🇸🇦 F1'24: R2: Auditionectomy

A dizzy 24 hours for F1's latest points scorer

When was the last time a Formula 1 rookie got his first start at a top team? 

Oliver Bearman has been on this blog’s radar for a while. Last year, I put forward (slightly as a goof) that Ferrari should promote the 18-year-old Brit and pair him with Fernando Alonso for one last run in 2025. We can go full Rainier Wolfcastle and say Alonso with a young British driver? That’s the joke.

But it shows how modern F1 has changed. A sport where a good chunk of the attraction comes from the risk attached to taking part, but that doesn’t seem to extend to the sport’s decision makers. Most of the 20 drivers did not start at a top team. And on top of that, Bearman’s debut - albeit an emergency situation - was a massive change for Ferrari.

Carlos Sainz’s emergency appendectomy opened the seat for Bearman, who had just put his Prema on pole in Formula 2. Ironically, losing the pole position in the junior series meant that he also lost the points on offer, and because of his two pointless finishes in Bahrain, Bearman is currently dead last in F2. Not that you’d know it from how he raced alongside the elite. 

There are still a few years to go before he becomes synonymous with the Scuderia’s all-time racers, but it seems like Bearman’s success in Saudi Arabia is one small step along the way.

When you think of Ferrari’s famous drivers, the common thread between them all is that they all had success elsewhere before jumping into the famous red machine. Michael Schumacher (Benetton), Alain Prost and Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Nigel Mansell (Williams) etc, you get the picture. A team almost above Formula 1 itself, Ferrari are the team you go to when you’ve completed F1, the New Game Plus of the sport. Not that it always works out that way once they do join the Italian giants.

I looked at the current grid, and with which team they had their first races. There are a few things to note.

First of all, the roles of McLaren, Williams and Red Bull. With the first two, you’d sort of expect it, heritage teams, known for developing drivers and becoming some form of extended finishing school for the stars of the future. With McLaren, they introduced Lewis Hamilton to the world of F1 and he is the only current driver who won races as a rookie, coming so close to winning the title in his first season.

In fact McLaren, through Oscar Piastri and Kevin Magnussen, rookies can make an impact with the team, with podium finishes in their first year.

The only other rookie to score a podium? No, guess again. Lance Stroll, and a third place in a crazy finish in Baku 2017, pipped at the line in a drag race with Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. The then-Williams driver is one of five of the current contingent to start out there.

But I was a little bit surprised to see five of the current crop start in the Red Bull universe. Perhaps there shouldn’t be surprise when they own two teams, giving them a well-used feeder pathway. Max Verstappen, Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon all graduated in some form to the top team.

And it’s that pathway that’s so crucial. Having a common powertrain supplier gives drivers a point of comfort when joining a new team and going up the ladder.

To complete the list, Sauber blooded three drivers, and I couldn’t really assign Daniel Ricciardo (HRT), Esteban Ocon (Manor) or Fernando Alonso (Minardi!)

But back to Oliver Bearman, Ferrari simply don’t put rookies in their cars. They made something of the fact that both Charles Leclerc and Bearman came through the Ferrari Driver Academy, but it is very much the exception to the Ferrari rule. The last rookie to start at the prancing horse was Art Merzario in 1972, and while this was a special case, it’s still an entirely new way of working for them.

The driver he replaced, Carlos Sainz was there, 24 hours after appendix surgery to lend his support and wisdom as the number 55 was replaced by 38. Bearman missed out on Q3 by 0.036, Lewis Hamilton just sneaking into Q3 at his expense with the teenager starting in P11. 

After just one practice session, and some qualifying laps, Bearman went from a 1:42.2 being good enough to lead the pack, to 128.6 being middle of the road. A 13-second difference on a track with more than two dozen corners and lines that would have any experienced driver questioning whether that’s really the best way to go.

And he acquitted himself well in the race itself, claiming six points for his seventh-placed finish. Of course he claimed driver of the day, with only Kevin Magnussen’s anti-drive the only other notable highlight of the race, enabling Haas to get a point. Four British drivers in a row, behind Russell, and ahead of Lando Norris and a seven-time World Champion in Lewis Hamilton.

But among all the partying, there should be some notes of optimism and caution.

The last stand-in driver was Nyck de Vries, turning his opportunity into two points at Monza and a contract at Alpha Tauri. As we all know, the former Formula 2 and E champion is currently a former F1 driver, not finishing his first and only season so far in the sport.

Bearman, in a faster car, finished seventh. A superb result, and perhaps sends a few interested signals to Haas. The best case scenario is that Bearman goes back to fight his Formula 2 season with Prema, giving a good enough account of himself to convince Haas that he could fill one of their seats in 2025, maybe with a financial incentive from Ferrari to do so, with a view of becoming the heir to Lewis Hamilton after maybe 2-3 years of seasoning. 

That powertrain pathway is what could give Bearman an edge in being the sport’s next full-season rookie, and with silly season still having a few chapters to be authored. 

We’ve got a week off now, and the first truly unsociable hours race weekend next time (if you’re in the UK), with Melbourne’s Albert Park the venue. In 2023, by the end of Race 3, each of the 10 teams had scored at least one point. It feels like a long time yet before we’ll be able to say that this year.

PS: The last three articles have been about Ferrari. Perhaps they could try and not take all the storylines, please?

Join the conversation

or to participate.