🇦🇪 F1'23: R22 - Formula Bottleneck

The best argument for expanding F1 is the quality of the leading F2 drivers

The gap at the end of the season between Williams and Alpha Tauri was a few points. It wasn’t crucial in the end, but Logan Sargeant, in his first season, scored one point at the Austin Grand Prix after two drivers ahead of him were disqualified for a dodgy plank.

This is a strange way to score your first world championship point, but even going into the final round at Yas Marina, it wasn’t particularly clear cut between the teams. Yuki Tsuonda, fresh from his best-ever qualifying performance, was close to getting sixth place, trying to make a one-stop strategy work, but was eventually caught for eighth and a driver of the day accolade. Daniel Ricciardo was one place off a point, finishing 11th. 

It was not enough to get this era of Red Bull’s sister team into seventh as Franz Tost leaves and Alpha Tauri evolves into something new from 2024.

It has been a season of uncertainty for a lot of the sport’s protagonists, despite the fact that the true silly season of driver movement will start next year, and although the season is over, some of the uncertainty is still to come. 

Williams have a decision to make on Sargeant. Do they feel that continuity is the answer and that the American will make a jump in his second year to compete with Alex Albon, or is there the option of Formula 2 runner-up Frederik Vesti, perhaps attached to some financial assistance from Mercedes as they audition a candidate to replace Lewis Hamilton. Could Liam Lawson be an outside shot - after all, the New Zealander scored one more point…

The decision is pivotal for Williams and its future. They’ve secured seventh, marking their highest finish since Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll before the dark ages of last-placed finishes for a few years and driver lineups motivated by finance rather than merit. The extra millions will go a long way for a team that’s on the up. They’ll definitely get at least one more year of Alex Albon, but a team like Ferrari might offer him the chance to compete for podiums again while Williams isn’t there yet.

So the second seat should be the person that is going to step up if the worst happens. Are any of those drivers that person, barring those who might become available for 2025 to be that team leader?

And then there’s the other, lesser seen part of it - Williams have a superb junior driver academy and there are 2-3 drivers who in other eras, might legitimately make it onto the grid. All of them are too raw for now, but one more year of experience might be exactly what is needed for them to be in the reckoning for a seat with the famous team.

Franco Colapinto got some work experience in Formula 2 after finishing fourth in the Formula 3 championship. Luke Browning won the famous Macau Grand Prix and Zak O’Sullivan finished second in F3 this year, so there is definite talent in the pipeline.

Williams are not the only team that has a bottleneck. Alfa Romeo will be changing their name back to Sauber in 2024, but is retaining the driver lineup of Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu. Waiting in the wings there is Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire, who won the title in Abu Dhabi. The F2 championship comes with all the adulation, celebration and the weird clause that says no, you’re not allowed to defend your achievements next year. He finds himself in the same situation as previous F2 champion Felipe Drugovich, who is a reserve driver with Aston Martin, blocked from taking the spotlight.

There is a clear bottleneck on the grid, and one way that could be released is to have an 11th (or 12th?) team in Formula 1. It’s clear there are enough drivers who can compete at that level, and the modern-day fitness standards of F1 drivers means that they can last for many more years and seasons.

This is great for athlete longevity (and as someone who can tweak his back while sneezing, this 38-year-old looks at them with envy), but if you’re young and coming through the ranks, suddenly it doesn’t matter how well you drive your very quick car because every opportunity leads to a dead end. 

The obvious corks in the bottle are also the most respected names on the grid, with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso about to enter their 17th and 21st seasons respectively. The new crop of drivers, some of them aren’t even 21 years old yet. 

Expansion, if done correctly, can provide a huge boost to a sport. The continued growth of MLS, or seeing the NFL grow to 32 teams and maintain a good level of competitive balance has seen it grow even larger, seeing huge flows of money as global interest continues to surge. F1 is already probably as swollen as it’s going to get in terms of tracks, but there is definitely capacity with the number of teams and drivers, especially when there is so much talent waiting for an opportunity.

The biggest argument against expansion for a sport is the quality of its key actors. Take the NFL for example. Every team needs at least one quarterback - the most important position on the team and probably top five in all of sports. However, injuries mean that 50 players have started a game at QB this season. Some of these are either not ready or not good enough for the NFL, and therefore, if they were to add 2-4 more teams, the overall quality of the sport would fall because of this pivotal position. That is not the case in F1, where the drivers waiting in the queue might be as good, if not better, than some of the drivers already at the party.

Formula 1 has a duty to make sure it is representing the best. That means it should be the best of everything - drivers, teams, equipment, innovation, broadcast, media distribution - everything. Fans are drawn to drivers, as Netflix has proved, so those drivers must be the best in the world and ideally, should have some sort of charisma or unique personality.

This appears to be the current thinking for the people at the top of the sport. The FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem spoke in October about wanting more teams and fewer races. I don’t agree completely that reducing the number of races is the way to go, although I understand the sporting and human arguments behind it, but more teams and more competition feels like an inevitability.

Perhaps adding two or four more drivers to the grid is the most innovative - and easiest - way to do this, alongside physically smaller cars from 2026. Otherwise, unless the bottleneck is solved, quality drivers in F2 will be lost to other series, with the likes of IndyCar and Formula E to snap them up.

So this is the end of my third full season writing about Formula 1, with the odd dalliance into support series and Formula E. There’s a little bit about videogames too that I don’t send out on the main list. I was going to shut this thing down, with this blog having just under 40 subscribers - several of my ex-colleagues from Twitter lost their jobs in the cull, which thinned the audience out a bit, but this blog came up in my current job as a positive, and despite the small audience (or perhaps, because of), I quite like the process of working out what to write about.

Season 4 will continue. Hell, there are fewer than 100 days until lights out in Sakhir, and I’ve got a few ideas before then, as well as the start of a pivotal season for Formula E that kicks off in mid-January.

If you’ve read this blog, and liked (or even hated) anything I wrote this season, thank you for your support of this silly little F1 diary.

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