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Debatable debuts? How 2010’s new drivers are faring 24 May 2010

Vitaly Petrov (RUS) Renault.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Turkish Grand Prix, Race, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Sunday, 30 May 2010 Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Williams.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Chinese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Shanghai, China, Friday, 16 April 2010 (L to R): Karun Chandhok (IND) Hispania Racing F1 Team (HRT) with team mate Bruno Senna (BRA) Hispania Racing F1 Team (HRT).
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Preparations, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Wednesday, 10 March 2010 Lucas di Grassi (BRA) Virgin Racing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Preparations, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 (L to R): Karun Chandhok (IND) Hispania Racing F1 Team (HRT) and Bruno Senna (BRA) Hispania Racing F1 Team (HRT) at the drivers' autograph signing session.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race Day, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 4 April 2010

First you fight your way up the ranks, using any means necessary to make it into Formula One racing and then you have to start all over again and prove your worth against the best drivers in the world. Life’s far from easy for F1 rookies. We assess how 2010’s crop of youngsters have performed over the opening six races, as Petrov, Hulkenberg, Chandhok, Di Grassi and Senna all vie to become the next big thing…

Vitaly Petrov, Renault
Best grid position: 11th at the Malaysian Grand Prix
Best race finish: 7th at the Chinese Grand Prix
Points: 6
Championship position: 13

Of all the 2010 debutants, Petrov has had arguably the easiest ride. Drafted in to Renault, who endured a horribly difficult 2009, nobody expected much from the French team, or indeed the Russian. And even when the R30 started to look decent in pre-season testing, all eyes were on his well-regarded team mate Robert Kubica, not on Petrov. At the opening race in Bahrain, however, he showed his potential, running as high as 11th after a great start, before disaster struck as a trip over a kerb damaged his suspension and forced him to retire. The following round in Australia ended in similar fashion, with Petrov spinning into the gravel, while his strong qualifying performance in Malaysia was voided by a gearbox problem in the race. His luck finally turned in China, where he overtook Michael Schumacher on his way to seventh. Although it remains his only points finish to date, it’s worth noting that at times he was lapping faster than Kubica, who is currently sixth in the standings. His Monaco race was disappointing, but he’s determined to do better as the field head to Turkey, and the fact he’s currently leading the man who beat him to the 2009 GP2 title - Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg - will no doubt boost his confidence.
What next? Although the R30 may not yet have race-winning potential, it’s clear Kubica is gleaning the absolute maximum from his car. Petrov needs to continue to watch, listen and learn from his more-experienced team mate. He clearly has the skill; he just needs a bit more time to settle in.

Nico Hulkenberg, Williams
Best grid position: 5th at the Malaysian Grand Prix
Best race finish: 10th at the Malaysian Grand Prix
Points: 1
Championship position: 16th

The latest protege of Michael Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber, Hulkenberg’s Formula One ascendancy was loudly trumpeted, especially as he’d already enjoyed title success in GP2 and the Formula Three Euroseries. The gold star for best performing rookie was thus his to lose from the outset. And teamed up at Williams with veteran Rubens Barrichello, it seemed like a dream combination. Who better to learn from than a man with close to 300 race starts? But being paired with Barrichello seems to have been as much a curse as a blessing. Hulkenberg has scored just one point to the Brazilian’s seven, and has only made it into Q3 on one occasion, compared to the three for Barrichello. Of course the FW32’s performance has been disappointing too, but Barrichello’s experience has proved critical in gleaning more from the car than Hulkenberg has been able to.
What next? The 22 year-old’s year-long secondment at the Williams factory, where he worked in all manner of departments, should stand him in good stead to bridge the gap to his team mate soon. That’s if the car comes good too, of course.

Karun Chandhok, HRT
Best grid position: 22nd at the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix
Best race finish: 14th at the Australian Grand Prix
Points: 0
Championship position: 20th

A rookie driver racing for a rookie team is a hard road to take, but it’s Karun Chandhok’s lot at new-for-2010 squad HRT. Signed just days before the opening race, and when countless technical issues robbed him of any practice time, his first turn of the F110’s wheel came during qualifying for the season-opener in Bahrain. Unsurprisingly he was over 10 seconds slower than the pole time, and in the race itself he fell foul of a bump on Lap One, spinning into retirement. It was a far from auspicious start for team or driver - in total he covered just eight laps of the Sakhir circuit - but he remained admirably upbeat, and his 14th place in Australia (HRT’s first race finish) was a reward of sorts. In Malaysia, too, he enjoyed some success, claiming 22nd on the grid ahead of fellow debutants team mate Bruno Senna and Virgin’s Lucas di Grassi and finishing 15th after a strong-spirited race. A 17th place in China and another DNF thanks to a collision with Jaime Alguersuari in Spain were less agreeable, but in Monaco he enjoyed what he called ‘one of the best races of his life’, despite its dramatic end under Jarno Trullli’s Lotus. He was classified in 14th, but it was his pace, and the fact he was genuinely fighting with the other new teams, which really made his day.
What next? Despite rumours he could be turfed out of his seat, especially after the arrival of the experienced Christian Klien and Sakon Yamamoto as HRT test drivers, Chandhok’s Monaco showing went a long way to boost his kudos. Expect the Chennai-born driver to show his mettle more and more, as the F110 slowly improves.

Lucas di Grassi, Virgin
Best grid position: 21st at the Monaco Grand Prix
Best race finish: 14th at the Malaysian Grand Prix
Points: 0
Championship position: 21st

After years of near misses, Di Grassi finally made it into Formula One racing for 2010 with new start-up Virgin, driving alongside former Toyota star Timo Glock. The pizzazz of the launch was followed by the gutting realisation that the team’s CFD-designed car was fundamentally flawed, with too small a fuel tank. For Di Grassi, who’s already suffered technical DNFs in Bahrain (hydraulics), Australia (hydraulics), China (clutch), and most recently Monaco (wheel), the even bigger blow was that while Glock got an upgraded car from the Spanish Grand Prix onwards, delays have meant the Brazilian must wait until Turkey for his. Even so, he was the first to cross the finish line for the team in Malaysia, despite carrying damage, and enjoyed a mature race in Spain to finish 19th, just behind Glock. In qualifying, however, Di Grassi has been playing catch-up to his German partner, not once out-performing Glock.
What next? His lack of silly mistakes means Di Grassi has more than held his own against his fellow rookies. It will be interesting to see how he compares to Glock once both are running identical machinery again.

Bruno Senna, HRT
Best grid position: 21st at the Australian and Spanish Grands Prix
Best race finish: 16th at the Malaysian and Chinese Grands Prix
Points: 0
Championship position: 23rd

Not only is Senna a new driver racing for a new team, he’s also the nephew of a Formula One legend - Ayrton Senna - and as such has a world of expectation resting on his shoulders. Like his team mate Chandhok, however, Senna has been somewhat hamstrung by a lack of testing, as HRT fought for survival ahead of the season (though at least Senna had time for a seat fitting and some simulator work ahead of Bahrain). He used his first qualifying session to simply add further mileage to his car, but a radiator leak ended his debut race 18 laps in. In Malaysia he endured a tough afternoon, hampered by brake issues, to finish in 16th, even briefly overtaking Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, while in China he came home ahead of Chandhok to take another P16. In Spain he made a very impressive start, but threw it all away, crashing out once Lap One got underway in earnest, while in Monte Carlo he was running strongly until a hydraulics problem led to early retirement. With such a hit-and-miss record, it’s difficult to judge quite where he’d be had he been given a better car, or indeed any time at the test track to prepare sufficiently.
What next? With little sign of HRT catching or passing any of their fellow new teams soon, Senna’s real test over the next few months is likely to be whether he can outclass his team mate.