The ten greatest mid-season F1 driver swaps of the 21st century

Editor
Marcus Winkelhock, Max Verstappen and Robert Kubica

Marcus Winkelhock, Max Verstappen and Robert Kubica

In the high-pressure world of Formula 1, any change of driver is a fine line of risk and reward.

A change of driver can make or break a season, or even a career. Whilst some become a failed roll of the dice, others can provide the springboard to driver’s time in Formula 1.

Liam Lawson is currently reaping the rewards of a successful stint at AlphaTauri, which has seen his stock rise in the fickle driver market.

Whilst Lawson’s time substituting for Daniel Ricciardo at AlphaTauri might not yet be over, how do you think he compares to his 21st century predecessors?

For this top ten, we have looked through all mid-season driver changes, including one-off substitute appearances which have happened for a variety of reasons, including injury, sponsorships, and driver unavailability. We have also leaned towards the driver swaps which featured the bigger ‘racing moments’ or results, rather than a simple driver upgrade.

For example, Daniel Ricciardo replacing Narain Karthikeyan at Hispania Racing Team was a clear improvement, but the car was insufficient to challenge for any noteworthy results.

With the ground rules laid out, here are our ten greatest mid-season driver swaps of the 21st century.

10: Winkelhock for Albers, 2007, Spyker

With regular driver Christijan Albers dropped by the back-of-the-grid Spyker team due to failed sponsor payments, there was an unlikely debut for Markus Winkelhock at the European GP. The German had a respectable, but not spectacular, junior driver record, and was not widely tipped to be in Formula 1 long. In fact, his career lasted for one memorable Grand Prix.

Whilst his raw pace wasn’t turning heads, Winkelhock and the Spyker team teased one of the biggest underdog stories of recent years. Gambling on rain hitting the Nurburgring circuit hard, Winkelhock pitted on the formation lap for wet tyres, which vaulted him from last, to first by over half-a-minute. Red flags wiped out this unlikeliest of leads but, had the rain not fallen with the level of ferociousness that it did, we might have ended up recognising one of Formula 1’s most unlikely point scorers.

9: De la Rosa for Montoya, 2006, McLaren

With Juan-Pablo Montoya’s ties to the McLaren team cut in dramatic fashion after the US Grand Prix, the Woking team turned to their long-time test driver to fill the seat until further notice, which turned out to be until the end of the season. With the team having a difficult year – in which hotshot teammate Kimi Raikkonen didn’t even win a race – there wasn’t a heap of pressure on De la Rosa to be challenging for podiums at every race.

Having driven a variety of cars and performed stand-in duties before, De la Rosa performed admirably despite not having the outright pace of Raikkonen. His career highlight came in an impressive race at the Hungarian GP, where he tackled the tricky wet conditions to take a career-best second place. Numerous points finishes meant he actually had a similar point-per-race ratio to Montoya.

He lost out on an outside chance of a 2007 drive to a rookie called Lewis Hamilton…wonder what happened to him?

8: Vandoorne for Alonso, 2016, McLaren

After Fernando Alonso had spectacularly crashed out of the previous race in Australia, the two-time World Champion was sidelined for the following round in Bahrain. As a result, development driver and 2015 GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne was called up for the second seat alongside Jenson Button.

As one of the brightest talents to emerge from the feeder series, there was frustration that he was unable to find a seat in Formula 1 for 2016. Therefore, this one-off race was a great chance to add to the outcry. He duly outqualified World Champion teammate Jenson Button in his first qualifying session. He was passed on the opening lap by Button, but raced competently to take a point on his debut in a McLaren that wasn’t a guaranteed points finisher.

7: Vettel for Kubica, 2007, BMW

With Robert Kubica sidelined due to a scary crash at the Canadian GP, BMW promoted test driver Sebastian Vettel to fill the seat for the following United States GP. Qualifying close to experienced teammate Nick Heidfeld, Vettel recovered from an off-track moment at Turn 1 to claim a point on debut, which caught the attention of future employers within Red Bull.

Whilst he wasn’t the youngest driver to start a Grand Prix, at the time Vettel became the youngest driver to score a Formula 1 point. His record has since been beaten by Daniil Kvyat, Max Verstappen, Lance Stroll and Lando Norris, but it was nevertheless a remarkable effort for an emerging talent.

6: Kobayashi for Glock, 2009, Toyota

Given that Kamui Kobayashi didn’t have a stellar GP2 record to make him an obvious contender for a Formula 1 drive, the Toyota junior was handed his debut at the Brazilian GP after Timo Glock was injured in a crash at Suzuka.

Whilst he wasn’t on the pace of temporary teammate Jarno Trulli at the first race, the Japanese driver certainly made an impact. Despite a collision with countryman Kazuki Nakajima, his fearless racing style won admirers and ruffled the feathers of champion-elect Jenson Button. Kobayashi was retained for the season finale in Abu Dhabi, and raced well to P6 ahead of Trulli, a performance which helped secure a seat at Sauber for 2010.

PlanetF1.com recommends

F1 driver contracts: What is the current contract status of every driver on the 2023 grid?

F1 points all-time rankings: Where do Hamilton, Verstappen and Alonso feature?

5: De Vries for Albon, 2022, Williams

How things can change in the space of twelve months. The 2019 Formula 2 champion Nyck de Vries finally earned a chance at a Formula 1 drive when he was brought in to replace the unwell Alex Albon at the Italian GP. A strong drive to P9 equalled Williams’ best race results of the season, and it put the Dutchman on team radars for 2023.

However, having signed for AlphaTauri for 2023, De Vries was unable to match teammate Yuki Tsunoda’s pace, and he lost his seat after just ten races.

4: Vettel for Speed, 2007, Toro Rosso

With Red Bull already forging a cut-throat reputation with their approach to driver development, Sebastian Vettel would turn out to be the first genuine race-winning prospect. Having impressed earlier in 2007 with his stand-in performance at BMW, Vettel earned the call to replace Scott Speed, who wasn’t living up to his name.

A tough year for the Toro Rosso team allowed Vettel to bed himself in without too much spotlight, but he began to shine towards the end of the year. A stellar drive at Fuji was ended by a collision with future teammate Mark Webber, but he made amends with an impressive drive to P4 at the following Chinese GP.

3: Kubica for Villeneuve, 2006, BMW

The stock of 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve was at its lowest in 2006 and, after being outscored by teammate Nick Heidfeld in the first 12 races of the season, he and BMW parted ways. Junior driver hotshot Robert Kubica was drafted in to fill the seat, and made an immediate impression on the grid.

Out-qualifying Heidfeld on his debut, Kubica was unlucky to be disqualified from a point-scoring finish at his first race at the Hungarian GP. However, he would soon trump this with a brilliant drive at Monza, where he claimed third place in only his third Grand Prix. It proved to be the springboard for a promising career, which was unfortunately cut short due to a pre-season crash in 2011.

2: Russell for Hamilton, 2020, Mercedes

During the pandemic-affected 2020 season, a positive Covid test resulted in seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton missing the penultimate race of the condensed season. Mercedes turned to then-junior driver George Russell to partner Valtteri Bottas for the one-off Sakhir Grand Prix.

Presented with his first race-winning opportunity in Formula 1, Russell was narrowly edged to pole position by his experienced teammate but strong-armed his way into an early lead of the race. However, the Briton was undone by a tyre mix-up and a puncture, which meant he only had a P9 and a fastest lap to show for his efforts. It was a remarkable first race with the Mercedes team that deserved a much better result.

1: Verstappen for Kvyat, 2016, Red Bull Racing

The dominant Dutchman takes top spot with his jaw-dropping promotion from Toro Rosso to Red Bull early in the 2016 season. As such, Verstappen is the only driver of the 21st century to win a Grand Prix after switching teams part way through a season.

After impressing at the Red Bull junior outfit in 2015, Verstappen was elevated to the main team after just four races of 2016, replacing the under-fire Daniil Kvyat.

The then-18-year-old remarkably won his first race on his first Red Bull outing, and immediately started to pile the pressure on established number one driver Daniel Ricciardo. Further impressive performances in 2016 followed, including a dazzling wet weather drive at the Brazilian Grand Prix. The rest, as they say, is history.

Honourable mentions

Wurz for Montoya, McLaren, 2005
Ricciardo for Karthikeyan, HRT, 2011
Ocon for Haryanto, Manor, 2016
Sainz for Palmer, Renault, 2017

Read next: Ranked: The top 10 American drivers in Formula 1 history