Is Piastri having the best rookie season since Hamilton?

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Oscar Piastri's deeply impressive rookie campaign has left many
hailing the McLaren driver as a star in the making. Piastri's
abilities shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who watched his
junior career. Impressing early on has been a common trait for the
Australian, who won titles as a rookie in Formula 3 and Formula 2.
But the step up to comes with a whole new list of
challenges, such as directing the set-up of the most complex car
he's driven and dealing with the attention of having his abilities
scrutinised by media and fans alike. During the season as a whole,
he has lacked performance compared to team-mate Lando Norris. But
an excuse, at least for the time being, can be found in the fact
that the latter boasts four more seasons of experience. Norris
endured a frustrating weekend in Qatar, feeling that he should've
taken pole position in Friday's qualifying session and Saturday's
Sprint qualifying outing. However, mistakes on both laps
destabilised his efforts, with Piastri taking the Sprint Qualifying
top spot before successfully grabbing the win despite pressure from
behind – suggesting that Norris, who has been labelled as one of
the strongest drivers on the grid, is being pushed in a fresh way.
The following day, Piastri converted his sixth-place starting
position into second place at the opening corner and held onto the
position until the end of the race to take the second podium of his
career. His speed this season has been unquestionable, and the
consistent streak of performances leads to the question being
asked; is this the best rookie campaign that Formula 1 has seen
since ? Arguably, Hamilton's debut F1 season could be
labelled as the greatest rookie season of all time as he went head
to head with Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen for the World
Championship, missing out by a single point. In the years that have
followed, there have been 55 rookie drivers in between the debuts
of Hamilton and Piastri. These include high-profile names such as
Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc,
to name a few. Piastri's measured approach all season has resulted
in very few mistakes, but his biggest one came in the Netherlands
when he pitched his car into the barrier during FP2. It was a
mistake that was always going to come this year and, compared to
other rookies in the field, his nose has been kept relatively clean
in spite of his pace. On top of that, he has been able to progress
alongside the recovery displayed by McLaren, who has developed its
car from a rear-of-the-grid competitor to a consistent podium
challenger in a matter of months. Out of the large crop of drivers
that have come between Hamilton and Piastri, the most successful
arrival has been Max Verstappen. The now three-time World Champion
debuted in 2015 at just 17 years of age and showed his flashes
early on, but with a lack of experience under his belt, there were
mistakes that were not totally surprising. Piastri entered his
first F1 campaign with an abundance of laps under his belt after
taking part in an extensive testing programme with Alpine during
his year on the sideline. It gifted him a baseline to build upon
this year and he's barely put a foot wrong. Despite being a fresh
name in F1, his pre-debut hype has left only a natural feeling by
seeing his name high up on the timing screen. Few will forget the
tussle that occurred between McLaren and Alpine for Piastri's
services before he even stepped behind the wheel at a race weekend.
It pushed the pressure and scrutiny to an all-time high for a
rookie, who was expected to show that he was the real deal. Piastri
hasn't let the F1 spotlight phase him. He has adopted a
conservative approach to a race weekend that has been evident all
year. His gap to Norris in the early stage of the weekend is often
quite large as he shies away from pushing the limit too early. But
when the lap times count, Piastri is on form and cuts the deficit
to Norris and even gets ahead of him on the timesheet – something
he achieved at the last three qualifying sessions across Qatar and
Japan [including Sprint Shootout]. It is true that the gap between
the pair grows again when it comes to the race. An area of weakness
that has been consistent with Piastri all year is his tyre
management, a factor that was largely dented in Qatar as drivers
could push hard amid the imposed 18-lap maximum stint length per
tyre set. Norris did appear to have stronger race pace throughout
and was told to hold his position in the latter stages of the race
in order to ensure a back-to-back double podium for the team. Race
management has been the largest deficit all year between the two
McLaren drivers, but experience is the biggest teacher for Piastri
to overcome that woe. McLaren Team Principal Andrea Stella spoke in
Japan of how Piastri's primary focus after the race was on the
19-second gap to Norris at the chequered flag rather than the glee
of scoring a podium in F1. The mature approach of always seeking to
better himself, even on his best days, has shown the qualities of a
competitor that can go far in F1. If this rookie campaign is his
starting point, who knows just how much success he can tally up
before his time in the sport is up. Whilst Hamilton's rookie season
remains the benchmark, you can't take away what Piastri is

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