He won on his debut in Euroformula Open, Toyota Racing Series, F3 Asia, Formula 2, and DTM and now Liam Lawson can add Super Formula to that impressive list. The 21-year-old New Zealander continues to make history. Is this young driver destined for a Formula One seat?
By René Oudman
After two full seasons in Formula 2 where he finished ninth and third in the standings, Liam Lawson needed a step up. However, because Red Bull chose Nyck de Vries for a seat at AlphaTauri, Lawson did not get promoted to Formula One.
The energy drink brand instead opted for a tried and tested route: Lawson would compete in the Japanese Super Formula championship. Because of the relationship between Red Bull and Honda, that move is an easy one to set up. Pierre Gasly was the first driver to be sent to East Asia in 2017 and later Dan Ticktum, Pato O’Ward, Jüri Vips, and Lucas Auer would follow his footsteps towards the land of the rising sun.
The underlying thought processes of this move are as simple as they are logical. There is currently no room in Formula One and a less-than expected championship performance in Formula 2 can only hurt the drivers’ market value.
Next to that, the young talent needs to prove himself in a country that is quite different from Western society. Japan’s culture rests on hierarchy, respect, and hard work. If you don’t meet the standards, you will quickly be declared a fool and no one will want to have anything to do with you. You’ll be an outcast, without any future.
On the other hand, if you approach the above factors in the right way, you will become a hero. Drivers such as André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer will be remembered for many years and Satoshi Motoyama and Naoki Yamamoto are no less than living legends.
For Liam Lawson, Super Formula should be seen as the final intermediate step towards Formula One. Red Bull already gambled by putting him in DTM in 2021 – a class in which the Kiwi almost won the title, by the way. Lawson is clearly talented behind the wheel of a race car. The only thing he has yet to convince Red Bull of is that he is the guy they are looking for.
Currently the driver duo at AlphaTauri is formed by the aforementioned De Vries and Yuki Tsunoda. Having a Japanese driver occupying a seat at AlphaTauri seems a certainty until their partnership with Honda ends at the end of 2025 and if Tsunoda disappoints, Ayumu Iwasa will be the logical replacement.
The second seat, however, is not completely secure. With De Vries, AlphaTauri has brought in a capable and sensible driver, one who really should have been given a chance in Formula One years ago.
But De Vries’ age could work against his case – at 28, he is older than Red Bull’s lead driver Max Verstappen. The fact that he was never a part of the Red Bull Junior Team could also hinder him, as the energy drink team has never made a secret of prioritising its ‘own’ drivers.
Impact of Super Formula victory
Lawson’s victory at Fuji Speedway today is one with far-reaching implications. The talented 21-year-old wiped out all the question marks that surrounded him in one major swoop.
Super Formula is not a championship where you just walk in and win races; the competition is far too strong. Just think about this: Lawson is the first driver in almost half a century to win his debut race in Japan’s premier open-wheel class.
Thanks to this victory, Lawson’s season by definition cannot go wrong anymore. After all, only nine races are run in Super Formula and by winning one straight away as a rookie, his name has already been written in the 2023 history book.
The only goal could be to surpass Gasly’s tally of two wins and Lawson still has eight races to do so. Moreover, it gives him the ideal negotiating position: if Gasly was given a chance in Formula One after two Super Formula wins, Red Bull will have no arguments to refuse Lawson if he achieves the same or better.
Most important of all, however, is adaptability. Red Bull is known for throwing talents to the lions, testing them out the hard way. With a sixth debut race win, Lawson is showing that he can adapt to his new machine in an insanely fast way.
Especially now that AlphaTauri is sitting in the lower half of the Formula One standings, it is important to know that there is a driver available in-house who can adapt in no time. And since Helmut Marko has proven that he is willing to move drivers mid-season, there might even be a possibility he could get the nod this year…
Header image credit: Super Formula
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