Ranking the 2023 grid’s rookie seasons: How did the current F1 drivers fare on debut?

Toby Miles
Toro Rosso drivers Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz on the grid at the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix.

Toro Rosso drivers Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz on the grid.

The realisation of childhood fantasies and a dive-bomb into motorsport’s deep end, a rookie season can make or break a graduate to Formula 1.

The 2023 season will present just that proposition for three fresh faces. The United States’ new hope Logan Sargeant joins Williams, Nyck De Vries finally gets his shot at AlphaTauri and McLaren offer Oscar Piastri his hotly-anticipated F1 shot.

A second season is earned, not gifted. Should a member of the rookie trio sink, more hungry drivers are queuing up for their Formula 1 chance and would gladly take their spot.

Perhaps Sargeant and Co will look to their new rivals’ own rookie campaigns for inspiration. While some were shot straight into the fight for Grand Prix victories, others were kicked aside and had to find routes back into F1.

Which current driver had the best first season? Here is the PlanetF1.com’s ranking of our 2023 challengers’ rookie campaigns…

17th: Yuki Tsunoda

Two world-beating drives bookended Yuki Tsunoda’s first season in Formula 1, but it was a season undermined by on-track errors and off-track discomfort, to a degree where he admitted himself he was surprised to have been kept on the grid for a second season.

Driving for AlphaTauri and partnering Pierre Gasly for 2021, Tsunoda qualified 13th at the season-opening Bahrain GP before charging through the field for ninth, topped off by an expert move past Lance Stroll on the final lap.

The red-hot pressure of F1 and the 20-year-old’s much-publicised struggles to adapt to his new life in Milton Keynes (and English cuisine) contributed to a spate of mistakes through mid-season. However, a career-best P4 at the Abu Dhabi GP, passing Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas on the final lap, was the perfect way to finish.

16th: Zhou Guanyu

The 2022 season’s one and only rookie, Zhou Guanyu became the first Chinese driver to race a Grand Prix last year.

Racing for Alfa Romeo, Zhou scored a point on his debut but only finished in the top 10 twice more. He flew under the radar for most of 2022, with a horrific crash at Silverstone likely to be fans’ defining memory from the 23-year-old’s rookie year.

Zhou’s six points were dwarfed by team-mate Valtteri Bottas’ 49-point haul and he was beaten 14-8 in qualifying. Alfa will need to see a lot more from Zhou in 2023 if he is to survive in F1.

15th: Esteban Ocon

After winning the GP3 title in 2015 and joining Mercedes’ driver academy, Esteban Ocon was suddenly thrust onto the grid mid-way through 2016.

The Frenchman replaced Rio Haryanto with nine races remaining for the struggling Manor team, adapting quickly to beat team-mate Pascal Wehrlein at four of the final five races.

Ocon didn’t perform any miracles but 12th and 13th at the season’s final two rounds hinted at his potential. Switching to Force India for 2017, Ocon was solid during his first full season; putting Sergio Perez under pressure and proving himself as a consistent points scorer.

14th: Nico Hulkenberg

Pole position at the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix, more than a second clear of Sebastian Vettel, could have been Nico Hulkenberg’s launchpad to F1 stardom. Instead, he was left without a seat only months later.

The rookie held on for eighth in Sao Paulo, a highlight alongside P6 at Hungary and seventh at Monza. Partnering 11-time GP winner Rubens Barrichello for 2010, Hulkenberg failed to put the Brazilian under enough pressure and finished 15th in the Drivers’ standings with 22 points – less than half his team-mate’s total.

Despite flashes of potential, Williams decided to replace Hulkenberg with GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado for 2011. The German would become Force India’s reserve driver, before an impressive 2012 season in a full-time drive with Aston Martin’s predecessor secured his F1 future.

13th: Kevin Magnussen

P2 at his very first Grand Prix almost four seconds ahead of World Champion team-mate Jenson Button… F1 debuts don’t get much better. So, how did Kevin Magnussen end up losing his seat at the end of 2014?

The Dane is one of only three 2023 drivers who couldn’t retain his place on the grid following their rookie season, with McLaren ditching him in favour of Fernando Alonso for 2015.

Magnussen’s phenomenal debut in Australia proved to be a false dawn. Following an impressive junior career, he arrived in F1 with plenty of hype but soon sunk into the midfield. He ended the season down in 11th with a weighty 71-point deficit to Button, having been dominated by the veteran Brit in qualifying.

Having believed he was guaranteed a seat for 2015, Magnussen felt betrayed by McLaren. He would return to the grid with Renault in 2016 and later joined Haas, but the 30-year-old is still hunting for his second F1 podium.

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12th: Sergio Perez

Red Bull star Sergio Perez hardly exploded onto the scene in 2011, with a season-best P7 finish and a 16-point deficit to team-mate Kamui Kobayashi. However, beyond the bad luck and flashes of inexperience were indications of a race-winning future.

Debuting with Sauber in Australia, the 21-year-old led Kobayashi home in seventh before both drivers were disqualified for a technical violation.

Then, four point-less rounds later, Perez finally bagged his maiden first top 10 in Barcelona before reaching Q3 for the first time in Monaco – only for a heavy crash to rule him out of the Grand Prix and the following round in Canada.

Held back by bad luck and the Sauber’s declining performance through the year, beating Kobayashi 11-7 in qualifying was an impressive achievement for the Mexican.

11th: Carlos Sainz

The 2015 Toro Rosso seats were filled by two F1 rookies with famous last names. Unfortunately for Carlos Sainz, his team-mate for that year happened to be one Max Verstappen.

Although Sainz has proven himself as one of the sport’s most talented drivers at McLaren and Ferrari since, 17-year-old Verstappen overshadowed the Spaniard in 2015. Sainz still comfortably did enough to seal a second season, having climbed into an F1 car as Formula Renault 3.5 champion.

The son of rally legend Carlos Sainz Snr’s highlight came at his home GP, qualifying fifth and hanging on for ninth. His season was blighted by reliability issues and crashes but performances like his US GP drive from last-place to seventh hinted at a special future.

Sainz finished the season 15th with 18 points, with Verstappen comfortably ahead on 49 points in 12th. However, the Spaniard took satisfaction from edging his team-mate 10-9 in qualifying.

10th: Valtteri Bottas

Much like George Russell, Valtteri Bottas’ debut with Williams was spent toiling at the wrong end of the field. However, the Finnish driver did manage to score points as a rookie.

Bottas joined the grid in 2013, joining Pastor Maldonado at the Grove team. It was a season of struggle, with eighth place at the United States GP Williams’ best of the season – securing Bottas P17 in the Drivers’ Championship ahead of his team-mate.

It was the Finn’s qualifying performances that caught the eye, beating Maldonado 12-7 on Saturdays, including a P3 slot behind Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at Montreal.

9th: George Russell

Of the three British rookies stepping into F1 for 2019, George Russell arrived with the most hype. The F2 champion was already being tipped as a future title contender, but that would have to wait.

Russell joined Williams for 2019, partnering motorsport legend Robert Kubica on his return to Formula 1. The Polish driver scored Williams’ only point of 2019 at the German Grand Prix, making a late overtake on Russell to rob the youngster of his maiden top 10.

Russell finished the championship in 20th after rarely getting a chance to show his talent against other cars. Even still, there were signs of his bright future. He crushed Kubica 21-0 in qualifying and 17-4 on Sundays, and almost dragged the Williams into Q2 in Hungary.

The King’s Lynn talent would become a driving force in Williams’ progression for the following two seasons before getting his well-earned promotion to Mercedes.

8th: Lance Stroll

The second-youngest F1 driver of all time, Lance Stroll joined Williams for his 2017 rookie season aged just 18. His team-mate for that season was veteran race-winner Felipe Massa.

The standout highlight of Stroll’s season was the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Qualifying eighth through his first Q3 appearance, the Canadian navigated an incident-packed race to finish on the podium, after Valtteri Bottas pipped him for P2 at the line.

Stroll also impressed in wet conditions, qualifying P4 at Monza and starting on the front row as both Red Bulls took grid drops.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and Stroll’s inexperience was evident. He suffered Q1 knockouts on 12 occasions and sometimes looked erratic behind the wheel. He finished the season 12th on 40 points, narrowly beaten by Massa’s 43; a mightily impressive start for the teenager.

7th: Fernando Alonso

Nobody has raced more Grands Prix than Fernando Alonso but about 350 races ago, few in the paddock would have predicted the Spaniard’s success when he joined the grid as a teenager.

The 2023 grid’s oldest driver debuted way back in 2001. Max Verstappen’s father, Jos, was still racing, as were icons Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve.

Alonso’s rookie season at Minardi did little to hint at the two championships and 32 Grand Prix victories that followed, though his machinery did not help him at all. The struggling back-marking team failed to score a single point, with their 19-year-old Spanish hot-shot suffering seven retirements from 16 starts.

Even Alonso’s season-best P10 was upstaged by team-mate Tarso Marques’ two ninth-place finishes, though Alonso dominated his team-mate 11-2 in the qualifying head-to-head, before he was replaced by Alex Yoong for the final three rounds, where Alonso again out-qualified him on each occasion.

What was clear was Alonso had enough pace for Flavio Briatore to sign him at Renault. Following a season as the French team’s reserve driver, the Spaniard bagged his first GP victory at the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix after stepping into a full-time drive, becoming the sport’s youngest ever polesitter and race winner that year in the process.

6th: Lando Norris

Stepping into F1 with McLaren after finishing P2 in Formula 2 the previous year, a 19-year-old Lando Norris partnered Carlos Sainz for 2019. Sainz ended the season 50 points clear of his teenage team-mate and scored McLaren’s only podium, but that didn’t tell the whole story.

There was good reason for the Woking team signing Norris to a multi-year extension during his rookie year. Britain’s youngest F1 debutant out-qualified Sainz at 11 of the 21 Grands Prix, including a Q3 charge on debut in Australia, and helped McLaren finish fourth in the Constructors’ standings.

Although Norris finished 11th in the Drivers’ Championship, Andreas Seidl later called his debut “phenomenal”.

5th: Alex Albon

Joining Toro Rosso after finishing the 2018 F2 season in third behind fellow F1 graduates George Russell and Lando Norris, Albon was expecting an under-the-radar midfield campaign.

The British-Thai driver made a solid start, peaking with sixth at the German Grand Prix as Toro Rosso took advantage of tricky conditions – although Daniil Kvyat still led the team-mate battle.

The 23-year-old rookie was suddenly thrust into the spotlight halfway through the campaign, moving to Red Bull as Pierre Gasly’s disastrous stint with the A-team came to an abrupt end. For the final nine races of 2019, Albon would go head-to-head with Max Verstappen.

A season-best drive at Suzuka yielded P4 after matching Verstappen’s Q3 time, and Albon would have scored his first podium but for a collision with Lewis Hamilton on the final lap in Brazil. With consistent top-six finishes, Christian Horner was sufficiently impressed to back Albon for the Red Bull drive in 2020.

4th: Pierre Gasly

Red Bull saw enough pace from Pierre Gasly to promote him to their A-team following his 2018 rookie campaign. Although it ended in tears, Christian Horner had good reason to back the Frenchman as Daniel Ricciardo’s replacement at the senior team.

Gasly, a former GP2 champion, got his first taste of F1 with five reserve drives at Toro Rosso at the end of 2017. After stepping into a full-time seat for 2018, Gasly crushed team-mate Brendon Hartley 29 points to four in an uncompetitive car.

Fourth place at the second race of the season in Bahrain, having qualified fifth, was a brilliant result, as were six Q3 appearances in one of the team’s less competitive packages of recent seasons.

3rd: Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen was a Formula 1 record-breaker right from his debut. Joining the grid aged 17 years, five months and 15 days, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a younger Grand Prix debutant – particularly with the FIA introducing a minimum age of 18 for F1 drivers since his arrival.

Joining Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso for 2015, the teenage son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen arrived with plenty of hype after a phenomenal junior career.

Engine failure wrecked Verstappen’s debut in Australia but seventh at his second race made him F1’s youngest points scorer. The Dutchman’s early years were characterised by promising pace and, at times, recklessness. Clumsily clipping Romain Grosjean’s Lotus in Monaco, resulting in a massive shunt, didn’t win any friends.

Having comfortably upstaged team-mate Carlos Sainz in qualifying and the championship, Verstappen only had to wait until the following season for the Red Bull seat and a Grand Prix victory on his debut with the senior team in Spain.

2nd: Charles Leclerc

The star of Ferrari’s Driver Academy and a dominant F2 champion, Formula 1 was the logical next step for Charles Leclerc in 2018.

Joining Sauber, Leclerc’s first three races yielded zero points but the rest of the season was a different story. The Monegasque consistently out-performed his machine, dominated team-mate Marcus Ericsson (39 points to nine) and drove into Q3 eight times.

He finished P13 in the Drivers’ standings, with no victories or podiums, but Leclerc’s race-winning potential was clear. Maranello couldn’t wait to get him into red overalls, promoting the youngster to Ferrari for 2020.

1st: Lewis Hamilton

Few drivers in Formula 1 history can recall a rookie campaign like Lewis Hamilton’s, let alone his 2023 competitors. Just like the Mercedes driver’s most dominant championship successes, he’s a clear No.1 on this ranking.

Graduating to F1 as GP2 champion aged 22, Hamilton stepped straight into the deep end in 2007. Competing against double World Champion Fernando Alonso on the iconic McLaren team, his was no gentle introduction to motorsport’s pinnacle.

No matter, because Hamilton was already championship material. At the 2007 curtain-raiser in Australia, the British driver overtook Alonso at Turn 1 and hung on for a debut podium in third.

It wasn’t a fluke. A sensational run of nine podiums from his first nine races put Hamilton firmly into title contention. When his 10th GP ended outside the top-three at the Nurburgring, Hamilton got on the radio to ask: “Guys, where should I go, I don’t know where to go?” Until then, he’d only parked in the special podium compound.

The Brit earned his first Grand Prix victory in Canada, backed up the following weekend with glory in Indianapolis. He led the championship going into the penultimate round but an agonising error in China handed Kimi Raikkonen a way back, and the Ferrari man stole the title by a point.

Championship runner-up, four victories and a ending level on points in a bitter team-mate war with Alonso. We may never see anything like Hamilton’s rookie season again.