Written by Dan Jones, Edited by Meghana Sree
In what has been a stagnant, uneventful, and frankly boring F1 silly season, the Williams seat of Logan Sargeant remains the only question mark to be fulfilled, with all other 19 seats being a 100% copy of those in 2023. However, it should not be this way. AlphaTauri’s recent decision to retain both Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo is a disgrace not only to their own values, but also the evolving trend in the F1 driver market, and it is one which should be frowned upon by many.
The cork in the bottle? Liam Lawson. A highly impressive twenty-one year old Kiwi driver, who has impressed on every step of the feeder series’ ladders, who has impressed in one of the premier GT racing series in the world, who has impressed in the top level of the highly-competitive Japanese motorsport scene, and has now impressed in Formula One. Despite this prolific resume, which continues to be noticed by millions worldwide, he will likely stay on the sidelines for 2024 behind the aforementioned Tsunoda and Ricciardo.
Lawson may have felt hard done by missing out on a 2023 seat, when AlphaTauri opted for a move on former Formula E Champion, Nyck de Vries, to complete their line-up after he starred in his F1 one-off in the 2022 Italian Grand Prix. It was a harsh decision on Lawson, but one that was understandable, given the increasing positive reputation that de Vries was gaining in Formula E, Sportscar, and Formula One.
Lawson was placed as test and reserve driver for both Red Bull outfits, and was sent off to Japan to do a season-long campaign in Super Formula, a campaign that had previously worked in 2017 for Pierre Gasly to great success, but not so much for the likes of ex-Red Bull juniors such as Lucas Auer, Pato O’Ward, Dan Ticktum, and Juri Vips. But Super Formula made sense, as it would give Lawson a further year of development in the cars that closest resemble a Formula One car, against some top motorsport talents, in the eye of potentially moving to a 2024 Formula One seat.
The expectation for Lawson would have been showing his worth - picking up a couple of podiums, regularly in the points, and perhaps a win should the opportunity come his way. He blew this straight out of the water on Day One. Lawson continued his career trend of winning on debut, leaving the field in the dust at Fuji, becoming the first ever driver in the history of Super Formula to win on debut. For comparison, Gasly didn’t pick up points in either of his first two races.
One could argue that these bizarre things do happen, a flash in the pan. But no, Lawson would take a top five finish in each of his next four races, including yet another win in Autopolis, even when the run was plagued by strategy issues which potentially cost the Kiwi further wins and podiums. Lawson’s flying start in Japan had put him right into the mix for championship contention, but things were brewing on the other side of the world.
In the AlphaTauri seat that Lawson had missed out on, de Vries was having a nightmare. He hadn’t picked up any points by the British Grand Prix, and was swiftly removed after just ten Formula One races for the team. Another decision had to be made about de Vries’ replacement. And this one would fall out of Lawson’s grasp too. AlphaTauri opted to pick the other test and reserve driver, Ricciardo, to see out the rest of the 2023 season. Again, it made some sense. It would give Tsunoda a reasonable benchmark to compare himself against, instead of the out-of-his-depth de Vries, as well as giving a bit of experience at the helm to give AlphaTauri a figurehead to move up the constructors’ standings.
Lawson may have seen this as frustrating, but again, understandable. Meanwhile, he dominated once more as he won the next race at Fuji by a landslide. Lawson was then involved in an unfortunate accident at Motegi, and now lies eight points off the championship lead, with just the double-header finale at Suzuka to go.
But, Lawson’s F1 chance would come. Ricciardo, who had been more impressive than de Vries in his two outings but had not yet done anything spectacular, broke a metacarpal bone in a practice crash, effectively ruling him out of the Dutch Grand Prix. It was at this point that Lawson, who was conveniently at the track, had stepped up to replace the Australian.
And it wouldn’t be an easy weekend for the F1 rookie, with treacherous conditions at the forefront. Nevertheless, Lawson kept his nose clean, finishing P13, which many other experienced heads were unable to do. To date, Lawson has now completed four Formula One Grands Prix. In his time, he has finished all four races, in fact beating Tsunoda in all four events, and he has an average finish of 11th. He also picked up AlphaTauri’s best position of the year with a 9th place finish at the Singapore Grand Prix. A mighty impressive effort, but still clearly not enough for a seat.
And here’s where I get frustrated. What more does Red Bull want Lawson to do? They send him off to Japan for a development year to look at an F1 seat - he absolutely throws all expectations out the window, wins three races in one of the most difficult series in the world, and looks like a strong contender for the championship. He finally gets the F1 chance he thoroughly deserves, and despite being thrown in mid-season, he outperforms the three years’ worth experience of Tsunoda, picks up their best finish of the season at what’s regarded as the most difficult race for rookies, and even reaches Q3. It’s impossible to understand why the expectations are so lofty here. What more can Lawson possibly do to show he deserves an F1 seat? Why are his F1 expectations so much higher than any Red Bull Junior we’ve ever seen in the past?
But let’s have a look at the other two in the seat. Tsunoda has now had three seasons in F1, heading for a fourth. Tsunoda hasn’t particularly impressed in any of the three years he’s had: he was trounced on by Gasly in both 2021 and 2022, and Lawson has arguably been the most impressive AlphaTauri driver of 2023. Other than flashes of brilliance shown in his debut year, Tsunoda still lacks headline performances, and still lacks maturity at times - albeit not as much as in his early Formula One outings.
My main issue here is the time Tsunoda has spent. AlphaTauri, to put things simply, is a proving ground to see if you’re ready for a Red Bull seat at the absolute pinnacle of the sport. It serves to help gain the necessary experience and development for a driver to head right to the front of the field when the Red Bull bosses see them fit for that role. If a driver can’t prove themselves ready for that role in three seasons, they’re clearly not good enough. Bar the slightly different cases of Gasly and Daniil Kvyat, no driver has ever been provided four years in AlphaTauri, and when drivers like Jean-Eric Vergne and Sebastien Buemi have gotten three, the reasoning is they had no suitable replacement - and both drivers have gone to do great things in their motorsport careers since then.
Tsunoda has been distinctly average at best after three years, certainly not enough to warrant a future Red Bull seat, so why he is still filling a seat is beyond me. What further puzzles me is the continuing belief that he will jump ship with Honda to Aston Martin in 2026. If this is the case, what is even the benefit of keeping him? He’s just taking up a space to actually assess drivers, when Red Bull is in dire need of a suitable replacement for Sergio Perez in 2025. If three years isn’t enough to prove that one is good enough for Red Bull, it’s clearly time to give someone else the chance.
Now let’s move to Ricciardo. Yes, it would have been extremely harsh to remove him based on his injury, but at the same time, has he exactly proved himself at the team? His two races were respectable, but unspectacular. I think what can be agreed on by many, is that Lawson was far more impressive in his maiden two outings as a rookie in the Netherlands and Italy. Moreover, Lawson was a rookie, not a driver with over ten years of Formula One experience.
There’s also no guarantee that Ricciardo will fully recover from his accident and injury. Yes, the majority of times a Formula One driver will come back into the fold up to speed, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that this is the case. Ricciardo will need at least the rest of the season to get back to the performance level expected, and will have to hope he will be stronger in 2024. Lawson has impressed everyone right off the bat in every single series he has participated in, which is indisputable.
Red Bull’s perseverance with Ricciardo just seems bizarre to me. People have almost brushed aside the fact that his McLaren contract was broken early because he simply was not good enough, and was not getting the results. Oscar Piastri, another rookie, has absolutely excelled in that seat alongside Lando Norris.
I’m not going to beat around the bush. Ricciardo is a marketing move, he’s great for PR, especially when AlphaTauri wants new buyers. But it’s almost becoming a destruction of the philosophy of AlphaTauri. Their PR situation could only be damaged by the saga they’ve got going on with themselves, as the majority of fans saw Lawson as the deserving candidate for one of those AlphaTauri seats. Lawson himself is popular - he’s always had a lot of fans, he’s a fun character, but he’s also very humble and a great team player; even in Zandvoort he was immediately analysing what he could have done better, showing great ability for introspection and reflection.
I don’t think Ricciardo is, and will ever be a realistic move for Red Bull. He’s 34, and he’s not exactly a junior driver, especially when he’s 13 years Lawson’s senior. If he failed at McLaren against a highly rated Norris, what do you think the outcome will be in the top car against a driver who’s often regarded as one of the fastest if not, the fastest that this sport has ever seen?
And there’s always the thought, ‘He can’t be any worse than Perez.’ However, how high was Perez’s stock value at the end of 2020 when he moved to Red Bull? It was through the roof. Even in 2021, he was very highly rated after a pretty average season, all things considered. Would Ricciardo fare any better? I doubt it.
Ricciardo left the team in 2018 because he didn’t want to play second fiddle to Max Verstappen. Red Bull were clearly frustrated with this - it left them in a mess in the coming years with Gasly and Alex Albon. The acceptance now will be that he is expected to play second fiddle with Verstappen, not that he would be competing with him on a regular basis anyway. Why Red Bull have resorted to him almost like a light at the end of the tunnel is anyone’s best guess.
It’s almost the continuation of AlphaTauri moving away from Red Bull’s junior team. Tsunoda has been the only driver promoted to the outfit since 2018, (bar Lawson’s replacement appearances), with external recruitments coming into the field with Brendon Hartley, Albon, Perez, Ricciardo and de Vries. It was understandable in most of these circumstances, Red Bull did not have a sufficient pool of drivers to fill those seats. Fast forward, not only do Red Bull now have Lawson, they have six further Juniors in Formula 2 - with Isack Hadjar the only one remotely in and around that AlphaTauri seat.
I think Ayumu Iwasa has been dealt a pretty hard hand here too. He’s been quite impressive in his two seasons of Formula 2, certainly enough to warrant a Formula One drive, considering Sargeant’s struggles when he was performing at a similar level to Iwasa in 2022. Iwasa would certainly be a worthy candidate for an AlphaTauri seat, although his name isn’t even in the mix for a Free Practice drive, as rumours pick up of him taking Lawson’s Super Formula seat.
To put all my thoughts together, I still don’t understand what more Lawson has to do to get one of the AlphaTauri spaces. Not only has he broken the expectations that Red Bull had of him at the start of the year, but he’s only gone on to break expectations that any AlphaTauri driver has had this season. What more could he have possibly done?
Lawson will be attending all F1 races next year - hardly a consolation for the absolute crime it is that he won’t be racing in Formula One next year. Red Bull bosses have continually said that ‘his time will come,’ but if he supposedly isn’t good enough now, what is a year on the sidelines going to do for him? It is truly a bizarre decision, whatever tinted glasses you may see through, and not only a disgrace to Lawson, but a disgrace to AlphaTauri’s own values.