15 Sep 2023

Liam Lawson's Formula One breakthrough

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 15 September 2023

At just 21, New Zealander Liam Lawson is mixing with the champions of Formula One racing – and he's already being compared to the greatest motor racing giants the country's ever seen. 

Liam Lawson at the 2023 Italian Grand Prix at Monza

Liam Lawson at the 2023 Italian Grand Prix at Monza Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Liam Lawson. If he's not a household name in Aotearoa yet, he should be.

The 21-year-old from Pukekohe has become the tenth New Zealander to drive in Formula One, and the first to make a real impact in nearly 40 years.

In today's episode, The Detail talks to Josh Revell, an Auckland-based motorsport YouTuber, about Liam Lawson's rise to fame and why we seem to be going through such a Kiwi motorsport boom.

Revell takes us through Lawson's background, from his start in go-karting and his progression into racing cars.

He started in Formula First back in 2015 – the lowest form of racing cars leading up to Formula One.

"It wasn't the greatest car in the world, but it allowed him to be able to prove what he could do," Revell says.

"Then the next season he stepped up into Formula Ford. And of the 15 races that year, he won 14 of them, and became the youngest driver in the world to win a national championship at that category."

But it wasn't until an upset win in 2019 at the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand that the world really started to take notice of Liam Lawson. 

"Heading into the season, the big favourite was Marcus Armstrong, who's now in IndyCar... Liam was in the same team but he had none of the experience.

"First round at Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, he overtook Armstrong on the outside going into the fastest corners on the track, and everyone's like: 'woah, hang on, what's this?'"

He went on to win the New Zealand Grand Prix that year and was approached by several Formula One academies, eventually signing with Red Bull.

This year, he's been busy competing at the Super Formula, winning his debut race – the first rookie to do so in nearly half a century.

But then, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo out with a broken hand, Lawson joined the AlphaTauri team for Formula One at the Dutch Grand Prix.

He came 13th, having never driven the car before or having had much time to get used to the Formula One setup. 

"You couldn't find a way to make it more difficult so he was thrown completely into the lion's den here... the race, it started off a bit slow but he's getting into it, he made some nice moves, he was hanging in there, and toward the end of the race, he was right on his teammate's gearbox. I did not expect much, because it would be unreasonable, but he's doing fantastic." 

"What I would be hoping is he stays in the seat until the Japanese Grand Prix [on September 24] because he'll be on a circuit that he knows, he'll be able to hit the ground running."

Before that, he'll compete in the Singapore Grand Prix this weekend, which Revell thinks will be "difficult".

With Lawson's success and a few other Kiwi names making waves in the motorsport world, it seems we're seeing a resurgence.

"We had a lull. Mike Thackwell was our last [New Zealand] Formula One driver in 1984. After that, we had no one."

The exception was a short-lived stint by Brendon Hartley in 2017 – he has been described as one of the unluckiest F1 drivers of all time.

"About the time the Formula Toyota series was founded [in 2005], you gradually began to see a resurgence of this talent, because they were being fostered through a series which would better prepare them for what was going on overseas." 

Drivers like Marcus Armstrong and Louis Sharp are starting to make a name for themselves too.

But Revell says the industry could "definitely be better".

"When it comes to the talent, we've got talent, [but] motorsports is hardly broadcast to a far-reaching audience."

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