On the subject of Jolyon Palmer

Someone said to me at the Renault launch that they did not think I was very enthusiastic about Jolyon Palmer. I was truly surprised. I have been impressed by Jolyon in 2014 and 2015, but it seems that this enthusiasm has not come across in print, even if I think it has.

It got me thinking. Formula 1 is a lot to do with hype and momentum. If drivers are seen to be the rising stars, they become the rising stars. Prophecies can become self-fulfilling… If their progress is solid but unspectacular, their reputation is unspectacular. They can only really be compared to their team-mates, but drivers are often team-mates when one has more experience than the other, so it is not always a fair comparison.

How much does this hype affect the way in which one reports on drivers? And is that something conscious or sub-conscious? Drivers who produce spectacular results in the junior formulae often enjoy momentum but then fail deliver in F1. No-one really knows why. Others, who did nothing much on the ladder to F1, flourish and score results far better than people expect.

Right now, people are excited about Max Verstappen and Stoffel Vandoorne. You can understand why. They have done great things and this seems to make them cooler than a driver who has worked his way up with solid progress. People who take multiple seasons to win titles are clearly less newsworthy than the instant heroes. But does that make them worse drivers? It is a complex thing to judge and often it boils down to opinions. Yes, there are statistics that provide a solid guide, but data does not always tell the full story.

Palmer is in F1 and I think he deserves to be there. To my mind, if you are good enough to be a GP2 champion, you ought to be good enough to race strongly in Formula 1. The list of champions says it all: Rosberg, Hamilton, Hülkenberg, Grosjean… and Pastor Maldonado. But then there are the Glocks, Pantanos, Leimers and Valsecchis, who never quite broke through in F1.

So let’s look at Jolyon.

He started out with all the advantages and disadvantages that having a famous father creates. It opens doors for any young driver, but at the same time, there is an assumption in racing circles that the son of a famous father is unlikely to be as good, and so they have more to prove. That is a common problem whether you are a Hill, a Villeneuve or a Rosberg. In Palmer’s case the situation was probably made worse because his early achievements were in series that were run by his father: Formula Palmer Audi and then Formula 2. The natural cynical F1 assumption is that the son of the series owner might be getting an advantage. That does not always happen. Sometimes it is the opposite. If Palmer had gone through a different route: Formula Renault, Formula 3 and so on, would he have created a better reputation? Probably he would have done…

So when he arrived in GP2 in 2011, it was without much hype. This had one important effect: the top GP2 teams were not really interested and that meant that he would have to work his way through the ranks, proving himself and thus getting into better teams. In the first year there were few major results. A change of team to iSport International in 2012, as team-mate to Marcus Ericsson, led to his first win, in the Sprint race at Monaco. That was good, but in the tough world of F1, a GP2 sprint race is a sprint race, the top eight on the grid are reversed. It undermines the success.

In 2013 he moved on to Carlin and was team-mate to Felipe Nasr. He won feature races in Hungary and Singapore. He finished seventh in the championship. That was good enough to attract the attention of DAMS and he joined the team in 2014, as a championship hopeful. And he delivered. He won four victories and took the title. You don’t do that if you’re not a good driver. Seven wins in GP2 is a better record than quite a few others who have arrived in F1.

Last year he did a decent job up against Pastor Maldonado in practice sessions for Lotus in F1. But that was Pastor. The good news (or bad news depending on what happens) is that in 2016 Jolyon will be up against Kevin Magnussen, who is deemed to have a special talent. If Jolyon beats him or matches him, he will suddenly be a star in the making. Can he do it?

I don’t know. This is one of the joys about motor racing, you never know what will happen, who will rise to a challenge and who will fade when you don’t expect it. It could be that Palmer will be the revelation of the season ahead, leaping out of the shadows and making people take notice.

I am keen to see what happens. I don’t believe, and never have believed, in cheering for a driver of one’s own nationality, unless there is good reason to do it, but I think Jolyon has done more than enough to be worth a promising write-up.

25 thoughts on “On the subject of Jolyon Palmer

  1. “Someone said to me at the Renault launch that they did not think I was very enthusiastic about Jolyon Palmer. I was truly surprised. I have been impressed by Jolyon in 2014 and 2015, but it seems that this enthusiasm has not come across in print, even if I think it has.”

    This is the difference between your reporting, and others’ “cheerleading” for a driver. I prefer reporting; the cheerleaders usually get found out in the end!

    I’m old enough to remember Dave Walker, a very successful F3 Lotus driver, promoted to F1 in 1971 by Colin Chapman and never really shining. Some of that was down to being dumped into the gas turbine car for some of the races, but in the few races where he had a chance to shine, he failed to shine enough and was soon dropped.

    I do wish Jolyon all the best for 2016 though – he’s arrived, and many never achieve that.

    1. how? they can’t hear you through tv. its probably worth cheering on results and track ability rather than just cheering like an american at anything 🙂

  2. Nice piece Joe. Its funny how people seem to file Palmer under “just another paydriver, took him too long to win in GP2” etc. while he really did a promising job at Lotus last year and while he does bring money, I think they would have liked to promote him (instead of Pastor?) anyway if they had the opportunity.

    This line up will certainly be one to watch for us. We saw how Magnussen was non too shabby against a Button, and now Palmer can show his mettle against him. I hope the car will allow them some really headline grabbing drives this year.

  3. It is often said ‘To make small fortune in motor racing, start with a large one!’
    ASFAIK Dr Jonathan Palmer has found a way to reverse that, he does a good job at my local Brands Hatch Circuit and the others he owns.
    So, good luck to Jolyon, we will soon see if he deserves the F1 seat, but his father has certainly earned it.
    Alas, I can think of many excellent drivers I met back in late 80’s and early 90’s, who never made it, even helped one great deal, to no avail.
    And few who had made it, even to F1, on more money then talent.
    Well, that’s the way it is, F1 could soon be playground just for Russian / Other billionare sons….
    Regards,
    Martin

  4. “I don’t believe, and never have believed, in cheering for a driver of one’s own nationality, unless there is good reason to do it”

    I like this phrase, if you’re on the UK or Germany where you produce a ton of F1 talent there’s really no reason to cheer for a specific driver. If you’re in Mexico like me… well, Checo might be the only competitive F1 driver we’re gonna have in quite some time, thats why people went nuts for him in his GP

  5. I just hope that both Magnussen and Palmer get the chance to show what they are capable of and it’s not buried due to Renault unreliability.

    In a similar vein, I think both Verstappen and Sainz have the opportunity to shine against the mothership as I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the 15 Ferrari gives the 16 Tag-Heuer a run for its money – and James Key seems a dab hand at putting together a car. Surprised that given Newey’s part time involvement with the race team that Key hasn’t been snatched by RBR.

  6. My concern about Magnussen is that McLaren would appear to have chosen Vandoorne over him. Was it a matter of timing or talent?

    1. Probably timing more than anything. Magnussen needs to be racing or he’ll be forgotten and Vandoorne needed a carrot to keep him on the McLaren books.

  7. Last year I enjoyed a day at the Palmersport experience run by Dr J Palmer. The highlight was the Palmer F3000 car which is probably as close to driving a real F1 car that a mere mortal can get. Sitting in the car in the pits, in a almost horizontal position looking down the nose at the front wheels was a real thrill. I spun the thing the first time I tried a quick lap and it only has a quarter of the power of a true F1 car.

    It gave me a new found respect for the skills of the F1 drivers and I was likely accessing 5% of what they do in a real F1 car. It gives me one more reason to get behind Jolyon this year.

    I hope this doesn’t break the rules as a plug Joe, my intent is pure enthusiasm.

  8. The presumption, if true, just shows that you do not have any Brit bias.

    One of the daftest things last year was the assumption that somehow Nico Rosberg was not good enough to be in the Mercedes. It seems pretty obvious that if it were not for Lewis’s skills, he would be a revered double world champion now.

    He then has a good run once the championship is over and the headlines switch to suggest Lewis no longer has an answer to Nico’s pressure. This undoubtedly comes from the bottom-feeders that are the bane of your professional life.

    It is so sad that their readership take it all in as being the truth. Perhaps this is the saddest aspect of the Internet age.

    1. Not really, look at the history books. Although, given the championship only started in 1950 and only got really professional with much more money involved towards the 80s, we’re really only in the second generation of past drivers, so will be interesting to see how the trend follows.

  9. Just picking up on the reference to Australian Dave Walker who won three British F3 Championships in 1970 (1) and 1971 (2) and the Monaco F3 race, he only raced the Lotus 56B Pratt & Whitney turbine F1 car once – in the 1971 Dutch Grand Prix when, after qualifying 22nd, he used the car’s 4wd to excellent effect and had made his way into the top 10 by lap 6 when he outbraked himself at Tarzan and crashed out. In a few non-championship races in 1971 and throughout 1972 he had a normal Lotus 72D as team mate to the 1972 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. He never qualified inside the top 10. His best World Championship result was to be classified 9th in the Spanish GP having run out of fuel three laps from the end while running 7th. His best non-championship result was 5th out of 12 starters/6 finishers in the 1972 non-championship Brazilian GP. He was dropped for the Italian GP and, although he was back for the USGP, at the end of the year he was replaced by a rather quick Swede having himself replaced another quick Swede. His F1 career was over while his racing career never recovered from serious injuries which he sustained in a road accident in the winter of 1972/73 although he picked up some F2 and F5000 drives here and there before retiring in 1975.

    1. Thanks Ian – I defer to your greater knowledge & memory (that’ll teach me to reply off the top of my head) – were you one of those who was surprised at his lack of success, or do you think it was just, compared to said Swedes ( especially Ronnie) he really had little chance?

      1. Apologies for late response but have been away on holiday in a place which last saw a proper motor race in 1960, won by Stirling Moss! Damian below is in my view correct to an extent say that Dave Walker was a ‘decent quick driver in the very best F3 Team’. However, I’m not sure that Dave was as good in the Type 56 as Emerson who ‘whooshed’ round Monza to finish 8th in the 1971 Italian GP, ‘only’ one lap behind winner Peter Gethin’s BRM. Unlike most of the other leading F3 lights of the time (Jody Scheckter, James Hunt, Roger Williamson) who made it to F1, Dave had no chance to make his way there via F2 or F5000. ‘The Dood’ is absolutely right – although I’m not so sure about his typo at the end of his first paragraph. In F3 Dave Walker was a hard and aggressive driver who had a habit of upsetting many people. I can still recall witnessing Carlos Pace beside himself with rage at DW’s antics at Mallory Park. Ian Ashley has not forgotten some of the skirmishes which he had in Formula Ford with DW in 1969. I was not surprised that Dave failed to make it in F1, partly for the reasons given by Mike and Damian but also because his achievements in F3 and Formula Ford owed as much to aggression as his (not inconsiderable) ability.

    2. Dave Walker had the uncomfortable experience of being promoted straight out of F3 and straight into F1 on the urging of Lotus TM Peter Warr, and then being vilified by Warr because he was out of his death.

      About 15 years ago I ran into Dave, quite by chance, in Queensland. He had a boat chartering business and had lost any interest in racing.

  10. I remember Dave Walker too, and although he was the King of F3, i rather think that he was a decent quick driver in the very best F3 Team, Lotus, and that when he was pitched into the Lotus F1 Team, he suffered as many No 2 Lotus drivers did, by not having the best equipment, Type 56 aside, as i think he showed as well in that as Emerson Fittipaldi did.
    Jolyon’s Dad was a very good F3 driver, and F2 as well. He did have the best car with the Factory Ralt-Honda, but he also had people like Mike Thackwell to contend with, and Thackwell was probably the best F2 driver this side of Jochen Rindt.
    So i’d say JP Jnr deserves a chance, and i hope he does at least as well as his Dad, who was a decent driver and all round good bloke too!

  11. Hi Joe,

    Timo Glock with 91 F1 starts reached the podium 3 times (2 x 2nd, 1 x 3rd), Nico Hulkenberg with 94 F1 starts never reached the podium.
    For Jolyon Palmer’s sake I hope he will not repeat what happened to the very talented Mike Thackwell.

    Greetz, Glenn

  12. I’ve always thought that the key factor in working out talent among GP2 champions is the time spent in the series before winning the championship.

    Therefore, the great are those who won the series in their first year (Rosberg, Hamilton, Hulkenberg). Those who aren’t so great are those who spend a long time in the series before winning, including Pantano (champion after 7 years), Valsecchi (5 years), Leimer and Maldonado (4 years + GP2 Asia).

    There are a few interesting cases in the middle: Glock won in his second year as did Stoffel Vandoorne; Grosjean returned after F1 and won in his third (complete) year.

    Based on this, Jolyon – winner after four years – has something to prove in order to move out of being bracketed alongside Leimer and Maldonado.

  13. It’s interesting to think about how much psychology goes into what is thought of a driver. There are all kinds of factors outside pure driving ability that affect the perception of a driver’s ability. These factors can be manipulated (consciously, or otherwise) by positive and negative reports, group think, etc. I’d like to think that the teams and engineers can get to the heart of the matter with data, but I’m sure they’re faced with other pressures and biases, too.

    But, then take the conversation to the public and you’re faced with all kinds of biases (nationality, team loyalty, personal likeability, etc., etc.). I often find it amusing when people think they know better than team principles, engineers, et al.

    I don’t know if I’m stating what I mean very well. Hopefully it’s enough to get my point across.

    ps. There’s also throwing in the whole apples and oranges of comparing drivers in different cars. I mean, how do you really compare a Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes to a Will Stevens in a Manor?

  14. Possibly a result of today’s “with us or against us” culture. So anything less than Palmer cheerleading can be interpreted as disdain.

    If I remember correctly you simply stated the facts – he has been set on because he comes with some money, and he has previous experience of the team in addition to being a champion of GP2. We shall see how he does – or something roughly similar to that.

    Too much straight talking there. You must have an agenda!!!

  15. ‘Drivers who produce spectacular results in the junior formulae often enjoy momentum but then fail to deliver in F1. No-one really knows why.’

    The junior formulae, where there’s a reasonable degree of equality of machinery, enables a driver to clearly demonstrate that he/she has mastered the process of racing.

    A one-make series run centrally provides the optimum environment for talent spotting – its easy when the cars are the same. 100% driver contribution to success.

    But move up the ladder, and if you are not in the right team, your chances of winning are reduced substantially. 50% driver contribution to success.

    Move up to F1 and the complex technical / prototype engineering environment will mask even the most talented driver. We can then find the public adopting a sometimes negative view of a brilliant driver, simply because he couldn’t afford to get into a winning team.

    Its a cruel world – especially for that driver who, having achieved his life’s ambition of driving in F1 may never win a race again! 25% driver contribution to success.

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