When the 2023 Formula 1 season started, Alpha Tauri had a driver pairing of then 22-year-old Yuki Tsunoda, entering his third year in the top flight of motorsports, and 28-year-old F1 rookie, Nyck de Vries. Despite being an older rookie in F1, de Vries wasn’t seen as an easy opponent for Tsunoda. It was expected that both teammates would push each other and that de Vries might even edge out Tsunoda for the team’s top spot. However, expectations don’t always come to fruition. De Vries was subbed out for Daniel Riccardo, who then was replaced by Liam Lawson due to an injury. Riccardo will race alongside Tsunoda last year, but a Lawson-Tsunoda pairing makes much more sense.
To understand how we got to the current moment, and why things should probably be different, we need to look at the past.
Nyck de Vries had an accomplished junior formula career, highlighted by winning the 2019 F2 Championship. Due to the developmental nature of F2, once you win the title there, you aren’t allowed to compete in the series for the next two years. The purpose of this rule is that the champions are theoretically supposed to move on to greater things, I.E. Formula 1. For de Vries though, a full-time F1 drive wasn’t in the cards, and his first opportunity wouldn’t come for a few more years.
In the meantime, de Vries competed in a few different series, mostly the all-electric Formula E, where he even won the 2020-21 Championship. de Vries was proving himself in FE, but F1 was always the goal. He managed to keep his foot in the F1 door due to test driver and reserve driver roles for Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin.
On the weekend of the 2022 Italian Grand Prix, de Vries was at the Monza Circut performing his duties as Aston Martin test driver when Williams driver Alex Albon suffered appendicitis. de Vries stepped in for Albon and proceeded to blow his expectations out of the water. He out-qualified and beat his teammate Nicholes Latifi to score points on his F1 debut. This performance seemed to show head of the Red Bull driver development program, Helmut Marko, that de Vries was the real deal.
When Pierre Gasly left Red Bull’s junior team, Alpha Tauri, to join Alpine for 2023, Marko chose to sign de Vries to race alongside Tsunoda. Choosing de Vries over Red Bull junior driver, Liam Lawson, who was coming off of a third-place finish in his second F2 season.
That would prove to be the wrong move, as after just 10 disappointing races in 2023, de Vries was dropped. Yet once again, Liam Lawson was looked over.
Replacing de Vries was former Red Bull driver from 2014-2018, Daniel Riccardo, who didn’t have a drive for the 2023 season after two disappointing years at McLaren. The hope was that Riccardo, who is an eight-time race winner in F1, would be able to recapture his former glory in his return to the Red Bull Racing family, albeit, at the junior team. Riccardo did a decent job upon his return, a return that was unfortunately short-lived. During the second practice session of the Dutch Grand Prix weekend, Riccardo crashed into the wall to avoid a collision with McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri who had also spun into the wall before ending up in a way that blocked Riccardo’s path on the track. The collision with the wall broke Riccardo’s left hand, and it quickly became apparent that Alpha Tauri would need a third driver for the 2023 season. This time, Liam Lawson would get his shot.
Lawson, 21, had been spending his 2023 racing year up to that point competing in the Japanese Super Formula series. Super Formula, despite being almost entirely a Japanese-only series, is considered one of the top racing categories in the world. If Lawson struggled it would’ve been excusable, struggling wasn’t part of his plan though. Lawson currently sits in second place in the standings, picking up three wins in seven races so far, as a rookie in a foreign series, supremely impressive. It was time to put Super Formula on pause though, and head to the Netherlands for the Dutch Grand Prix.
Lawson qualified last for his first F1 race, but that was to be expected, especially considering he only had one practice session. It would’ve been perfectly acceptable if Lawson did nothing in the race either, but that’s not how things went. On a rainy race day, Lawson did extremely well to stay out of trouble and pick his spots. His most impressive moment of the race was when he passed Max Verstappen on track. Verstappen looked absolutely unbeatable and was in the midst of what ended up being a 10-race win streak, yet Lawson was able to get the best of him, for a short while at least. Lawson’s ability to stay out of trouble led to him finishing the race in 13th ahead of his teammate Tsunoda who has been proving himself this year.
Lawson continued to drive for Alpha Tauri for the next race in Italy. Lawson qualified 12th, one position and only 0.164 seconds behind Tsunoda for 11th. In only his second F1 qualifying, he was right on the tail of his more experienced teammate. On race day, Tsunoda’s Alpha Tauri broke down before the race even started, robbing us of being able to compare him to Lawson. From what we saw though, Lawson had a nice race after a bit of a poor jump off the line. He ended up finishing 11th, just one spot out of the points. Despite the decent result, Lawson was disappointed at not being able to grab those points for himself and the team.
Lawson didn’t have to wait too long to score his first points though, as in his third race with Alpha Tauri, he finished the Singapore Grand Prix in 9th. Accomplishing what Nyck de Vries and Danial Riccardo couldn’t do, a points finish.
From start to finish Lawson’s weekend was amazing. He managed to out-qualify Tsunoda for the first time. It’s a bit misleading to say that, as Tsunoda never managed to get a time down in the second qualifying session, partially due to being blocked on track, but nevertheless, Lawson did have another impressive qualifying; finishing 10th after making Q3 by eliminating Max Verstappen at the end of Q2. In the race, once again, Tsunoda wasn’t able to complete a lap, but Lawson shined. He fought hard and stayed out of trouble once again to pick up his first career points in what is considered by many to be the most physically demanding race on the calendar due to the extreme Singapore heat and humidity.
In just three races, even if you take away the final results, it was clear that Lawson had been the best out of him, de Vries and Riccardo this year, and he deserved to continue to race for Alpha Tauri.
However, prior to the next race, the Japanese Grand Prix, Daniel Riccardo was announced alongside Yuki Tsunoda as the Alpha Tauri driver pairing for 2024. This robs Lawson of his chance to drive for the team next year. This is not the move that should’ve been made in my opinion.
We’ve already seen what Riccardo can do in F1, Red Bull knows the driver he is. Alpha Tauri announced that Riccardo’s experience’s will be important in 2024, but experience isn’t what Alpha Tauri is about. The point of Alpha Tauri is for Red Bull to have their young drivers get their feet wet in F1 before hopefully joining the big squad. Riccardo isn’t a young driver who needs to get his feet wet, Lawson is, and Red Bull and Lawson can both gain so much by him being in the car. F1 experience is invaluable, for such a young driver especially. Riccardo isn’t going to be the future of Red Bull Racing, but Lawson could be. Also, now there’s a chance Lawson could end up somewhere else. We’ve seen in the past that drivers will leave the academies that have brought them up through the junior formulas to join new teams that promise opportunity. If Alpha Tauri isn’t Lawson’s 2024 destination, maybe Williams Racing is. They’re yet to renew Logan Sargent’s contract for next season, and he hasn’t been too impressive in his rookie season, still pointless and far behind teammate Alex Albon to this point in the season. Red Bull wouldn’t be losing anything by letting Riccardo go, but they could be regretting not giving Lawson a drive for years to come.
One might point to de Vries and argue you can’t make judgments off of such small sample sizes, and generally, I would agree, but nothing about Lawson suggests that this stretch is a fluke. He’s had four nice drives for Alpha Taur, including at the Japanese Grand Prix where he finished 11th after it was already announced he wouldn’t have the seat for next year. Lawson has plainly accomplished a lot in his career at a much younger age than de Vries. Lawson was a force in Formula 4, he finished 5th in F3 at 18 years old, he was one race away from winning the prestigious German DTM series in 2021 at 19 years old, and like I’ve already mentioned, he’s had success in F2 and Super Formula. For reference, Nyck de Vries was 24 and in his fourth F2 season when he won his championship.
Lawson has a track record of success at an extremely young age, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he is doing well in Formula 1, albeit in a small sample. Really though, the only way Red Bull will ever find out what kind of driver Lawson can be in F1 is by giving him a race seat instead of relegating him to the sidelines.