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F1’s rookies have surprise potential in Melbourne

Mar 7, 2013, 8:59 AM EDT

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Five rookies – Esteban Gutierrez, Valtteri Bottas (right), Giedo van der Garde, Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton – will join the Formula 1 racing fraternity next weekend at the Albert Park street circuit in Melbourne, Australia.

All but five drivers (Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo) on the 2013 F1 grid have made their grand prix debuts in Melbourne.

You have to examine the amount of laps done in testing and the machinery at their disposal to gauge expectations. Of those five, it’s actually Chilton (202) who has run the most laps. Gutierrez (191) and van der Garde (174) were not far behind, while Bottas (147) and Bianchi (136) were near the bottom of the charts in terms of laps. Bianchi’s fastest lap, though, was nearly one second clear of Chilton and van der Garde, 18th of 23 drivers who have tested this preseason.

None of them has ever turned a lap in Australia. Learning the track and getting acclimated to the pressure of racing during a grand prix weekend, rather than merely running in Friday practice, will be the biggest challenges.

In recent years, the most exciting debuts have come from McLaren’s newest driver and its former one – Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton. Perez announced his arrival to the F1 world in 2011 with his ability to save tires, running a one-stop strategy in Pirelli’s first race back. He finished seventh but along with Sauber teammate Kamui Kobayashi was disqualified for a technical infringement.

Hamilton’s 2007 debut remains the high-water mark, having made a brilliant start, getting ahead of teammate Fernando Alonso and finishing on the podium in third place. That set the tone for his run of nine consecutive podiums to start the season.

Jenson Button (2000, Williams), Kimi Raikkonen (2001, Sauber), Mark Webber (2002, Minardi) and Paul di Resta (2011, Force India) have also made it to the points in their Australian GP debuts.

Such heroics are unlikely to be achieved this time around, but you’d figure Sauber and Williams have good enough cars to at least threaten the points, and Gutierrez and Bottas will want to push their teammates.

Down at the back, qualifying within 3-4 seconds of the Q1 pole time and avoiding the 107 percent cutoff mark will be an achievement for the other three. Marussia’s pair of Bianchi and Chilton is the first rookie pair to start their first races since HRT did in 2010 with Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna at Bahrain. And getting to the finish will be the target since points are highly unlikely, but given Australia’s rate of retirements in the past, there could still be some surprises.

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