Racing in Formula 1 means being part of an exclusive club. There are only 20 full-time race seats.
Behind the drivers is an unheralded, but important, role: the reserve drivers. They are typically veterans without a full-time ride, youngsters eyeing a race future or ousted racers who seek a return.
Lando Norris, who holds one of those 20 seats with McLaren, used a reserve position in 2018 to land his seat in 2019. Esteban Ocon lost his seat at Force India, spent the next year as a Mercedes reserve and returned in 2020 with Renault, now Alpine. Alexander Albon was demoted to reserve by Red Bull for 2021, but he returned for 2022, at Williams.
“I feel like having a year out I’ve had more of a global view of what it takes to be a top-tier driver in the sense that I had the full picture — sometimes in a race weekend or flat out in that zone you only see the racetrack,” said Albon, who has since signed a multiyear Williams contract. “Last year it was a very different role, a lot about developing the car, seeing how the team operates.”
The exact job depends on the team, but usually involves testing the car on the simulator, driving during testing and practices, and media and marketing duties. Reserves must also be on standby to race.
“You have to be ready to step up and race the car,” said Pietro Fittipaldi of Haas. He raced in the final two events of 2020 after Romain Grosjean was injured in an accident.
“You never know when an opportunity is going to come by, and you want to not only do it as a job, but do it because you want to do it well.”
Robert Kubica of Alfa Romeo said he was woken up before 7 a.m. on the Saturday before the Dutch Grand Prix in 2021 and told that he would be racing the next day because Kimi Raikkonen had contracted Covid-19.
“From one side you know that there is this chance, because this is my position, but I never think about it because it’s a bit of an uncomfortable situation,” Kubica said. “I have to admit I would like to race, but I don’t want our main drivers to be in the condition that they can’t race. You never wish that. You have the knowledge it might happen, so I’m not going to drink beers the evening before.”
As a rising star in 2006, he “was driving more than the main drivers” during the era of unlimited testing, which “was mega for a young driver,” he said. Kubica raced from late 2006 to 2010, with one win, before a severe arm injury interrupted his career in 2011. He returned in 2018 and became a reserve with Williams and raced for them in 2019, but moved back to a reserve spot in 2020 with Alfa Romeo, where he remains.
“It’s much easier to attend this position when you are a young driver because everything is attractive and it is nice,” he said. “But I have a privilege to drive sometimes in practice sessions: This makes it more attractive. That gives you a better feel of what is going on with the car, and it means you’re more linked with the team in understanding technical aspects.”
Nico Hülkenberg started 177 races in Formula 1, but lost his Renault seat after 2019. He is now Aston Martin’s reserve, and he has raced in five Grands Prix for the team. Most recently, he participated in the opening two events of 2022, after Sebastian Vettel contracted Covid-19.
“You do come into a weekend a bit on the back foot as the others know their cars and are connected with it, you don’t know the car well, you don’t know the tires well, you have less knowledge and experience,” he said. “It’s difficult to compensate, but you have to do the best you can, learn step by step; car time is the most important so you can build up on it and get the confidence.”
Hülkenberg sees no drawbacks to being a reserve.
“It doesn’t hurt, and there were opportunities, otherwise I would have not raced a Formula 1 car since the end of 2019,” he said. “I was back a few times, got a lot of P.R. out of it, it was a good push for myself. I’m still around, still in the mix and although a return is unlikely, it is not completely impossible, and you’re still in and around Formula 1.”
Kubica, who now races in the World Endurance Championship, also retains his Formula 1 connection.
“Every time I put the belts on and I’m in the car, it is giving me some emotions,” he said. “And in the end only people who have driven an F1 car can understand what I’m talking about: the feeling of driving the fastest cars around the world.”
“Not many people on the planet have the privilege of doing it. I have to see myself as lucky.”
Fittipaldi almost landed a racing seat this year after Nikita Mazepin’s contract was terminated by Haas just two weeks before the first race because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the team’s reserve, Fittipaldi was an option, but Haas re-signed the veteran driver Kevin Magnussen.
“I told them I knew I could perform, but I respect the call, and it doesn’t change the situation,” Fittipaldi said of Haas. “I still keep working hard on my goals — something else could happen — you’ve just got to keep working.”
There will, at least, be one 2022 reserve driver on Formula 1’s 2023 grid. Last year’s Formula 2 champion, Oscar Piastri, has spent this season as Alpine’s reserve, but is poised to make his race debut with McLaren in March.