Watch and learn

Kiwi racer Liam Lawson has already achieved an impressive amount in the take-no-prisoner cauldrons of Formula 2 and the German touring car championship.

But as the new Formula 1 season gets underway with Lawson in the hot seat as AlphaTauri’s official rookie driver for 2022, it seems as if the young man from Hawke’s Bay is standing on the precipice of something huge.

Words Shaun Summerfield Photos Vinesh Kumaran, Red Bull

Turbulent. That one word succinctly sums up the past twelve months of Liam Lawson’s life. From having a Monaco victory taken away to the pain of the DTM title being ripped from his hands in the final race, the teen had every reason to question the value of chasing his Formula One dream.

Those two moments, however public, were not what defined 2021 for Lawson; his focus on F1 is unwavering, and his self-belief is stronger than ever. So too is Red Bull’s belief in the young Kiwi, who was given a seat in the AlphaTauri at the F1 Rookie Test last December.

Lawson recalls Red Bull Racing boss, Christian Horner playing Santa Claus.

“I remember the day I was told about the test. It was Christian Horner who told me,” Lawson recalls. “I was doing my first simulator day at Red Bull, and I went to his office to see him. We were talking about some other stuff, and then he raises the point, ‘We're looking at putting you in the car for the young driver test’.

“Obviously inside I was absolutely screaming, but I wanted to play it cool in front of him. So, I kept a straight face: it was quite funny.”

Three months on, and already onto the podium in his second Formula 2 season, the 125 laps of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit remain the highlight of the 20-year old’s career so far.

“The biggest day of my life, that's for sure: a very cool experience. It’s something that I've dreamed of doing since I was a kid. I made sure to just take it all in a little bit and smile and realise and appreciate that I achieved something big there.”

The disappointment of Monaco and the Norisring became distant memories, as Lawson recorded the second quickest lap-time at the test. The stopwatch confirmed what the team bosses already knew, and he was offered the role of AlphaTauri’s official rookie driver for 2022.

New F1 regulations mean each team must field a rookie driver in practice at two Grands Prix this season. For Lawson, it is like a life-long dream coming true.

“Formula One is something that since I was five – maybe even before I could talk – I was sitting watching.”

In simple terms, Lawson is now another step closer to Formula One, but no sport is more complex or cut-throat. If 2021 was the audition, this season is akin to lining up for a ‘Got Talent’ live final.

The 13 rounds, 26 races are career-defining. That isn’t hyperbole either: AlphaTauri Team Principal, Franz Tost, has said publicly that ‘Lawson has to win races, has to win the championship’ and also made it clear that those results will define his and fellow Red Bull Junior, Juri Vips’, future chances for a seat in one of the four Red Bull cars.

The off-season move to Carlin Motorsport hasn’t dented Lawson’s performance. Bahrain's second and third placings left him just a point off the series lead after the opening round and crucially ahead of Vips.

That Carlin was home to six drivers on this year’s F1 grid is the most apparent proof of the team’s mettle. Still, for Lawson, it was the personal approach that won him over.

“Just getting a phone call from Trevor Carlin and speaking to him directly and learning what the team was about, learning the sort of motivation and dedication from their side and as well as how much they believed in and me and what we could do together – that all meant a lot.”

The Bahrain result will not be the measure of a driver with a knack for being quick out of the box; he did that in both F2 and DTM last season and ended up without a title.

“We want to start the Championship strong, but the end goal is to win,” he says.

For 2022 to be his F1 springboard, Lawson knows he must deliver for the entire year. There is no shortage of motivation after playing a behind-the-scenes role in Max Verstappen’s dramatic and controversial Driver’s Championship victory last season.

“I loved the last part of the year. I actually had some involvement. I did a couple of simulator days with the team and almost felt a part of it a little bit, which is quite cool.

“I had a very small input into what happened, but just to be involved and see first-hand how the team was operating that second half of the year, how all that any single person in the factory was thinking about was how Max could win that championship.”

If Bahrain was the F1 team’s emotional high point, Lawson’s happened a few months earlier in West Sussex. It didn’t involve Verstappen, but rather Red Bull’s other World Champ. After his record-setting debut victory in DTM, the Kiwi was invited to drive Sebastian Vettel’s 2011 RB7 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

“That was a very emotional day for me because the car that I drove was the car I watched dominate when I first started watching F1. I remember the whole run, every bit of it. I also had a big snap up the hill and nearly lost the car.

“As soon as I crossed the line at the top, I completely burst into tears. I could see the mechanic at the top waiting for me, and I had to keep the visor down so he couldn’t see I was crying.”

There are tastes of F1, but Lawson is still very much an F2 driver; home is Milton Keynes, not Monaco. Still, life is moving very fast for the kid who just five years ago was racing in a helmet borrowed from motorsport legend Kenny Smith, because his was too small and his family’s budget couldn’t stretch to a new one.

“I think it's important to always sort of sit back and appreciate what's going on because everything becomes normal very quickly. And I remember when I first signed the Red Bull deal, and it was the biggest moment in my life. But two weeks later, I'm in the factory there doing simulator work and talking with the team, and it becomes your sort of normal life. So, it's important to pinch yourself now and then,” he says.

Those candid moments are a stark reminder that Lawson is still a teenager, aware of his immense talents but still coming to terms with the enormity of what he is achieving and where he is heading.

“I know how hard it is to make it from New Zealand. To have this opportunity and what I've been given is something that I wish more Kiwis could get. I'm extremely appreciative.”

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