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Is a schoolkid destined to replace a F1 world champion in 2022?

by Craig Woollard

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

Theo Pourchaire’s meteoric rise up the single-seater ladder reached another landmark last month with a mesmerising performance on the streets of Monaco. Is promotion to the pinnacle of motorsport inevitable?

When the helmet is on, and he is putting in magical drives and displaying some absolutely superb car control, it is easy to forget just how young Theo Pourchaire is. He’s just 17, and he is already a Formula 2 race-winner.

While in a time where the existence of Max Verstappen makes that sound a bit less impressive, the reality is that Pourchaire’s inexperience, rawness and the ultra-competitive nature of contemporary F2 makes his record-breaking achievements particularly eye-opening.

Being able to win in Formula 1’s primary feeder series, despite the oversaturation of reversed-grid races this year, is not easy. But it was not in one of those races where Pourchaire took his maiden triumph. It was the feature race in Monaco.

It was also from a brilliantly-claimed pole position, 0.458 seconds faster than next-best Oscar Piastri in his qualifying group. Piastri admitted he simply had no answer for his 2020 FIA Formula 3 Championship rival, and Pourchaire had a similar gap over the fastest driver in the other group, although it was unclear which group had the better track conditions.

The win never really looked in doubt. It all seemed under control. Pourchaire brilliantly resisted pressure from Robert Shwartzman early on, then his Prema team-mate Piastri who once more had no answer to Pourchaire’s display out front.

After a challenging opening couple of rounds to his F2 career at Bahrain last year when he stood in at the struggling HWA Racelab, Pourchaire has found more and more momentum with the resumption of his relationship with ART Grand Prix (his F3 team) for 2021.

He was denied a realistic shot at a maiden podium in this year’s Bahrain’s opener by technical trouble before it all properly came together on his first visit to what is perhaps the toughest circuit of all to learn. It was a dazzling display of performance.

As discussed on the Formula Scout Podcast, such a performance – becoming the youngest to take pole and youngest to win in F2 and its preceding series, around Monaco of all places and to do it so emphatically – it deserves much more celebration.

To claim that he is ready for F1 at this exact point in time would absolutely not be the right thing to do. He’s not even old enough to race there yet with FIA super licences no longer handed out to those under 18. After his record-breaking win, Pourchaire said so himself to Formula Scout that he wasn’t F1-ready, with his grounded comments showing he has the correct approach.

“To be honest, I try to stay focused on F2 because I’m really far from F1,” he said.

“I have the help of Sauber, which is incredible. And I know they are watching me when I’m not doing good results, when I’m doing good results, like today.”

It is easy to forget that Sauber, which was an F1 constructor in its own right from 1993 to 2018 (including a four-year factory spell with BMW) and is now the operation behind Alfa Romeo Racing, has its own academy of young drivers in single-seaters.

Of these, Pourchaire is by far the highest up the ladder, with the other members outside of the F1 fraternity. Interestingly, Sauber controls the fewest number of seats in F1 – just one. Alfa Romeo’s automotive partner company Ferrari has a seat reserved in its team, while the other car is for Sauber to place whoever it pleases in.

Ferrari’s own juniors, as well as Red Bull and Williams’, are fighting Pourchaire for the F2 title, and he is currently third in the points one quarter of the way into the season.

“My job is just to focus on F2, to do a really good job and will try to maybe be a title contender, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a bit too early to say that, but I’ll just try to stay focused on the next race weekend.”

On the weekend already gone, he said: “It means a lot, because it’s not easy to win at 17 years old in F2. It’s a really competitive championship, and I need to be perfect. I always need to work really, really hard to catch the others.

“In Bahrain, I was not fast, to be honest. I was not super-fast. The weekend was really difficult and I just wanted to bounce back, to do a good race weekend, to be back on the podium, and I did the pole, youngest ever polesitter, youngest ever race winner, so I’m just… I can’t believe it.”

Pourchaire’s point about it not being easy is entirely valid as well. He literally is still a schoolkid. The only way he was permitted to drive on the streets was in his racecar, as he’s not old enough to legally drive a road car in his homeland. He also sits all of his baccalaureat exams this month after getting back from Baku where the third round of the F2 season is taking place.

But the tone he set so emphatically last year in F3 – where he took more ‘youngest ever’ records for himself, is the same one being set in F2. And he’s doing so against very highly-rated opposition with experience too of working with F1 outfits.

Back on track, one of the intriguing factors at play is that several times in F2 the driver in Pourchaire’s spot at ART GP has struggled as opposed to thriving. The likes of Jack Aitken and Nikita Mazepin, both of whom have gone on to race in F1, as well as Ferrari junior Marcus Armstrong did not have a particularly fruitful time with the team’s base car set-up.

Pourchaire’s team-mate is highly regarded Alpine junior Christian Lundgaard, who was very impressive himself as a rookie last year, and Pourchaire was “not really” expecting to already be ahead of the Dane by 31 points this early in the season.

Lundgaard’s performances have not exactly been poor this year. They have simply been lacking luck and a few errors have snuck in. It is also worth remembering that he too is a teenager at just 19. His time also could come in the future.

“I know he will be in [the] front for the next races, but it feels really good to be in front of him,” said Pourchaire.

“I’m third in the championship, [which] is really good. Oscar [Piastri] is doing a great job as well. It feels good to be with Oscar here. Battling in F3, battling in F2, I hope it will continue like that.”

Next year is probably a good time for a driver to make their debut in F1, with the drastic overhaul in the regulations. Among those are the changes to 18-inch tyres – a move F2 made in 2020. But teams may be a little bit reluctant to change for the sake of keeping any consistency in their on-track package that they can.

Tyre talk aside, the most considerable change to F1 car aerodynamics in over a decade should really play into those less experienced at single-seaters’ top level, but also those with recent experience of the tier immediately below it.

F1’s ‘silly season’ is already in full swing, with rumours circulating over many of the high-profile seats already and several youngsters linked to teams up and down the grid. Some are already in F1, and some are on the verge of breaking through.

Among those whose futures are uncertain is Kimi Raikkonen. The 2007 world champion turns 42 this year, and his longevity at the top has been in question for a number of years now. He occupies the Sauber-chosen seat at Alfa Romeo, while 2016 GP2 Series runner-up Antonio Giovinazzi fills the Ferrari-reserved one.

While we have still seen glimpses of brilliant driving from Raikkonen recently (how can we forget one of the contenders for greatest opening laps of all time at Algarve in 2020), it is obvious that the future of the team is not set to revolve around him.

With team boss Frederic Vasseur seemingly still happy with him, there might still be another season in Raikkonen yet. That is, of course, if he decides that he wants to carry on. It’s impossible to predict whether he will stay or walk.

We’re probably a few months (and a few F2 rounds) away from establishing what the driver market will start to do.

If either party does not wish to continue going forward, this is the place where Sauber junior Pourchaire would logically slot in. Be it alongside Giovinazzi, who has shown gradual progress in his time in F1 to the point where he is now regularly challenging Raikkonen, or another Ferrari junior that would make for a dynamic, fresh and youthful pairing.

Mick Schumacher would have to tear up year two of his Haas contract if he were to take Giovinazzi’s spot, while Ferrari F1 tester and Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott is in the mix and bolstering his reputation driving a Ferrari 488 GT3 with success in GT World Challenge Europe. Then in F2 there’s Armstrong and Shwartzman if their title challenges get going.

When F1’s summer break arrives in August, and when much of the silly season action takes place, F2 will have only completed four rounds. With the series being as competitive as it is, there’s no guarantee a driver near the top of the table now is going to be at the end of the year, and vice versa. That may make F1 teams more reluctant to gamble on a F2 driver then, but if they bide their time then better options may go amiss for what every team expects to be a golden opportunity in 2022.

What will be curious to see is whether Pourchaire is able to sustain his momentum going forward. In a year where the expectation is that the number of winners will be in double figures, being able to build on such a performance will be tough. The likelihood is that a title-challenging driver’s tally will come from either a short burst of stellar results, a disjointed run full of speed but lacking consistency, or just racking up points on a regular basis.

But if the upward trajectory continues, it surely must only be a matter of time before Pourchaire is seriously considered for a promotion to the big time. And if things don’t quite work out this year, then a second year in F2 certainly won’t hurt, but it would not be a surprise at all for his stock to continue to rise and for him to replace F1’s most experienced driver for 2022.

As he puts it himself, Pourchaire’s had to sacrifice a ‘normal’ life for this. There’s still a long way to go before he is ready for the top, but it is starting to look like F1 is where his destiny lies going forward.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Limited

“You need to believe in yourself, you need to work hard because elite sport is not easy. I sacrificed a bit my classic life of a teenager by not going to a normal school, by not going out in nightclubs or doing normal stuff for a 17 year-old teenager.

“You need to be really concentrating on your goals. I started at three years old in go-karts and since then I just worked really hard and today I won Monaco in F2, but I know it’s not finished. My dream is to be in F1, to be F1 world champion, so I need to work hard, will work hard all my life, so just keep pushing.”


The man who found Pourchaire

Jean-Pierre Deschamps, whose karting club was integral to the careers of many of France’s 21st century racing stars, passed away aged 74 back in April.

Deschamps created the Rosny 93 karting club in Paris’s Aulnay-sous-Bois suburb in 1988 with his wife Marie-Noelle, and drivers who started their motorsport careers there, or made it through the karting ranks there, included current Alpine F1 driver Esteban Ocon, Super Formula champion Loic Duval, A1GP champion Alexandre Premat and most recently Pourchaire.

“Jean-Pierre was a key figure in our karting discipline, the destiny of which he had presided over for several years by leading the CNK [National Karting Commission],” Nicolas Deschaux, president of French motorsport’s National Sport Authority the FFSA, said after Deschamps death.

“For Jean-Pierre, karting was, beyond sporting passion, a commitment and a thirst for action that I would like to salute. The boundless energy that we knew in the service of training young karters has enabled many drivers to shine at the highest level.”

Photo: KSP Reportages

After karting under the tutelage of those who operated the Rosny 93 club, Pourchaire joined the FFSA Academy and made his single-seater debut with them in French Formula 4 in 2018. He won the Junior class title, and at the end of that year took part in the revived Volant Winfield scholarship at Paul Ricard and was awarded the Trophee Winfield.

How much more of France’s motorsport history will the Grasse native go on to be part of?

More on Pourchaire’s career
The youngest ever winners in F1’s primary feeder series
Pourchaire “cried a bit” as ‘dream came true’ with Monaco victory
Theo Pourchaire: The next young driver Sauber is leading to F1
2019: Scout Report: Sauber’s ADAC Formula 4 juniors