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Record-breaking, future star, measured approach — Why this truly was Oliver Bearman's weekend to remember

Written by Vyas Ponnuri

After a difficult start to his sophomore Formula 2 season — possibly a career-defining one, at that, you'd think Oliver Bearman would be delighted with a return to the front of the field, as he secured pole position by the slender margin of two hundredths from Kush Maini.

Two valuable points would see the Briton open his account for 2024, and kickstart a rejuvenated campaign, after a rare off-weekend for stalwarts PREMA in the Bahraini desert.

But such is the nature of motorsport, things can change in the blink of an eye.

Carlos Sainz, coming off the back of a stellar performance to kick-start his final Ferrari campaign, experienced apparent discomfort during Thursday's practice session, calling it his 'toughest day in a Formula One car'. It would soon be clear he wouldn't take part in the weekend's proceedings, being diagnosed with appendicitis on Friday morning.

It is not often a team has to seek a replacement at the eleventh hour, and such was the nature of the circumstances, an opportunity opened up for the boy from Chelmsford — a rare opportunity to drive for Formula One's most decorated outfit.

Such opportunities do not come often — the last opportunity to drive for a 'top team' was George Russell's cameo as a Mercedes driver in the attritious 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, a chain of events kick-started by seven-time champion Hamilton testing positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the race weekend.

On that day, Russell was on hand to take his chances. In the same vein, Bearman was fortunate to be in the same paddock, ready to take up a career-defining opportunity to race for the Scuderia, given he was their first-choice reserve driver.

This would come at a cost, with Bearman having to relinquish the two points he gained for pole position in qualifying the night before — and a front row start for Saturday's feature race, crucial to rejuvenating his season, and kick off a charge for the championship.

But such is the allure of the Scuderia — an opportunity too good to resist for any driver, no matter how experienced they are, and it was well worth the opportunity for Bearman to snatch this rare chance to impress numerous faces on the Formula One Paddock, and put himself in the reckoning for a full-time drive next season, with potential seats up for grabs across the grid next year.

With Bearman being the first in line to step in for either Sainz or Charles Leclerc, should either driver not be able to race, the 18-year old duly accepted the opportunity to step into the mighty shoes of the Spaniard, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Fred Vasseur, Ferrari team principal, has a knack for unearthing famous talents, and advised Bearman to take a measured approach, heading into the weekend. "Don't try to be a hero," advised the Frenchman, who had seen famous names such as Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc rise through the ranks, and knew what was in store for the newest rookie on the grid.

The timing was another factor in question, as it came only a few hours before FP3, meaning the Briton didn't overthink it, or get too nervous. The 18-year old took the opportunity as it came, quickly getting acquainted to his new surroundings, meeting his engineers, and looking to learn as much as he could.

With only one hour of running left before the all-important qualifying session for the race, it was imperative for Bearman to get his eye in, even more so around one of Formula One's most relentless circuits. The meandering first sector, followed by the high speed corners all along, coupled with the fearsome left-right sweep of turns 22 and 23 left zero room for error. It was a daunting challenge for anyone, not least someone who had very little running to boot.

With Fred Vasseur's words echoing in his head, the Briton made sure he experienced a clean FP3, focusing largely on race simulation during his 22-lap run in the session. The spotlight quickly shifted onto this youngster racing for the Scuderia, as he impressed no less than reigning champion Max Verstappen, who appeared impressed by Bearman's approach during the session.

“I was watching his first few laps in FP3, because that’s where you can judge if someone is a bit comfortable or not in the car," remarked the Dutchman. "And by lap two, lap three, I was like: ‘Okay, that’s a strong start. I like to see that’.”

Earning praise from one of the top dogs of contemporary motorsport would definitely count as a great start to the weekend, and give Bearman even more encouragement as he headed into qualifying.

With reassurance from race engineer Riccardo Adami, who advised the youngster to 'take his time', Bearman began to explore the limits of the track, and flirt with Jeddah's ever-fearsome TecPro barriers, even getting as close to the wall at turn 27 on his flying lap. A smooth Q1 ensured he got within seven tenths of teammate Leclerc, a driver known for his stupendous qualifying pace.

Q2 proved difficult for the youngster, a lock-up into turn four costing Bearman his first lap of the session. Nevertheless, he returned to the pits, opting to go out for two fast laps towards the end, on another fresh set of soft tyres.

The final set of laps would be the moment for Bearman to make what would be a monumental Q3 effort. As he set off, the Briton traversed the mighty sweeps of the first sector, and was pushing, even knocking the paint off the advertising hoardings at turn 21, as he attempted to maximise his speed into the crucial turn 22-23 chicane ahead.

His scuff with the barriers meant he would set a lap time enough for11th, just shy of a Q3 spot. But there was still one more opportunity to get a lap in, and Bearman set off on his final flying lap, determined to improve on an already impressive showing.

Yet, it was evident his tyres were past their prime, as Bearman couldn't make the cut for Q3, coming within four-hundredths from knocking out seven-time champion, and future Ferrari driver Lewis Hamilton for a spot in the top ten shootout.

Bearman immediately turned to the radio, apologising for being unable to make Q3, with his race engineer backing up his apology, and preparing for a drive up the order on race day.

Even still, 11th on the grid was an excellent showing for a racer dropped into the pressure-cooker element of a Formula One qualifying with only one hour of experience under his belt, around one of Formula One's most fearsome circuits.

His performance drew praise from all corners, with Verstappen once again mighty impressed with Bearman's effort. His teammate Leclerc, who qualified on the front row, spoke praises of the Briton:

“And for Ollie, I mean, he has done an incredible job. Obviously, not having done FP1 and FP2 is quite a big disadvantage.

“He got into a car that he didn’t know on such a challenging track like it is in Jeddah and straightaway in FP3, he was on it.

Nevertheless, Bearman's big test would come 24 hours later, a full race lasting a half-century of laps. Apart from racing and overtaking drivers around him, Bearman would have to manage his tyres, brakes, and with starting in the middle of the pack, the risk of being caught in an incident ran rife.

All around a racetrack with the barriers so close, and the high average lap speeds meaning he would be subjected to extreme G Forces around certain corners, straining his neck.

Several well-wishers kept a close eye on the youngster, one of them being none other than four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, who sent a reassuring message wishing Bearman the best of luck, ahead of his debut Formula One outing.

To help Bearman off the start line, Ferrari fitted him with soft tyres, only one of two cars to do so, in the hope of a good start catapulting him into the points-paying positions, ensuring he had a smooth race. While this didn't pay off, Bearman kept his nose clean, remaining in his 11th position grid slot off the start.

He did appear to get racy, however, nearly clouting the wall at turn 27 as he tried to make his way past Yuki Tsunoda in tenth, and was forced to take evasive action later into turn one, taking a significant chunk of the inside kerb to avoid damage. Having been advised against any risky moves, he maintained his position, and opted to settle into a rhythm.

The safety car period caused by Lance Stroll's crash elevated Bearman to the points, and Ferrari crew fitted him with a set of hard tyres, to go until the end of the race, on a track with minimal tyre degradation.

Bearman's quick reaction on the restart fetched a crucial overtake on Tsunoda, as he dived to the inside of turn one, undoubtedly catching the Japanese driver by surprise. Zhou Guanyu ahead was dispatched easily, having no pace on ageing medium tyres, compared to the charging Ferrari.

The most stern opponent of the day was Haas racer Nico Hulkenberg, the German fending Bearman for multiple laps, and even repassing the Ferrari racer into turn one, having been passed into the final corner.

Nonetheless, Bearman would learn quickly, staying underneath the German's rear wing into the final corner, before sealing the deal into turn one, much to the jubilation of dad David in the garage. Bearman would later credit the Haas veteran's driving, stating how Hulkenberg's experience helped keep him at bay for a few laps.

Hereafter, it would be a smooth run to the flag, as Bearman maintained a steady gap to Russell ahead, at six seconds to the Mercedes driver, gaining confidence with every passing lap, as he bedded into his the driving style of his Ferrari SF24 seamlessly.

Pit stops by fellow Brits Hamilton and Lando Norris elevated Bearman to seventh, and with his two experienced opponents on fresh soft tyres, the duo began to close the gap, bringing it down steadily as the laps counted down.

Yet, Bearman remained unpertubed, upping his pace at the right time, with his new-found confidence meaning he was pumping in his personal best lap times of the race, minimising the deficit to Norris behind. The Ferrari racer even edged closer to Russell ahead, narrowing a near six-second gap to 2.9 at the flag, holding firm on seventh from his compatriots behind.

The G-forces of the fearsome Jeddah Corniche Circuit had taken its toll on Bearman's neck, as he had appeared to rest his neck on the high speed corners, evidenced by the deflection on his headrest after the race.

Despite the fatigue he'd experienced, his neck unprepared for the extreme forces of a Formula One car around the high-speed track, Bearman had exceeded expectations on his way to a solid points haul, and turned many heads around the paddock for his adaptability, and smooth integration into the Ferrari fold.

His efforts were reflected by a landslide victory in the audience poll for 'Driver of the Day', with fans truly in awe of Bearman's efforts on the day.

Aged 18, he had eclipsed fellow Briton Lando Norris' record as the youngest Briton to start an F1 race, as well as the youngest-ever Ferrari driver. Bearman became the fourth driver to score points on debut driving for Ferrari, following in the footsteps of Ignazio Giunti, Clay Regazzoni, and Arturio Merzario.

Adding to his repertoire was the 68th driver to score points on Formula One debut, the first British driver to do so since Paul Di Resta for Force India way back in 2011. There was also the small matter of being one of four Brits to finish in the top ten of a Formula One race, matching the record set over five decades ago, at the 1968 French Grand Prix.

While these milestones proved side quests in his desire to excel on a one-off outing, Bearman certainly shone in what could possibly be an audition for a full-time drive in the future — with team principal Vasseur dubbing his peerless weekend almost 'unrealistic', while Haas team principal Ayao Komatsu marked him out as the 'perfect package'. Good omens, indeed, for the young Brit eyeing a drive for the American outfit next season.

Once again, the big bosses weren't the only ones praising the youngster from Chelmsford, with drivers quick to compliment Bearman for his magnificient feat. His teammate Leclerc spoke of it being 'only a matter of time' before the Briton made it onto the grid, commending his rigour and calmness.

Once again, Verstappen spoke highly of the youngster during the post-race press conference, while Hamilton and Russell were quick to embrace their compatriot after the cool down lap.

While stand-in performances can sometimes be a false dawn, there is no doubt this stand-in appearance would prove decisive in Bearman's quest for a more permanent Formula One drive in the future, given the abundance of talent he possesses, and his Formula 2 feats so far.

Finishing a race of such magnitude would count as a feat in itself, let alone securing six points, ahead of two big names in the sport. It was a repayment of the faith the Ferrari Driver Academy (FDA) had instated in this youngster, and there's no doubt the world will certainly be keeping a keen eye on Bearman's career path in the future, as he embarks on the road to a full-time Formula One career.


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