Ferrari Academy boss names the one F1 debut better than Oliver Bearman’s

Thomas Maher
Jacques Villeneuve, pictured in 1996, and Oliver Bearman at the 2024 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Jock Clear, with close involvement to both drivers, believes Jacques Villeneuve's 1996 F1 debut just about pips Oliver Bearman's...

Jock Clear, who heads up Ferrari’s junior driver programme, lavished Oliver Bearman with praise after Saudi Arabia, but still reckons another driver has had a better debut.

The 18-year-old British driver caught the attention of the world by finishing in seventh place in his first F1 race, having been parachuted in to replace the ill Carlos Sainz at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

Jock Clear: I couldn’t have hoped for a better weekend for Oliver Bearman

Bearman got the call to step into Sainz’s Ferrari on Friday morning, meaning just a single practice session for the young F2 driver to get acquainted with the car at the high-speed Jeddah circuit, before heading into qualifying.

While a slightly scruffy qualifying ‘only’ netted Bearman an 11th place, with Charles Leclerc taking a front-row spot in the other Ferrari, Bearman proved extremely impressive in the race as he kept his nose clean en route to seventh place.

This included a late sequence of laps in which Bearman was put under pressure as Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton, both of whom were on faster tyres, hunted him down – the Ferrari driver holding his nerve to bring the car home without a mistake.

But was it the best debut for an F1 driver ever, taking the expected level of the car and the experience of the driver into account? Jock Clear, who works closely with Bearman as the head of Ferrari’s junior programme, said he’s never seen anything better than Bearman for his experience level – but Jacques Villeneuve’s 1996 debut in Australia still just pips it for him.

“I suppose you would all say that I’m a bit biased,” Clear said on the F1 Nation podcast – referring to the fact he was Villeneuve’s race engineer at Williams, “and Jacques had won an IndyCar championship when he got in an F1 car, but obviously he put it on pole in Melbourne and he would have won that race if Adrian [Newey] hadn’t told us to move over and let Damon [Hill] win, in 1996.

“But Jacques was 26 years old at that time, this guy is 18. So, at this level, at this stage, having come out of an F2 car at 18 years old, I’ve never seen anything better than that.”

But while Villeneuve just pips Bearman to Clear’s belief of the best F1 debut ever, Clear was effusive in his praise of what the 18-year-old, who had taken pole for the F2 race before switching to the Ferrari in F1 on Friday, had managed to do.

“I couldn’t have hoped for a better weekend for Ollie,” he said.

“If you’d written the script, you would have balked a bit at the final result. You’d have said, ‘Yeah, let’s be realistic’.

“Because, if you brought him to a Grand Prix and said, two weeks ago, ‘You’re going to do the Grand Prix in Saudi’, mentally he gets prepared for it. We can do some things. We can practice some starts…

“But, when you drop him in on Friday morning, [with] one free practice session, and then you’re into qualifying against the big boys… that’s ominous.

“That’s very, very intimidating for anybody. From our point of view, we’re just very proud of how well he’s integrated with the team, and how well the team has supported him.

“There’s so much information available, there’s so much work to do in an F1 car, and we’ve kept it simple. Matteo, the chief engineer, from the first get-go, was just ‘Keep it simple for Ollie’.

“‘There’s lots of information available, but let’s not overload him. Let’s just let him get up to speed’.

“What you see is what we knew he was capable of. But, boy, I didn’t expect that, under these circumstances.” recommends

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Jock Clear: F1 recognises intelligent drivers like Oliver Bearman

Evaluating Bearman’s approach to the weekend, having never looked out of his depth at any point despite his inexperience, Clear said F1 naturally rewards an intelligent approach to racing – as Bearman has demonstrated.

“I’ve often said about Oliver, he will get better and better the closer he gets to F1, because F1 recognises real intelligence, really thinking drivers – drivers that can think their way around situations really shine in F1,” he said.

“Ollie is super-sharp, and super-clever. That’s what he’s demonstrated this weekend. As I say, we know he’s quick, we’ve seen him in our car, and we know that he can drive a car fast.

“But the way he’s approached the weekend, the way he approached the race step by step… you’ve got to get out of the gate, off the grid, you’ve got to get round Turns 1 and 2 alongside some fairly feisty opposition who are going to get their elbows out. He did that cleanly. We said, ‘If he comes around the first lap with all four wheels still on, we’ll be really happy’.

“He did that, still in P11, so he held his position off the grid. From then on, he just grew into the race. You have to recognise every lap of the race was another 10 per cent experience for Ollie in this car so, by the time he’d done half the race, he’d doubled his experience in this car.

“He was learning super fast, but he never overstretched himself. That’s the thing I’m most proud of from him is that it’s very easy, especially when Charles is a bit ahead of you and you know this car will go quicker, there’s a bit more potential, it’s just to overstretch yourself, and make a mistake.

“And those last 10 laps with Norris and Lewis bearing down on him with a new set of soft tyres, you think ‘This is where he’s just going to lock up into Turn 1, it’s all gonna get messy’… but he didn’t.

“He kept the rhythm, he kept going and actually got quicker and quicker towards the end of the race. I think his best lap was on the penultimate lap, so it was just a really intelligent drive. That’s what I’m really proud of because that is always been his strength.

“That’s going to get better and better, and that’s going to pay off more and more as he gets to F1 and he starts to settle into what is an intelligent driver’s sport.”

But does Bearman deserve a full-time seat in F1, having shown what he’s capable of? While Ferrari itself is full for 2025, the possibility of a Haas drive isn’t off the table completely, and Clear said he reckons Bearman can do the job.

“I think so. I mean, I was convinced before that,” he said.

“The fact that Fred [Vasseur] was brave enough to put him in this car this weekend, under the circumstances, speaks volumes for what we’ve seen of him already.

“I think this was better than we could have expected. But, when the decision was made, I suppose this is what we expected, if you see what I mean! I don’t mean to diminish the achievement. We really, really are over the moon with everything. But we sort of put him there thinking ‘I think he can do this’. And he’s absolutely vindicated that choice.”

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