Reserve drivers

Following Nico Hülkenberg being named Aston Martin’s test and development, we’re ranking the Formula 1 reserve drivers.

In part one we looked at numbers 13-7 on this most eclectic of grids, and here we’re finishing that off with the best six F1-affiliated drivers that aren’t actually F1 drivers.

There’s some serious talent here alone, and seeing this list only reinforces the need for more seats in the sport. These rankings are based on who we’d back most to perform as a stand-in driver, à la the changes for the Sakhir Grand Prix last year.

These aren’t all necessarily designated ‘reserve’ drivers, but they all hold a reserve, testing or development role at one of the ten F1 teams. We’ve also listed their most significant F1 experience.

Hülkenberg signed by Aston Martin, can he get his podium?

F1 Reserve driver rankings – Part 1

How does Tsunoda’s dream debut stack against the rest of the grid?

F1 Championship standings

6. Williams – Jack Aitken

F1 experience: one race, one free practice, 2020

Coming into the start of last year’s Formula 2 season, Aitken was one of the favourites for the title and the among the best contenders to step into an F1 seat for 2021.

But he endured a very disappointing year at Campos, finishing 14th (compared to fifth in 2019) with just two podiums. While that might have sunk any long-term career ambitions in F1 for the 25-year old, especially with such a competitive field in the championship this year, there was a silver lining as he made his F1 debut.

He performed well at Sakhir, improving throughout the weekend and being less than a tenth away from teammate Nicholas Latifi in qualifying. That’s no mean feat for his first competitive outing and at the rate he was dialling into the FW43 he might’ve been able to beat Latifi the next weekend at Abu Dhabi.

Although he did crash (and cost George Russell the race win), overall it was a very positive weekend for Aitken and leaves no doubt over his ability to perform in F1 when called upon.

It was a tough decision between Aitken and Ilott, I think Ilott would progress to a higher level over a season or two but for a one-off call-up, Aitken’s shown a bit more that he’d be the man.

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5. Mercedes – Nyck De Vries

F1 experience: appeared as himself in two episodes of McLaren’s animated series Tooned. post-season test 2020

The driver from this list that it’d be most exciting to see get a shot in F1, De Vries won F2 in 2019 by a comfortable 50-point margin over fellow third-year driver Nicholas Latifi.

Unable to find an F1 seat, he moved into Formula E and after a solid start, has improved this year including taking his first win in the 2021 season-opener.

FE: Nyck De Vries monsters Diriyah

He also got chance to drive the all-conquering Mercedes W11 at the post-season test last year and put in a very good showing. He was second on the timesheets, two-tenths behind Fernando Alonso but a quarter of a second ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne in the other Black Arrow and the Dutchman completed a solid 110 laps, 28 more than his teammate.

It was really difficult to put him behind Vandoorne – De Vries is a rapid driver that could really do a job in F1 but ultimately his FE teammate has the advantage of two full seasons in F1 while De Vries has never had that chance.

2020 Abu Dhabi Test – LAT mages

4. Mercedes – Stoffel Vandoorne

F1 experience: 41 races, 2016-18

Return of the Stoff? The career renaissance of Vandoorne since his hellish stint at McLaren has been a really wholesome storyline, the Belgian is thriving away from the all-consuming spotlight of F1 and showing why he was so hyped after his dominating 2015 GP2 season.

Now in his third season of Formula E, he’s outperforming teammate De Vries (what a high-powered combination that is, by any series’ standard) and won the latest ePrix in Rome, after a tough crash the previous day.

It’s a Stoffel Vandoorne masterclass in Rome

Vergne wins the Rome E-Prix after race long fight with Di Grassi

Admittedly his F1 career was crushingly disappointing after such a prodigious junior career and that’s what prevents Vandoorne being higher up this list, but he was in a tough situation at the dumpster-fire that was McLaren, and with Fernando Alonso as a teammate.

Vandoorne also made his debut in just such the eventuality that this list is designed for – at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix he subbed in for the injured Alonso and performed admirably. He qualified 12th (0.162s away from reaching Q3) and rose to tenth in the race to complete a pointscoring debut.

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3. Alpine – Daniil Kvyat

F1 experience: 110 races, three podiums, 2014-17 & 2019-20

This was a really neat pick-up from Alpine, Kvyat is the second most experienced driver in the last decade on this list and behind him is Vandoorne – there’s a chasm in racing.

You know exactly what you’ll get with Kvyat, he’s a really solid driver who’ll bring the car home 19 times out of 20 (his record is even better than, he’s not retired due to driver error since China 2019).

The Russian would quickly dial into the Alpine and could pull a qualifying shock out of the bag, he finished the 2020 season strongly by reaching Q3 in four of the last five Grand Prixes.

And he can back that up with decent race-pace and tyre management too, especially after all his laps on the Pirellis.

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2. Red Bull/AlphaTauri – Alex Albon

F1 experience: 38 races, one podium, 2019-2020

Should Albon be ahead of Kvyat? Yes, he should.

When they were together at Toro Rosso Kvyat ended their partnership on top but that was in large part thanks to the fortuitous circumstances at Hockenheim 2019.

Albon had been having the better race and that was why the team didn’t gamble his strategy, whereas Kvyat had been fairly anonymous until he was catapulted to the front from the pit-stop shake-up.

Albon can be quick – and this year’s Red Bull looks like it’d suit him a lot more than the 2020 incarnation, while AlphaTauris are always approachable – whilst at his best, his wheel-to-wheel racing is around the top five of the grid.

The only question is his confidence, it’s hard to know where he’s at mentally after such a tough 2020 but he’s taken major hits before and come back stronger.

And one of his best drives at Red Bull was effectively as a stand-in; fighting from the back of the grid to reach fifth on his debut with the team at Spa 2019.

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1. Aston Martin/Mercedes teams – Nico Hülkenberg

F1 experience: 179 races, 2010-2020

Are you surprised? The Hulk is the clear choice for first, and probably the driver you could best argue should be on the grid this year. He’s the dream reserve driver – he has bags of experience at multiple teams across the grid and showed last year that he get into an alien vehicle and be up to speed quickly.

He’s arguably a better option at Aston Martin than their two actual drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, and it’d be interesting to see where he’d be in the Mercedes too – he was apparently the second choice to replace Michael Schumacher in 2013, behind Lewis Hamilton.

And you never know, if he got a shot in the Mercedes (or even a McLaren) that elusive first podium might be back on the cards.

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But what do you think? You can let us know in the comments section below, or on Twitter at @LastLapmag or @AdamDickinson01. If you’ve not already, check out part one of this list to see the also-rans of this most abstract of races, there’s a few surprise names in there!

And thanks to Freddie Coates and Nigel Chiu for their help on these two articles.

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