Which driver has had the best rookie season in Formula 1 history?


27 April at 08:00
Last update 27 April at 14:26
  • Cameron Smith

With three new drivers on the 2021 Formula 1 grid, here at GPblog we thought we’d take a look at the very best rookie seasons in history, and outline what Yuki Tsunoda, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin will try to emulate this season.

Now, obviously Schumacher and Mazepin are driving for backmarker team Haas so aren’t expected to pick up many impressive results, but AlphaTauri’s Tsunoda certainly has the potential to score well this season.

A points finish on his F1 debut in Bahrain was impressive to say the least, and whilst he struggled in Imola, with a spin costing him another top 10 finish, the Tsunoda hype train is chugging along nicely, and he’s caught the eye of every F1 fan already.

Partnered with Pierre Gasly in his rookie season, the Japanese driver will be desperate to beat his more experienced teammate, and may draw upon the feats of the following drivers who tore it up in their debut year.

Lewis Hamilton

Where else to start. The seven-time, and reigning, world champion started as he meant to go on in F1, and the success he has had since his debut comes as no surprise when you see how well he performed from his first season in the premier class of motorsport.

Both Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen had left McLaren after the 2006 season and thus two vacancies needed to be filled. After winning the GP2 title in 2006, it was confirmed that Lewis Hamilton would partner defending world champion Fernando Alonso at McLaren for 2007, with the Spaniard leaving Renault after back-to-back titles.

Paired with the in-form driver at the time, it was presumed that Hamilton would play a back-up role, akin to the one that Valtteri Bottas fills at Mercedes currently.

However, Hamilton shocked the world with how quickly he adapted to Formula 1. In his very first F1 race, the Briton stood on the podium, finishing third behind the aforementioned Raikkonen and Alonso.

If you exclude the first ever F1 season in 1950, as every driver was making their debut that year, only eight drivers have ever scored a podium in their first ever race, and Hamilton is one of them; the most recent before LH44 was Jacques Villeneuve at the 1996 Australian Grand Prix, with his second place finish.

But unlike many, including Kevin Magnussen, who came second on his debut, who fell off after early success, Hamilton maintained his momentum and form, scoring a podium in each of the opening nine races, an incredible feat that had, and has, never been repeated by a rookie.

In those nine consecutive podium finishes to start the season, Hamilton achieved back-to-back victories at the Canadian and United States Grands Prix and looked just as quick as the frontrunners on the grid; Alonso, Raikkonen and Felipe Massa had competition.

He won two further races in the season, in Hungary and Japan, and whilst he has matched Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles, it should be eight already.

He held a four point lead over teammate Alonso and a seven point lead over Raikkonen heading into the final Grand Prix at Interlagos, and that was despite suffering a DNF in the penultimate race in China.

However, car trouble saw him drop to 18th and whilst he recovered to finish in P7, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Ferrari of Raikkonen to take the Championship by just one point from both Hamilton and Alonso.

It was a disappointing end to the season, but to be fighting for the title and to miss out so narrowly in his rookie season was a sensational feat, and the fact he has won an F1 race in every season he has participated in is quite frankly absurd; he’s arguably the greatest driver ever, and his debut season was the start of a record-breaking career.

Jacques Villeneuve  

Arguably the only man who can rival Hamilton for the best rookie season, Jacques Villeneuve had a stark rise and a dramatic fall in Formula 1, but his debut year certainly caught the eye.

As the son of former Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve, Jacques was always going to be in the spotlight upon his entrance into F1, and he shone under said light.

Driving for Williams, he took pole position in his first ever race and eventually took second place, behind teammate Damon Hill, in an extremely promising debut.

A season-long battle with Hill commenced, and whilst Villeneuve took four victories all year, at the European, Great Britain, Hungarian and Portuguese Grands Prix, it wasn’t enough to dislodge Hill at the top of the standings.

He ended his rookie year in second place, just like Hamilton, nine points off the title winner Hill, to mark an exceptional start to his F1 career.

Incredibly, excluding his four DNF’s, Villeneuve only finished off the podium on one occasion, a seventh place finish in Italy, taking 11 podiums throughout the season, which was more than Hill’s 10. It was, however, Hill’s eight victories that propelled him to glory.

Nevertheless, it was an excellent start to his career, and the year after, Villeneuve was crowned world champion.

In 1997, despite suffering four DNF’s in the opening seven races, Villeneuve scored seven wins all season, and took the title.

His debut year set the wheels in motion for 1997, and whilst he never finished higher than fifth after his world championship win, 1996 was one of the greatest rookie seasons in F1 history.

Michael Schumacher

Level with the aforementioned Hamilton on seven world championship titles, Michael Schumacher started with aplomb in F1, just like the Briton.

After making his official F1 debut in 1991, for Jordan at the Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher was signed by Benetton for his full rookie season in 1992, and it proved to be an inspired move.

He narrowly missed out on a podium finish in the opening race, finishing fourth, before scoring three consecutive podiums in Mexico, Brazil and Spain.

After scoring impressive points all season, and eight podiums in total, he had to wait until the 12th race of the season to claim his maiden F1 victory, beating out the Williams of Nigel Mansell to claim the win at a wet Spa-Francorchamps.

In a season dominated by the Williams of Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, Schumacher claimed third place in the Drivers’ Championship, edging out legendary driver Ayrton Senna by three points to stand on the podium.

Two years later, he was world champion, and 13 years later, he’d won seven titles. 1992 kicked it all off, and Schumacher never looked back after a rookie season to remember. 

Jackie Stewart

Having rejected an F1 seat in 1964 to gain more experience in Formula 2, Jackie Stewart joined BRM for the 1965 season and alongside Graham Hill at the team, he performed outstandingly.

He scored four podiums in the opening six races before winning at Monza as every driver dreams of doing. He beat teammate Hill by three seconds to take that victory, and whilst he finished behind Hill in the standings, he still finished third in his debut season.

If it wasn’t for three DNF’s in the final four races, Stewart may well have launched a title challenge in his first season, but it wasn’t to be.

He went on to win the 1969, 1971 and 1973 titles, with only four drivers in history winning more Drivers’ Championships than Stewart.

Nino Farina

A special mention to Nino Farina. The only driver to win the Drivers’ Championship in their rookie season. Of course his sole title came in the first ever season in 1950, so every driver was a rookie that year, but he still managed to win!

He beat Juan Manuel Fangio to P1 that year, whilst driving the same Alfa Romeo car, taking three victories, one fourth place and suffering two DNF’s in the six race season.

Those are five of the best rookie seasons in Formula 1 history; will they ever be repeated? Only time will tell, but Tsunoda will draw inspiration from those before him, and the Japanese driver will be hoping to replicate some of the feats achieved by Hamilton, Villeneuve, Schumacher, Stewart and Farina.