Amid the dominant fashion of Oscar Piastri’s title win and Théo Pourchaire’s headline-grabbing Feature Race win in Monaco, Liam Lawson’s own rookie season went a little under the radar.
Finishing eighth overall was a solid introduction for the Kiwi, but far from what he was hoping for, and it arguably didn’t do his performances justice, his highlight coming in the opening race of the season with a Sprint Race 1 victory.
That Lawson didn’t stand on the top step of the podium again in 2021 – apart from in Monaco, where he was later disqualified - was a shock. Especially given his exploits in DTM where he narrowly missed out on the title during a dual campaign.
Lawson believes the problem lied largely with his Qualifying pace – he made the top five just twice and finished out of the top 10 on two occasions. Then there’s also the matter of luck, which didn’t always swing his way in 2021.
“You always need a bit of luck to win a championship and do well and I think at points last year it wasn’t on our side,” says Lawson. “But in general, we were lacking pace, especially Quali in the last few rounds.
“There were occasions where it was okay but others where we lacked it completely. Qualifying sets up your whole weekend, so if you qualify badly, it’s tough from there.
“I thought that we were going to have a stronger season, so I am definitely disappointed with how it went, but I have learned a lot that I can take into the new season. I think the basic style of driving and the basic style of tyre management is something that I have learned and will take into next year.”
In the rounds where Lawson did qualify well, things didn’t really go to plan either. Disqualified from the second Sprint Race in Monte Carlo, Lawson reacted by taking pole in the next round at Baku but was forced to retire from the opening race after a collision with Felipe Drugovich and Piastri.
He made a miraculous recovery in the second race, rising 13 places to seventh, but lost first to teammate Jüri Vips off the line and then fell out of the top 10 due to a time-penalty, eventually climbing back to sixth.
Lawson’s next best qualifying came in Monza, where he put himself in fourth, but it was a similar story in the races. He recovered to fifth in Sprint Race 1 after a damaged front wing dumped him at the back of the grid. And then in the Feature Race, his Hitech ground to a halt when the fire extinguisher went off.
“I haven't lost confidence this year,” he says firmly. “It was more frustrating because I want to be up there and I know that we can be, but for whatever reason, at times we just weren’t.
“There are always things to improve on. Not just Qualifying in general but putting everything together in one lap. Quite often you go from Free Practice on a harder compound of tyre to Qualifying on a softer compound of tyre and I think doing that has taken longer than it should of.
“I have generally always gotten there in the end with Quali, but it would have been better to be there right at the start and keep chipping away from there. In FP in Baku, I was 1.6s off P1 and I had to find 1.6s, plus everything else that everybody else was finding, to put the thing on pole – that’s a very radical jump and not one that I can make every weekend.
“I was lucky to be able to do it that weekend, but that is something that I want to be able to go into next season and already be there up the front in FP, or at least in the first run of Quali so that I don’t have to find so much time.”
I want to be up there and I know that we can be, but for whatever reason, at times (last year) we just weren’t.
Switching from Hitech Grand Prix, where he has spent the past two seasons, to Carlin, Lawson believes he’ll gain a different perspective that can help him further his development.
Qualifying form will be a key part of that. Although Carlin didn’t show it last year, with Dan Ticktum and Jehan Daruvala unusually struggling on a Friday, Carlin have previously been one-lap specialists in F2.
Yuki Tsunoda and Daruvala were regulars on the front row in 2020, the Japanese driver taking three poles in his rookie year. They were also almost always up there from the off in Free Practice.
“I just think it’s more knowledge,” he says. “Going to a team with a different philosophy on how the car should be, I can take my experience from Hitech and how that car was driven and put the two together. I just think that my knowledge is going to go up when I learn what their thinking is. It’s only going to be better for me in that respect.
“When you do a second year - which I have only done once before, in F3 - you go into your second year, and everything is a lot more natural. It isn't that you know in your head that much more, it’s that you naturally start off just much better prepared.
The goal is to try and win, I think it is what is expected of a second-year driver, so I will be pushing for that.
“And I don't think it is ever a good situation when you have to use your brain and overload yourself with thinking about everything in the race car, so everything coming more naturally is always a better position to be in.”
After dovetailing F2 with DTM in 2021, Lawson’s focus will be solely on the second tier in 2022 as he eyes the title and a spot on the Formula 1 grid. And although he won’t be returning to DTM for a second season, Lawson will be bringing across the experiences he gained.
“Doing DTM did give me a lot of experience, but in a very, very different way,” he says. “It is like the Formula 1 of GT racing, so I was working in a much bigger team. The passion was very, very high and the number of people and the investment going in from everyone was very high - working with a manufacturer was a learning experience for sure.
“I learned completely different things in DTM. In terms of driving the car, they were nothing alike, but I think what did help was racing all the time. A lot of the guys in F2 last year had a lot of time off, but I was constantly racing. In terms of my racecraft, I think it helped to do a lot of driving last year.”
For all his frustration at how 2021 played out, Lawson could hardly have ended the year in a better manner, as he enjoyed his first on-track F1 experience, taking control of the AlphaTauri at the Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi.
Entering his fourth season as a Red Bull junior, the New Zealander’s presence in the F1 paddock and at the team’s Milton Keynes’ based factory will only increase, but so will the expectation and the pressure to perform.
If he’s to find his way onto the F1 grid in the future, then he’ll need to put himself in the best possible position with his performances in F2 this year.
“The goal is to try and win, I think it is what is expected of a second-year driver, so I will be pushing for that,” he continues. “I am looking forward to learning how to improve in a different car. For sure, the long-term goal is always F1.
“I am expecting to be in the simulator (at Red Bull) and things like that a lot more this year and to assist where I can, but also for my learning to grow. The more simulator work I do, the more time I spend with the team, the more you develop.
“F1 is so different, it is so much more advanced, the more time you spend in the working environment of it, the more that you will learn.”