F1 testing: Bottas fastest on day 2 despite more Mercedes problems

Valtteri Bottas ended the second day of pre-season testing in Bahrain with the fastest time, despite more mechanical problems afflicting Mercedes and their customer Aston Martin.

Bottas set his pacesetting lap of a 1:30.289s late in the afternoon session, on a run on the softest C5 tyres. However, Bottas lost a considerable amount of running earlier in the session due to an issue with his car’s floor, which compounded the gearbox problems that held him back yesterday.

Similar Mercedes gearbox issues stopped Sebastian Vettel from getting any meaningful running with Aston Martin. The German managed just six laps in the morning session before his car began a lengthy spell on jacks in the garage. Vettel did return to the track before the end of the session, but only recorded four more laps before handing over to Lance Stroll for the afternoon.

Courtesy of Aston Martin F1 Team

Lewis Hamilton also had a troubled day of testing for Mercedes. The defending champion drove in the morning but spun into the gravel towards the end of the session and brought out the red flag. He ended the day 15th fastest, only ahead of Vettel.

Not all the Mercedes-powered teams had problems today, however, with McLaren continuing the strong pace displayed yesterday. Daniel Ricciardo was one of the early pacesetters and topped the morning session, while Lando Norris was quickest for a while in the afternoon before ultimately ending the day fourth behind Bottas, Pierre Gasly and Stroll.

Alpine also had a solid day with Fernando Alonso at the wheel of the A521. The Spaniard was second-quickest behind Ricciardo in the morning session, and logged a total of 128 laps by the end of the day. He also completed a comprehensive run plan that included testing three different floor configurations and two different engine covers.

Courtesy of Alpine Racing Media

Following Esteban Ocon’s 129 laps from day one, Alpine are now leading the way in terms of combined mileage heading into the final day of testing. Meanwhile, all four Mercedes-powered teams have the fewest total laps, with Williams on 215 followed by McLaren (195), Aston Martin (177) and Mercedes themselves (162).

However, Nicholas Latifi did record the most laps of any driver on day two, with 132 for Williams.

Day 2 classification:

Pos. Driver Team Time Laps
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:30.289 58
2 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda +0.124 87
3 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes +0.171 70
4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes +0.297 52
5 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari +0.471 124
6 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +0.597 73
7 Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes +1.383 132
8 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda +1.393 117
9 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes +1.926 52
10 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault +2.050 127
11 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda +2.395 57
12 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari +2.594 88
13 Carlos Sainz Ferrari +2.783 56
14 Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari +2.812 76
15 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +3.110 58
16 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes +8.560 10

Mercedes unveils “old friend” W12

Mercedes has unveiled its new W12, the car with which it hopes to win an eighth consecutive pair of F1 titles in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

Courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1

The Mercedes AMG F1 W12 keeps the black base livery introduced last year as part of the team’s anti-racism commitments, fading to silver on the engine cover. It also features much more prominent AMG branding across the car as per Mercedes’ plans to foreground its high-performance division within its F1 marketing.

The most visible changes to the design that’s carried over from 2020 are towards the rear, which is more tightly packaged around the engine. The front of the car is largely the same, which bucks the trend of the front-end development seen in the launches so far, but that could still change before testing next week.

Mercedes technical director James Allison called the W12 “an old friend in many ways”. However, he admitted that the launch spec of the car was missing some aero developments to the floor, which the team wanted to keep hidden from its rivals before testing.

Allison also said that AMG High Performance Powertrains have added more power to the engine for 2021. Beneath the chassis, the W12 features further improvements to the suspension and cooling systems.

Although the W12 is the clear title favourite for 2021, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff greeted the new challenger with his trademark scepticism. “Every year we reset our focus,” he said. “The scoreboard goes to zero and there’s always more performance to be found.

“It’s very natural to get used to success, and therefore not fight as hard for it. But this team has not shown any of that. I see the same fire, hunger and passion now as I did the first time I walked through the doors in 2013.”

Courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1

Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen launches the C41

Alfa Romeo become the latest team to officially launch their 2021 F1 challenger – the C41, during an online media event in Warsaw.

Scheduled during a week of official car launches, it joins the current trend of online hosted events, rather than its traditional reveal usually unveiled at Winter Testing.

The team went all out to impress the tens of thousands of fans, using music and dance to portray a classy, elegant and cultured impression of Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo C41 car breaks from sequence, given the team raced with a C39 in 2020. However, the team wishes to skip the C40 name in favour of a title that aligns the chassis number with the year of racing.

The team  also underwent a livery change with a white on red style, the inverse of the last few years.

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Team

Alfa Romeo will be aiming to bounce back after a difficult 2020 which saw the team score just eight points as drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi struggled to compete with the midfield teams further ahead.

However, with a new and improved Ferrari power unit, fired up earlier this month, Alfa Romeo can find plenty of optimism surrounding their hopes for an improved campaign.

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Team

On the changes made to the C41, technical director Jan Monchaux said:      “[We had to] Invest our tokens on a new nose […] front suspension, front wing and the bargeboard deflector. The rest of the effort was spent on the floor and the diffuser where due to the regulations we lost a lot of downforce.”

Due to changes in the technical regulations, teams are restricted to what they can develop. Many parts of the 2020 cars are carried over to this year.

“The chassis is the same, the gearbox is obviously the same and the rear suspension as well because of the regulations”

“Then for return-on-investment reasons we decided to carry over radiators and some part of the body work to really in the short time we had to concentrate on the areas we were expecting to provide the highest return on investment.”

Speaking of the team’s hopes, Fred Vasseur said: “For sure the expectations are high,” he explained. “It is an exciting time for the team at the launch of a new car.”

“The most important is to try improve so to put a goal is limiting. Step by step we have to come back. It is a long path but we will improve.”

“We will see in Bahrain in a few weeks time where we are exactly.

Many factors are being considered for Alfa Romeo’s long term plan back to the front including investments on infrastructure such as a new wind-tunnel and simulator. “We’ve invested a lot of money and energy to the simulator. We are at an early stage at the project. I am really convinced on it.”

On preparations for the season, Kimi  underplayed it explaining that it has been: “Very normal life, nothing special. We are excited for the year.”

“There’s rules changes, but in a few weeks we will see from testing how things are running, how things are feeling and roughly in one months time we will see roughly where everybody is.” 

 I enjoy the racing and the challenge to try to improve things and to get better”

Both drivers will be retained for the 2021 season supported by reserve and test drivers Robert Kubica and Tatiana Calderon.

On his 2021 European Le Mans program Kubica said: “It’s a great opportunity I will have to discover a new car, new series, but also a bit of different way of racing”.

“From a performance point of view the field is very competitive in European Le Mans Series. But of course we are working on getting ready and first of all will be to learn as much as I can and try to do something good.”

“You always want to do your best and I think this will be a goal.”

On the driver line-up, Vasseur stated stability and continuity was key: “We only have three days (testing) this winter, we won’t lose time to know each other and to build up a relationship. The relationship between the team and the drivers is a good one and this is crucial.”

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Team

McLaren launches 2021 contender

McLaren have become the first F1 team to unveil their 2021 challenger in a launch held at their factory in Woking.

Externally, the MCL35M is quite similar to its 2020 predecessor, featuring the same orange and blue livery. The most notable difference is around the power unit with tighter bodywork and a narrower floor.

McLaren Media Centre

Speaking of the launch in a press release, CEO Zak Brown said, “After a challenging but rewarding 2020, we have firmly hit the reset button for this season as we continue on our path towards the front of the grid. This will be an even tougher season but we’re ready to meet the challenge. I want to pay tribute to Formula 1 and the FIA and our fellow teams in continuing to work hard for the benefit of our sport as we strive to bring exciting racing to fans around the world.”

McLaren’s driver line-up has partially changed for 2021. Lando Norris is staying on for a third season, while Daniel Ricciardo is now driving alongside him. He replaces Carlos Sainz, who has moved to Ferrari for this year.

Team Principal Andreas Seidl said, “Together, Lando and Daniel comprise one of the most competitive driver line-ups in the sport. With these two behind the wheel of the MCL35M, we know we’ll have a team that gives total commitment in the pursuit of on-track performance as we head into the 2021 season.”

After using a Renault power unit from 2018 to 2020, the 2021 McLaren features a Mercedes power unit. McLaren previously worked with Mercedes between 1995 and 2014, a partnership that yielded three drivers’ championships and one constructors’ championships.

McLaren Media Centre

Speaking of the partnership, Technical Director James Key said, “One of the key elements of the MCL35M design is the integration of the Mercedes-AMG power unit, which has taken a considerable effort from the team in Woking, as well as our colleagues at Mercedes. Despite our limited scope for installation in a homologated car, the team has done a fantastic job of optimising our design work.”

The MCL35M will run for the first time at Silverstone tomorrow as part of a filming day.

The fall of Michael Schumacher’s record? F1 2021 season preview

At just 103 days, the winter break between 2020 and 2021 is one of the shortest, certainly in modern history in Formula One. In actual fact, it was set to be shorter still, but with the postponement of the Australian Grand Prix, the new season will kick off in Bahrain, but what can we expect from this year?

Well, in truth, this year will probably be a case of “same, but different”, as regulations set in place for 2021 mean that the 2020 cars have been carried over to this year, and only aero parts and PUs are eligible to be changed. Fundamentally, though, the cars must remain the same, and the chassis will be identical to last year, so do not expect any massive jumps in performance.

This means to say that Mercedes should still be top dogs, Red Bull should be a close second, and the midfield will still be as intense as it was throughout the entirety of the 17 races last year.

Mercedes seek to win their eighth consecutive Constructors’ title this year – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

But while substantial increases or otherwise in performance is too much to expect, little nuggets of gold may just help swing the tide a little as someone, somehow, looks to topple Mercedes’ absolute brilliance at the front.

Sergio Perez, surprise winner of the crazy Sakhir Grand prix last season, will make his highly-anticipated Red Bull debut having replaced the hapless Alex Albon. The discussion has been raging as to whether he will be able to beat their current titan Max Verstappen, and whether the Mexican truly does have the pace to compete at the front and spur Red Bull into serious Constructors’ Championship contention. It is widely expected that, if Perez is dominated by Verstappen the way Albon and Pierre Gasly were, it is a case of the car being geared to the Dutchman, as opposed to a lack of pace from Max’s team mates.

264 points separated Mercedes and Red Bull last year, so it will be fascinating to see if Red Bull’s third driver pairing in as many years will be able to close the gap and make life a little more uncomfortable for the imperious champions.

After leaving Racing Point following seven years with the team, Sergio Perez arrives at Red Bull to replace the departing Alex Albon – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking of whom, newly-crowned champion Lewis Hamilton has finally put pen to paper on a new contract with the German team, in a deal that takes him to the end of the 2021 season.

Reasons for just the one-season extension have been speculated about; who knows if it could be down to the impending salary cap, or whether it is because Hamilton feels as though he only has one year left with the Silver Arrows, and in Formula One as a whole?

This would make sense. Hamilton is set to win his eighth championship this season, beating Michael Schumacher’s remarkable seven in the process.  The sport could certainly do with having Hamilton around next year, and we are likely set to see one of the most historical moments in the history of Formula One.

His team mate Valtteri Bottas could well be going into his last year with the Silver Arrows, but conversely to Hamilton, his future may not be in his own hands. In spite of a second-placed finish in the championship last season, Bottas’ overall performance has occasionally left something to be desired, and he will need to show stronger title credentials this year if he is to remain a part of the team in 2022.

A large part of this equation is the impressive progress of George Russell who, with a good performance in the Williams in 2021, could find himself in line for a drive next season. Particularly after Russell’s magnificent pace last year in the Sakhir Grand Prix alongside Bottas, this season will be a monumental one for both of them.

Depending on his 2021 performance, George Russell could well be in line for a 2022 drive with Mercedes – Courtesy of Williams Media

Further down, Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo are definitely ones to watch as they make their debuts for Ferrari and McLaren respectively. Ferrari acquired the services of Sainz after Sebastian Vettel’s departure for Aston Martin, while Australian Daniel Ricciardo left Renault for McLaren, replacing Spaniard Sainz. Ferrari’s new engine and aero parts for this season could lift them further into the midfield battle, and above the abysmal eighth place they managed last season with Vettel and Leclerc. Vettel meanwhile, with his new team and new haircut to boot, will attempt to make his presence felt in his new adventure with the new Aston Martin team, who take over from Racing Point this year.

Just as exciting as the German’s new venture, Fernando Alonso makes his comeback in 2021 in the Alpine team that has replaced Renault for this year, and after two seasons out, expectation is high. Frenchman Esteban Ocon, who managed his first podium last season in Sakhir, gets a real test of his ability by going up against a driver who, as well as being a two-time champion, is widely regarded as one of the quickest and most skilled drivers in F1’s rich history.

Fernando Alonso returns to F1 this year after two years away from the sport – Courtesy of Renault Sport Media

Alonso, though, comes back probably feeling a fair bit older than he did when he left. He raced against Jos Verstappen and Michael Schumacher during his first 18-year spell in the sport, and he is now about to race against their sons.

While Max had already become a fixture towards the end of Alonso’s first tenure, Michael’s son Mick will now be on the same grid as one of his father’s greatest rivals, as two generations collide.

Ferrari Academy Driver Mick Schumacher makes his F1 debut with Haas this year – Courtesy of Ferrari F1 Media

Schumacher claimed glory in the F2 championship last season with Prema, and he arrives in Formula One with one of Ferrari’s junior teams: Haas. The American outfit enter this year will a new driver lineup; the departing Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are replaced by Schumacher and car number nine.

As Lewis Hamilton seeks a record eighth championship, and Mercedes try to extend their record of Constructors’ championship successes, the 2021 season is a huge one for a lot of drivers, in what is the last year before the regulation changes in 2022.

F1 Virtual Grand Prix Series to return

During last year’s extended off-season, F1 put on a set of Virtual Grand Prix races to sustain our appetite for racing whilst we couldn’t do that in real life. It ran between the weekend of what would have been the Bahrain Grand Prix to the weekend when the Canadian Grand Prix would have taken place, before F1 returned to real racing three weeks afterward.

The races were entertaining and there was hope we could see the Virtual Grand Prix return during the winter off-season. Well, now it’s back!

Starting at the end of this month, a run of three consecutive weeks will see more drivers, other notable sporting athletes and celebrities compete on the F1 game. The first race will take place on January 31st on the Red Bull Ring, the second on February 7th on Silverstone and the last round on February 14th on Interlagos.

Unlike the 2020 events which all ran as standalone races, all three events will keep a points tally and have a champion at the end of it. Had points been counted last year, Williams driver George Russell would have been the unofficial winner with four wins in the last four races, but this time a champion will officially be crowned.

For the three-race championship, the format has been given a little shake-up. Before the official race, the drivers of the F1 Esports series will take to the virtual track in a five-lap sprint which will essentially be a qualification race to determine the grid.

In support of last year’s Virtual Grand Prix events, the F1 Esports drivers such as eventual 2020 champion Jarno Opmeer, his predecessors David Tonizza and Brendon Leigh among the many other talented racers would compete in a Pro Exhibition race. Now they’ll be playing a much more direct part in the event itself, perhaps enticing more people to seek out the F1 Esports series when it returns for its fifth season later this year.

Enzo Bonito and David Tonizza, FDA (Scuderia Ferrari Media)

After the grid is determined, the usual crowd will take over and compete in a 50% distance race. All ten teams will battle for points and will nominate a charity for F1 to send a donation to after the three-race season ends, with all the drivers playing a part in getting the best possible result and earning their selected charity some money.

So who will compete? F1 says to keep your eyes on their social media channels for driver announcements in the upcoming weeks. Expect a fair amount of celebrities and other sporting athletes to compete alongside drivers both in F1 and from other categories.

13 of the 23 drivers from last season competed in at least one race in the first run of Virtual Grand Prix races: Lando Norris, Nicholas Latifi, Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Alexander Albon, Antonio Giovinazzi, Carlos Sainz, Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon, Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Pérez and even the super subs Pietro Fittipaldi and Nico Hülkenberg.

Expect that a few of these will take part. Despite being some of the first to commit to them, Norris and Leclerc are both currently recovering from COVID-19 and Norris has even stated he would be taking a step back from any committed sim racing events in the off-season.

Other notable drivers who competed include former drivers like Jenson Button, Anthony Davidson, Johnny Herbert and Stoffel Vandoorne, DTM driver Phillip Eng, F2 driver and Renault junior Guanyu Zhou, and many Ferrari Driver Academy members like Robert Shwartzman, Callum Ilott, Gianluca Petecof and Arthur Leclerc. BTCC driver Nicolas Hamilton even did a couple of races with his brother’s former team McLaren.

Many guest drivers from outside of motorsport drove during the first leg of Virtual Grand Prix races—some with more success than others—such as surfer Kai Lenny (pictured in the feature image above driving for Red Bull). Some standout performances from top athletes in other sports include Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and professional golfer Ian Poulter, who both also competed in many of Veloce Esports’ Not The GP races.

Some other popular additions to the grid would include YouTubers such as Jimmy Broadbent who did a few races with Racing Point, and also Tiametmarduk who competed in the last two Virtual GP events for McLaren after becoming their Esports team’s brand ambassador.

Ultimately, the Virtual Grand Prix races were an immense success even if they could have been conducted better. But with the lack of time to plan in advance and how the F1 schedule was changing all the time, we got the best we could. Now though, this three-race mini championship promises to provide us with some immense entertainment as we prepare for the 2021 F1 season.

Keep an eye out on F1’s social media channels to find out who will represent the 10 teams and expect to be able to watch the three events in the three successive weeks beginning on January 31st on F1’s official YouTube, Twitch and Facebook pages.

An optimistic future for new-look Alpine?

Renault’s Formula 1 efforts will undergo a major shift in 2021, with a new driver lineup, core changes to the team, and most notably, a complete rebranding of its works squad as the Alpine F1 Team.

But after falling short of its target to be a regular race winner and even title contender by last year, the Enstone-based team has some soul-searching to do under its new guise. So are the changes planned going to be enough for Alpine to succeed where Renault couldn’t?

The drivers

Fernando Alonso, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

Fernando Alonso. Like him or loathe him, he’s back to spearhead Alpine’s first year in F1.

The two-time world champion was coaxed out of his sabbatical to replace the team’s former star driver Daniel Ricciardo, and Alpine will be hoping he brings some of the insight and inspiration they need to catch the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull.

The big question mark over Alonso’s return is of course the fact that he’s now been out of F1 for two years. He’s not exactly been resting easy in that time, having taken a WEC crown, two Le Mans victories and one at Daytona, and made headline-grabbing entries into the Indy 500 and Dakar Rally. On top of that, he also conducted an extensive testing programme with Renault throughout last year.

But two years out of Grand Prix racing is a long time, and it remains to be seen if Alonso can return at the same level he left the sport in 2018.

On the other side of the garage will be Esteban Ocon, returning for his second year with the Enstone team. Ocon had a rocky campaign in 2020 and spent much of the season getting back up to full racing speed after 18 months on the sidelines as Mercedes’ test and reserve driver.

But by the end of the year Ocon had closed his qualifying gap to Ricciardo and scored Renault’s best result of the season (and his own maiden podium) with second at the Sakhir Grand Prix. Had Ricciardo stayed with Alpine this year, it’s likely Ocon would have made it a much closer teammate battle as he did over his two years with Sergio Perez at Force India.

Alonso and Ocon are an uncertain lineup for Alpine’s first season, and it’s not a given that their potential and past form will equate to strong results in 2021. But if everything goes as Alpine are hoping, this could be a formidable driver pairing in the midfield battle and one with a lot of promise for the team’s near future.

The team

Cyril Abiteboul, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

One of the big headlines this month was that Cyril Abiteboul, Renault’s longtime team principal and CEO of the F1 operation, was stepping down from the team ahead of the new Alpine era.

It’s a move many have been calling for for some time now, as Abiteboul’s management has taken the lion’s share of blame for Renault’s failure to break out of the midfield. And whether or not that’s right, it is true that Abiteboul’s time in charge at Enstone was defined more by his engagement with the politics of F1 rather than the success of the team.

This is hopefully something that will change with Abiteboul’s replacements. Laurent Rossi, previously Renault’s Chief Strategy Officer, has already been announced as the new Alpine F1 CEO, while Executive Director Marcin Budkowski is tipped to take over as team principal.

Splitting Abiteboul’s role between these two is a sensible choice for Alpine. Rossi’s corporate strategy background makes him the ideal choice within the Renault group to lead the business side of Alpine’s rebranding. Meanwhile Budkowski, who has overseen the day-to-day operations at Enstone for years, will be free to focus on the sporting side of running an F1 team.

Add to that a new Racing Director in Davide Brivio, who just led Suzuki and Joan Mir to double MotoGP title glory in 2020, and Alpine has the makings of a real heavyweight team at the top.

It might take longer than 2021 for the full effect of these changes to be felt. But as we’ve seen in the likes of Toto Wolff at Mercedes or Andreas Seidl and Zak Brown at McLaren, sometimes the right leadership structure at the right time can be just what a team needs to propel itself out of a stall.

The car

Alpine A521 (Alpine F1 Media)

The car is a mostly known quantity at least, as under the 2021 regulations Alpine’s A521 is essentially a carry-over of last year’s Renault R.S.20. And that bodes well for Alpine, as the R.S.20’s power and rear traction made it a formidable package at low-downforce circuits last year, as well as through low- and medium-speed corners in high-downforce configuration.

The A521 will be slightly different to the R.S.20, as its floor will be trimmed off in accordance with the rules to reduce the aerodynamic pressure on the tyres. How much of a difference this will make isn’t clear. Several teams have played up the impact of this floor tweak throughout 2020—but the same noises were also made about the front and rear wing changes in 2019, which hardly produced the tectonic shift that was billed.

However, it’s thought that the A521’s low rake philosophy—which was a new, Mercedes-inspired direction for last year—will mean that Alpine has less of a headache navigating the change than some of its rivals, at least in the early part of the season.

And so long as the overall design isn’t too unsettled by the revised floor, Alpine will definitely have a car quick enough to challenge for third in the constructors’ championship again.

Ultimately, we won’t know if Alpine is able to make that breakthrough that eluded Renault until the season gets underway. And even then, with the focus this year almost entirely on 2022’s aerodynamic overhaul, we might be kept waiting to see if the team can finally make good on its ambitions to be title contenders again.

But with the performance gains made last year, combined with a hungry driver lineup and some canny leadership changes, it’s looking like an optimistic future ahead for Enstone’s new Alpine era.

Esteban Ocon, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

Who is Jack Aitken?

With Pietro Fittipaldi filling in for Romain Grosjean in the Sakhir Grand Prix, nobody was expecting another change to the grid. However it was Lewis Hamilton’s positive COVID-19 result which meant his Mercedes seat was taken by Williams driver George Russell, whose own seat went to Jack Aitken.

So for those of you who were not aware of Aitken before last weekend, here is all you need to know about the latest British driver to reach F1.

First thing you should know, he’s actually British-Korean. Born to a Scottish father and Korean mother, he began karting in 2006 at Buckmore Park where he won the Summer Challenge club series aged 14 before moving into national and international karting championships.

Aitken made his first move into car racing in 2012. In the BARC Formula Renault winter series he took one win and just missed out on the championship by one point to future British GT champion Seb Morris. His main campaign was the InterSteps Championship, where he would finish third overall having taken 13 podiums across 23 races, two of those being wins.

In 2013 Aitken moved to the Northern European Formula Renault championship and was second to Matt Parry, the previous year’s InterSteps champion. That was followed by a move to the Formula Renault EuroCup for the following year in which he finished seventh in the championship, but it was all building up to what would be Aitken’s best year.

For 2015 Aitken would double up his Formula Renault campaign with assaults on the EuroCup and Alps championships, but to prepare for the season he went over to the States to compete in the Pro Mazda Winterfest. He battled for the championship with Malaysian driver Weiron Tan and pipped him to the title by a single point, which boded well for his dual Formula Renault campaign.

So it did! Moving to the Koiranen GP team that took Nyck de Vries to both the EuroCup and Alps championships the year before, Aitken racked up five wins in the EuroCup and four wins in the Alps series. He capped off his successful season by becoming a member of Renault’s F1 driver academy, and by sealing a drive in the F1-supporting GP3 Series with Arden.

While the 2016 GP3 championship was between now-F1 drivers Charles Leclerc and Alexander Albon in the leading ART team, Aitken did very well with a win and fifth in the standings. 2017 looked to be an even better year for Aitken as he took one of the ART seats. However, a new kid arrived who plays a big part in Aitken’s story.

That new kid was George Russell, who moved up from European F3 to take one of the other ART seats. The season was hard fought and ART occupied the first four places in the driver’s championship with Russell, Aitken and their teammates Nirei Fukuzumi and Anthoine Hubert.

However, Russell annihilated Aitken, taking four wins to Aitken’s one and finishing nearly 80 points clear. They both moved up to F2 the following season remaining with ART, but Russell dominated the championship there as well, over the likes of Lando Norris and Albon. Aitken did win the sprint race at Barcelona, but finishing only 11th in the championship coupled with Russell’s success did not do his reputation any good unfortunately.

For 2019, Aitken made the move to the unfancied Campos team. He began to repair some of the damage that had been done, taking the feature race win at Baku, a glorious victory on the Sunday morning of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and a further sprint win at Monza to finish the season fifth.

Jack Aitken, Campos. Image courtesy of FIA Formula 2.

He remained with Campos for 2020 but left the Renault academy, joining Williams as a reserve driver. He was thought to be one of the favourites for the F2 title this year, but the results have not been there for Jack.

However with Russell’s immediate call-up to Mercedes in Sakhir, Aitken’s F1 dream came true. It may have been short-lived, but he immediately made an impression by qualifying less than a tenth from Williams’ other full season driver Nicholas Latifi and outqualifying an F1 world champion in Kimi Räikkönen.

It may be unusual circumstances but Aitken can be pretty pleased with how he did. While it was Russell who starred in his Mercedes debut and nearly came away with a victory, Aitken has certainly done himself a lot of favours with how he performed over the Sakhir Grand Prix weekend.

The problem with finding the ideal F1 reserve driver

You’ve got to feel for Stoffel Vandoorne. The former McLaren driver has had several realistic chances to return to the Formula One grid this season in his capacity as Mercedes reserve driver, but each time he’s found himself overlooked in favour of an outside contender.

It’s no reflection on Vandoorne as a driver. Leaving aside his two demoralising years driving uncompetitive McLarens, Vandoorne has been a race-winner in almost every top flight series he’s contested.

The problem is more with the concept of F1 reserve drivers in general. Or rather, with the near impossibility of finding a reserve driver who truly fits the bill of what’s asked of them.

Stoffel Vandoorne, Mercedes F1 reserve driver (Courtesy of FIA Formula E)

When it comes to the ideal F1 reserve, the most important thing teams look for is someone whose experience is as recent as possible. F1 development stops for no one, so there’s little use in fielding a stand-in whose last Grand Prix was four or five seasons ago.

Secondly, they need to be quick if they’re going to fight for the results the team expects. But the problem here is that if a driver with that kind of talent finds themselves out of F1, it’s most commonly the case that they’re either moving on to another series or retiring at the end of their career, and therefore won’t be looking for a reserve role.

(There are of course exceptions to this. Nico Hulkenberg, for example, found himself without a drive for this year but that’s not for lack of talent. And Jenson Button stepped in to deputise for Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2017 despite bowing out of F1 the previous year. But cases like this are extremely rare.)

The final problem with finding the ideal reserve is availability.

For a reserve driver to be quick they need to keep their qualifying and race craft sharp for whenever it’s needed, even if that’s away from F1 machinery.

But at the same time, they can’t spend so much time racing in other series’ that it clashes with F1 weekends—an increasingly large problem as the F1 calendar continues to swell year by year.

Red Bull is a good example of this, as they recently had to secure a super licence for Juri Vips to act as reserve for the Turkish Grand Prix, as their usual backups Sebastien Buemi and Sergio Sette Camara were both racing elsewhere.

Juri Vips, Red Bull reserve driver (Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

And that’s the reserve driver paradox. To be the ideal Grand Prix stand-in, one has to be fresh out of F1 and somehow keep that freshness year after year, be quick enough to compete with the current F1 grid despite being dropped from it, and keep race-sharp all year round while still being available 23 weekends out of 52 (and counting).

As a result, reserve drivers tend to be a compromise that’s not quite the best of any worlds. You have the likes of Paul di Resta, who was briefly named McLaren’s reserve this year despite not racing in F1 since 2013. Or you have Formula 2 drivers like Jack Aitken at Williams or Louis Deletraz at Haas, who race regularly on the F1 calendar but are completely unproven in a Grand Prix.

And then you have Ferrari, whose nominated reserve is Antonio Giovinazzi—somehow who has plenty of contemporary F1 experience and race-fitness, but comes with the added complication of currently driving for Alfa Romeo.

It’s all part of the reserve driver role. They’re the person a team relies on when one of their star drivers is sick or injured, but they’re often an imperfect solution at best. And so it’s not really a surprise that teams often search for a better alternative outside their pool if the need for a stand-in actually arises.

It’s a shame when that happens, especially for a driver like Vandoorne whose talent merits at least one more outing in a competitive F1 car. But when big points are on the line and a Hulkenberg or George Russell is available, it’s hard to fault the teams for taking advantage of that opportunity—even if it means their reserve driver spending Sunday playing Call of Duty.

 

The Problems With The Provisional F1 2021 Calendar

Earlier this week Liberty Media released the provisional calendar for the 2021 Formula One season. While there were minimal surprises, it raised some eyebrows about the integrity of the sport.

Many believe that the idea of racing in countries with less than ideal human rights records contradicts the mantra “We Race As One” that Formula One has been pushing so often this year. With races in Bahrain and China, as well as the new Saudi Arabia race, many believe that F1 should not be holding races, and thereby drawing in fans, in countries where seemingly dodgy political regimes can reap the economic rewards.

To counter that, some have argued that it isn’t fair to punish the inhabitants (for whom many will not have had a say in who runs their country) by not allowing any international sport to be held for them to see. Ultimately though, money talks and therefore Formula One is unlikely to avoid controversial venues if they have suitable funds.

Another issue some have raised is Liberty Media’s insistence on quantity over quality. Initial plans are for a 23-race season sometimes covering tracks that have famously struggled to produce exciting racing. F1 is entertainment as much as sport, and as a result fan enjoyment should be a top priority. If you were to ask F1 fans to create their dream race calendar, very few would have as many as 23 venues, and even fewer would include the likes of France and Spain.

By focusing on the number of races over the quality of the racing the track produces, some believe you run the risk of wearing the fans out. Yes, we love racing, but if you’re tuning in every weekend to watch very little of it, you’re going to get worn out and lose some love for the sport. This is all without mentioning the impact on the teams being away from their families for so long.

At the end of the day, Formula One is seen by the owners as a business over a form of entertainment and therefore Liberty Media are certain to want a race calendar that can maximise their profit. Fan opinion is just an aside.

Feature image courtesy of Racing Point F1 Media