AUSTIN, Texas — Former IndyCar champion Alex Palou had barely started his first live grand prix session behind the wheel of a F1 car when he declared the feel and speed of the McLaren “insane.”
Moments later, Williams’ Logan Sargeant was complaining of losing tire grip like a seasoned Formula One veteran.
Friday at the United States Grand Prix saw a parade of first-timers on the Circuit of the Americas in the day’s first, 60-minute session, giving the series a peek into the potential future of the drivers’ grid.
Palou finished it grinning ear to ear and wanting more.
“Super happy,” the Spaniard said. “It was a dream of mine.”
That was INSANE!!! 😛@McLarenF1 #F1 pic.twitter.com/RrotwboJQe
— Alex Palou Montalbo (@AlexPalou) October 21, 2022
Palou had done a test drive in a 2021 F1 car, but driving Daniel Ricciardo’s current version on a live track was beyond his expectations. He drove it deep into the braking zones and corners to get everything he could out of his track time.
He also had to be careful.
“It was fast!” he said. “Then you have the traffic, you don’t want to impede anybody else and you have the car that isn’t yours. I was trying to take care of the car.”
Formula One mandates that all teams use reserve drivers for two practice sessions this season. That put four newcomers, plus former F1 regular Antonio Giovinazzi, behind the wheel.
All brought up the rear, finishing as the bottom five in the session.
“Our program today was not to go fast,” Palou said. “It was to get data.”
Palou was the biggest name in the bunch. After he won the 2021 IndyCar championship, the Arrow McLaren SP team tried to add him to its lineup for 2023. Palou ultimately was held to his existing Chip Ganassi Racing contract when the teams couldn’t agree on a buyout.
Palou is allowed to test drive for McLaren, but he won’t join McLaren’s racing program until 2024. And while he said as a racer, F1 would always be a dream, he’s still happy racing IndyCar.
“I still smile the same in IndyCar,” Palou said. “As a racing driver who likes motorsport, F1 is where you want to go. Throughout my career, I realized that F1 was not a place I could really achieve. I went through IndyCar and we achieved that. Funny enough, getting that IndyCar championship gave me the opportunity to be here today.
“I embraced every single second of it,” he said. “I’m not chasing it. If somebody gives me a ride, I’ll drive it. That’s the ultimate dream. (But) I have a career in IndyCar, we’ve been successful and I want to get as many championships as possible.”
Sargeant shoulders a different kind of expectation and pressure. The 21-year-old could be the American driver fans in the U.S. – and major sponsors – have been longing for.
Formula One hasn’t had an American on the grid since Alexander Rossi in 2015 and hasn’t had a champion since Mario Andretti in 1978. Sargeant is currently third in the F2 feeder series.
He drove Friday in place of Nicholas Latifi, who is not being retained by Williams for 2023. The team has not yet announced a replacement, and Sargeant could be in the mix.
“You have to be sensible, keep it together and do a sensible job. But it was crazy, everything would happen so quickly and so sharp,” Sargeant said.
Alfa Romeo 2023 reserve driver Theo Pourchair drove for Valtteri Bottas. The 19-year-old Frenchman is currently second in the F2 standings. And Ferrari’s 23-year-old development driver Theo Schwartzman drove the session for Charles Leclerc.
Giovinazzi, who has 67 career F1 starts and is now a reserve driver for Ferrari, had a miserable session driving for Haas’ Kevin Magnussen. The Italian had put in only a few laps when he spun and ran the car into the wall.
Ferrari topped both practice sessions, led by Carlos Sainz in the first and Leclerc leading the second. Both hope to challenge Red Bull’s season champion Max Verstappen for pole position Saturday. The previous nine races have been won from the front row.
Haas driver Mick Schumacher has been put on notice that he needs to score points and not wreck his car over the final four races if he hopes to retain his seat for 2023.
The son of former seven-time champion Michael Schumacher has scored points in only two races this season, and not since Austria in July. But teammate Kevin Magnussen came to his defense this week.
“Lately he has been super hard to beat for me,” Magnussen said. “I think the way he is driving right now he definitely deserves a place on the grid. But I haven’t had any influence. It is totally out of my hands and I can only just wish him well.”
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes said F1 and ownership group Liberty Media should have stepped in to help rescue the final races of the season of the financially strapped all-women W Series.
The W Series raced its third season, but dropped its final events in Austin and next week in Mexico City after a major investor fell through.
“There’s not really a pathway for those young, amazing drivers to even get to Formula 1, and then you have some people who say we’re never going to see a female F1 driver ever,” Hamilton said. “So that’s not a good narrative to be putting out …. with Formula 1 and Liberty doing so well it’s not a lot for them to be able to help out in that space.”
After five years with Mercedes as a teammate to Lewis Hamilton Valtteri Bottas joined Alfa Romeo to replace Kimi Raikkonen in 2022. As the season draws to a close and Formula 1 comes to America for the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas with four rounds remaining, he reflected on his role as a mentor to a new driver on the circuit and in guiding the team to another level.
“It’s been quite natural,” Bottas told NBC Sports ahead of the weekend activities. “It was always going to be at some point in my career that I’m the older guy in the team.
“Teaming up with [Guanyu Zhou] has been pretty natural for him to ask for advice. I try to help him where I can. I think we’ve been working really well together. For me it’s been nice to be in the role of being the more experienced driver and to have a bit of a bigger say in the team when it comes to certain technical things.”
Bottas will close out the 2022 season with his 200th start in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, making him just the 21st driver to achieve that goal and placing him fifth among active drivers.
Ten wins and 67 podium finishes ensure Bottas has a place in the record books, but even though he is not competing for a sixth consecutive top-five finish in the Drivers’ Championship, the challenges this season are no less meaningful. Bottas currently sits 10th in the standings, 19 behind Fernando Alonso and 14 ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
A rough offseason of testing created modest expectations for Bottas and Alfa Romeo.
“It took a little time, but we had the whole winter to prepare,” Bottas said. “I would say [there was] less pressure [than expected], because when I joined the team, the aim was to be successful in the years to come and not overnight. It wasn’t urgent.
“It feels like there’s a nice working pace in a way. It’s a less pressure environment. We’re aiming to be good in the long term. Obviously in this sport there is always some. It feels like nowadays maybe it’s from my side because I want to succeed.”
Bottas was responsible for lifting much of the pressure off his own shoulders. He earned points in seven of the first nine rounds of 2022. One of the races in which he failed to score points for Alfa Romeo ended in the garage with overheating issues in Saudi Arabia. He finished outside the points by one position in Azerbaijan.
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“The start of the year was really strong,” Bottas said. “I think we were even a little surprised by the performance, because we had a pretty difficult winter as far as testing. It didn’t go as smoothly as we were hoping. Then being able to consistently score big points was great and a bit surprising.
“But then as the season has been going forward, we’ve faced quite a few issues with reliability, some from our side, some from the engine manufacturer side. We’ve also had a few unlucky races.
“It feels like we’re now getting closer again, we got some new updates in the race in Japan two weeks ago. The weather was pretty crazy on Sunday It wasn’t really representative of us, but we were pretty close in qualifying, in the top 10 again, and then again here with some further improvements to the car I think we’re going to be in the mix again.”
Bottas and Alfa Romeo have not scored points since the Canadian GP in June, but he came close twice with 11th-place finishes, including two rounds ago in the Singapore GP.
“In F1 you have to always be focused on the [individual] driver as well,” Bottas said. “Personally, I always want to perform at the highest level and be the best that I can. But at the same time, it is a project for us to get closer to the top over the years. There’s definitely a higher focus on the team performance now than the individual.”
More encouragingly, COTA has been a great track for him. Bottas won the 2019 United States GP and has results of sixth or better in his last four starts there. Add a pair of top-10s in his first two attempts and expectations are high.