Formula 2’s youngest race winner, Théo Pourchaire, will return with ART Grand Prix for a third season in the series. Since his sensational victory on the streets of Monaco as a 17-year-old, the Frenchman has been widely tipped as a future F1 star in the making. However, in lining up for a third year in the second tier, F2’s 2022 runner-up is risking his F1 dream entirely, with the rationale for the decision unclear.
By Tyler Foster
Only last August, Pourchaire, Sauber’s preeminent junior talent, stated, “This  is my last season of FIA F2, for sure.” He cited a lack of funding as the reason for not continuing in the category, and coming into 2023, it was unknown what his next step would be. Still only 19 years old, Pourchaire didn’t lack options: the Sauber Academy driver was appointed the reserve driver of Formula 1 team Alfa Romeo Racing, which Sauber operates, alongside his testing role for the entirety of 2023.
This Sauber link has massively boosted Pourchaire’s chances of making it to F1. It was Frédéric Vasseur, the co-founder of ART Grand Prix and former boss of Alfa Romeo, who brought Pourchaire into the Sauber system and was responsible for overseeing his development on his way to F1. But in what was unfortunate timing for Pourchaire, Vasseur made a shock switch to Ferrari last month, just when his young protégé needed stability the most.
With Sauber under the new management of former McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl, it was originally unclear to what degree Pourchaire would continue to play a role within their junior team. However, the ART driver recently told FranceRacing.fr that the decision to redo F2 was one “taken together” with Sauber.
“They are helping me 100% this season by financing my season. They are the ones who wanted me to do F2 again. I couldn’t say no to this plan,” he explained.
The extent of this financial support from Sauber highlights just how invaluable Pourchaire remains to the Swiss outfit. At the end of this year, Alfa Romeo race driver Zhou Guanyu’s contract will expire. While the Chinese driver managed to hold his seat in F1 for a second season – arguably denying Pourchaire a spot this year – he is not locked in with Alfa Romeo and could switch teams. This would leave the door open to the possibility of Pourchaire occupying his seat at Alfa Romeo for 2024. At Haas, another Ferrari-powered team, either of Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hülkenberg’s present seats could be landing spots for both Zhou and Pourchaire should one of them leave the Alfa Romeo fold.
Though F2 is the most direct route to the top flight, it wasn’t Pourchaire’s only option for 2023, with opportunities to compete in Super Formula and Formula E also present. The Frenchman was set for a Super Formula test at Suzuka in early December with Kondō Racing, but the planned drive fell through. Similarly, in May 2022, he had a three-day Formula E test with the Nissan team at the Circuit Calafat in Catalonia, Spain. Pourchaire was initially in the running for one of the seats in the factory team for the 2022–23 season, but he ultimately did not line up with Nissan.
Other than another year in F2, Pourchaire could also have taken a hiatus from on-track competition and served only as a reserve driver, but as Oscar Piastri’s case proved, this plan has its drawbacks. Regardless of one’s prior results, there is little guarantee that a seat will be available in F1. Piastri dominated F2 in 2021 as a rookie but still had to wait on the sidelines as a result of internal politics and contract arrangements at Alpine, where he was a member of the academy. If similar circumstances arise, there is a very real possibility that Pourchaire may never be in the right window to appear on the F1 grid.
Whatever his choice for 2023, Pourchaire, still aged just 19, would’ve been taking a risk – one that could put his career on the road to no man’s land. Another year in F2 would have left him with the pressure of improving on second overall; moving to a different series to learn more could have backfired; and taking a year out would have left him vulnerable to the atrophy of his racecraft.
One can argue that, politics aside, Pourchaire doesn’t belong in F1 as he hasn’t yet proven himself under pressure. However, there is little debate over whether the Frenchman has the necessary talent. The hype around Pourchaire exploded after he made history by becoming F2’s youngest pole-sitter and race winner, at Monaco no less. Since that first win in May 2021, the ART youngster took another victory at Monza and a second place in the feature race at Sochi to finish his rookie season in an impressive fifth before improving to finish second in 2022.
The Sauber junior became the lead driver in the French ART squad last season by setting the bar so high in his first year. This, however, meant that any subsequent expectations were lofty. It is easy to forget that as a rookie, Pourchaire vastly outshone his more experienced teammate and current IndyCar driver Christian Lundgaard, once considered a contender for a drive with Alpine in F1.
Entering 2022, Pourchaire’s aims were always to win the F2 title and make the step up to F1 the following year, but with Zhou’s rookie season exceeding expectations, Pourchaire’s chances of graduating became far less realistic as the year wore on. The 19-year-old even said outright in November 2022, “Even if I’d won the [F2] championship, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be in F1 in 2023.”
Though Pourchaire only finished behind Felipe Drugovich, the 101-point gap between them was concerning. His qualifying results were below par, and despite being runner-up, Pourchaire failed to score a pole and lost out 6–8 in qualifying against his rookie teammate, Mercedes junior Frederik Vesti. Furthermore, Pourchaire said he lacked confidence during race starts after stalling in Jeddah in late 2021 and suffering a start-line accident that sent him to hospital.
The progress made by Pourchaire in F2 with ART Grand Prix – fifth as a rookie and second as a sophomore – suggests that he will mount a title charge in 2023. In this same period, the French team finished fifth and third in the teams’ standings, being just 24 points off the title last season. While this standard is strong, ART have not been as bulletproof as Prema with Piastri or MP Motorsport with Drugovich. In order to give Pourchaire the best circumstances to fight for the title, ART will have to raise their game as well. Inasmuch as Pourchaire gains stability with ART, he also risks complacency. And while 2019 champion Nyck de Vries and Drugovich both won the F2 title at the third time of asking, neither achieved it by staying with the same team throughout.
Pourchaire will be hoping to recreate De Vries’ and Drugovich’s success, but it is noteworthy that neither of them graduated to F1 immediately after their victorious campaigns. De Vries waited for three full seasons before earning his full-time shot this year with AlphaTauri, while Drugovich took up the role of test and reserve driver at Aston Martin. Some have made it to F1 immediately after three seasons, notably Zhou, who had the backing for the step up despite only achieving a best finish of third in his three F2 seasons. Yet Pourchaire, who has already eclipsed this in his second season, will have to justify himself to Alfa Romeo and other sponsors via an F2 title.
Pourchaire’s ultimate choice to return to F2 with ART, where he partners reigning Formula 3 champion Victor Martins in an all-French line-up, shows that he still has unfinished business in the series. The 19-year-old has no illusions about what the target is, stating upon the announcement of his 2023 seat, “I will do everything I can to bring the title to ART Grand Prix this season.”
As for the pressure of a third year, Pourchaire said, “No, I’m not afraid to redo a season. Now, I have some experience in F2. Staying with ART Grand Prix is a good thing. It’s a good team. I’ve built a good relationship with them. … In terms of objectives, if I say that I absolutely have to win this season, it’s wrong because last year, I said it and unfortunately, we broke the engine four times. We can’t do anything about that.”
Those mechanical failures took Pourchaire out of three races over the course of the year and widened the gulf between himself and Drugovich. In order to have a championship-winning season this time round, the Frenchman will need not only stronger results but also better reliability.
If I say that I absolutely have to win this season, it’s wrong because last year, I said it and unfortunately, we broke the engine four times. We can’t do anything about thatThéo Pourchaire
His unique talent alongside his substantial F2 experience make him a favourite for the title, but he will need to grow even more as a racer to outperform the rest of the 2023 grid. Pourchaire has made subtle improvements in the last 12 months to his racecraft. His biggest attribute has become his ability to perform in the feature races, with his three Sunday victories and a further three second-place finishes being his highlights from last season.
But how much further can his stock rise? Only winning the championship will surpass his current achievements in the series. The risk that Pourchaire is taking by doing a third consecutive year at ART brings a whole new level of pressure. Any failure to produce results may spur criticism and, perhaps more concerningly, the return of the self-destructive mindset that hindered him in 2022.
By continuing to race on the same weekends as F1, he will also continue to be under the microscope of F1 teams, chiefly Sauber. Bringing home the drivers’ title would be the biggest sign that Pourchaire is ready to graduate to a seat with one of them. For 2023, there will be 11 other F2 drivers in F1 academies fighting for a coveted F1 spot, all of them in outfits that have won races in each of the last three seasons. This creates a scenario in which any missed opportunities on Pourchaire’s part will improve the chances for his competitors – and with such a high level of talent in 2023, he cannot afford to let another title slip out of his hands.
Header photo credit: Dutch Photo Agency
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