Last year, the rookie storyline in Formula 1 was an intriguing one, because you had three drivers in realistic points-scoring scenarios with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. at Scuderia Toro Rosso and Felipe Nasr at Sauber.
Then you had the lesser fancied rookie pair of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi – and later a welcome five-race cameo from Alexander Rossi – at Manor Marussia.
Point being, there was a lot of “new” to digest in the 2015 campaign and until Manor’s confirmation of Pascal Wehrlein earlier Wednesday there wasn’t going to be much on the new driver front in 2016, with Jolyon Palmer the only first-year driver.
In fact, outside of Renault with a completely altered lineup of Palmer and returnee Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team in its maiden season and with Manor set to complete the field, there have been no changes at all up-and-down the grid for 2016, making for a fairly static setting.
Neither Palmer nor Wehrlein is going to set the world on fire in 2016, but they’ll both be facing intriguing teammate situations and with lower expectations, have the opportunity to overachieve.
The rookie story won’t be a huge one this year, but the fact there’s now two first-year drivers on the grid means there is at least the potential of a story – both between them directly, and between them and their respective teammates.
In Palmer’s case, the 2014 GP2 champion will be fresh off a year of FP1 running and no actual racing, and matched up comparably to Magnussen, who spent the year sidelined after his unceremonious dumping by McLaren.
Magnussen will be keen to get on and assert team leadership within Renault, an opportunity he didn’t have afforded to him at McLaren, and reveal the talent those who’ve followed him through the ranks know is there.
Remember, hard as it seems to believe given McLaren’s downturn in fortunes through its nightmarish 2015, this was a driver who delivered a stunning runner-up finish on debut in Melbourne two years ago ahead of Jenson Button, in what was a McLaren double podium and the team’s most recent podium finish.
The closer Palmer can match Magnussen, and occasionally beat him – he’d have to hope more than Pastor Maldonado did to Romain Grosjean the last two years – the more his own stock will increase.
He’s a year and a half older than Magnussen so he’s at roughly the same career point, save for the single year of F1 race experience Magnussen has, so he stacks up more than favorably.
Wehrlein, perhaps, will enter Manor Racing with a slight edge over whoever his teammate is by the sheer virtue of the fact he’s been named to the team first, and he’s got the Mercedes tie-in as the team embarks with its new Mercedes power units – which ironically, were in the Renault camp last year, then as Lotus.
The 21-year-old German has been in line for a race seat for a couple years given his Mercedes reserve duties and occasional Force India testing; in theory, he’d have been a natural for Force India if one of its two drivers moved on or out for 2016. He’s a past DTM champion and he enters the sport highly rated.
He’s arguably Manor’s best rookie since the late Jules Bianchi three years ago, and the thinking could be that Wehrlein has the potential to overachieve at the back of the grid the same as Bianchi did in what was then a Marussia-Cosworth, in 2013, the final year of the V8 era. Once Marussia got Ferraris the following year, Bianchi’s stock only continued to rise.
Whether Rossi or Stevens gets the nod alongside – from an American standpoint, selfishly, you’d like to see Rossi confirmed and hopes are high in his camp he will – they’re probably going to enter the year on a slight back foot.
Reason being, Stevens was dependable but never otherworldly last season and Rossi, when he had his late season opportunity, left Stevens in arrears more often than not. In short, both seasons were incomplete, although in Rossi’s case, the potential was higher for more if he can continue into 2016.
Neither the Renault nor the Manor figures to be a frontrunner or even lead the midfield this season. Points will be at a premium; it’s going to be the moments where Palmer and/or Wehrlein outperform their teammates, get out of Q1, finish in the 12th to 13th range that will really catch some eyeballs or show their worth to the F1 world at large.
Fortunately though, the fact there is a rookie battle does add at least one intriguing subplot to the season.