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

Luke Murphy
Luca Badoer: Felipe Massa's substitute in 2009

Luca Badoer: Felipe Massa's substitute in 2009

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 a fickle driver market.

Whilst Lawson’s time substituting for Daniel Ricciardo at AlphaTauri has been beneficial for the rookie, how do you think he compares to his 21st century predecessors? We have come up with the ten worst examples of successful driver transfers part way through an F1 season.

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.

Along with performances versus the established team-mate, we have also considered ‘disaster’ races, where races have gone wrong regardless of speed or talent.

10: Zonta for Ralf Schumacher, 2005, Toyota

With Ricardo Zonta’s last full F1 season being in 2000, the Brazilian had taken part in various substitute driver roles since then.

He drove two Grands Prix for Jordan in 2001, four for Toyota in 2004, and now he was called up to stand-in for Ralf Schumacher, who was injured during practice for the 2005 US GP.

Zonta had driven a lot of testing miles for the Japanese team, so was best placed to jump in and hopefully still put in a competitive showing. However, he qualified over one second away from qualifying expert team-mate Jarno Trulli, who claimed the team’s only pole position of the season.

Hoping to recover in the race, Zonta’s opportunity never came due to all but three teams, including Toyota, pulling out from the race due to Michelin’s tyre safety concerns. The farcical race turned into Zonta’s last GP entry.

9: Magnussen for Alonso, 2015, McLaren

Having taken part in his first F1 season with McLaren in 2014, Kevin Magnussen was perhaps unlucky to not have a drive for 2015. The Woking team couldn’t resist the temptation to bring in Fernando Alonso alongside Jenson Button, and duly demoted Magnussen to test and reserve driver to accommodate. However, a crash in pre-season testing sidelined Alonso for the first race, so Magnussen was put back in the race seat for race one.

Whilst we can’t call this a bad performance from Magnussen, it enters this top ten due to how disastrously it went. With the Dane likely already frustrated at his situation, it was to become even more irksome with the lack of pace from the new McLaren-Honda partnership. After qualifying behind his team-mate in an all-McLaren back row of the grid, Magnussen didn’t even make the start of the race due to engine troubles.

8: Button for Alonso, 2017, McLaren

A World Champion driver returning for a one-off race should provide excitement and romanticised ideas of a triumphant return. Whilst Button showed that he still had the pace to be competitive, the circumstances weren’t right for him to be able to succeed.

In one of McLaren’s most difficult seasons in their history, Fernando Alonso missed the 2017 Monaco GP to tackle the Indy 500. The team called on the recently-retired Button to return alongside Stoffel Vandoorne.

He gave a good account in qualifying with a Q3 appearance and finishing ahead of Vandoorne, but looked set for an afternoon of frustration after starting from the pit lane with a variety of Honda engine component changes. In the race, an opportunistic move at Portier went badly wrong when he pitched Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein into a half-roll onto the barrier. It was a disappointing result which the 2009 World Champion did not deserve.

7: Di Resta for Massa, Williams, 2017

Experienced racer Paul di Resta had last raced in F1 in 2013, and found himself out of the sport after being dropped by Force India. Returning to the German DTM series, di Resta was eventually offered a reserve driver role at the Williams team in 2016, and he was called upon for the 2017 Hungarian GP.

Whilst it was widely regarded as not a bad performance due to the lack of preparation time, but this stand-in appearance makes the top ten just because of how ‘doomed to fail’ it was. With Felipe Massa sidelined through illness after FP3, the team called on Di Resta to drive the remainder of the weekend.

At a circuit that did not favour the Williams car and with minimal F1 car experience since 2013, naturally he was several tenths behind his rookie team-mate in qualifying, and was running at the back when he retired. The Scot had been a solid F1 driver in his career, but he was never destined to come out of that weekend looking good.

6: Grosjean for Piquet Jr, Renault, 2009

Whilst this driver swap isn’t necessarily for the performances of Romain Grosjean, this has been included due to the cataclysmic events that unfolded not long afterwards. Nelson Piquet Jr had been struggling alongside Fernando Alonso in 2008 and 2009, and he was dropped halfway through the 2009 season. Grosjean came in and also failed to score any points, but Piquet’s dismissal triggered the unravelling of the famous ‘Crashgate’ saga.

Not long after Piquet’s dismissal, reports emerged about Piquet’s deliberate crash that helped Alonso win the Singapore GP. An investigation found Renault guilty, and managing director Flavio Briatore left the team, along with executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. Major sponsors, their reputation taking a battering, and the aftereffects of the scandal are still felt to this day.

The fact that Grosjean wasn’t able to fare much better than Piquet probably rubbed salt into Renault’s wounds, and the Frenchman wouldn’t race in F1 again until 2012.’s recommended reading

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

Ranked: The top 10 British drivers in Formula 1 history

5: Pizzonia for Heidfeld, 2005, Williams

Antonio Pizzonia is one of those F1 drivers where the results didn’t match the potential. He had a difficult first season at Jaguar in 2003 alongside Mark Webber and left the team for a WIlliams test driver role in 2004.

He did a reasonable job when he made substitute appearances in 2004, and found himself in the running for the second Williams seat for 2005. He lost a testing shootout to Nick Heidfeld, but got his chance later in the season when ‘Quick Nick’ picked up injuries during testing.

Pizzonia had been acrimoniously dropped from Jaguar for failing to match Webber’s results, so, when he lined up alongside him at Williams for the final five races of the season, it would have been a good opportunity to prove some doubters wrong. It started well with a points finish at Monza, but a series of poor performances, collisions and off-track moments finished off his F1 career.

4: Villeneuve for Trulli, Renault, 2004

Having been dismissed by the BAR team at the end of 2003, 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve was without a competitive option for the 2004 season.

He was forced to wait for an opportunity at the BMW-Sauber team for 2005 but however, with the Renault team pulling the trigger and dropping Jarno Trulli for poor performances, they brought in Villeneuve for the final three races of 2004.

Given the tough challenge of racing alongside Fernando Alonso, Villeneuve did manage to beat Alonso in one qualifying session, but the Canadian couldn’t adapt to the R24 quick enough to deliver the improved race performances that the Renault team needed.

He failed to score in three races, and Renault missed out on P2 in the Constructors’ Championship by 14 points.

3: D’Ambrosio for Grosjean, Lotus-Renault, 2012

With Grosjean famously receiving his one-race ban for his part in the multi-car pile-up on the opening lap of the Belgian GP, the Lotus team turned to test and reserve driver Jerome D’Ambrosio to fill in for the Italian GP. The Belgian had ensured a difficult season at Marussia in 2011, and was comfortably beaten by Timo Glock at the backmarker team, but now he had a chance to shine in a competitive car.

Whilst stepping into a new car with not much preparation time isn’t easy, the Monza circuit appears to be a venue where substitute drivers have had success. We’re not saying Monza is an easy track, but there are a few examples of stand-in drivers delivering strong performances. However, D’Ambrosio wasn’t one of them.

He was several tenths of a second off the pace of Raikkonen in qualifying, and did not recover in the race, only finishing ahead of the established backmarker teams of Caterham, Marussia and Hispania.

2: Kovalainen for Raikkonen, Lotus-Renault, 2013

The Enstone-based team enjoyed a strong couple of seasons across 2012-2013. Kimi Raikkonen managed a couple of victories and Romain Grosjean was proving to be a quick addition to the grid, despite his accident-prone reputation. With Raikkonen recovering from back surgery, Heikki Kovalainen was called up to fill the seat.

The Finn had raced up to the end of 2012 after a three-year stint with Caterham. However, he took part in several practice outings for the team in 2013, which made him an ideal, race-ready candidate if any team needed a substitute driver.

However, his final chance in competitive F1 machinery didn’t go to plan. Whilst their regular number two driver Grosjean was challenging for podiums, Kovalainen appeared to lack the race pace necessary to earn any points. It proved to be his final role with an F1 team.

1: Badoer for Massa, Ferrari, 2009

Perhaps one of the most iconic substitute appearances for all the wrong reasons, veteran racer Luca Badoer endured a frustrating time when he stood in for Felipe Massa when the Brazilian was injured at the Hungarian GP.

Having last raced in F1 in 1999, Badoer had been performing test driver duties for Ferrari since 2000. However, Ferrari’s choice of driver seemed like an obscure one, but the team weren’t helped by a testing ban at that time, which prompted them to turn to the 38-year-old.

To his credit, he made no disastrous errors in what was a difficult Ferrari car, but he was not able to get close to the pace of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen. He finished last in qualifying sessions and the races, and was dropped after two races for Giancarlo Fisichella.

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