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Formula 1

Is Bearman's F2 season bad enough for F1 to care?

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
9 min read

On Friday last weekend, Ollie Bearman hopped into the Haas VF-24 for what was already his fourth practice session with the team and performed exactly to par for a presumptive 2025 Formula 1 signing.

The 19-year-old was three hundredths behind regular Haas driver Kevin Magnussen after their first runs, then two tenths off at the end. It fit very neatly into the pattern of his previous (great) performances in practice, with team boss Ayao Komatsu saying of Bearman that "as before, he did very good, so we can’t fault him".

Haas sounds sold on him. Ferrari is sold on him. The wider F1 world seems sold on him, in the aftermath of an extremely assured Saudi Arabian Grand Prix debut as stand-in at the shortest of notices.

The elephant in the room, though, is Formula 2, the thing actually occupying most of Bearman's 2024. Climbing out of the VF-24 at Barcelona and swapping back to a Prema-run Dallara F2 2024, Bearman then had a bad qualifying, a so-bad-it's-unnatural first race, and a less-bad-but-still-bad second race, wrapping up an F2 weekend in which he didn't just fail to score but never really even looked like scoring.

That Barcelona dichotomy exemplified not just the contrast between Bearman's excellent F1 auditions and a nightmare F2 campaign, but a wider divide between who is at the summit of F2 in its transition year - it had a new car for 2024 with unpredictable results following - and who F1 actually believes in up - and, crucially, down - that grid.

Decision made already?

Bearman's Ferrari-backed ascension into a Haas seat made vacant by the departure of Nico Hulkenberg is long being treated as somewhere between 'absolute certainty' and 'just needs the signature' in F1 circles, and there has even been a report from UK publication The Daily Mail that the contract is already done.

Bearman, for his part, batted that off at Barcelona. "These are all rumours and speculation and stuff. There's not really any backing to them," he insisted.

"I try to just stay focused on what I can do. I try and stay away from this speculation because it's unhealthy."

Certainly, though, the idea that the decision has already been made isn't particularly far-fetched, regardless of how Bearman's F2 season is going. He's had Jeddah, and he's doing the business in FP1 - and, as Komatsu admitted last month, that work with Haas carries more weight than results elsewhere as far as a 2025 decision is concerned.

"It's a combination. He needs to perform in F2, for sure. But when we work with him directly, of course we understand all the ins and outs, the environment, the reasoning for certain things happening," Komatsu said in May.

"I'd probably put more weight on what we do with him, how he performs in our environment. But of course he needs to perform in F2. That's clear."

That 'but' isn't being ticked off right now, but of course Komatsu would never just flat out say Bearman's primary 2024 campaign doesn't matter, nor would Bearman.

At the same time, it is clear that those practice runs, starting with the Mexico debut last year, made a big and lasting impression at Haas, not just in terms of pace but in terms of, specifically, approach.

"If this young driver is only interested in, let's say, going flat out everywhere, showing the world how good he is, that's not a very mature approach," Komatsu said.

"But Ollie's not like that. He's got the speed but he really understands the bigger picture."

But all that, of course, only takes you so far, and the last thing you want to do is give prospective employers pause.

If the deal isn't signed yet, are Bearman's F2 tribulations enough to give Haas and/or Ferrari pause? And if it is signed already, are they enough to trigger a tinge of buyer's remorse?

And if not, then is that - a lack of stock being placed in F2 performances - something for F1 as a whole to ponder?

The reset season

Bearman's Barcelona F2 weekend was truly turgid, amid balance struggles manifesting what the team described as "strong understeer" - which then also seemingly translated into the tyres getting absolutely shredded over longer runs.

His weekend is impossible to disentangle from his Prema team's weekend. Last year, the Italian junior single-seater juggernaut won both F2 races at the track, yet here it didn't score at all. It remans the only team of 11 in F2 not to score a podium yet with the new car.

There will inevitably be questions over whether Prema, which is preparing its IndyCar entry for 2025, is in some way overstretched, although the evidence of that elsewhere is pretty scant.

It's running away with the F3 teams' title; it should win Formula Regional European with Bearman's fellow Ferrari junior Rafael Camara; it's as potent as ever in Formula 4, where it is overseeing the development of potential 'next big thing' Freddie Slater.

But none of those categories introduced a new car, while F2 has, of course, and it has properly shuffled the deck. The teams sat 1-2-3 in the standings right now are all good teams with serious pedigree, but they were ninth, eighth and sixth last year respectively. And the two drivers tipped to go head-to-head for the title - Bearman and his fellow standout 2023 rookie Victor Martins - are nowhere.

Bearman reckons Prema's struggles to get fully on top of the F2 2024 package are exacerbating an already-existing mismatch.

"I personally find the driving style of F1 to be a bit more natural to me," he said, in a view which seems t0 be shared by multiple drivers in the paddock.

"The way to go fast in F1 for me, it's intuitive, it makes sense. The way I feel like, if I want to push more I tend to gain more laptime.

"Whereas in F2 you have to really respect the car, and for me I have to really consciously drive it. Whereas in F1 it's a bit more subconscious.

"I think this year's car we've been struggling a little bit more, as a team, to really understand it. So that kind of characteristic is even magnified. But generally in F2 it's like that."

Bearman's rookie season in F2 was pretty solid, but it was clear it wasn't quite as potent a campaign as the preceding Formula 3 season that really marked him out as an F1 driver of the future.

"F3 is very similar to F1 in terms of driving style, you can really throw the car around and trust it," Bearman adds. "F2, it's a bit less the case.

"When you do that final lap in qualifying, and you want to give it that extra 1% and really put the car on the limit, that's where I tend to make mistakes and lose confidence with the car.

"It's been really hard that I've been having to kind of hold myself back a little bit in F2 to get the most out of it."

The Antonelli problem

Bearman's Barcelona weekend is an unfair snapshot of his 2024. It hasn't all been like that, obviously. He was yanked away by an F1 opportunity from a likely win at Jeddah, he's had pitstops go wrong and had engine issues.

There have been obvious glimpses of the Bearman F1 has come to know.

Equally, though, Barcelona is a conventional enough track to where such an underperformance has to be taken seriously - especially as you can't put it down to just Prema being off its game. It's tested there this season in the new car, after all.

Team-mate Kimi Antonelli also didn't score, but he at least had a path to scoring. He was competitive. He had Bearman covered.

Over the course of the season, the Mercedes rookie is 0.008s up in representative qualifying sessions and at the very least has seemed to have the measure of Bearman - even if you don't take Barcelona into account.

It is no surprise, and quite telling as to the prism this F2 season is being viewed from, that a mention of how Antonelli stacks up relative to Bearman is never too far away as a major piece of evidence when Toto Wolff talks about the prospect of having the Italian in one of the Silver Arrows next year.

Bearman's been unlucky, but ideally he would be at least defeating the rookie straight out of Formula Regional. You can point to the fact Antonelli is no ordinary rookie, but a potential supernova, and that Bearman himself has had the unmistakable complication of a split focus on some weekends, including at Barcelona.

"It's tough," Bearman said. "Of course, doing more laps [of a track] is always helpful because in F2 we don't really get many laps at all. We get one set of tyres in FP and we're straight away into quali. So there's not much time to get up to speed."

But because "the [required] driving style is very different", that is offset to a point.

"That makes it difficult to make the step straight back into qualifying, where you have two laps to be on the pace. It's tough.

"I really have to work, before the weekends, on visualising the difference in driving styles, and we practice it on the simulator as well. Jumping from F2 to F1 back to F2."

On the evidence of Barcelona, it hasn't really worked. And Bearman needs it to work.

Or does he? That's the complicated question of it.

The old adage of 'you're only as good as your last race' is never too far away, but in Bearman's case there are two races that can be seen as that 'last race'. There's F2 at Barcelona - and then there's the Saudi Arabian GP.

F1 teams do sometimes 'burn' prospects after one bad season - but not prospects of Bearman's level, and not when, even before 2024, you could argue he already had a CV worthy of an F1 drive there and then. After all, the required superlicence points are present.

When Ferrari and Haas shrug their shoulders and promote Bearman into an F1 seat, it could be taken as an insult - if his F2 form hasn't righted itself - to those currently running the show in F2.

Paul Aron and Isack Hadjar - the current 1-2 in the championship - are proven winners, too, and one cannot dismiss their current title bids, and thus their F1 credentials, as 'fake' no more than with any other title bid anywhere on the junior single-seater ladder.

It will sting for them if Bearman graduates while finishing the season 13th or something (he's 17th now). It will sting when Antonelli gets the nod from Mercedes, Aron's former benefactor, in a seemingly inevitable decision powered by what is said to have been old-car F1 testing performances falling somewhere between 'impressive' and 'mindblowing'.

Maybe those whispers help Bearman, too. But, the truth of it is, you aren't actually only as good as your last race, and F1 teams (and F1 fans) would be foolish to forget that, whether in Bearman's case or in the many other driver market dilemmas playing out before our eyes each year.

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