As Formula 1’s driver market ‘silly season’ wound down in 2021 and this year’s grid fell into place, Alfa Romeo left it late to finalise its line-up.
Talks with Andretti over a possible takeover of the Sauber Group postponed a final decision on who would partner the incoming Valtteri Bottas in 2022. But the eventual collapse of talks meant that Guanyu Zhou clinched the seat to complete the grid in mid-November.
Barring a deal with Andretti that could have led to Colton Herta making a shock switch to F1, Zhou always looked bound for the second Alfa Romeo seat. The combination of Bottas’s experience plus nurturing a young talent in Zhou – supported by his array of Chinese sponsors – made it an ideal line-up for the team.
Bottas has signed a multi-year deal and is set to be the man Alfa Romeo builds itself around moving forward, while team boss Frederic Vasseur shortly after announcing Zhou that he hoped for a “long-term collaboration” with the F2 graduate.
But future driver decisions may not be quite so straightforward for Vasseur and Sauber due to the presence of 18-year-old Theo Pourchaire, who has quickly emerged as one of the most exciting talents among F1’s feeder series.
Pourchaire first linked up with Sauber’s young driver academy back in 2019 when he was racing in Formula 4. The Frenchman claimed the German title that year before stepping up to Formula 3 with ART Grand Prix – the team founded by Vasseur – where he took the title race all the way to the wire against Oscar Piastri, ultimately finishing second by three points.
Stepping up to F2 for 2021 at the age of 17 was a big next step for Pourchaire, given he had been in F4 just 18 months earlier, yet he took it in his stride. Again linking up with ART, he finished fifth in the championship with two wins, including a dominant display in the Monaco feature race where he went lights-to-flag from pole to victory. He didn’t even had a road car license at the time.
The Monaco breakthrough made Pourchaire the youngest pole-sitter and winner in F2 history, leading to the inevitable question: could Alfa Romeo take the plunge and give its rising star an F1 shot as early as 2022?
Théo Pourchaire, Alfa Romeo
Photo by: Alfa Romeo
Pourchaire enjoyed his first F1 test at the Hungaroring back in August as part of some private running, getting behind the wheel of the 2019 Alfa Romeo C38. It was an opportunity he relished and maximised, but it was not a precursor to a graduation for 2022. Vasseur said after announcing Zhou that he thought it was “too risky” to promote Pourchaire so soon, meaning he would spend yet another year in F2 for 2022 with ART.
In Vasseur’s end-of-season chat with Motorsport.com, Pourchaire’s success and potential was an obvious bright point in the discussion in what had been a largely challenging year for Alfa Romeo in F1. Vasseur was unchanged in his view that it wasn’t the right time to promote Pourchaire. There was still more to learn in junior categories. “I’m convinced that he has also to improve on some areas,” Vasseur said. “But he perfectly understood the discussion. He’s a clever guy. He understood perfectly the system and what the team could expect from a rookie in F1.
“The situation is tough in F1, because when you start the season, you have six test days, three per driver. You could have the snow in Spain and the sand in Bahrain, and you could arrive to Bahrain with zero mileage. We have to consider all the aspects.
“I think also to manage the pressure of the championship will be a good experience for him.”
Vasseur cracked a joke after being asked if Pourchaire is expected to win the title: “I don’t know if he is, but I am!” It’s a logical aim not only after his breakout 2021, but also as the four drivers who finished ahead of him in the standings last season are not returning.
Pourchaire is a very special talent, but Vasseur was emphatic when asked about any concerns of another team poaching him: “If they want to discuss with Theo, they’ll have to discuss with me first!”
Vasseur is a knowledgeable and powerful ally for Pourchaire to have. He has a track record as one of the best F1 team bosses when it comes to having his finger on the pulse of junior motorsport, having formed ART more than 25 years ago. The likes of Jules Bianchi, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and even 2022 Alfa Romeo signing Bottas all enjoyed success with ART with support from Vasseur.
He knows what it takes to get a young driver ready for success in F1, and why timing is everything.
“F1 is like a gun with one single bullet: if you do shit on the first one, you are dead,” Vasseur said.
“You have to get it right. I had the discussion with someone yesterday. They are spending 14 years of their life with the only target to get in F1. And it’s perfectly understandable, when you are in go-karts, when you are in Cadets, and they are 10 or 11, what is your target? To go in F1.
“But then when you are close to F1 – I said myself, and I told Theo exactly the same – the target is not to do F1. The target is to do F1 in a good situation, and to be successful.
“This is a completely different story, because if you do F1, and then you are out after one year, it’s a big disaster. But now you are close to F1, the target is to do well in it.
“To do well, you have to be well-prepared on the physical side, on the technical side, driving. You need to know the tracks.
“It’s such a complicated system. If something is missing, you are dead.”
Theo Pourchaire, ART Grand Prix
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
It is for this reason that Alfa Romeo did not want to risk burning Pourchaire up too soon. Quite where it will lay in the pecking order under the new regulations is impossible to say, as much of an opportunity it will provide.
But the backing from Zhou will also help the team to run close to the budget cap, something Vasseur felt will provide a “different mentality” at Hinwil moving forward. It wants to build for a strong, sustainable future.
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It is for the same reason that Sauber is playing the long game with Pourchaire. His rise up the ranks has been dramatic, so much so that 2022 will be the first time in his career he has remained in the same series for consecutive seasons.
If Pourchaire can build on his impressive first year in F2 and take the title, while it would cause a bit of a headache for Vasseur, it would only serve as further proof of how special a talent he has on his books.