Sebastian Vettel’s success for Ferrari at the Sepang Circuit two weeks ago was an early watershed moment in a season that once threatened to turn into another Mercedes party.
Of those buoyed by the apparent shattering of an illusion that Team Mercedes is infallible, the younger drivers in the current roster will be the most encouraged. Just two races in, fans have witnessed some impressive performances from three F1 debutants.
For these would-be ‘upstarts’, the significance of consistent points finishes is in danger of being underestimated.
In 2014, Verstappen identified himself as an all-round driver, drawing comparisons to Alonso in that respect. Although he is two world titles short of being uttered in the same sentence as the Spanish superstar, there are early indications that he can remedy this sooner than expected.
17-year old Verstappen’s qualifying performance in Sepang defied his supposed inexperience, and it is a circuit that even the most experienced drivers can find treacherous due to the erratic conditions with which they are often faced.
The Shanghai circuit offers easier driving conditions, but the high proportion of tight corners off the longest straight in F1 requires a calculating driving style which has (naturally) not yet been perfected by Verstappen.
Best opportunities to score high points: Austria, Britain, Belgium
Although the wide expectation is that Mercedes dominance will be in full swing by 21st June, the Austrian Grand Prix is the one where Verstappen has a real opportunity to mix it up and vindicate his claimed similarity to Alonso.
Taking on the fast, sweeping corners of the Red Bull Ring, the simplistic overall layout is well-suited to raw talent – any complacency from the bigger teams is sure to be punished.
The return of Spa-Francorchamps to the Formula 1 calendar will also be hugely welcomed by Verstappen, a Belgian native driving under the Dutch flag of his father. In what is essentially his ‘home race’, Verstappen’s natural bravery as a debutant will serve him well on the more daunting sections such as La Source and Bruxelles.
The only non-European in this group of youngsters is arguably the most promising in the short-term. Although his performance in Sepang was disappointing, it is perhaps not the best race at which to judge a less-experienced driver.
Ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix, he is the second best driver in the standings that is not affiliated with Mercedes or Ferrari. Nasr currently trails just 10 points behind countryman Felipe Massa – a driver 16 years his senior.
Best opportunities to score high points: China, Japan, United States:
Nobody has forgotten the young Brazilian’s excellent performance in the season opener at Melbourne, and this weekend’s less oppressive weather conditions present the ideal chance to get ‘back to basics’.
Nasr already has experience of driving on the Shanghai circuit, albeit in an FP1 session for Williams. Now in a Sauber car, Nasr will be able to utilise a high top speed – perhaps Sauber’s key strength – on the long straight to his advantage.
If early form is any indication of how Nasr’s season will unfold, his next opportunity to shine comes on 27th September in Suzuka.
Notoriously challenging though it may be, Nasr is a quick learner. Between the Chinese and Japanese events he will have amassed some priceless experience, boosting his ability to better use opportunities that reward a high top-speed. This ability is a key to any driver escaping the frenetic nature of Suzuka with points on the board. If the top-speed opportunities in Suzuka are used correctly, the results can be extremely satisfying.
The US Grand Prix is never easy to call, but with a less-complicated layout than Suzuka, this should also be a good opportunity for Nasr to showcase his natural ability.
Carlos Sainz Jr.
Though less-frequently touted as the next F1 ‘legend’, Sainz is the only 2015 debutant to have scored points in both races of the new season.
His consistency could be a great asset this season if maintained, resulting in a surprisingly high overall finish even if a podium place is never achieved, inevitably leading to interest from other teams. While he is already at a team with real long-term ambition (Toro Rosso), the lure of the ‘big boys’ may be too much to resist for a young driver.
Best opportunities to score high points: Bahrain, Spain, Belgium
Sainz is likely to thrive on longer tracks, or those that require high levels of stamina as much as composure and tactical nous.
A good performance on his home track is the very least that is expected of the young Spaniard, but Bahrain is the biggest challenge in the trio. With an ever-present danger of overheated tyres in hot and dry conditions, this race has the potential to be unpredictable and energy-sapping. As ever, it will require perfect tyre tactics.
Toro Rosso coped reasonably well with the conditions in Malaysia, even if Sainz’s teammate Verstappen gained no points. Ultimately, the indications are that Sainz is in good hands ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
*For the purpose of this article, a “high points finish” refers to any finish between 4th and 6th place, guaranteeing a minimum of 8 championship points to the appropriate driver. While opportunities to finish 6th or better are identified, these do not equate to actual predictions of a high finish. Podium finishes, though unlikely, are not explicitly ruled out.
By Tamhas Woods at Motorsport24.com
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