Days like last Tuesday are filled with optimism and excitement for the future. That is quite right, but will the people who are so excited about the announcement be so enthusiastic about whichever rookie it is when the season gets rough? Too often, the answer is no.
Immediate pressure to perform is a problem in every form of motorsport these days, and in other sports too. Indycar is better than F1 in that drivers are less likely to find themselves out on their ear without being given a fair chance, at least when money is not a factor. However, that does not mean that journalists, bloggers and fans are not frequently too harsh on drivers in the early stages of their career.
When Josef Newgarden was announced at Sarah Fisher's team during the last off-season, many people were talking of him as “the next big American star” of Indycar, yet a year previously they had been giving the same tag to JR Hildebrand.
The baptism of fire that was JR's debut season provided a perfect illustration of how people – whether they be fans, bloggers, journalists or fellow drivers – can be way too harsh and judgemental. It is not just the way that people were far too quick to say that he choked in the 500, without taking into account the almost impossible situation he was placed in, but the comments throughout the rest of the season. In Milwaukee, after a couple of rough weekends immediately following the 500, one of the commentators said that JR's drive could be in danger, which was strongly rebuffed on twitter by Panther team boss John Barnes.
That was probably the low point in terms of people being too harsh, but during the 2011/12 off-season, when people were mentioning the drivers they thought would be the stars over the next few years, it was noticeable that many people had stopped mentioning JR. He was basically being judged, not only for the impossible situation he had been placed in in the 500, and for the inevitable mistakes that any rookie makes, but also for his team's weaknesses. Yet surely the fact that he had run strongly enough to almost win his first 500 should have meant that he should have continued to be included in such lists. In most cases, these were not journalists or commentators who are more likely to lean towards sensationalism like the incident previously mentioned, but bloggers and fans.
What JR experienced in his rookie year was exceptional, but the tendency that many people have to judge drivers too quickly also befell Josef to a lesser degree. While opinions over the big incident of his year, the start at Long Beach, were split and he probably received more support than JR had after the 500, and he was not criticised quite so loudly, there were still rumblings on Twitter after his season tailed off after the initially promising start.
There are two main issues that become clear in both cases – firstly, that too much is expected too soon of rookies in terms of consistency and not making mistakes, and secondly, people judging drivers for the weaknesses of their teams.
The first is a fairly clear cut thing, because really it is unfair to expect the same level of consistency from a rookie or a second year driver as from a veteran, but yet all too often, people judge them in the same way.
On the second issue, it is often harder to separate the driver's performance from that of their team, but it is clear that both JR and Josef were affected by being in a single car team. Single car teams can work well, as proven by BHA and also the team which is now SPM, but everything needs to run smoother for things to work than with a two car team, and when things get tough it is harder for a single car team to dig themselves out of a hole than a team with multiple cars, because they do not have additional sets of feedback to see where they might be going wrong. Panther also had ingrained problems on road and street courses, and as JR was seen as stronger on twisties while in Indy Lights, this can not really be laid at his door.
It is not just a matter of not judging rookies too harshly, though, it is a case of being more supportive when things get tough. If everyone who gets excited at a promising rookie being confirmed in a drive was supportive when things get tough, the consensus of opinion would be less likely to put pressure on the rookie in question.
If everyone thinks a bit more before judging a young driver, they will not feel as much pressure, and are less likely to make mistakes because of that pressure. Yes, the responsibility of not putting pressure on drivers lies primarily with their teams, and then the media, but it is naïve to believe that drivers are not aware of fan opinion, and also fan opinion does sometimes affect what the media say.
So when Tristan inevitably goes through a tough spell at some point this season, I hope everyone will remember how pleased they were when he got the drive, and give the support he needs instead of being far too quick to judge or write him off if he has a difficult year.