Nyck de Vries’ career is a case study in Formula 1’s capriciousness.
Shunned after winning the Formula 2 title in 2019, he was the toast of Monza after taking ninth for Williams following a late Italian Grand Prix call-up on Saturday morning last year and courted by several teams.
In May, only five races into his full-time F1 career with AlphaTauri, rumours swirled of ultimatums and the risk of imminent replacement.
The media maelstrom has since calmed, with De Vries producing a solid run to 12th in Monaco then a frustrated 14th in Spain. Frustrated because this was a weekend where he felt “from the get-go we were competitive” but the two spins on the damp patch at Turn 10 in qualifying compromised him on a day when he believed he should have reached Q3 for the first time.
While not eye-catching performances, the Monaco/Spain double-header allowed De Vries to construct a foundation to build from.
That’s not to say the pressure is vanquished. The combination of Yuki Tsunoda’s excellent performances in the other AlphaTauri and the success of other Red Bull prospects, notably Super Formula points leader Liam Lawson, means De Vries’ F1 future is far from secure. But he has now at least settled into the season.
What strikes De Vries is that F1 is a very different game to what he’s been used to elsewhere. Having achieved some kind of baseline, the challenge now is finding those final tenths. While he’s had some experience of that in a destination championship in Formula E, where he claimed the title in 2021, F1 is inevitably a big step up in terms of the mastery of detail required.
“The game in Formula 1 is very, very different than any junior single-seater category,” De Vries tells The Race.
“In all the categories up to Formula 1 you have a lot less track time and it’s all about getting to 90%. You start you free practice session with full fuel, a different [tyre] compound and you go into quali, take the fuel out but still have to drain it through the session because you can’t refuel and you go on a softer compound.
“So run two is the one that counts and that means you only have one or two laps. No one is able to put it on 99% in those laps. You try, but you’re within 90% or 85% in that lap, it already puts you very close to the top five.
“In Formula 1, you have much more track time and it’s a moving target because conditions are constantly changing, the track is evolving. You have a lot of track time and everything is pushed much more into the detail. Little things are more sensitive because the differences are so small.
“Monaco was a good experience for that, because you could only really see the laptimes coming alive in qualifying. But you still have three hours of practice to do and you’re constantly learning and evolving both as a driver and as a package through those sessions. And that game is very different.
“Being one with the car, knowing what you have and knowing what to expect is going to make a difference.”
This is particularly challenging when it comes to dealing with the AlphaTauri AT04. Early in the season especially, it was a difficult car to drive in the low-speed corners especially during the later stages of the turn-in phase.
At times during pre-season testing in Bahrain, De Vries was visibly struggling far more than Tsunoda. But Tsunoda had the advantage of dealing with a car that had similar characteristics in 2022 and therefore a headstart on the trade-offs and compromises you must accept in a car with a fundamental limitation that can only be shifted around rather than cured. It’s perhaps no surprise that it took De Vries a little time to get on top of a car that is far from the easiest to drive on the grid. And while those characteristics have improved a little with a series of floor updates, it’s still far from ideal.
“It’s a little bit hit and miss,” says De Vries. “We call it an open balance, you have late entry instability and then mid-corner understeer and then which of the two you’re battling, and then also the high-to-low-speed differences.
“I don’t want to use any of that as an excuse, it’s just a learning process for me and it’s certainly a very tricky car to drive. But I think, along with that, it’s also partly related to the competitiveness of the whole midfield that we now have.”
The tiny gaps lower down the order are something De Vries highlights repeatedly, and he has a point. Small swings can make the difference between falling in Q1 and reaching Q3. While Tsunoda has managed to reach Q3 twice, it remains an undiscovered country for De Vries. Tsunoda has been ahead in six of the eight qualifying sessions held in 2023 (including the Sprint Shootout in Baku) with a clear edge on pace.
An AlphaTauri, even when at its best, is a car that needs a good start to get on a path that can yield points. A strong qualifying performance therefore must be top of De Vries’ agenda as he seeks a first top-10 finish of the year.
He at least has the memory of his ninth place when he stood in for the hospitalised Alex Albon at Monza last year for confidence. That means his points duck has long since been broken although he’s experienced enough to know that the Monza success last year doesn’t count for a great deal with his current team.
“In our world, everyone is very much in the present and you’re only as good as your last race,” says De Vries. “So what happened last year, as much as it is a very memorable moment for me in my career and life, it’s irrelevant now and people have I wouldn’t say forgotten it but we’re in a new season.
“The present counts. For me, the key is at least to my approach is to not force and chase things and things come when they have to come. And I think there were some patches that have showed some good potential and I feel like slowly we are getting them together. And then when the time is right, it will result in points.”
De Vries is right to suggest that even if there hasn’t really been one weekend you can point to where he has nailed everything, there have been plenty of more localised positives. He’s had some good race stints, and some less good ones, some promising runs in qualifying and some less positive ones. Stringing one of these weekends together is what he needs to start to get the kind of results demanded of him.
Perhaps one area where he has an advantage is his experience. What was particularly impressive about his Monza drive last year was that he knew it was effectively a make-or-break for his F1 changes. While he had the fortune to drop in at Williams on what was its strongest weekend, the impression he made in the Italian GP was not based on speed, but on the fact he was able to qualify decently then execute the race well under enormous pressure. That speaks well of his mentality, something that he will be leaning on during this difficult phase of the season.
Publicly, he’s done an effective job of batting away questions about his future while accepting there is inevitably close scrutiny of his performance. But there have been times when his polished public persona seems slightly at odds with goings on within the team, as the odd fraught radio exchange has suggested.
Only he and Red Bull really know how serious the pressure put on him to up his game has been after a difficult start to the season, which reached its nadir when he rear-ended Lando Norris’s McLaren at the start of the Miami Grand Prix. But he will know he is in a battle to ensure his stay in F1 isn’t a short one. That’s another area where his experience should pay off.
“I don’t know how F1 was five years ago when some of my colleagues which I grew up with made it to Formula 1, but I definitely feel it’s a very challenging step, and it’s, in a way, underestimated,” says De Vries.
“Therefore, I’m happy that I have I have the kind of knowledge and experience I have coming into this this year. You never stop learning, It’s only the beginning. But I don’t think I would have been ready five years ago.”
De Vries still has much to prove in F1. There was a reason why he didn’t make an insistent case for promotion to grand prix racing, his junior career lacking the impetus of those who did graduate at around the time he was racing in F2 such as Charles Leclerc and George Russell. There was never any doubt he was a driver capable of doing at least a decent job in F1, but there were question marks about whether he could do more than that. Certainly, he’s not widely regarded as a future world champion.
The jury is still very much out on whether he has a long-term F1 future, but he is in a position that, if he thrives, could down the line lead to a Red Bull Racing drive. That might seem a long shot, but at least he’s got the chance to make his case in F1 and he won’t join the ranks of drivers who never had their opportunity in grand prix racing despite doing enough to deserve one.
But first things first, he needs to put together a strong weekend where the dots of good performance that have showcased his potential are joined up throughout. The sooner he does that, the quicker speculation about his future will ease.
He wanted his F1 chance and he’s got it. Whether he can convert this opportunity into more than a brief career at this level is down to him. Regardless of how tough the circumstances are or the external pressure of speculation about his future, performance is what matters.