Continuing with our ‘six of the best’ series, Rach F1's Matthew Gannon take a look at some of the most remarkable debut seasons in the current millennium. These drivers were straight up to pace, making it as far as the second spot on the podium during their very first race. Honourable mention goes to Max Verstappen for his stellar maiden season in 2015.
6. Sebastian Vettel (2007 - BMW Sauber)
After Robert Kubica's almighty shunt at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, the Formula One world crossed the border to the USA. The final race at Indianapolis for F1 till date was heavily anticipated for two reasons.
Firstly, Lewis Hamilton was now a race winner in F1 on his debut season and, secondly, Sebastian Vettel was debuting for BMW Sauber. While the circumstances for Vettel's debut weren't the greatest, his drive certainly was. An eighth place left the German with a debut point which at the time made him the youngest points scorer in F1 history. By the end of the 2007 season Vettel had moved to Scuderia Toro Rosso to replace the conveniently named American Scott Speed. Here he achieved an incredible fourth place in China, a race more famous for Hamilton's pit lane gaff which ultimately cost him the World Drivers Crown in his debut season. More to come on that later.
Although not technically a debut season, his first full year saw his and Toro Rosso's maiden win at Monza (coincidentally beating the works Red Bull team to this accolade) as Vettel went on to finish eighth in the standings ahead of both Red Bull works drivers (and 35/39 of the teams’ total to place the sister team ahead of Red Bull in the constructors for 2008). Vettel successfully managed to propel himself into a seat at Red Bull for 2009 and the rest is history.
5. Robert Kubica (2006 - BMW Sauber)
Like Vettel, Kubica first came to F1 mid-season. After contractual issues and a general lack of competitiveness, Jacques Villeneuve left the BMW Sauber team, with Kubica replacing him from the Hungarian Grand Prix onwards. In his debut race Kubica finished an impressive seventh place, only to be disqualified as his car was two kg underweight - down to the heavily worn tyres which were out of his control. Kubica reached the chequered flag in all of his 5 races in 2006 however only finished in the top eight on one other occasion. In Italy, Kubica wrangled his car to new heights and a podium finish, with only Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen reaching the flag before the Pole.
During his first full season in F1 he scored consistent points for the team with only three retirements and two non-points finishes (excluding the US Grand Prix where Vettel raced). Of the three retirements two were mechanical failures and one of his non-scores was ninth - which is still respectable. 12 months later Kubica maintained a title charge which was only undone by the BMW being slower than its Ferrari and McLaren counterparts
Sadly Kubica's career was cut short by a rally accident in 2011 and robbed the sport of a future world champion and potential legendary status.
4. Juan-Pablo Montoya (2001 - Williams)
Easily Colombia's greatest ever F1 driver Montoya was insatiably quick from the very moment he climbed into the Williams. Despite this, Montoya didn't know his or his car’s limits and had only two finishes in his first 10 races, both second places.
Montoya's first four races were all DNFs - a brake failure in San Marino, engine issues on debut in Australia, a spin in rain at Malaysia and in Brazil the Colombian was taken out by Jos Verstappen when he was lapping the Dutchman from the lead of the race. However, it was evident that Montoya had race winning pace, something that was again visible in Spain where he finished second to Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, albeit over 40 seconds down.
Despite flashes of pace and brilliance Montoya took until the ninth round to achieve another race finish, another second place, and again only losing out to Michael Schumacher. Montoya ended the season much more consistently with four race finishes in the remaining eight rounds. Finally in Italy Montoya achieved his maiden win where the erratic Colombian showed the Tifosi how it was done, beating both Ferrari's to victory.
Montoya never won a world championship. Despite this he was best of the rest in 2002 where Ferrari were untouchable. Again in 2003 Montoya looked competitive until ultimately Williams lost the development race to Ferrari and McLaren and he once again had to settle for third place. The only other time he had a title competing car was 2005 but injury to himself and struggles to convert to the McLaren saw Montoya head stateside without that elusive World Drivers Crown.
3. Kevin Magnussen (2014 - McLaren)
The now Renault driver is the most recent of the drivers to be on this list. Signed by McLaren for 2014 at the expense of Sergio Perez, K-Mag unleashed his true Great Dane from lights out, catching a huge turbo slide off the line in Melbourne. The race got better and better for Magnusson where he finished third and appeared on the podium on his F1 debut (the first man to do so since Lewis Hamilton). The race got better for K-Mag when he was promoted to second after home hero Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified.
Magnusson put in a solid and consistent season with McLaren wanting him to partner Alonso for 2015. Sadly for Magnusson he never repeated his Australia heights and due to Button's past relationship with Honda (2002-2008), Magnusson was demoted to test driver for 2015.
Now after McLaren K-Mag finds himself driving for Renault and has just scored the team’s first points of the season with a seventh place in Russia.
2. Kimi Raikkonen (2001 - Sauber)
Although on paper Raikkonen's season is lacking compared to those around him, it was the follow up to his campaign which makes his introduction to F1 astounding. With only 23 races in all other formulae to his name Raikkonen was one of the most inexperienced drivers to grace F1 with his presence. Reportedly Kimi fell asleep half an hour before his debut begun (some things never change). Maybe the lack of sleepiness compared to his competitors was what led Raikkonen to points in the Sauber with P6 and one point. Kimi suffered seven retirements all season but a total of four points finishes saw him just creep into the top 10 in the standings with 9 points. This contribution helped Sauber take a record fourth place in the constructors championship. Despite being heavily out scored by teammate Nick Heidfeld, Raikkonen was signed for 2002 for McLaren to replace outgoing countryman Mika Hakkinen.
Kimi had the car with the pace, just not the reliability, to win titles in both 2003 and 2005. Despite this hardship Raikkonen moved to Ferrari and won the title in 2007 in his first season with the Scuderia. After a brief stint in WRC Raikkonen returned to F1 with Lotus for 2012 picking up two race wins in as many seasons (Abu Dhabi 2012 and Australia 2013). Kimi is now back with Ferrari partnering Vettel, time will tell if he can find the top spot of the podium again.
1. Lewis Hamilton (2007 - McLaren)
Hamilton was signed to partner double world champion Fernando Alonso, who departed Renault for McLaren, with limited expectation. Despite this Hamilton secured a third place finish on his debut in Australia. He continued to build his form by taking the lead in the drivers standings. Come his sixth race at Canada he took not only his first pole position but also his first win.
He backed up the Montreal result with another win in Indianapolis. Two third places including his home race at Silverstone meant Hamilton had finished all of his first nine grands prix on the podium. Come round 10 at the Nurburgring (the European Grand Prix), Hamilton not only qualified down in tenth after a Q3 crash but also spun off in heavy rain. In a race remembered more for Spyker's Markus Winkelhock leading the race, Hamilton became the first driver to be assisted back onto the track by a crane, an action which caused huge controversy. He eventually finished ninth, his first non-podium and also his first non-points finish.
After victories in both Japan and Hungary in the remainder of the season, Hamilton appeared destined to win the World Championship at his very first attempt. Then all he needed to do to all but wrap up the title with a race to go was to pull into the pits at the Chinese Grand Prix. Sadly pushing for every second Hamilton got beached in the gravel trap (which has been subsequently removed) to record his only non-finish of the season and only his second non-score of the season.
Any chance of capturing the title was cruelty ended when he couldn't select a gear and spent 40 seconds coasting around the track at the final race in Brazil. Although he recovered to take seventh place Kimi Raikkonen scored enough points to pop him to the crown by one single point.
Despite suspicious fuel irregularities for Williams and BMW Sauber no penalties or exclusions were given, the move that would have promoted Lewis Hamilton to fifth place and a drivers championship. Lewis did however capture the ultimate crown at the second attempt. After two more successful outings for Mercedes in 2014 and 2015 Hamilton has equaled the tally of his hero Ayrton Senna. Not only this,, Hamilton still maintains the record of winning at least one race in every season of his career.
Notable Mention - Heikki Kovalainen (2007 - Renault)
The 2005 GP2 runner up earned a shot with the Renault team following Alonso's departure to rivals McLaren. Renault were off the pace in 2007 compared to the seasons gone by. Despite this Kovalainen took only two races to score points by taking eighth place in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
He was consistent throughout the season, only failing to score five times and only retiring on one of those occasions (he was classified in Monaco despite engine issues two laps from the finish). After a tough afternoon taking a lowly 15th place in France, he scored seven points finishes in a row including a second place in Japan. The following race at China his streak ended with a ninth place and his season sadly ended with retirement after a crash which ended his hopes of being the first driver to finish all his races in a debut season.
After outscoring experienced team mate Giancarlo Fisichella, Kovalainen was signed to McLaren in a swap deal for Fernando Alonso. As Hamilton's number two he once again took seventh place in the standings and at the Hungarian Grand Prix he capitalised on Massa's engine imploding three laps from the line.
However, Kovalainen couldn't ever show enough pace or consistency to sustain a drive at the top. After moving to Team Lotus (which later became Caterham) he spent three years in backmarker machinery before bowing out as a test driver for Lotus F1 Team (now Renault) replacing countryman Kimi Raikkonen,who underwent back surgery, for the final two races of the season scoring no points in the process and sadly making Heikki the least successful driver on this list.
By Matthew Gannon