Race Weekend Central

F1 Midweek: How Are the 2021 Rookies Performing in 2022?

In the 2021 season, there were three rookie drivers in the 20 driver Formula One field: Haas F1 Team’s Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin as well as Scuderia AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda.

Although all three drivers were able to retain their seats throughout the season, Mazepin was rather infamously let go from Haas early in 2022 after the fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With Mazepin out of the picture, just two remain from that rookie class in Formula 1.

Which is sort of funny in effect, because the two really could not have more different backgrounds. Schumacher, as the son of Michael, was always going to have doors open for him. That doesn’t mean he was guaranteed to go through them, but having that name and the connections the Schumacher family has in the sport absolutely helped him get looks to showcase his talent. In 2019, Schumacher signed with the Ferrari Driving Academy because of course he did, and he backed up that signing with an F3 and F2 championship in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

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Tsunoda, obviously, couldn’t be much further away. A standout in Japan and a champion in the F4 championship in that country for Honda, Tsunoda caught the eye of Honda partner Red Bull and parlayed a standout third place in F2 in 2020 to move up to F1 in 2021. Tsunoda’s progression as a junior driver was very impressive because, unlike many of the drivers he raced against, he had no experience going in at any of the European tracks that make up those calendars.

There’s not much to gleam from Schumacher’s rookie season, between the woefully horrible Haas he was given and an unreliable teammate that spent his time either seconds behind or spinning out. Schumacher trounced Mazepin 11-3 in the 14 races where both had classified finishes. At AlphaTauri, Tsunoda spent much of the year being well behind veteran teammate Pierre Gasly, being outscored in points 111 to 32 and outqualified in all but one grand prix.

Both showed a lot of progression near the end of their rookie seasons. Tsunoda came alive at Abu Dhabi in the final race of the year, outqualifying Gasly and making a crazy move in the closing lap shootout to finish fourth. Schumacher didn’t have the car to do much, but to his credit, he was beginning to compete with and even beat Nicholas Latifi in the Williams in the latter half of the year.

But now, it seems both drivers have regressed in their sophomore season, and both may be liable to losing their rides. The Achille’s heel of being the son of arguably the greatest driver of all time is that there are enormous expectations that come with that, and Schumacher has not met them. The German has been outqualified 6-2 by the returning Kevin Magnussen, a driver who hadn’t been in an F1 car for over a year prior to the final preseason test sessions.

Schumacher has had quite a bit of bad luck this season, including this past weekend where a mechanical problem took the young driver out very early. But those big zeros in both his season points and career points columns get larger with every single race, especially with Magnussen already having 15 points roughly one-third of the way into the season.

Tsunoda has had a much more hot-and-cold season so far. The AlphaTauri is clearly the most inconsistent car on the grid in 2022, with Gasly having just three finishes in points but one of them being a fifth at Monaco. Tsunoda has had a number of mechanical issues, but also has only had three points finishes so far. But he’s also made some rookie mistakes; just look at his DNF this past weekend in Canada.

Tsunoda’s problem is just how solid Alex Albon has been in the Williams. Albon has very quietly put together an extremely good resume in 2022, perhaps most memorably when he was able to make a single set of hard compound tires last almost the entire race in Australia en route to finishing 10th in the worst car of 2022. The Thailand driver has finished in the top 15 in all but two of nine races this year, far outclassing Latifi.

Albon still has some sort of relationship with Red Bull, even though he officially does not during this year under contract with Williams due to the latter’s close relationship with Mercedes. It would seem weird if Albon finishes out this season without getting some kind of offer from Red Bull after his impressive year (at least so far), but with Sergio Perez resigning with Red Bull’s main team and the AlphaTauri boss saying this past weekend that Gasly would “100%” be back with the team, suddenly Tsunoda is the most vulnerable driver in a rock-solid Red Bull lineup.

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One option Red Bull has would be to simply punt until 2024, where it’s hard to imagine Gasly will stay under contract with the organization after being passed up once again for the main Red Bull team ride. But 2024 is already shaping up into an interesting silly season, with the trio of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso not getting any younger (Alonso turns 41 years old next month) and with the F2 refrigerator in serious need of restocking. Case in point: the F2 points leader currently, Felipe Drugovich, has had a very impressive season so far. But that’s after finishing ninth and eighth in points respectively in the last two years, with many of the drivers ahead of him now either in F1 or serving as an F1 test driver. The sudden Red Bull Junior Team suspension of Juri Vips due to saying a racial slur in a video game livestream on June 21 is not going to help matters.

As far as Schumacher goes, Antonio Giovinazzi is literally right there in the Ferrari system, and like Schumacher, Giovinazzi has a bit of leverage, except his is more as an F1-caliber Italian driver. He also was fairly even or maybe a bit better than Kimi Raikkonen last season at Alfa Romeo, which still carries weight, and probably still would be with that outfit if they hadn’t started to keep themselves more at arm’s length with their engine supplier. Literally just type Schumacher’s name in Google, and there are plenty of news articles that will pop up already linking Giovinazzi to his seat if the German continues to underperform his equipment.

Perhaps the reason for both drivers still not breaking out with results matching their teammates is the new car. The new regulations have brought a whole host of new and unique issues to teams this year. Still, having the lone actual rookie in the field this year (Zhou Guanyu) arguably outclassing both, considering his level of experience in any kind of F1 car, is not a good look. These two drivers came in together, but they’re going to have to be careful to ensure they don’t both leave together.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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