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Australian Grand Prix: How will F1’s ‘next generation’ fare in 2017?

They embark on their first full season with some impressive credentials behind them but are F1's rookie trio ready for the big leap?
By Luke Smith
Follow @LukeSmithF1 on Twitter

It's the first official days of spring, which can only mean one thing…. the start of the 2017 F1 season is mere days away.

Exciting as this is in isolation, there is more reason than usual though for fans to have a spring in their step coming into the new season as Liberty Media and new supremo Chase Carey prepare set to launch F1 into a brave new era, while the faster, 'sexier' cars shaped by the revised technical regulations will make their much anticipated race debut debut.

Then of course we have the 'next generation' of F1 drivers turning their first nervy wheels in Melbourne for the first time?

Technically speaking, just one driver will be making his F1 race debut this Sunday: Lance Stroll. The 18 year old Canadian will become the second-youngest driver to start in F1 when he takes to the grid for Williams, while Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon get their first full seasons after briefly appearing in 2016.

Regardless, with each landing themselves competitive seats for 2017 alongside experienced team-mates (armed with a collective 637 starts between them), now comes the opportunity to prove why they are being touted as 'F1's future'.

Crash.net's Luke Smith considers their chances for the Australian Grand Prix and beyond…


Stoffel Vandoorne

His journey to F1
Vandoorne arrives as the highest-rated of the three rookies after smashing his way to the GP2 title in 2015. The Belgian spent his junior career a step behind Kevin Magnussen in the McLaren pecking order, but the team felt he would be best-off remaining in GP2 before stepping up to F1 too early. He earned his stripes by winning the title in record-breaking fashion in 2015, and then enjoyed an eye-catching year in Japan's notoriously competitive Super Formula championship where he stayed 'match fit' by winning two races at his first attempt. He also impressed as a last-minute replacement for Alonso in Bahrain, ending the race 10th and scoring McLaren's first point of the year.

How will he fare in the Australian Grand Prix?
A tough weekend potentially beckons for Vandoorne but it probably won't be because of his own doing. McLaren endured a pre-season to forget as issues with the re-designed Honda power unit left both of its drivers sitting on the sidelines time and time again. While the MCL32 car itself is apparently to both Vandoorne and teammate Alonso's liking, the drawbacks on the engine side have left the drivers up to 30km/h down on their rivals. Honda will take time to find its feet once again, with the bigger worry for the team being the strained relationship with its engine partner. If anything, having a rookie as prepared and capable as Vandoorne is simply one less thing to worry about and it could prove to be a measure of the Belgian if he can keep frustrations capped.

How will he fare in 2017?
Much will depend on whether McLaren-Honda can deliver the package but Vandoorne still has plenty of chance to prove his worth provided he doesn't get bogged down by simply pointing fingers at the car. In reality, the Belgian should be stepping up as its next great youngster, following in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton (2007) and Kimi Raikkonen (2001). However, pre-season has caused such scepticism surrounding McLaren, it is difficult to see Vandoorne enjoying a first full year with the team comparable to either of the aforementioned names. However, with a direct comparison in two-time champion Fernando Alonso, Vandoorne has a perfect target to prove his worth and show his lofty reputation isn't mere hyperbole.


Esteban Ocon

His journey to F1
Like Vandoorne, Ocon arrives in F1 having accumulated some impressive credentials in junior formulae. After two years in Formula Renault, he moved up to the FIA European Formula 3 series in 2014 and won the title as a rookie before repeating the feat in his first year of GP3. Earning himself Mercedes Junior status after financial pressures saw him slip off the Lotus F1 programme, the association subsequently landed him the chance to make his F1 debut in place of Rio Haryanto at Manor, where his efforts over the ensuing six races caught the eye of Force India for 2017.

How will he fare in the Australian Grand Prix?
Ocon looks most likely to finish as the top rookie in Australia on Sunday. His talent has been in evidence throughout his time in junior single-seaters, most notably his F3 title win against a certain Max Verstappen. Furthermore, he stood out during his stint with Manor, the performances enough to leapfrog then-teammate Pascal Wehrlein in the Mercedes junior pecking order. Through testing, Force India was able to run lap after lap without too many issues, leaving Ocon comfortable by the end of testing despite losing a day to third driver Alfonso Celis Jr. The Frenchman had a knowing smile on his face when he told reporters Force India still had time in its pocket, giving him high hopes for Melbourne. A first F1 point is very much on the table for Ocon from the off.

How will he fare in 2017?
With a proven package beneath him and the benefit of having at least some race experience, Ocon has loftier targets than most rookies but he appears capable of fulfilling them. From the go in Melbourne, Ocon can be a force to fight for points, perhaps even taking a podium if the cards fall Force India's way as they did in Monaco and Baku last year when Perez reached the rostrum. If Ocon does that, it would surely be an unintended kick for the departed Hulkenberg, who still lacks a top-three finish in F1 and it could even leave Valtteri Bottas – with his one year deal at Mercedes - looking over his shoulder too.


Lance Stroll

His journey to F1
Stroll's junior career has snowballed remarkably quickly. Though his backing from billionaire father Lawrence is much publicised, the Canadian teenager has nonetheless worked hard to forge a more reputable image on track. Stroll is the first driver to make it to F1 after starting in Formula 4, an initiative introduced by FIA president Jean Todt. Stroll won the Italian F4 title in 2014 before spending two years in F3, becoming its youngest ever champion last year. This was complemented by an intensive F1 test programme with Williams, conducting running in its 2014-spec car and racking up multiple seasons' worth of mileage before claiming a race seat with the British team for the coming season. It all adds up to make Stroll one of F1's best-prepared rookies in recent years despite his otherwise scant experience in racing conditions.

How will he fare in the Australian Grand Prix?
Stroll endured a very patchy pre-season. For all of the running that he completed last year with Williams, the step up to the 2017 car and the extra physicality it offered gave the Canadian a steep learning curve - too steep, in fact. Stroll suffered three crashes in the opening week of testing, forcing Williams to cut short its running on two days and abandon a third altogether. While Stroll's second week was less eventful and allowed him to make up for the lost time, it has still caused concerns about his readiness to race.

How will he fare in 2017?
Stroll is tricky to judge judge over the entire year at this stage. His pre-season issues may cause concern for Melbourne, as it will be the first time he is in a race setting. But he proved throughout his junior career that he does have speed and isn't simply 'another pay driver'. In fact he can become one of F1's biggest names, and has plenty of time on his side barring any major disasters in the first year, while team-mate Felipe Massa seems happy to offer some mentoring from the other side of the garage. Furthermore, he is advantaged by having the competitive Williams FW40, though this means he will be expected to score points fairly regularly. All in all, a lot of pressure for someone so young and inexperienced.



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