Sergio Perez Pestor Maldonado Paul di Resta Jerome D'Ambrosio

Since testing for the new Formula One season started in Valencia, Spain, at the start of February the teams have racked up well over 100,000 kilometres of practice. Among those lapping up the work were the four ‘new boys’ on the grid for 2011…

In today’s F1 world any newcomer to the racing scene usually has armfuls of experience in a Grand Prix car, either as a reserve driver for one of the teams or in the relentless grind of testing before the new season. Our 2011 quartet are no exceptions to that rule.

Take Sergio Pérez: at 21 he is the youngest of the four, and the first Mexican driver to grace the Grand Prix scene for three decades. In 2011 he will make his F1 racing debut here in Melbourne for the Sauber team – but he has already experienced being in a Formula 1 car in front of a crowd of more than 150,000. How so?

Pedro Rodriguez, 1968 Ricardo Rodriguez, 1962
The enormously talented Rodríguez were Mexico’s hottest F1 prospects, although both would suffer a tragic fate…

We have to remember that Pérez comes from a racing-mad nation which produced two of the more glamorous figures in the Grand Prix world back in the Sixties. Pedro (pictured above left) and Ricardo (pictured above right) Rodríguez were brothers, two years apart in age, whose exploits with Ferrari in particular could and perhaps should have led to greater things.

Pedro, born in 1940, competed in 55 Grands Prix between 1963 and 1971, winning two of them: the first round of 1967 in a Cooper-Maserati, and the Belgian race of 1970 in a BRM. Ricardo, born in 1942, made his F1 debut before his senior sibling – and started from the front row in a Ferrari at Monza in 1961.

Sadly Ricardo, destined for a full-time career with Ferrari, was killed in practice for his home Grand Prix in Mexico City in 1962. When there was no Ferrari entry he was a guest driver in a privateer Lotus that went out of control on the circuit’s infamous Peralta curve. The Rodríguez mystique was enhanced in the most unfortunate way when Pedro, who won the 1968 Le Mans 24-Hour classic in a Ford GT40, perished in a sports prototype event in Germany in 1971.

Their natural successor, almost a generation later, was Héctor Rebaque, who contested 41 Grands Prix for Hesketh, Lotus and Brabham (pictured) between 1977 and 1981, but Pérez is the first Mexican since that era to make it to the top. To celebrate his arrival in F1, Sauber sent a car to his home town of Guadalajara for Sergio to lay on a demonstration – and a crowd put at between 150,000 and 200,000 filled the city streets on February 26 to greet him.

  Hector Rebaque, 1980
After Héctor Rebaque’s departure, it’s been 30 years since Mexico last had a Formula 1 driver to cheer for

“I have never experienced something like this before with so many people cheering me,” said an overwhelmed Pérez . “I’m proud to be Mexican and I’m proud to receive all this support.” Runner-up in GP2 in 2010, Pérez  completed his final test in the new Sauber C30 in Barcelona in mid-March and said “I feel ready and I can’t wait to race.”

Sergio will be helped to feel at home when he joins fellow-Latin American Pastor Maldonado on the Melbourne grid. Maldonado is the man who pipped him to the GP2 title in 2010, setting a category record of six straight feature race victories in the process. ‘Pastorcito’, as his family calls him, is the first Venezuelan in F1 since Johnny Cecotto, whose Grand Prix career was ended by leg injuries sustained in the 1984 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch.

Johnny Cecotto Cecotto (pictured right), born in 1956, won world titles on two wheels in the 350cc and 750cc categories in 1975 and 1978 before moving to four wheels in the early Eighties. By 1984 he had joined a team called Toleman – who had a young Brazilian by the name of Ayrton Senna in their line-up. In all, Johnny contested 18 Grands Prix and scored just one World Championship point at Long Beach, California, in 1983.

Now Maldonado, 25, joins Williams alongside yet another South American, Rubens Barrichello of Brazil. “I just want to do my very best, to be as close to the top as I can and to get the maximum out of the car,” says Pastor – and he has already clocked up hundreds of laps in the new FW33 in Spain to help him fulfil that ambition.

The other two ‘new boys’ come from small countries with long and distinguished F1 pedigrees. Paul di Resta, 24, is with Force India after winning the 2010 German Touring Car title; he is the latest in a long line of Scots to grace the World Championship, the most famous being the great Jim Clark, World Champion in 1963 and 1965, and Sir Jackie Stewart, title-winner in 1969-71-73. More recently David Coulthard, now a TV commentator, was a two-time winner right here at Albert Park for McLaren in 1997 and 2003.

Paul di Resta was last year's DTM champion Paul di Resta in testing
Di Resta has exchanged one Mercedes-Benz for another, jumping from the DTM series to Force India

Di Resta, who says the fearsome German Touring Car machines are “like single-seaters with a roof”, logged 111 laps in the Force India F1 car on his first full day of testing in Valencia and has added hundreds more since then. “What I want to do is to have a positive approach, finish, be consistent and contribute to the team’s overall performance,” he says.

Belgium may not have produced a World Champion, but Jacky Ickx and 1989 Australian GP winner Thierry Boutsen between them racked up 279 Grand Prix starts. Ickx won eight times, six for Ferrari and twice for Brabham, in the late 1960s but is perhaps most famous for his performance at Le Mans in 1969.

Jacky Ickx, 1970 Thierry Boutsen, 1990
Flying the Belgian flag: D’Ambrosio will be the nineteenth Belgian to compete in F1, following in the footsteps of his race-winning compatriots Jacky Ickx (above left) and Thierry Boutsen (above right).

Sauntering across the track in protest at what he saw as the dangerous traditional sprint start, Ickx was last away – and brought his GT40 through to win by what was then the smallest margin in the great race’s history. Now Jérôme D’Ambrosio, with the Marussia Virgin team, is the nineteenth Belgian to test the Grand Prix waters.

D’Ambrosio, 25, comes off three hard-working seasons in GP2 – and at the final Barcelona test before flying to Melbourne he had to do all four days’ work when Jerome D'Ambrosio in testing teammate Timo Glock underwent an emergency appendectomy.

“I know that taking to the track for the first time in Melbourne is going to be something really quite special,” says D’Ambrosio – and you can bet he speaks for all four ‘new boys’ who will finally make the switch from testing grind to Australian grid next week.

[Original images via F1-Facts, Flickr, LAT, Sutton Images, The Cahier Archive]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.