Sometimes the slightest spark can cause the hottest fires. Sebastian Vettel’s shock, but not necessarily surprising, retirement announcement seems to be that spark in the motorsport world this summer.
Series far and wide are feeling the ramifications of the fire that the four-time champion has started.
In Indycar, the drama of McLaren signing drivers who perhaps hoped they had a chance in F1 because of Daniel Ricciardo’s previously tenuous position has settled down – 2021 F2 champ Oscar Piastri will fill the seat Ricciardo will vacate. And in Formula E, the electric championship might lose their rookie driver Antonio Giovinazzi with the Italian testing for the Haas F1 team later this year, allegedly to replace Mick Schumacher with the German heading to Alpine.
The series with the most to gain from this unpredictable musical chairs game should be the direct feeder series, Formula 2. A pyramid or ladder of championships leads to F1, and F2 is the step below with the best young racing talent. It had looked unlikely that any racer would graduate this year. However, Seb’s news changes everything.
The Sauber Academy protogé Theo Pourchaire has always been the most likely candidate to move to F1 for 2023. Alfa Romeo Team Principal Frederick Vasseur rates the Frenchman highly, and many believed Guanyu Zhou was a simple stop-gap for Vasseur until Pourchaire won F2 and earned an F1 seat.
However, Zhou has proved an extremely capable F1 driver that Alfa would understandably want to retain. Or, if they didn’t, they’d likely harbour reservations over effectively ending a driver’s young career so soon with the team’s reputation as a breeding ground for young talent (see Charles Leclerc, Sergio Perez, and Kimi Raikkonen). Therefore Pourchaire’s future had looked in doubt a month ago, particularly with his title hopes fading thanks to the consistency of championship leader Felipe Drugovich.
However, today there are a half-dozen potential seats available, thanks to Vettel’s recently introduced uncertainty in the market. The news has reinvigorated hopes that Pourchaire might find a drive in Formula 1, irrespective of Zhou doing well. If Pourchaire fulfils his potential and Vasseur’s faith in him, Alfa Romeo may not mind losing Zhou, safe in the knowledge he will find a seat with another team seeking a driver instead of ending his career.
Aside from Alfa Romeo, Alpine, Williams, Haas, McLaren, and AlphaTauri haven’t confirmed their driver pairing in 2023. McLaren has signed Piastri, so there isn’t a seat there. And Alpine is sniffing around Mick Schumacher and Daniel Ricciardo, so don’t expect an F2 driver to join their ranks to replace the outgoing two-time champion, Fernando Alonso.
Speaking of Alonso, his move to Aston Martin closed the door on any F2 driver filling the void left by Vettel. Still, there are rumours that the Lawrence Stroll-owned team may wish to obtain the services of Formula 2 championship leader Felipe Drugovich in a developmental or reserve driver role. Such a move would be an apt reward for the Brazilian who has excelled in 2022 in his third season racing F2 despite no affiliation with any academy program.
As for drives that would see an F2 graduate actually racing against Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton rather than driving in a simulator, Williams looks the most likely route once you exclude Pourchaire. Drugovich might not have been the pick for many to be a championship contender, but I didn’t see anyone suggesting Williams Driver Academy’s Logan Sargeant would be the top rookie. For a fleeting moment, it even looked like the American driver might mount a late championship push before two mechanical retirements scuppered his chances.
Williams is unlikely to retain Nicholas Latifi’s services for 2023 now their financial future is far more secure following Dorilton Capital’s buyout of the team. Latifi brought money in thanks to sponsorship backing from his father’s company, but the historic British team is looking for on-track results these days rather than simply surviving. Promoting the hugely talented American driver to F1 for 2023 could bring better results and finances. With F1 heading to the USA three times next year, Sargeant would be an excellent draw for US-based sponsors.
Admittedly, Vettel’s retirement didn’t open the door for Logan Sargeant, but it does make it less likely for Williams to entice existing F1 talent to join them at the back of the grid. If they hoped to lure someone like Schumacher over, who is now chasing an Alpine drive thanks to Vettel’s exit, securing a driver hungry for any F1 seat like Sargeant would make a lot of sense.
Finally, Haas and AlphaTauri seem like outside bets for F2 drivers seeking a 2023 graduation. Haas will welcome Antonio Giovinazzi to assess his speed in two 2022 FP1 sessions, and they’ve openly advertised they’d home Daniel Ricciardo. Meanwhile, despite their Red Bull connections, AlphaTauri has surprisingly few options after the Red Bull Junior Team suffered a disappointing season. We could see Jehan Daruvala, a Red Bull-backed racer, in a reserve driver role, but after his recent McLaren tests, it seems most likely the Woking-based team would be his landing spot.
As we’re now seeing on an almost daily basis, the landscape is rapidly changing, and in this chaos, surprises lurk at many turns. Canny Formula 2 drivers can turn this to their advantage, especially those like Pourchaire and Sargeant, who have existing links with F1 teams. These opportunities will hopefully lead to the rare sight of the older generation making way for young prospects – Sebastian Vettel’s parting gift to the sport he’s already given so much to.