Second Season Drivers

 

The 2011 Formula One season saw the arrivals of three bright, young and exciting drivers. Venezuela's Pastor Maldonado, Mexico's Sergio Perez and Scotland's Paul Di Resta came to the sport from differing backgrounds with varying levels of experience. Maldonado learnt and developed his craft in GP2 for several years before eventually taking the title in the 2010 season. A young Perez, in only his second season in GP2, finished runner up to the vastly more experienced Maldonado after an impressive series of drives and performances. Di Resta on the other hand arrived in Formula One from a completely different angle and racing series. Four years spent in the German touring car series DTM enabled Di Resta to learn about close racing, conservation of tyres and how to overtake and defend at the optimum times.

All three drivers started the season with high expectations, not only from themselves but their backers and of course the media. While it could be said that Maldonado's significant backing from the Venezuelan government has not necessarily made it easier for him to enter the sport, he has not had some of the financial difficulties in which other drivers have encountered (Nico Hulkenberg for example). However, with this level of backing it doesn't help to ease the pressure on the driver. In fact if anything it only increases the pressure levels. Perez entered Formula One as part of Ferrari's Young Driver program, similar to Red Bull's set-up with drivers like Buemi, Alguersuari and Ricciardo. Big things are expected of Perez and with a future drive at Ferrari certainly in the pipeline, the young Mexican would need to make an immediate impact. Di Resta arrived as a Mercedes factory backed driver and placed into the Force India team (with Mercedes engines) to replace the outgoing Giancarlo Fisichella and Vitantonio Liuzzi.

The first race of the 2011 season at Albert Park. Melbourne was one of varying success for the three aforementioned drivers. An extremely impressive drive from Perez, in which he stopped to changes tyres just once, saw the debutant achieve a points scoring finish. Sadly he and his team mate Kamui Kobayashi were excluded from the race due to technical infringements. These exclusions promoted Paul Di Resta into 10th place and the Scot scored a single championship point in his debut race. The first race was a sign of things to come for all three. Perez clearly had a natural skill for conserving tyres with his smooth approach which would stand him in good stead for future races. Di Resta drove a sensible, steady race without taking unnecessary risks showing great maturity for a driver appearing in his first grand prix. Maldonado struggled in a highly uncompetitive Williams, something he and the team would unfortunately get used to throughout the 2011 season.

Perez and Di Resta both scored at the next round, building on impressive debuts the week before. Perez would continue to impress until his progress was halted by a huge and quite terrifying high speed crash in Monaco. It clearly shook him up and hampered his middle part of the season. Missing the races in Monaco and Canada, it was a few weeks before we saw Perez partaking in a race again. After the first couple of races Di Resta seemed to begin to struggle. The Scot was obviously still finding his feet in Formula One and with pressure from the British and world media, alongside having an experienced driver who had been with the team for a few seasons in Adrian Sutil, it appeared to unsettle Di Resta and it was a while before we saw him in the points again.

Maldonado and Williams continued to struggle, a frustrating sight as great things were expected of the Venezuelan. It was clear to see though that not all the blame could be placed on Maldonado's shoulders. The car, in short, was poor. Statistics show that it was the worst Williams car ever raced, scoring a frankly pathetic five world championship points come the end of the season. Even the most experienced driver in the history of the sport couldn't get the car to work as he wanted as the team found themselves dropping back from the mid pack and potential points scoring positions. Pastor did however show glimpses of the speed and skill that had got him this far and in to Formula One. A great drive at Monaco saw him running in fifth or sixth place before a collision with an erratic Lewis Hamilton saw Maldonado retire from what would have been a season's best performance and result for him and the team. The 2011 season was one which the Williams F1 team would gladly forget, and in a hurry.

As Perez and Di Resta regained confidence and self-believe through the latter part of the season, the results began to come. Perez achieved a season high of seventh place along with several more points scoring finishes, proving good competition for the exciting Kobayashi. Once Di Resta had found his feet in the team and the car, it became clear that he had the beating of his vastly more experienced team mate. Di Resta's race pace and craft would see the Scot often come through the field from lower grid spots to achieve a string of top ten finishes including a sixth place. A sixth place in a season where the top five places were often occupied by the same five drivers was an impressive feat in of itself. It is also very worthy to note that Di Resta only failed to finish one race throughout the entire season, something any rookie or even veteran would be very pleased with.

Although both Perez and Di Resta finished lower in the drivers' championship than their team mates, the clear signs of potential were there and both were retained for the forthcoming 2012 season. Maldonado on the other hand faced a much more uncertain future. With Nico Hulkenberg moving in to partner Di Resta at Force India, it was strongly rumoured that the departing Sutil would fill one of the seats at Williams. Barrichello's contract was up and things were not looking good for the 300+ grand prix veteran. Maldonado still had the financial backing, and whilst not all were convinced he had the skill required to succeed at this level, Maldonado retained his seat at Williams for the 2012 season. It would later be announced that he would be partnered by Bruno Senna; reuniting the Senna name with Williams 18 years after the death of the great Ayrton, Bruno's uncle.

The second season is often thought of as the most difficult. Take a look at football for example; the number of clubs who have been promoted, had an excellent first season but then struggled greatly in the second and been relegated is noticeably high. The same can be applied to Formula One. The first season everything is new, exciting and you have nothing to lose and so are willing to take risks. However, once you enter your second season new levels of maturity and knowhow are expected. This level of expectation and pressure can often get the better of sportsmen and lead them to not perform as they and we know they can do.

Things could only get better for Williams and Maldonado this season and thankfully in Australia we saw significant signs of this. Maldonado was having an excellent race running in sixth place and with the aid of a late safety car was challenging Alonso for fifth. Again though luck was not on Pastor's side; he crashed out very late on by running slightly wide on the exit of turn 6/7 and spinning into the wall on the inside. A truly disheartening moment for a team that only scored five points the whole of last season. Perez and Sauber would show solid race pace and achieve a double point's finish in the first race of the season, benefiting from the misfortunes of Maldonado. In a mad last lap the battle for tenth place was frenetic and eventually saw Di Resta come out on top with a stunning couple of moves during the last few corners and pit straight to take a surprising top ten finish for a car that wasn't really on the pace that weekend. Di Resta again showed his race craft by picking his way through the gaps at the right time and always finding himself in the right place, a very good knack to have indeed.

Moving on to Malaysia and here was where things really started to heat up for one driver in particular. A race of mixed weather conditions saw a red flag bring proceedings to a temporary stop, and once the race was restarted it would be those with the skill and feeling to drive in mixed and tricky conditions that would shine through. Alonso, widely accepted as the best driver in the field took the win, but it was not the result that everyone was talking about post race and in the weeks following. A truly stunning drive from Perez saw the Mexican work his way up to second place and begin to hunt down and challenge Alonso for the lead. The track began to dry out and a switch to the right tyres at the precisely the right time would in all likelihood strongly influence the final result of this race. Alonso pitted first and switched to the option tyre, while Perez stayed out for one more lap. This would prove costly and cause him to fall a further four or so seconds behind the Spaniard. Strangely, or so it seemed at the time, Perez went on to the harder, usually slower tyre. It was a decision that would prove a stroke of genius from Sauber as Perez began to reel in Alonso once again, lap after lap. The harder tyre seemed to suit the Sauber perfectly fairly soon Perez was back within sniffing distance of Fernando. We were then presented with a clip of team radio which seemingly told Perez to be careful and to not do anything to jeopardise a best ever result for Sauber. Within seconds of the clip being played out to the world audience Perez made a mistake at the trickiest corner on the track and fell further behind. Even though he would start to eat in to the lead again it was not quick enough and Alonso held on for the win. Many feel, including myself, that that was the best chance Sauber will possibly ever get of winning a Formula One grand prix; and although a second place is a fantastic result for a relatively inexperienced driver in an independent team, it left a lot of people wondering ‘what if?'. Perez's race pace was fantastic and the skill he showed in extremely tricky conditions were nothing short of remarkable and something you would only normally expect from an Alonso or Schumacher. The 2012 Malaysian Grand Prix certainly put Sergio Perez on the map and strongly fuelled rumours that he will replace the struggling Felipe Massa at Ferrari sooner rather than later.

Lest we not forget another impressive drive from Di Resta, again outperforming team mate Hulkenberg and finishing in seventh. Two points scoring finishes from the first two races is what the team would have wished for and Paul delivered. Another disappointment for Maldonado saw the Venezuelan again retire late on when in a points scoring position, although the other Williams of Bruno Senna did score points in sixth to give the team their first points of the season.

Maldonado would finally achieve the points finish his first two drives completely merited and deserved by coming home in eighth at the Chinese grand prix, just behind team mate Senna. Just outside the points were Perez and Di Resta in 11th and 12th respectively in what was another rain affected race.

The controversial round at Bahrain saw yet another retirement for Maldonado it what was a poor weekend for the Williams team in which both cars retired with mechanical issues. Perez and Sauber again showed disappointing race pace as seen in China leaving both cars outside the points. This time however it was Di Resta's time to shine. A different strategy employed by the Force India team with the aim of scoring points would perfectly and saw Di Resta achieve a career equally highest finish of sixth, ahead of the likes of Alonso, Hamilton and Schumacher. Di Resta showed remarkable tyre conservation by pitting one less time than most around him allowing him to leap frog cars that normally he would not be competing with such as McLaren and Mercedes.

Di Resta has shown his class this season by continuously outpacing and outscoring his team mate in the first four rounds of this season. He looks and sounds more confident and relaxed than last season which is allowing him to exploit his potential and the potential of the car far beyond that than Hulkenberg seems to be able to. Let's not forget Hulkenberg has a pole position to his name when at Williams in 2010 and had won every series he entered before his arrival in to Formula One. He is undoubtedly a very good driver but seems to be taking a while to settle back into a full programme.

Perez's second place in Malaysia is one, if not the stand out moment of the season so far and he has shown a remarkable leap forward in confidence from last season. Yes the race was in mixed conditions and maybe on a fully dry track the result would have been different, but it was an unbelievable drive for arguably the brightest young talent in motorsport today. He has a big future ahead of him and by staying with Sauber, at least for the rest of this season there's only one way he can go and that's upwards.

Maldonado has shown much more of the kind of things that were expected from him last season in the opening rounds of this season. You don't become the GP2 champion without having serious talent and he is now beginning to show some of that. The car last year didn't enable him to showcase his skill, but Williams and their reshuffled staff have produced a competitive car that will once again see them racing for points finishes. He has been unlucky so far and the four points he currently has should undoubtedly be higher. The signs are very encouraging for Pastor and as a fan of his since he entered last year it's great to see him, Bruno and the team performing to a much higher and competitive level this season.

So far the second season syndrome doesn't appear to have affected these three drivers. The increased expectation only seems to have affected them in a positive way and there are very few signs of nerves or the pressure getting to them. All three have taken significant steps forward this season with record high finishes both personally and for the team in certain cases. Perez and Sauber have dropped a little since the second place finish and consequent Ferrari links but I'm not sure how much can be read into that given the differing conditions in China and Bahrain. Di Resta continues to finish races and finish them in the points too, something which will certainly please the team and his backers at Mercedes should he eventually replace Schumacher.

Overall, it is fantastic for the sport that these young, talented drivers are getting a chance to showcase their talent at the top level. They have only competed in twenty or so grand prix but are already mixing it with and beating the top line, experienced drivers. Formula One has a bright future and with these three men showing the world exactly what they can do so far this season, you have to feel that they will be around competing and possibly winning races in the years to come.

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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