The history of Formula 1 is littered with drivers making their debuts after misfortunate has befallen another.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is when Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot found himself sentenced to 18 months at Her Majesty’s Pleasure after being found guilty of assaulting London black cabbie Eric Court in December 1990.
Gachot had deployed CS gas on Court on his way to a meeting with Jordan sponsor 7Up after a disagreement in traffic at Hyde Park corner led to an altercation. The gas was not legal in the UK at the time, and so instead of heading to Monza for a test found himself checking in to HMP Brixton for an extended stay.
This happened the week before the Belgian Grand Prix, and faced with limited time to source a replacement driver, Eddie Jordan secured a deal to run a young Mercedes sportscar hotshot.
And so began the career of one M.Schumacher.
Now, the circumstances around Liam Lawson’s debut are no-where near as extreme or legally dubious as the Gachot/Schumacher situation, but with Daniel Ricciardo breaking his hand and requiring surgery, the Kiwi was presented with a golden opportunity.
On the evidence from Zandvoort and Monza so far, Lawson has to be found a spot on the 2024 grid.
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A free hit for Lawson
Ricciardo broke his hand during a crash in Free Practice 2 at the Dutch Grand Prix, meaning reserve driver Lawson did not hit the track until Saturday morning at the tight, twisty Zandvoort.
This was the first time that he had driven the AT04, and later that day in qualifying, he qualified slowest of all, but a very respectable six-tenths behind Yuki Tsunoda who has been in the car all-season.
The race itself was probably the most challenging debut any driver has ever made in the World Championship with the chaos of the rain on the opening lap, the late deluge and red flag and final sprint to the line.
Lawson kept it tidy, did not make a fool of himself and even battled the hobbled Charles Leclerc for position, including a fantastic move on the brakes and up the inside of Turn 11.
Perhaps some naivety was shown here as Leclerc simply passed him again with the DRS down into Turn 1 on the next lap, but the execution of the move from Lawson was pinpoint.
Tsunoda was penalised for contact with George Russell which dropped him down to 15th while Lawson was credited with a 13th-place finish having survived the mayhem and was only 7.801s away from securing a point on debut.
The Dutch weekend was effectively a free hit for Lawson as he got to grips with the package and acclimatised, although the signs were certainly positive.
A much fairer reflection of his abilities could be made in the Italian Grand Prix where he would have a full Grand Prix weekend to prepare and any chinks in the armour would be exposed.
Monza raises chances
In qualifying at Monza, Lawson found himself 12th on the grid, just 0.164s behind team-mate Tsunoda in 11th and 0.215s from making Q3.
Tsunoda would fail to start after the engine failure on the formation lap, but Lawson made an unconventional two-stop strategy work coming home 11th.
That is the best finish any occupant of the second AT04 has managed this season with Nyck de Vries’ having 12th in Monaco and Ricciardo 13th in Hungary.
It was an inherited 11th as Oscar Piastri copped a five-second penalty that dropped him to 12th in the final classification, but you don’t finish 11th in a Grand Prix by mistake.
Lawson’s race featured an exquisite overtake on the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg at Turn 1, seemingly straight out of the old Ricciardo playbook of waiting for the other car to brake, counting to three and then hitting the anchors yourself.
The New Zealander has made a strong case for himself in the first two races of his Grand Prix career, and has made himself a strong contender for a full-time race seat in 2024.
He is to get further chances to impress in Singapore and likely Japan with Ricciardo likely to skip both owing to the physicality of both tracks before a return in Qatar.
That is a clutch of potentially four races for Lawson to make his case – but where could he end up in 2024 if he does indeed earn a full-time F1 seat?
Where could Lawson race in 2024?
Ricciardo had a mixed performance during his two races, with his comeback in Hungary a fine effort before a quiet performance in Belgium, certainly not helped the Sprint format and mixed conditions on a weekend he’d have preferred to be a dry, normal event to build up experience in the unfamiliar car.
Officially he is on loan from Red Bull with the aim of earning back the seat he left in 2018 for 2025 and removing Sergio Perez’s name off the tenancy agreement.
By that time, Ricciardo will be celebrating his 36th birthday mid-way through the campaign, and although age is not a limiting factor as it once was (looking at you Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso), is that really what Red Bull wants to do?
Doubts remain about Ricciardo’s ceiling, which were meant to be wiped out by this half-season in the AlphaTauri. It probably wouldn’t matter in 2023 if Ricciardo subbed in for an injured Perez giving the lesson Max Verstappen is giving the other 19 drivers, but Ricciardo does not stand-out as the must-have candidate.
That is not to say that Lawson is despite his impressive start. He needs to be tested to see how he reacts when things go wrong on track. What is his response when someone barges past and causes minor damage to the car? How does he handle a slow pit-stop that cost him five positions?
The only way to expose him to all of those scenarios is for Red Bull to find him a seat on the 2024 grid.
The two logical candidates are the AlphaTauri one he currently has and at Williams where Logan Sargeant’s future is unclear.
If Lawson is as good as is believed, he will be in the seat alongside Tsunoda and all but signal the end of Ricciardo’s full-time career.
There is not a chance that he will be in the 2025 Red Bull full-time if he is not on the 2024 grid. Why would Red Bull take the risk of putting a driver who had not raced a full-season since 2022 in the car? That is not worth taking.
However, in a positive for Ricciardo, new AlphaTauri CEO Peter Bayer has spoken of his desire to move towards having more experienced drivers in the car to drive the team forward. He is driver with 234 starts currently to his name, fourth of the list of currently ‘active’ drivers behind Alonso, Hamilton and Perez.
If that is the route AlphaTauri wants to go down, Ricciardo’s experience could be his trump card.
If it does, and Williams is approached by Red Bull – notwithstanding their engine agreement with Mercedes – for Lawson to get Sargeant’s seat, boss James Vowles would be perfectly entitled to turn around and say: ‘If he’s so good, why don’t you put him in one of your four cars?’.
This was shown first on: https://racingnews365.com/the-lawson-shaped-hole-ricciardo-finds-himself-in