The most reliable way to earn a seat in Formula 1 is to align with a major team early in your career and do just enough in lower-level racing to keep earning promotions. Depending on how you define major team, between half and 3/4ths of the 2023 F1 grid made their way to the top level of the European racing ladder as a development driver in one of these systems. Red Bull's system alone is responsible for five of them, including champion Max Verstappen. That makes it all the more strange that perhaps the most prolific driver abandoned by this process, 2019 Formula 2 champion Nyck de Vries, will race at Red Bull's junior team Scuderia AlphaTauri without ever having part of one.
This is the fourth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2023 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Scuderia AlphaTauri. You can find the rest of our previews here.
In fact, Nyck de Vries was not even the first choice for this seat. He was supposed to land at Williams this year, but a deal with Colton Herta fell through when he could not secure the necessary Super License points or a waiver to pass by that process in time for the 2023 season. That all happened just days after de Vries starred in a one-off role for Williams, so Red Bull made a quick and surprising hire. Sometimes, those moments of chance are all it takes to make a career in this sport.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Nyck de Vries spent most of his years in the junior formulas as a McLaren prospect, a deal he signed as a karter all the way back in 2010. He moved into cars by 2012, and high-level cars for the first time with the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2015. Through his time at McLaren, he saw Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel Vandoorne, and Lando Norris land rides with the senior team. In Magnussen and Vandoorne's cases, he also saw their time at McLaren come to a quick and unceremonious end.
Through the first three seasons of his four years in Formula 3 and Formula 2, he was good but not stellar. He finished 6th in the 2016 F3 season, seventh in his first year of F2 in 2017, and fourth in his second in 2018. McLaren moved on by 2019, ending his most realistic path to Formula 1. Coincidentally, that was the season he finally broke out.
In a fairly weak Formula 2 field, de Vries won a championship over future Williams driver Nicholas Latifi by more than 50 points. It was a dominant season, but much like 2022 F2 champion Felipe Drugovich, the combination of a weak field and his inability to win a title until his third season made de Vries a non-factor in the F1 driver market for the 2020 season. Now unable to compete in Formula 2 by rule, he moved to Formula E with Mercedes.
There, he won four times and secured the 2020-21 championship in three seasons of competition. He also competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the LMP2 class four times, securing a best class position of fourth last season. In between, de Vries has been a reserve driver for Mercedes. That led him to a loan as a reserve for Williams when Alex Albon suffered from appendicitis at the Italian grand prix, which led to his F1 debut. He finished ninth in that race, securing points in a Williams that had struggled all season long.
This year, a particularly weak driver market opened the door for his first full season as a Formula 1 driver. It was expected to happen with Williams in replacement of his old F2 rival Latifi, but a better drive opened up when Herta was unable to sign with AlphaTauri. Now. he'll have his shot to prove he can lead a team.
GOALS FOR 2023
Nyck de Vries has just one race in an F1 car under his belt, but he has set his own expectations particularly high. Teammate Yuki Tsunoda, meanwhile, has set his fairly low after two disappointing years behind Pierre Gasly. That leaves de Vries with a fairly straighforward goal: beat the more experienced Tsunoda in both qualifying and total points, proving he is a qualified F1 driver already rather than a late-blooming prospect.
That is particularly important because Nyck de Vries is 27, five years older than Tsunoda. He has less time in the car, but his age and total time in auto racing will make this the expectation. As a rookie, he will have to beat a third-year driver to maintain the level of respect he has from teams going into his first season.
A SUCCESSFUL 2023 LOOKS LIKE...
Past that, success will depend on the car. Former AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly has been able to reach substantial highs in his time as the team's leader, notably winning a race in 2020 and finishing in the top ten in the series standings from 2019 to 2021. Last year, the car was not strong. Gasly finished 14th, scoring less than 1/4th his 2021 points haul.
To prove he is on Gasly's level, de Vries will be best measured against Tsunoda. To do any more than that, he will need the team to improve significantly.