left without a single driver to compete with.

It was actually Jochen Rindt tragic accident at Monza (in which he lost his life) that triggered Emerson's early debut in Formula One, as well as John Miles leaving the team during that same 1970 season. Having stepped into the Lotus Ford prepared challenger without any prior experience in F1, the Brazilian hardly needed any time to adjust to the high demands of the Great Circle.

He immediately felt comfortable into the F1 cockpit and drove to 8th place at his very debut, and needed only 4 more races to make his breakthrough performance into the sport. During the American Grand Prix in early October, Emerson took his Lotus Ford to 3rd place on the grid and drove majestically to his maiden F1 win.

His first F1 success was actually full of significance, as it was Lotus' first race after Rindt's unfortunate death.

Two years later, Fittipaldi became world champion for the first time, a success he would later reiterate in 1974.

Jackie Stewart

Many believed one would have to be out of his mind to refuse a drive with Lotus Climax in the mid 1960s. Having convinced both Colin Chapman and Jim Clark that he's worth a racing spot in the 1964 F1 championship, Stewart did just that: he refused to make his F1 debut that year, in order to gain more experience in the Formula 2 championship.

The very next year, he chose to drive for BRM, alongside Great Britain's Graham Hill. The outcome? Four podiums in the first 6 races of the season and, la piece de resistance, a maiden win in the 1965 Italian Grand Prix. The Scottish driver eventually finished on a remarkable 3rd place in the overall standings, scoring a massive 34 points and placing himself behind Hill by only 7 points.

Jacques Villeneuve

Having won everything that he had put his mind to in the North American single-seater series, Villeneuve decided to follow the footsteps of his father into Formula One. Frank Williams was quite unhappy with David Coulthard's lieutenant role for Damon Hill at the time, and who else was better to replace the Scottish driver than the reigning CART champion and son of F1 race winner Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques.

Having stepped into the Great Circle under the immense pressure of performing well enough to honor the name of Villeneuve, the 24-year old coped with it remarkably. Although Hill already established himself as clear title favorite, it was Jacques who impressed everyone during the opening 1996 Australian Grand Prix. His great speed got him his maiden pole position at debut, and only a late oil leak prevented him from becoming the first driver to win his debut race in Formula One. After leading the field for the majority of the race, he had to settle for 2nd overall, behind Hill.

The Canadian driver would eventually give his teammate a hard time on top of the standings, winning his first F1 race at only his 4th outing in the series and coming to the season finale in Japan holding a slight chance of even becoming world champion. He eventually has to settle for 2nd place overall, behind world champion Hill, but totaling no less than 4 wins and 7 additional podiums (out of 16 races).

One year later, after a thrilling battle with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, he would eventually bring the Formula One title to the Villeneuve family.

Jean Alesi

Being successful at your Formula One debut doesn't necessarily mean you have to win races or score a multitude of podiums. It's about attitude. And that's exactly what Frenchman Jean Alesi had from the moment he step foot in the sport. Having started his single-seater career quite late, Alesi was picked up by the underperforming Tyrell Cosworth to start in the 1989 French Grand Prix.

While doing a horrible campaign that year – no one expected any more from an F1 rookie – he continued with the same team in his first full-season in the series. He started the season with a remarkable runner-up spot, after leading the race for no less than 25 laps ahead of more experienced Ayrton Senna. Despite driving a less efficient car – as compared to Senna's McLaren-Honda – he fought the Brazilian champion until the end and made him really sweat for his win.

By mid-season, he managed another breakthrough performance, this time in the place where only real champions get to wave the winning trophy above their heads – the Monaco Grand Prix. He raced to the runner-up spot at the finish line, also behind Senna, and made all eyes in Formula One set on him in the paddock. Although he didn't make the same impression in the second half of the season, Alesi got at least three teams fight for his signature: Tyrell, Williams and Ferrari. He eventually signed for the Italian outfit, for which he became a true symbol for the years to come, despite not winning any championship titles.

Mark Webber

Some of you would argue that he only scored two points throughout the duration of his Formula One debut season. However, bear in mind that he raced for Minardi – as much as one loves the spirit of Minardi, it was in fact one of the poorest teams of the late 90s and early 2000s – and scored those 2 points in his very debut race.

Let aside his financial difficulties before finally getting someone to notice his raw talent for racing, Webber finally managed to get done a 3-race deal with Minardi for the beginning of the 2002 season. In his very debut race, ahead of a home crowd, he qualified 18th on the grid and finished 5th overall. While only the 4th Australian driver to score an F1 point, the way in which he did it was simply majestic. He drove for the majority of the race with a problem with his launch control and still managed to come 5th overall at the finish line.

Eventually, these were to be his only points in the season, but he never seized to amaze the Formula One experts with his competitive spirit and great talent. He was awarded the “Rookie of the Year” award at the end of his first full-time season in Formula One, as his great start got Minardi to reconsider the terms of their initial agreement.

His immense success as a driver in 2002 got him a full-time deal with Jaguar Racing, which practically paved his way to a long-time career in the sport. He would eventually become only the 3rd Australian driver to win a Formula One race, after Jack Brabham and Alan Jones, at the 2009 German Grand Prix.

Clay Regazzoni

He didn't get to race the whole 13 rounds of his debut season with Ferrari, but even so he finished 3rd overall in the drivers' classification. Given his rate of success at the wheel of the prancing horse, we believe he could have easily won the 1970 title that year.

Regazzoni began the season as an optional part-time teammate of Jacky Ickx. Optional because he had to share the second Ferrari seat with Italian driver Ignazio Giunti and part-time because he wasn't supposed to drive but half of the races that year. However, following a poor performance by Giunti during the French Grand Prix, the Scuderia decided to maintain Swiss driver for the remainder of the 1970 campaign.

After securing his seat for the remaining 6 rounds of the 1970 season, Regazzoni completed all but 2 races on the overall podium. Not only that, but he also won his first F1 race in his debut season, at Ferrari's home race at Monza. However, the tragic death of post-mortem champion Jochen Rindt was to overshadow the first of his overall 5 wins in Formula One.

Regazzoni made 8 starts in 1970, winning one race, making 3 other podium appearances and making the point on two additional occasions. He recorded only one DNF, in Germany, and finished the season 7 points behind full-time Ferrari teammate Ickx, while 12 points off the pace to Rindt. Two more podiums would have easily solved this point gap to the Austrian driver, something that could have been possible had he started the extra 5 rounds. Instead, he got to become one of the greatest drivers never to win a championship, the closest he got to doing that being in 1974.

Phil Hill

Hill only got to race 4 times in his Formula One debut, as he stepped into a Formula One cockpit in the second part of the 1958 season. Coming all the way from California – where he studied business administration at USC – Hill made his way to Formula One via Ferrari. He was given his first shot in the championship in a Maserati, which he almost brought into points in his very first outing, in France.

This particular performance got him a promotion to the Ferrari F2 cockpit, which he successfully driven to 9th place in Germany, some two racing weekend later. Finally, he was given the opportunity to switch to a fully equipped Ferrari in the last two rounds of the season, and scored back to back podiums in Italy and Marocco. He finished the season with an overall 8 points and the promise from Ferrari that he would get to keep his seat for the upcoming season.

And that was only the long story short. During that first year as a professional Formula One driver, Hill also made a huge impression in the famous Le Mans 24 Hours race, where he became the first North American racer to win the endurance event.

The very next season, he would become even stronger, finishing on an overall 4th place and adding some 3 more podiums to his CV. As most of the drivers present in this top, he would become world champion in Formula One in 1961, only 4 years away from his debut in the series.

John Surtees

He won everything there was to gain in the Grand Prix motorcycle racing, clinching no less than 7 championship titles in only 5 years. But he wanted to prove everyone just how competitive he was in everything motor racing stood for at the time. So he decided to leave the two-wheelers and join the world of the 4-wheel single-seater machineries. His first racing contact with Formula One took place in 1960, when he was signed by Lotus to drive part-time in the Lotus-Climax prepared car.

During the course of that same year, he took world motorcycle titles in both the 350cc and 500cc classes, so he had no proper time to test-drive and prepare himself for a decent Formula One debut. He was introduced to his Lotus only a few months before making his first start in F1, yet he managed to drive to 2nd place overall in only his second F1 outing.

It happened before his home crowd at Silverstone, when he drove majestically from 11th on the grid to 2nd overall, behind Aussie ace Jack Brabham. And just to prove everyone he was as fast in the race as he was in the qualifying session, he followed that impressive 2nd place with a maiden pole position in Portugal (3rd race in Formula One).

Despite recording 3 DNFs in his only 4 races of his debut season, Surtees was rewarded with a full-time drive with Cooper for the upcoming season. It only took him an additional 2 years to finally become the first and only driver in the history of motor racing to win both motorcycle and Formula One titles.

Michael Schumacher

It's hard to believe one could make a Formula One-related Top 10 without including Michael Schumacher in it. Well, at least if it's about successful F1 drivers! The thing is the German driver impressed all journalists from the very first minute he stepped into the Jordan-prepared car back in 1991. And we know that's just something one would say now, after he has already won some 7 championships in the series, but there are plenty of recorded confessions (at the time) that suggest he showcased some massive talent from his very first laps.

An interesting story goes like this:

When picked up by Eddie Jordan to give it a shot during the Belgian Grand Prix, at Spa-Francorchamps, Schumacher was initially scheduled to do a recognition lap with teammate Andrea de Cesaris prior to the racing weekend. However, the Italian was not able to make it to the track and so Schu was forced to do it by himself. By bicycle! He rode around the famous Eau Rouge a couple of times and spent the whole afternoon learning the corners and the tricky parts of the circuit, after which he stepped into the Jordan cockpit some few days later.

The results were great to say the least. Although failing to complete a single lap in the race due to a clutch problem, he qualified 7th on the grid.

Following his impressive outing in Belgium, Schumacher was brought by Flavio Briatore – after a legal battle with Eddie Jordan, with whom the German driver only signed an agreement in principle – to Benetton Ford. In only 5 races with the Italian team, Schumacher scored points in 3 – in the other two he suffered from an engine problem with his car and was part of a major accident respectively – and finished his maiden part-time season in Formula One with 5 points.

What happened next is pure history! The next year he finished 3rd overall, followed by a 4th place in 1993. Starting 1994, he started his 2-year dominance in the sport, clinching back-to-back titles at Benetton before moving to Ferrari.
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