BARRETTO: Why AlphaTauri’s newest recruit Nyck de Vries could be 2023’s dark horse
Five months ago, Nyck de Vries’s hopes of a full-time racing seat in Formula 1 looked bleak – so much so he was lining up a package that would see him dovetail a campaign in Formula E with a season in the World Endurance Championship.
Fast forward to the here and now, and the former F2 and Formula E champion has just completed an intense winter season, which included a rigorous Dubai training camp with trainer Pyry Salmela, ahead of his full-time F1 debut with the AlphaTauri team.
The turning point was his points finish as a super-sub for Alex Albon at Williams during the Italian Grand Prix weekend. But what pushed it over the line was him taking his friend and two-time reigning world champion Max Verstappen’s advice and calling Red Bull Motorsport Adviser Helmut Marko after that drive at Monza to try and make his F1 dream happen.
With Williams and Alpine then chasing his signature, and with one of the all-time great stand-in performances in his pocket, De Vries had leverage.
He met with Marko (as he doesn’t have a manager and prefers to do the talking himself) in Austria – and the two spent a couple of days informally interrogating each other.
While a deal wasn’t done there and then, the foundations were put in place for it to happen. Once the formalities were completed – with Red Bull releasing Pierre Gasly a year early to Alpine – the paperwork was signed and De Vries found himself inside the Red Bull family and, potentially, just one step away from a seat at F1’s current dominant team Red Bull. It’s fairytale stuff.
Back to reality, though, and the job ahead of De Vries is vast. His performance in Italy was incredible but there were extenuating circumstances which helped his cause.
Not only did Monza’s layout suit De Vries’s Williams – which was very slippery in a straight line – but there were a slew of grid penalties that flattered his starting spot dramatically. Sure, he seized his opportunity, but it is one thing to do it once, quite another to deliver consistently.
While he only has one Grand Prix weekend under his belt, De Vries can call on extensive experience garnered as a Mercedes reserve over the last two years. He’s driven the Silver Arrows, too, as well as having experience behind the wheel of an Aston Martin during free practice and an old-spec Alpine at the Hungaroring last summer.
He also has a headstart with AlphaTauri in that he completed a healthy 151 laps in last year’s car at the end of season Abu Dhabi young driver test. And there’ll be more time to bolster that experience, with AlphaTauri believed to be running him at Imola and another European track in old machinery over the next few weeks to sharpen him up before pre-season testing.
He’ll also pop over from Monaco where he lives to the team’s base in Faenza when he can to acclimatise himself with his new colleagues.
He's already spent a fair bit of time there, including doing a seat fit for his drive in last year’s Abu Dhabi test. And that he speaks “decent” Italian and can write the language to a good standard too bodes well for speeding up that integration with the little Italian team. “Italians have that warm family approach,” said De Vries. “It will make me feel at home.”
After AlphaTauri launch their season in New York, he’ll turn his attention to pre-season testing, which this year is just three days in Bahrain – host of the F1 season opener the following weekend. He’ll split running with new team mate Yuki Tsunoda, as is the traditional strategy for teams, and thus get a maximum of just 12 hours (each day features eight hours of running) of time with the 2023-spec machine before race one.
It is here where one of De Vries’s key strengths will be vital. His adaptability has been extraordinary, with those at Aston Martin, Williams, Alpine and Mercedes very impressed at how he’s able to quickly get to grips with new machinery, a new set of controls and working practices, and a different set of people with whom he has to share feedback.
He'll turn 28 before he makes his debut, which could be considered ‘old’ for a rookie – he’s seven years older than fellow rookie Oscar Piastri, who will line up alongside Lando Norris at McLaren, for example. But it is that life experience – and wealth of knowledge about competing in multiple forms of motorsport and fighting for World Championships – that will play in his favour.
This why his boss Franz Tost thinks De Vries will hit the ground running, rather than needing the three years Tost traditionally thinks young drivers need to get a foothold in Formula 1.
“Nyck has won so many races and championships, and he is also measured, so he doesn’t need three years,” Tost told me. “He needs some tests and then he will be there – because he has that experience.
“I always rated him very highly; I couldn’t understand why he has never had a seat in Formula 1, because he deserves it.”
He added: “I expect him to be very competitive from the first race onwards.”