How long will it be before Liam Lawson appears at the start of a Formula One race? The 21-year-old New Zealander drove to his second Super Formula victory in just four appearances on Sunday and can now call himself the championship leader. Lawson is no longer knocking on the door of the highest stage but is pounding on it. Feeder Series analyses the Kiwi’s chances.
By René Oudman
As the runner-up of the highly competitive ADAC Formula 4 championship, Liam Lawson was added by Red Bull as a member of their junior team ahead of the 2019 racing year. The Kiwi showed his skills in two seasons of both Formula 3 and Formula 2. He won races in both classes, but a title win failed to materialise. Consequently, Red Bull decided Lawson was not yet mature enough for a Formula 1 seat in 2023 and Formula E champion Nyck de Vries was given a chance.
Talent watcher Dr. Helmut Marko sent the New Zealand talent to Japan for this year, a route that has been taken more often by Red Bull juniors in recent times. The most notable example may be Pierre Gasly, who won his Formula 1 seat in the Far East. Among the successes, there are drivers like Pato O’Ward, Dan Ticktum, Jüri Vips and Lucas Auer, that did not achieve the results Red Bull desired. Red Bull has a seat available in the highly competitive Japanese Super Formula Championship for young talent thanks to engine partner Honda.
The underlying idea is that a young driver gets to prove himself in a completely different environment. A good racing driver knows how to adapt quickly to a different racing car, but when its engineers speak a completely different language and have entirely different manners, it is up to the youngster to master this new culture as quickly as possible. Red Bull, or Marko, values quick adaptability.
Adjusting is something Liam Lawson has had to do throughout his racing career. Indeed, the youngster from New Zealand’s Hastings, a small village on the east side of the North Island, left hearth and home as a teenager to stay in Europe. The very young Lawson could do nothing but adapt, learning what the norms and values were in certain countries.
Lawson’s fantastic feel for racing cars became apparent over the years. He won his first races in the Toyota Racing Series, Formula F1600, the Euroformula Open, FIA Formula 2, Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) and even Super Formula. Staying consistent proved to be a problem in previous championships, but Lawson seems to have dealt with that.
Indeed, at the fourth race of the 2023 Super Formula season, held today at the Autopolis circuit, Lawson managed to win a race for the second time this year. In doing so, the Kiwi had a bit of luck, but without luck, nobody sails. It suggests that the universe is doing everything in its power to transport Lawson to Formula 1, and the New Zealander is doing everything right himself.
At Autopolis, Lawson completed an artwork that was very reminiscent of reigning Formula One World Champion Max Verstappen. Like his Dutch Red Bull colleague, Lawson did not get off his place particularly well at the start, but thanks to executing an alternative strategy and a little bit of luck, at the end of the race it was the New Zealander who took home the biggest trophy.
All factors came into play in the race win. Lawson had to keep his cool after a poor start, strung together the super-fast laps on fresh rubber after making his mandatory pit stop particularly early, kept the rubber alive much longer than his rivals and got into the lead as a result. After a late Safety Car phase, he cleverly kept the hungry pack in the rear-view mirror to take the chequered flag first.
An important detail is that Lawson’s colleague at Team Mugen, two-time reigning Super Formula champion Tomoki Nojiri, was absent from this year’s fourth Super Formula race. The super-fast Japanese was felled by a collapsed lung earlier this week and therefore had to miss the race.
Thanks to his second win, Lawson has taken over the lead in the Super Formula championship standings. After four races, his tally stands at 57 points, whereas Toyota rival Ritomo Miyata stands at 53. Sho Tsuboi and Nojiri follow within shooting distance with 46 and 43 points respectively.
Now the question arises: does Red Bull necessarily want Lawson to become champion in Japan, or are they now convinced of his adaptability?
With four races behind him, there are currently five races left on the schedule in Super Formula. Three of them, the next on 18 June and the last two on the doubleheader weekend 28 and 29 October, coincide with Formula 1. Should Red Bull want to promote Lawson directly, he can still run two races in Super Formula, likewise to how Sebastian Vettel, Jaime Alguersuari and Daniel Ricciardo ran a double programme in Formula Renault 3.5 while making their mid-season debuts in the highest class.
Since Red Bull almost always goes for the option of advancing a talent mid-season despite his chances elsewhere, it is very conceivable that Liam Lawson may still make his Formula 1 debut in the 2023 season.
Header photo credit: Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool
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