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The Understudy: A vital role in Formula One

Written by Jenny Clynes, Edited by Debargha Banerjee

Credit - Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Daniel Ricciardo took to a Formula One car once again at Silverstone after the 2023 British Grand Prix. After a difficult two seasons at McLaren, Ricciardo ultimately left and was without a seat for the 2023 grid, and thus he took on the role of Red Bull’s third driver. Each of the ten F1 teams have a set of driver “understudies”, such roles include the names of the team’s third driver, reserve driver, test drivers, and simulator drivers. But what do these drivers do during the season and who are they? This article will explore the roles and responsibilities of the unseen, behind the grid drivers.

The teams’ reserve driver or third and test driver tend to be used separately and are seen as individual roles, however, there are a number of teams that combine these roles into one. The third driver / test driver is responsible for assessing the car to help both the drivers and engineers improve it. This testing will take place on a designated test day, or sometimes even during a Friday practice session. Usually during the first free practice of the season, they will have an opportunity to practice on the track. It is these drivers who are also usually highly involved in the PR side of the team, appearing in promotional videos and marketing schemes throughout a season. Daniel Ricciardo is a prominent example of how third drivers are utilized for PR with him appearing in a range of short videos throughout the 2023 season.

Reserve drivers are essentially on call during a race weekend and it is their job to step in when a regular driver cannot drive - this may be due to illness, injury or personal reasons such as bereavement. These drivers are required to attend most of the Grand Prix weekends and are usually found in and around the garage and not to miss the fact that reserve drivers have to maintain regular training to stay on top of their fitness because they can be called in at a moment's notice.

Understudy drivers are typically made up of rookie drivers looking for a way into Formula One, for example Nyck de Vries was the reserve driver for Mercedes until 2022 before signing as a grid driver for Alpha Tauri. They can also be previous grid drivers who do not have a seat for the current season, or are taking a break from the grid, for example Mick Schumacher who is now the reserve for Mercedes after previously racing for Haas in the 2021 and 2022 season. They are full time employees and are contracted as such with their salary, however, if they have to race then they are generally rewarded with a hefty bonus.

When they are given the rare opportunity to complete a race at the weekend, it is an opportunity to show their talent and skill by getting into a car that they aren’t used to and driving to the limit. No reserve driver has ever won a race, however some have come extremely close. In 1997, when Alexander Wurz stepped in for Gerhard Berger in the British Grand Prix, he achieved a podium position when he came third.

So who are the extra drivers for each of the teams this season? Red Bull and Alpha Tauri share their reserve drivers consisting of Liam Lawson, Dennis Hauger, and Zane Maloney, and as previously mentioned, Daniel Ricciardo is their third driver. Red Bull also have an employed simulator driver, Rudy Van Buren, who is vital in voicing his views on potential developments and updates on the car. Aston Martin employ Stoffel Vandoorne as both a reserve and test driver alongside their reserve Felipe Drugovich. Antonio Giovinazzi, the previous Alfa Romeo driver, is now the reserve for Ferrari, with Robert Shwartzman being their test driver. Theo Pourchaire is Alfa Romeo’s reserve, Jack Doohan for Alpine and Pietro Fittipaldi for Haas. McLaren have access to Aston Martin’s reserves for the first 15 races of the season, and employ Alex Palou for their permanent reserve driver. Mercedes and Williams typically share their reserves, and this year, Mick Schumacher is the official Mercedes reserve.

Despite these drivers not having a place on the grid, their importance cannot be played down as they provide an essential aid to both their team and drivers. Even if they don’t get the opportunity to race during the season, the feedback they provide to the engineers can make the difference in the championship, the marketing strategies they execute can draw in vital new fans to both the individual team and motorsport in general, especially in this digital age.

1 comment

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2023년 7월 17일

If test/reserve/understudies are the subject, Micheal Parkes is well worth researching. A very well qualified engineer who was in the Ferrari team. Often drove, tested and engineered the cars. Stepped into the F1 team after Surtees left in '66 ... he finished 2nd at the French and Italian GPs in the beautiful Ferrari 312/66. Parkes was hugely underrated then, still now.

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