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INSIGHT: How Ferrari super-sub Bearman made his mark on and off the track in Saudi Arabia

Staff Writer

Mike Seymour
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Oliver Bearman wowed the F1 paddock at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix with a spectacular substitute performance in place of the unwell Carlos Sainz at Ferrari, adding a fresh dimension to the start of the 2024 season and putting himself firmly in the mix for a full-time seat next year.

Just one week earlier, the 18-year-old Ferrari starlet had been languishing towards the back of the F2 pack alongside team mate and highly-rated Mercedes junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli – their Prema squad struggling to make an impression around the Bahrain International Circuit.

READ MORE: Vasseur reflects on ‘fantastic’ Bearman performance in Saudi Arabia as Haas boss Komatsu calls him the ‘total package’

But when the fired up operation returned to action at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, Bearman pushed those struggles to one side by charging his way around the super-fast track and claiming a confidence-boosting pole position.

Bearman answers the call

When Bearman returned to the venue on Friday morning, he was fully focused on converting that pole into victory and kickstarting his F2 title challenge, having shown plenty of promise as a rookie in 2023. But then Ferrari team boss Frederic Vasseur called with some breaking news.

Having battled his way through stomach complaints to be involved in FP1 and FP2, regular Ferrari racer Sainz's situation took a turn for the worse on Thursday night when he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with appendicitis – the predicament requiring surgery.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 08: Oliver Bearman of Great Britain and Ferrari walks in the Paddock.

Sainz's unfortunate illness handed Bearman a golden opportunity

That meant Bearman, one of Ferrari's reserve drivers for 2024 alongside former F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi and former F2 runner-up Robert Schwartzman, would be called up for a headline-making, in-at-the-deep-end debut.

READ MORE: Leclerc says ‘it’s a matter of time’ before Bearman joins F1 grid after Saudi stand-in performance

What followed stunned the vast majority of the F1 paddock, for while Bearman has been building an enviable CV with success across karting, F4, F3 and F2, the step up to F1 is a significant one, let alone as a teenager with one of the sport's most famous teams and only a few hours to prepare.

Indeed, jumping in from FP3, which served as his only session before qualifying, and an unrepresentative one at that, Bearman immediately looked at home in the SF-24, impressively throwing it around the track and exploring the limits. Williams driver Alex Albon was one of many drivers who raised their eyebrows in the pit lane and took notice.

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2024 Saudi Arabian GP FP3: Ride onboard with Ferrari sub Oliver Bearman as he gets up to speed in final practice

Bearman stuns in qualifying

When qualifying arrived, the youngster built on that promise to comfortably make the Q2 cut and then push for a spot in the pole shootout. With a valiant effort in that second segment, he came up just 0.036s short as the chequered flag dropped – a slightly compromised first lap on soft tyres denting his chances. The driver who he almost knocked out of proceedings? Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.

While this on-track performance had impressed many watching from Jeddah and around the world, Bearman also showed his class off it a few minutes later when he headed to the media pen and faced the waiting TV broadcasters for the first time.

READ MORE: Who is Oliver Bearman? The new Ferrari rookie’s career so far

Rather than getting lost in the moment, Bearman showed maturity and self-reflection that belied his years, namechecking Sainz and making sure to send his best wishes, before commenting that – despite achieving a very respectable 11th on the grid – he was a touch “disappointed” with the result.

This was clearly a driver striving for the highest of standards and one who would not settle for anything less than perfection, no matter how deep the water he had been thrown into.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 08: 11th placed qualifier Oliver Bearman of Great Britain and Ferrari

Despite being thrown in at the deep end, Bearman said his Q2 exit "hurt"

“It was so close, so close,” he rued to F1 TV's cameras with a smile. “That’s why it hurts a bit more. I made a mistake on my first push [lap] so I had to do it on my second and the tyres aren’t really the best there, so my mistake and I’ll take that on the chin.”

Take it on the chin he did, Bearman dusting himself down to get stuck into the post-qualifying debrief before returning on race day determined to convert that solid starting position into a points finish and help Ferrari boost their early-season constructors' tally.

READ MORE: Hamilton praises ‘impressive’ Bearman

But the task ahead was still a daunting one, with some 50 relentless laps around a physically and mentally demanding circuit to be ticked off – one that serves as an extreme challenge to even F1's most experienced drivers.

Race day arrives

Any lingering doubts were soon put to bed, though – Bearman keeping his nose clean at the start, settling into a rhythm, understanding more and more about the Ferrari package and then working his way towards the points-paying positions.

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‘It hurts’ – Ferrari super-sub Bearman on just missing out on Q3 on F1 debut

Moves on Yuki Tsunoda's RB and Nico Hulkenberg's Haas caught the eye and, when in clean air, he edged closer and closer to the pace of multiple race-winning team mate Charles Leclerc, showing clear progression and doing a fine job of managing Pirelli’s tyres despite his very limited first-hand knowledge of them.

One more challenge involved coming under attack from a soft-shod Hamilton and Lando Norris in the closing laps, but Bearman also handled that pressure with aplomb to cross the line ahead of the Mercedes and McLaren in a sensational seventh position.

READ MORE: 6 Winners and 5 Losers from Saudi Arabia – Who impressed under the lights in Jeddah?

It was a performance that only added to the rapidly-building hype around the Briton and led to another flurry of compliments from drivers up and down the pit lane, including team mate Leclerc.

“He’s done an exceptional job to get into a Formula 1 car in FP3 when all the drivers have had FP1, FP2,” said the Monegasque. “You don’t know the car, the track is one of the most challenging of the season and you get there, you do the first three laps in FP3 and you are straight away on the pace and pushing the car to its limits.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 9: Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Scuderia Ferrari and Oliver Bearman

Leclerc praised his stand-in team mate

“It’s been super impressive to see him so fast straight away, super nice to see him so happy all weekend and so excited as he was, and he’s done an amazing job.”

Speaking to F1 TV for his very first post-debut interview, Bearman admitted that the experience had left him feeling “destroyed” – his car’s headrest visibly dented from his neck pushing up against it.

READ MORE: Wolff ‘would love’ to have Verstappen as there’s no team who ‘wouldn’t do handstands’ to sign him

But those physical struggles aside, Bearman looked as though he was an F1 full-timer already, carrying a level of confidence and assuredness that had no doubt been topped up by delivering on the big stage when it mattered.

“I think I put in a good showing for myself, which is the main thing right?” Bearman reflected. “It’s difficult circumstances, not a lot of laps on track, but I think I maximised everything today. I felt like I was a bit quicker than [Fernando] Alonso and [George] Russell in front, but not enough to catch – the gap was pretty big.”

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Ferrari super-sub Bearman ‘destroyed’ after points-scoring F1 debut in Jeddah

Will Bearman race in F1 again in 2024?

Bearman now faces a wait to find out if Ferrari will need his services again at the next round of the season in Australia, with Vasseur confirming that he is the designated reserve driver in Melbourne should Sainz need more time to recover.

It begged the question of whether he feels ready to jump back in and do it all over again in a couple of weeks’ time, prompting another memorable moment from a whirlwind weekend for F1's newest driver.

SUNDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: Why Ferrari's deficit to Red Bull was halved in Saudi Arabia

Letting out a grin and serving up a tongue-in-cheek counter question, Bearman chimed: “You tell me. Did I do enough?”

While he received his due congratulations before heading off for the next interview, Bearman's remarkable performance meant it was a question that didn't need to be answered.

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Race Highlights: 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

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