If you’ve missed the cascade of criticism that Jolyon Palmer has been subjected to in the last few months you must be both blind and deaf. While social media may have come to a pretty damning conclusion about his talent or lack of it, the British driver must have done something right to have retained his Renault drive in 2017?
Last year Palmer’s only points came from a tenth place in Malaysia, although he was on for tenth in Hungary too before an inexplicable spin meant that he finished the race in 12th. That kind of costly mistake appears all too frequently in Palmer’s F1 record. He had five retirements in 2016, with two chalked down to mechanical issues and the others the result of incidents and crashes.
In comparison team-mate Kevin Magnussen also suffered two retirements down to problems with the car, and failed to finish on two other occasions. Magnussen’s best finish was a seventh place at the Russian Grand Prix and the Dane finished two places higher than Palmer in the championship. Magnussen has an extra year’s F1 experience and he didn’t wipe the floor with his British team-mate. For Renault’s first year back in F1 it was unlikely that the drivers were going to wring out spectacular results from the car.
It is Palmer’s results in 2017 up against Nico Hulkenberg that have sparked the most criticism. Over the season so far, of the races that he has crossed the line Palmer has an average finishing position of 14th. Hulkenberg’s average finishing position is ninth. While Palmer is still languishing with no points in 20th in the championship Hulkenberg’s points hauls in the last three races have put him up to 11th in the standings. The best Palmer has achieved is an underwhelming 13th. Even though it’s worth remembering that Hulkenberg is a very highly rated driver, Palmer’s showing against him has been particularly poor.
Palmer hasn’t always struggled at the back of the grid. He was GP2 (now Formula 2) champion in 2014 with the DAMS team, comprehensively beating team-mate Stephane Richelmi. But it took Palmer four years and four teams to win the title, and in the preceding years it was Palmer who was finishing well behind his team-mates. He wouldn’t be the first driver to find success in the feeder formulas before struggling to make it in F1. For every Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Hulkenberg or Romain Grosjean there’s a Giorgio Pantano, Pastor Maldonado or Fabio Leimer, who for whatever reason just don’t manage to thrive in the cut and thrust world of F1. Maybe Palmer is just destined for the second list of names.
If anything, the way that the media has ripped apart Palmer’s performance this year just highlights the level of talent in F1 in 2017. In years gone by there was always plenty of drivers that didn’t have the potential to be the next Lewis Hamilton, so called ‘pay drivers’, bringing more money with them than the others. But over the last couple of years, perhaps with the exception of Williams’ Lance Stroll, there has been a move away from purely pay drivers, with the likes of Pascal Wehrlein and Estaban Ocon taking up seats which traditionally might have been sold. Like those before him, Palmer brings a substantial amount of money to his team although the idea of a British pay driver upsets the idealistic view of the poor but plucky Brit that became even more widespread after Hamilton’s success. Palmer is by no means the worst driver to ever have competed in F1, but he is the first in a while to have come under quite so much criticism, and from the British fans themselves.
Whatever the reason why he’s incited so much media negativity, Palmer is unlikely to keep his seat beyond 2017 if his results don’t improve. If the rumour mill turns out to be right and Fernando Alonso is looking to move to Renault for 2018 then Palmer could well be out on his ear.