Plucky driver gets a chance on on the grid, against the better judgement of most. But someone at that midfield or struggling back-marker team has seen a spark, something different that might, just might, lift them up the grid, snagging those crucial points and prize monies – thus kickstarting that driver’s top-level tenure in the process too.
A pervasive attitude that the best person to do the job is someone who did it before appears to swirl around the F1 paddock, resulting in drivers who would probably have been jettisoned long ago in a past era now hanging around grand prix racing for much longer.
Add in the fact that budgets that can only be produced through vast conglomerates have been required in recent years, and that teams want to use certain drivers as political pawns. The result is that those actually achieving the results at lower levels get left behind.
Then-F3000 contender Jean Alesi was bumped into an F1 seat in 1989 by virtue of Michele Alboreto disagreeing with Ken Tyrrell on which cigarette brand should adorn the latter’s grand prix car.
Eddie Jordan, as a result of his Camel links, loaned the Frenchman to Tyrrell for the French GP at Paul Ricard, brazenly betting against the F1 boss that his young charge would beat his experienced new team-mate Jonathan Palmer at the first time of asking. That he did, finishing fourth on his debut.
“When you have a chance, you just have to take it,” Alesi told Autosport in 2015. “In 1989 I had the chance, in F3000 and then in F1, and I just said to myself, ‘Go for it’.”
The rest for Alesi was racing history, but someone who hasn’t even been given even one chance at the top table is Nyck de Vries. The young Dutchman appeared to have much potential after winning the 2019 F2 title, but from there his career seemed to stall by there being simply no seats available on the F1 grid.
He again proved himself by joining Mercedes and winning the Formula E drivers’ title this year, and it looked like his F1 dream might have been relit – with either Williams or Alfa Romeo.
However Red Bull, despite strenuous denials, appears to have placed Alex Albon – a driver who hasn’t won one junior single-seater title never mind two, and has hardly set the world alight in F1 – at Grove as way of redressing Merc’s political hold through its junior drivers and engines. Then it transpired Alfa Romeo might prefer F2 veteran Guanyou Zhou’s millions to de Vries’ obvious talent, and he was denied again.
Also blocking the way was another veteran, Valtteri Bottas, whose performance level has gradually dipped over the last couple of seasons but is still seen as a more capable guarantee of success than a lightning quick young driver who has swept all before them in recent times.
Another driver who seemed a shoo-in for a possible F1 drive at one point was Callum Ilott. A Ferrari Academy member since 2017, last year’s GP2 runner-up has had F1 car experience with both Alfa Romeo and the Scuderia.
A seat at Alfa, for both the current season and maybe next, looked a possibility but to no avail. As well as Räikkönen and Ferrari’s resident Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi staying on despite a lack of headline results, Ilott suffered the same fate as De Vries when the Hinwil-based squad went for experience and money over speed and results.
He ultimately turned to IndyCar as a way to carry on a top-level racing career, despite appearing to have more talent than many currently on the grid. It’s a fledgling outfit, Juncos Hollinger Racing, much in the spirit of F1 teams of yesterday, which has plumped for Ilott – he has no IndyCar experience, but plenty of talent shown through results in other series to be worth taking a chance.
Of course, the Alfa Romeo name is ultimately a sponsorship moniker of Sauber, a team that has given plenty of rookies an opportunity through the modern F1 era. Twenty years ago, it promoted two on the bounce.
Räikkönen may now be the outgoing old hand who has ironically been blocking an Alfa Romeo seat, but F1’s now most experienced driver had had barely any single-seater running at all compared to his competitors when he made his debut with the Swiss team.
“I didn’t know how the cars were, and I’d never even seen an F1 car live,” he told Motor Sport earlier this year. “I couldn’t prepare, even if I’d had a month or two it wouldn’t have helped. It was go there and see what happens.”
However, seven out of ten wins in Formula Renault UK, plus that impressive debut F1 test that caught the the attention of none other than Michael Schumacher, persuaded the Swiss team to sign him up for 2001 and led to a fabled grand prix career.
World champions Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen are all now being shaded by their young team-mates – time to call it quits?
The next season, Sauber again promoted a young up-and-coming driver without much experience, Felipe Massa, who of course nearly beat Lewis Hamilton to the drivers’ title in 2008, six years after his unlikely debut.
Similar to Ilott, young Dane Christian Lundgaard has decided to look away from the grand prix scene. Despite being an F1 junior with Alpine, the team doesn’t show an inclination to place its own junior drivers in the blue cars, instead opting for Fernando Alonso (who is admittedly still delivering the results) and Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon.
The Scandinavian was picked up by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this year for a race at the Indianapolis road course, and he immediately repaid their faith by qualifying fourth on his debut.
The team decided to sign him up for a full 2022 season and now looks to be seeing IndyCar as a way to further his quest for a life in motor sport.
RLLR boss Bobby Rahal told to The Race recently that he views the landscape of IndyCar today as much like F1 in the ’80s, when more drivers were given a chance.
“First off, I think IndyCar is what Formula 1 used to be, to a large degree,” he said.
“Clearly we don’t have the politics. There’s a lot of things that don’t exist in the IndyCar paddock that exist in the Formula 1 paddock.
“You look at how many really good guys are in F2 who maybe are frustrated now because they can’t make that next step, and yet they’ve kind of proven their abilities.
“F1 teams should be falling over themselves to try and prise Piastri away – but where are they?”
“I think that, if I’m a young guy in Europe and I look at the potentials, I think the potential for my career is much greater here in IndyCar than it is there.”
Oscar Piastri might soon end up feeling the same. Also an Alpine Academy driver, the Australian has dominated on the way up, winning the FRenault Cup in 2019, F3 Championship in 2020 and currently leads the F2 Championship. F1 teams should be falling over themselves to try and prise him away from Alpine’s dozy grasp – but where are they?
Some appear to be in search of past glory, signing drivers for a sprinkling of the magic that previously delivered wins and titles. Aston Martin’s Otmar Szafnauer has praised the detailed debriefs that Sebastian Vettel offers; Alpine boss Davide Brivio says that Alonso’s pushiness has been “very positive”. At Alfa Romeo, Fred Vasseur said that Räikkönen’s experience fighting for championships has helped the team’s development and that he’s expecting Bottas to help the team move up the grid.
Team bosses will also remember the occasions when promising young drivers couldn’t adapt quickly enough to F1: Stoffel Vandoorne who arrived at McLaren after winning Formula 4, Formula Renault 2.0 and GP2 championships but was dominated by Fernando Alonso during their two seasons together in dismal and difficult cars; or Bruno Senna, rated highly by his uncle Ayrton, but who couldn’t outshine Pastor Maldonado at Williams.
As Eddie Jordan’s F1 squad showed, however, giving young talent a chance can produce spectacular results. It of course gave a debut to Michael Schumacher in 1991, and Eddie Irvine in ’93, whose spunky first drive at Suzuka so upset Ayrton Senna as to earn a physical confrontation.
The same Silverstone team is now under the guise of Aston Martin and essentially a midfield plodder. Apparently on the basis of PR it maintains Sebastian Vettel, whose talent long ago appears to have gone cold but still chugs round on the back of glories achieved eight years ago.
Wouldn’t the place at this middling team be better served a new ace, rather than an over the hill hero?
It seems a penchant for past F1 experience, a desperate need for exorbitant budget and the political wranglings of the bigger teams will prevent this from happening for some time yet.