After nine races, there’s already talk that Guanyu Zhou is doing enough to keep his Alfa Romeo Racing F1 seat for 2023. Theo Pourchaire began 2022 confident it would be his, and he’s paid the mental price for it
For a second-year Formula 2 driver to win two feature races from the first six, and to sit second in the standings as well, is the sign of serious competitive form. But when the championship leader is 49 points ahead of them, and a former rival is strengthening their hold on an in-reach Formula 1 seat, the swagger of a driver confident in their own future starts to burst.
It’s been apparent on a few occassions with Theo Pourchaire this year, who is – we must still remember – only 18 years old. Despite being a series sophomore, despite having four wins a pole to his name, he’s still the youngest driver at this level.
“I am confident [I will race in F1 next year]. I need to win the title, if I win the title I will be in F1. It’s never 100% sure, but they [Sauber] told me to win it,” Pourchaire said to Formula Scout when we caught up with him on a weekend off this season.
But the points lead he held then has disappeared, and he had some frustrated words at Barcelona. A week later in Monaco he didn’t repeat his famous 2021 win from pole, but was very close to doing so, and he spoke strongly on Monaco’s place on the F1 calendar and controversy around title rival Felipe Drugovich taking pole despite causing yellow flags in qualifying with a crash. Those topics may have been helpful, as it distracted journalists who would otherwise have been asking whether he could repeat his 2021 feature race win and if he will be in F1 next year.
As Formula Scout headlined it a year ago, ‘Is a schoolkid destined to replace a F1 world champion in 2022?”. Hyperbolic, sure, but the ‘destined’ element of Pourchaire having an F1 future is inferred by many and it’s a reputation that he knew sat above him. In fact, it was a two-way boom. Such talk fed Pourchaire’s ego, and with that confidence he then talked up his own assuredness in his future. But all egos burst eventually, and prior to this weekend’s Silverstone round the ART Grand Prix driver spoke to select press about how he has navigated the mental struggle he had created for himself.
“The potential is there. I have a lot of potential, the team has a lot of potential. I think I did a lot of mistakes since the beginning of the year and mentally I was not at my best, I had a lot of pressure on myself for whatever reason,” he said.
“I don’t know why I put so much pressure on myself. But I did some changes in my stuff, people around me, a lot of things have changed and I’m ready for this almost second half of the season – after Silverstone it will be half of the season done. Nothing is lost, I’m second in the championship, it’s still a good place and for sure I want to be champion. But at the moment my target, my main goal is to take pleasure again in the car, which was not the case in the last few races. I was not very happy, I don’t know why. Mainly because of that high pressure, but I’m sure I will be back at my best.”
One mental challenge Pourchaire had at the beginning of the year came from his violent startline crash in Jeddah at the end of 2021, which he admitted contributed to him losing confidence on his starts for this season.
“It’s not easy, I have some images in my head of what happened and it’s difficult, mentally it’s difficult, but I will work on that,” he said at this year’s season opener.
At the time of the crash, and his return to the circuit three months later for F2 2022’s second round, he admitted at Silverstone that his focus was in the wrong place.
“I think I was a lot too much focused on F1 at the beginning of the season, and also end of last year, because I was doing some good results and I was probably more or less close to a F1 seat.”
Pourchaire later adds that during this period “I was happy to talk about the future and maybe a bit too much”. The result of talking so much about a future that wasn’t actually secured? “That’s why I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.”
“It was almost difficult to sleep at night during the weekends, and thinking about too much my dreams to be a F1 driver.
“But today I think my main goal if I want to reach my dream is to be quick in F2, so I try just to enjoy, to have normal pressure, I don’t care about the future.”
The new approach is “a bit more private”, with the main goal for 2022 firmly being successful in F2, and “to enjoy those races” while doing it.
There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to do that coming up, with four rounds taking place in July. Formula Scout asked Pourchaire if a condensed calendar, with less analysis time between events, makes it harder to rebound.
“I think it’s not that bad, because mentally, like the weekend I did in Baku I wanted to drive straight away the Monday to recover from that weekend. Unfortunately it was not possible, so I needed to wait two-and-a-half weeks to drive. And this weekend in Silverstone I hope it will be fine. It is better to have a race straight after a disappointment because you can recover mentally easier, for sure. If you have a big lack of pace, maybe it’s a bit more difficult, but in my case it’s not the issue.”
F2 reaches its halfway point after Silverstone, and that’s a fact that’s not only keeping Pourchaire calmer about his prospects but is a point raised by many of his rivals who all remain in title contention and are ruling nothing out. And if there is a pressure to win the title, which Alfa Romeo Racing’s operating company Sauber has clearly stated is the case to guarantee an F1 promotion, then it’s one that got into Pourchaire’s head irrespective of the results he was delivering on track.
“For sure I knew the people put me as a title contender, which is great for myself. But the pressure comes only from my dreams, and I need to change a bit,” he said.
“The mental aspect in our sport is so important, in every sport, even in life it’s really important, so I have a lot of focus doing that because on the race I know I am capable of doing great things but actually I need to work on the mental aspect.”
To do that, he has enlisted in the services of an old friend from earlier in his car racing career.
“I’m working with a person I’ve been working with in Formula 3, and even before in Formula 4 as well when I had really great results,” Pourchaire told Formula Scout.
“It’s very, very difficult to understand an athlete, I think. I’m not an easy person to talk to, I don’t talk a lot, I don’t express my emotions a lot when I’m talking to someone, so it’s very difficult to understand me. So that’s why I’m talking to this person again, and I think he will help me. And he is a sports psychologist, he is a physio. He’s worked with a lot of racing drivers, he worked a bit with Pierre Gasly in Formula Renault I think, he worked also with Jules Bianchi in F1 at the beginning. He’s a really good guy, and I trust him.”
That candid self-analysis is almost ironic in how much insight it gives to a driver who is claiming they are very closed off, but whose mental issues have stemmed in part from being too open with his confidence. Maybe it was a false assuredness, but Pourchaire does know his abilities.
“I’m still the youngest this year in F2 and that’s maybe something that people can forget sometimes. I’m still really young and with not much experience. It’s only my fifth season in single-seaters. I think I’m doing a good job, but I have a lot more potential in myself and comes from the pressure mainly, the pressure of the dream. The dream is big, I want to reach my dream, but I need to think about F2 before.”
F2 is on for a classic title battle this year, with its two main contenders delivering on track but also proving as fascinating off-track as well. For a spec series, and one designed to find the next drivers for F1, it’s exactly what’s wanted.
“The car is the same [as 2021] so the confidence comes a bit maybe from the driver, the driver’s head,” Pourchaire muses.
“I need to stay calm, to breath, and I know how to drive and I’m fast, I won two feature races this year, P2 in Monaco, P2 in qualifying in Bahrain. So the performance is there, but I need to do it more often and I can be even quicker with a clear mind. The car is good, I trust the team, and the team trusts myself so that’s the most important thing.”
With less than half as many points as Pourchaire is his team-mate, Mercedes-AMG F1 junior Frederik Vesti. The rookie has rarely challenged Pourchaire, yet he thinks it’s a stronger line-up than in 2021 when he was team-mate to IndyCar’s current star rookie Christian Lundgaard.
“It’s good to have Frederik as a team-mate, and second year I have a bit more experience in [F2] and I can help him sometimes. And also he is helping me as well because he has a different driving style, he’s maybe quicker in some corners, so I try to use him as well to improve myself. That’s good. I think we’re quite fast and this year the team is stronger than last year.”
And one last thing, framing the whole debate of Pourchaire’s F1 future. Zhou Guanyu has scored five points in the first nine races of his F1 career with Alfa Romeo, and at least on two occassions was unlucky not to add to that tally. He’s proven super popular within his team, is starting to get more attention from the rest of the paddock, and just hours before Pourchaire sat down with the F2 press there was a flurry of news stories in Europe that Sauber’s managing director and Alfa Romeo’s team principal Frederic Vasseur – the man with more faith in Pourchaire than anyone – is interested in keeping Zhou on for 2023.
Maybe winning the title isn’t so much of a guarantee anymore.