One of the features of the 2020 Formula 1 season has been the number of substitutes who have been called on to race. Nico Hulkenberg, George Russell, Pietro Fittipaldi and Jack Aitken have all stepped in to fill the void left by an ill driver at some point this season. How have they stacked up?
Hulkenberg has been highly rated throughout his Formula 1 career, and 2020 showed once again that his strong reputation is justified. Hulkenberg subbed in at Racing Point at the last minute for Sergio Perez after the Mexican tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the British Grand Prix weekend. Despite having not driven an F1 car all season, Hulkenberg was immediately competitive. In Q2 in qualifying, he was just 0.065 of a second slower than Lance Stroll in the other Racing Point. That gap was enough to eliminate Hulkenberg in Q2 while Stroll proceeded to Q3.
Unfortunately that was the end of the weekend for Hulkenberg, as a sheared clutch bolt prevented Racing Point from being able to start his car for the race. But Hulkenberg had made team bosses up and down the pitlane sit up and take notice.
Perez was still out of action for the following week’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, and Hulkenberg stepped in again to drive the Racing Point. This time Hulkenberg did much more than match his team-mate. He qualified 3rd for the race, a third of a second faster than Stroll in the other Racing Point and slower than only the Mercedes pair of Bottas and Hamilton.
In the race, things didn’t go quite as smoothly and Hulkenberg finished 7th, 13 seconds behind Stroll. It wasn’t the podium he had hoped for, but Hulkenberg had more than repaid Racing Point’s faith in him by scoring points for the team.
Hulkenberg had his third race of the year for Racing Point at the Eifel Grand Prix in October when Stroll felt unwell (and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19) on the Saturday morning. Having had zero practise time, Hulkenberg qualified 20th (and last), but in the race he stormed through the field to finish 8th, earning himself the fans’ Driver of the Day vote. It was another demonstration that Hulkenberg is easily quick enough to merit a full-time place on the F1 grid.
Russell had spent 2019 and most of 2020 at the back end of the grid in the Williams team. He had, however, already earned himself a reputation for being blindingly quick, partly through his race-day performances, but also significantly by outqualifying his Williams team-mate in every one of his races for the team.
When Lewis Hamilton tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the Sakhir Grand Prix, Russell was called on to fill in for the World Champion at Mercedes. Despite barely fitting in the car – Russell had to squash his size 11 feet into size 10 race boots to be able to get his feet into the footwell – Russell was immediately on the pace, to the extent that he topped the times in the first two practice sessions.
Come qualifying, Valtteri Bottas took pole in the other Mercedes, but Russell was second on the grid by the miniscule margin of just 0.026 seconds. In the race, Russel dominated, leading more laps than anyone else and seeming set for a sensational victory.
The dream was shattered, however, when Mercedes made the spectacular error of putting Bottas’s tyres on Russell’s car in a pitstop. Russell had to make an extra stop to correct the error, but despite that he still looked like being able to catch Sergio Perez who was leading the race. That charge was halted by a puncture that necessitated another stop and put Russell out of the points. He recovered to 8th, scoring his first Formula 1 points on a day when he could justifiably have won the race.
Romain Grosjean’s terrifying crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix left him with burns to his hands and ankle that ruled him out of driving at the Sakhir Grand Prix. Brazilian Petro Fittipaldi was called upon to fill in for Grosjean at Haas, making his Formula 1 debut in the process. To say it was a tall order is an understatement. The Haas car has struggled for pace all season and the drivers have complained of braking issues.
Fittipaldi qualified 20th (last) and also finished last (17th after 3 drivers retired), but he at least stayed out of trouble and managed to get some crucial race mileage in Formula 1. It was a strong enough performance for Haas to keep him in the car for the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where he qualified 19th (ahead of the Williams of Nicholas Latifi and finished 19th (and last) in the race.
Russell’s switch to Mercedes for the Sakhir Grand Prix left his Williams seat needing to be filled. Williams reserve driver Jack Aitken stepped up to make his Formula 1 race debut. Aitken had already driven for Williams in the first practice session for the 2020 Styrian Grand Prix, so he was at least fairly familiar with the car and the team.
Aitken qualified 18th, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo and Pietro Fittipaldi’s Haas. Importantly, he was just a tenth of a second slower than Nicholas Latifi in the other Williams.
In the race, Aitken had a high-speed spin coming out of the final corner. He was fortunate to hit the barrier only with his front wing, which meant he could continue in the race after a pitstop to replace the nose of his Williams. He finished 16th (2nd last) ahead of the Haas of fellow debutant Pietro Fittipaldi.
Who wins the battle of the subs?
It’s tough to judge the performance of the substitutes, chiefly because their experience varies so much and the circumstances in which they subbed in were so different.
In the case of Fittipaldi and Aitken, they were driving uncompetitive machinery and making their debuts at the same time. Simply finishing the races was all that could really be expected of them, and they both did so, gaining valuable experience in the process.
Russell had the distinct advantage that he was on the grid the entire season. He would have had to adjust to the Mercedes, which was significantly quicker than the Williams, but the tyres were the same as at Williams and crucially Mercedes and Williams use the same Mercedes power units.
For me, the standout substitute performance was that of Nico Hulkenberg. He stepped into the Racing Point with very little notice having not raced all season. The tyres were different to those he had last raced in 2019 and the Mercedes power unit in the Racing Point was different to the Renault power unit he had last driven. He had very little time to prepare mentally for the hyper focus that is required in Formula 1 and depending on his regular fitness training he may have struggled physically. Yet he was immediately on the pace and second time out qualified a magnificent third on the grid.
Chris’s pick for 2020 super sub: Nico Hulkenberg