As we prepare to enjoy the 64th season of Formula 1 world championship racing, the influx of five rookies has brought the average age of the 22-man grid for 2013 down to just 26 and will join five world champions when they line up on the Albert Park grid for the season opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Esteban Gutierrez: Ready to take the leap
Of the newcomers, the youngest is 21-year-old Esteban Gutiérrez, the Sauber F1 Team driver who will be Mexico’s second representative on the grid after replacing his compatriot Sergio Pérez, now with McLaren.
Born in Monterrey in 1991, Gutiérrez started his single-seater racing career in Formula BMW USA, finishing runner-up and rookie of the year in 2007. The switch to Formula BMW Europe in 2008 brought him seven wins from 16 starts and the European title, to which he added third place in the World Final in Mexico City.
Joining the well-known ART squad, Gutiérrez competed in the F3 Euroseries before lining up for the same team in the newly-created GP3 feeder series in 2010. The Mexican excelled with five race victories, but the two points for pole position at the final race of the season in Monza made the difference as he became the first GP3 champion.
Following one of the now-familiar ladders towards the Formula One pinnacle, Gutiérrez moved up to GP2 with Lotus GP. In 2011 he won once, in Valencia, and in 2012 he posted three victories in Valencia, Silverstone and Budapest on his way to third place overall behind champion Davide Valsecchi (now the Lotus F1 ‘third driver’) and Luiz Razia.
Sauber’s Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn has high hopes for her young driver. “We mapped out his path to Formula One step by step,” she says. “Esteban has great talent and now he’s ready to take the leap.”
Valterri Bottas: As prepared as you can get
The latest version of the ‘Flying Finn’ has the pugnacious look of a boxer – and a fighting man has always gone down well in a Williams cockpit. Think Rosberg, think Mansell…
The 23-year-old Bottas is the second GP3 champion to make his way to the top – he followed Gutiérrez to that title in 2011. Unusually, perhaps, Valtteri did not race in 2012 – but his role as the Williams test and reserve driver meant he took part in no fewer than 15 Friday first practice sessions on last season’s Grand Prix calendar.
In fact Bottas, whose single-seater CV includes the 2008 Formula Renault Eurocup title and two wins in the Masters of F3 event, joined Williams in that supporting role in 2010. That’s why Sir Frank is untroubled by the Finn’s relative inactivity in 2012.
“Having a new driver who has spent three seasons testing the car and conducting extensive simulator work means that he is as prepared for his first season as you can get,” insists the man behind a team seeking to revive old glories.
Bottas has only five new tracks to learn in 2013, the first of them being right here in Melbourne. On the fitness front he won’t have much to worry about either: as a dedicated triathlon competitor he should feel right at home Down Under.
Giedo van der Garde: I know I am ready
At 27 – turning 28 in April – Giedo van der Garde is the ‘old man’ of the new brigade. The Dutch driver has worked long and hard to earn his break with the Caterham team, where he will renew acquaintance with former GP2 teammate Charles Pic.
Like Bottas at Williams, Van der Garde got in some useful Formula One experience last season: he took part in six Friday free practice sessions for the team, dovetailing those commitments with his drive in the team’s GP2 arm.
Van der Garde won twice in GP2 in 2012, in Barcelona and the glamour round in Singapore, and was on the podium six times in all.
It’s a decade now since his single-seater career kicked off in Formula Renault, followed by three seasons in F3, where he was teammate to familiar names like Paul di Resta and Sebastian Vettel.
Giedo’s only title to date came in 2008 when he joined P1 Motorsport in Formula Renault, after which GP2 beckoned with iSport International. In 2010 and 2011 Van der Garde was in GP2 again with Barwa Addax, where Pic was his sidekick in 2012.
He has other F1 experience as well: he was test and reserve driver with the short-lived Super Aguri squad back in 2006 and with Spyker in 2007.
“I know I am ready to take the step up to F1,” he maintains, “and all the work I have done throughout my career, and particularly in the last year with this team, has brought me to my ultimate goal.”
Jules Bianchi: I am ready for Melbourne
That’s a pretty big call, all things considered: Jules Bianchi was given the nod by Marussia with just two days of the final pre-season test in Barcelona remaining. The 23-year-old from Nice did just 136 laps in a frenzied day-and-a-half but insists he is ready to go.
Like several of the season’s other rookies, Bianchi can point to previous F1 experience, though not in race conditions. He has been part of Ferrari’s development program for some time and last season took part in several free practice sessions as a reserve for Force India.
He was expected to race for VJ Mallya’s team this season until their last-minute decision to revert to the tried and tested Adrian Sutil instead.
His single-seater career began in Formula Renault 2.0 in 2007, when he was national champion; he then moved to the F3 Euroseries with ART for two years, winning three races in his first season and nine in his second to become champion.
Next came two seasons in GP2 with Art and Lotus ART, during which he was a race-winner but finished third overall on both occasions. Last season in Formula Renault 3.5 Bianchi came within four points of the title but came off second-best in a final-round fumble with eventual champion Robin Frijns.
Max Chilton: Late developer
That may seem a strange way to describe a man who is a Formula One driver at the tender age of 21 (22 in April), but Max’s career took off like a Grand Prix car in 2012.
After single-seater adventures in British F3 from 2007-09, Max – son of the owner of the highly-regarded Carlin team – went straight to GP2. His three seasons there culminated at Carlin in 2011 and 2012, when the team formed its association with Marussia.
Somehow the light suddenly went on: pole positions followed, plus two late-season race wins in Hungary and Singapore.
By that time Chilton, who ended the season in fourth place overall in GP2, had been offered the job of test and reserve driver with Marussia in Formula One from the Japanese round onwards.
“Max very quickly embedded himself within the team, thanks in no small part to the fact that he is a lively and affable character who we’ve enjoyed having around,” said Marussia’s Team Principal John Booth when Chilton’s promotion was announced.
“Having been integral to our race weekend engineering environment for the past three months already – as well as having undertaken a significant part of our simulator programme – Max has already found his feet.”