Had Andy Soucek changed his answer to a single question during his junior career, then his future may have had a different look – and led to an F1 seat currently occupied by a driver whose answer went the other way
Valtteri Bottas’s future as team-mate to Lewis Hamilton at the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 team is under more scrutiny than ever going into the Hungarian Grand Prix, often the peak of ‘silly season’ for contract negotiations before the summer break, and rumours swirl that 2018 Formula 2 champion George Russell will be promoted from Williams to take his place.
But could Mercedes, with one small decision change, have ended up with an F2 champion in contention for a seat far earlier?
Let’s rewind the clock back to 2001.
Spanish karter Andy Soucek is stepping up from the junior ranks to the senior machinery, but at the same time has found the time to debut in single-seater racing in a series called Formula Novis Portugal.
“It was sort of between a Formula Ford and a Formula 3 car,” Soucek recalls of the cars used in the series. “It was tubular steel chassis, it wasn’t carbon [bar bodywork]. It had a Ford engine with around about 200bhp, but it had front wing, rear wing, and the laptimes were about six seconds slower than F3, so it was already a quite good car.
“There I started when I was 15 years old, so I actually combined karting and Formula Novis. And at that time, starting when you were 15 was very early. Nowadays you have kids in Formula 4 who are 14, 15, 16, and we see that as normal. Back then it was like everybody said we were crazy to start so early, but it paid off and it was the right thing to do. It was a good learning school for me.
“I didn’t struggle too much to adapt. For sure the first few laps were a disaster. I was looking at the gearbox, I didn’t know how to change gears. I only did a few tests before. It was all very new for me. But it was a good learning and in the end I ended up doing some pretty good results at the end of the season, and that was good preparation for F3.”
After finishing off his karting career at the end of that year, he jumped up to Spanish F3 with Racing Engineering.
“Early times [for F3] when I was only 16. I did F3 four years, was always sort of fighting for top spots. But I won it finally in 2005, and that allowed me to do a test with Toyota Formula 1 at Paul Ricard. It was for winning the championship, which had Toyota engines and was backed by Toyota back then. That was my first experience in a F1 car, when I was only 18 years old. It was pretty cool.”
Soucek took pole on his F3 debut but didn’t make the podium as a rookie. Another pole, along with three podiums, left him fourth in the points in season two and he repeated that position a year later. When he finally hit top form in 2005, with Llusia Racing, he won three races and claimed two poles.
After testing Toyota’s V10-powered pole-claiming car, Soucek moved into Formula Renault 3.5 and found success far quicker, winning from pole on his fourth start at Istanbul Park and leading the standings after the penultimate round…
“But then it was weird, because they gave points back to some drivers, Pastor Maldonado and Borja Garcia who were disqualified at Misano and Spa-Francorchamps, and they ended up just a few points in front of me. So I ended up fourth in the championship. But I was leading the championship up until then.”
In the Barcelona title decider “a small incident at the start” damaged Soucek’s nosecone and he spent four laps in the pits as it was repaired. The resultant non-score cost him the title regardless of the outcome of penalty appeals, with Alx Danielsson taking the most remarkable of crowns.
It wasn’t all negativity for Soucek, as after the race the Spaniard (of Austrian descent) was approached by that year’s Dubai 24 Hours winner about working together. Or in Soucek’s words: “I was offered a contract by Toto Wolff, there at Barcelona.”
Beyond winning sportscar races, and coming second in the Austrian Rally Championship, what was Wolff up to at the time?
“He was managing Eric Salignon, and a few other guys. I think Bottas maybe not then, but a few years later became his driver too [early in 2008 after a tip-off from Motopark boss Timo Rumpfkeil].
“And we said no. At that time I didn’t need it – that’s what I thought, we thought – my management and my father and myself. When you look back, and you say ‘look, I should have obviously taken the contract because maybe most probably I would be in F1’. Yeah, for sure, but anything can happen and life changes very quickly.”
Three years later, Wolff would buy into the Williams F1 team and become part of its decision-making team, not that Soucek could have known that in 2006.
“Yeah, but it was a sort of a highlight in my career, because I didn’t take it. And then every time I meet Toto, I see him again, he reminds me of that, in a fun way.”
However the decision would actually bite when they crossed paths again as Wolff established himself and Bottas in F1…
“In 2007 and ‘08 I did GP2 for two years. And it was sort of difficult,” Soucek says. “I got some podiums and sometimes it was good, but most of the times I was not really right up there. I struggled, and it was quite frustrating because I don’t think I ever had the package to perform, and I was always beating my team-mate, or when I had a very good team-mate like Alvaro Parente I was at the same level. But I never really could enjoy it the way I wanted, so it was frustrating.
“I thought the team made a big difference, because when I tested with ART Grand Prix at the beginning of the year I was the fastest guy on track and the car felt amazing, so I understood there was a big difference in the team.
“It’s true with DPR we started really bad, but then we ended up really well and we were one of the top teams in the last part of the season.”
After failing to score across the first nine rounds of his rookie season, and sapping all career momentum, Soucek laid 26th in the standings. In the final two rounds he claimed two podiums and vaulted up 10 places in the championship.
He missed the opening round of the 2008 season, before joining Super Nova and DPR as a stand-in for injured drivers. That opened the door to stay with Super Nova for longer, and this time he came 14th in the standings.
“After that, Jonathan Palmer and his [MotorSport Vision] Formula 2 idea came about, with equal cars, same championship, same mechanics, same engineers for everybody. Rotating like a single structure, with no teams involved. And I said to my dad, ‘look if I’m really good enough, I should win this’. Because if all the cars are the same and there are no team differences and so on, if I don’t win then it’s game over. So we went, I won, already two races before the end of the season. 51 points. And I did another F1 test, with Williams. That was the Young Driver Test. Everybody was there, Daniel Ricciardo was there with Red Bull, Bianchi, Brendon Hartley, Paul di Resta, Gary Paffett, Mike Conway.
“I did one of the best laps I remember in my career, probably, and finished P1 two tenths ahead of P2. And that was good enough to gain a lot of respect from all the F1 teams.”
Williams’ director of engineering Patrick Head heaped praise on Soucek, telling the press that he would have a future in F1 and that his feedback on the FW31 he drove was “interesting” for the team.
“So I got offered a contract by Williams as a third driver. And soon after that, a few days, I went into 2010 thinking ‘well, that’s great news’. And I remember Patrick Head calling me and saying ‘Andy, I’m deeply sorry, but Toto Wolff just brought some shares in the teams and he wants Valtteri to be our third driver’.”
Soucek “never signed the document” before new shareholder Wolff placed Masters of F3 winner Bottas in Williams as test driver. He was promoted to a reserve driver role and then a race seat by 2013, establishing himself so well that his manager Wolff – by then team principal of Mercedes-AMG – signed him to replace retiring world champion Nico Rosberg for 2017.
It’s not hard to imagine Soucek being in Bottas’s position had he said yes to Wolff in 2006, quite possibly to the point of making it to a Mercedes F1 seat alongside Hamilton and winning grands prix. But alas…
“So that was very frustrating, because then I had to find something else, and that was difficult because at the time everybody wanted some budget, and we didn’t quite have it. So we ended up at Virgin Racing [as test and reserve driver], which was a new team. Richard Branson was behind it, we thought it was a good option to start my career in F1, but the car was made only in CFD, too small fuel tank to start.
“And they had so many issues. They promised me a test that never happened, because they always put their race drivers in and I was there just waiting for my opportunity that never came. So at some point I was also frustrated that I didn’t get into the car, I didn’t get to drive. I was doing a lot of simulator work, but that was not really what I wanted.
“In the meanwhile, I was doing Superleague Formula too. I did a DTM test, which Toto actually invited me to, with Mercedes.”
Soucek drove for the clubs run by Eurointernational in SLF in 2008, then returned to the series in the middle of 2010. He claimed a podium for Sporting Lisbon at Brands Hatch, and one for Flamengo at Ordos, then ended up in commentary for the non-championship Beijing street circuit round. He returned to the cockpit in a de Villota Motorsport-run car in 2011, before the series closed after two rounds. Despite talks with IndyCar teams, that marked the end of his single-seater career.
“Then I said: ‘Look, what can I do now? Because from here, there is no chance to get a drive in F1, because all the drives are taken’,” Soucek recalls.
“When I was talking to F1 teams they were all praising me very high and speaking well about me, but they said ‘we need money’. So I said to myself, let’s try something different. I saw GT3 was growing a lot, and a lot of manufacturers were getting involved.
“I did a test with Boutsen Ginion with the McLaren at Zolder, which went really well, in the wet. And I loved it. I thought it was nice to have a roof on top of my head for the second time, because I already tested the DTM car. But it felt different, obviously. A lot more movement and so on, weight transfer. But it was nice. And that’s how I started. Two years with McLaren, and then Aston Martin, then Bentley for five years.”
Soucek reunited with ART GP, who he tested for in GP2, and in 2013 came fifth in what’s now the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup in a McLaren MP4-12C GT3. The team offered him a deal to stay for the next year in a better line-up, and he shared a car with Kevin Korjus and Kevin Estre, which according to Soucek “was really nice, and we had a lot fun too”.
He also drove with success in a Beechdean-run Aston Martin V12 Vantage that year, before becoming a factory driver of Bentley and its development partner M-Sport – better known for its rallying success – from 2015 to 2019.
In five seasons he became one of the brand’s most prolific racers of its 102-year history, and was 11th in Intercontinental GT Challenge and second in GTWCE Endurance in 2017. He was then second in GTWC America in 2019, before Bentley ended its factory motorsport activities and Soucek joined famous Porsche team Lechner Racing in International GT Open.
He’s won two races this year and is second in the points, and caught up with Formula Scout as speculation increased about Bottas being replaced at Mercedes by a F2 champion highly rated by Williams. Ah, hang on, were we supposed to be looking for George Russell for a chat?
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The underfunded Techeetah beater who had to reset his career
Davide Rigon: Ferrari’s football-famous test driver
Mirko Bortolotti: The Raging Bull whose eyes-open approach has led to racing glory
The European F3 champion making the most of a Mercedes seat