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.