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Formula 1

Where wildcard rookies fit into Audi's F1 driver search

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Audi’s Formula 1 team is open to fielding a rookie driver in 2025 ahead of its full works entry in 2026, in case it misses out on its main targets.

Several teams still eyeing a driver for 2025 need back-up options for their back-up options, so volatile is the end of this silly season, and that means at least two rookies are in contention at Audi.

Theo Pourchaire

Theo Pourchaire, the 2023 Formula 2 champion and a long-time protege of the Sauber team Audi is taking over, is one option while another is Red Bull junior Liam Lawson, if he is not given a seat at RB.

While both have proven themselves worthy of a shot in F1, a new works team for one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers would hope to attract a higher calibre of driver with more F1 racing experience.

That’s why Audi is shooting for race winners Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon, and treating current Sauber driver Valtteri Bottas as a luxury reserve option.

Yet Sauber’s weak on-track form - it is the only team yet to score a point in 2024 and has the slowest car on average - is severely undermining the appeal of joining the Audi project, at least in the short-term.

And there is a not-so-ridiculous scenario in which Audi has to turn to a real wildcard choice. That involves Sainz joining Alpine and Bottas Williams (or vice versa), and Ocon signing for Haas.

Audi does not seem as concerned as Williams about being able to secure its ‘next favourite’ choice instead of Sainz.

It seems content to wait - it has courted Sainz for a long time and was very confident he would join. Either that confidence remains or the alternatives (go for Ocon, or keep Bottas) carry such little appeal that the wildcard is worth the risk if it means staying in the race for Sainz as long as possible.

Carlos Sainz

The fact Bottas has not been re-signed already shows there are concerns about his performance level and value, while Ocon is seen by multiple teams as a very good driver but a risk given his history for clashing with team-mates.

That’s left senior team figures keeping the door open to Pourchaire, who Sauber made sure it had the option of recalling from McLaren’s IndyCar team even before he was controversially dropped after just three races.

Team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi said that in "this situation" - meaning the volatile driver market - "it will be clever not to exclude him". 

However, when asked by The Race if there is anything Pourchaire can do to further his case, Bravi admitted: "It is dependent on circumstances”.

He added: "We know what he can bring to the team. We know his value for us.

"It's a matter of more our medium, long-term strategy as Audi, in terms of driver line-up and if he fits or not this strategy.

"And it's dependent on many factors."

Previously, Bravi has indicated that Sauber's priority was to find Pourchaire a new IndyCar home for 2025, and the team has not seemed particularly keen to promote him to F1 in the past. So he might be seen as the last resort.

Liam Lawson

If so, then above him would be Lawson, and there is believed to have been contact with him. That is also dependent on better options being unavailable and Red Bull deciding not to give him a race seat in its second team - but the idea is known to be taken seriously by Audi F1 bosses.

"He has done [five F1] races, he's in an environment that has proven to be strong for young drivers like Red Bull and RB," said Bravi when asked for his thoughts on Lawson.

"He is a good driver. I cannot say more because I don't know him personally.

"I can just judge from outside, but there are elements there that can show that there's potential to be a Formula 1 driver."

Audi’s hand will be forced by two factors: Sainz’s decision (both when he decides and which team), and whether Bottas/Ocon are still available when that is made.

It may be that Sainz will decide the Audi project has the highest upside anyway, in which case a Sainz/Nico Hulkenberg combination will be about as good as Audi could have hoped for.

Valtteri Bottas

If Ocon is signed, but Bottas is still available, then Audi needs to decide whether to go all-in to keep a driver who seems put out by his treatment at a team prioritising other contenders over him. If there are any question marks over Bottas, or he does not want to stick around, then even with him available Audi might end up going down the Pourchaire/Lawson route.

The uncertainty is, like with all the major remaining moves in the 2025 driver market, traced back to Sainz. Until he decides what to do, the other drivers have to sit back and wait. And they’re getting annoyed by that.

But if Williams is serious about moving things on with or without Sainz, and Ocon’s Haas discussions are as advanced as some in the paddock believe, the ball might finally start rolling for the other drivers stuck in the queue.

And that could quickly determine whether Audi is landing its number one choice or having to look quite far down its shortlist to find Hulkenberg’s team-mate.

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