Théo Pourchaire is sporting a slick dark brown undercut. It’s a much subtler style than the hot pink he was rocking when he announced he would debut in Formula 2 with HWA RACELAB last November.
The Sauber junior has made quite the impression since stepping up to Formula 3 in 2020 as a relatively unknown 16-year-old at ART Grand Prix.
Pourchaire’s a fast learner and in the 18 months since his debut, he’s become F3 and F2’s youngest ever race winner, taken pole and victory at Monaco and been linked with a Formula 1 seat, drawing praise from Alfa Romeo and Sauber Motorsport boss Frédéric Vasseur.
And he’s done it all with a smile. Just like the one he’s wearing as he settles in for a deep dive into his career to date.
Pourchaire has never been happy waiting around. It’s rare that he's not been one of the youngest out on track.
Although he doesn’t come from a motor racing background, his father – who owns a supermarket in France - loves F1 and Rally and put Pourchaire in a go kart at just three-years-old at a local track in Grasse, where he grew up.
Looking back, the Frenchman admits he may have been a tad young to get behind the wheel, but it’s a trend that’s been commonplace throughout his junior career. “I fell asleep,” laughs Pourchaire as we take him back to his first motor racing memory.
“I was maybe a little too young. I was sleeping in the go kart at the end of the day because I was so tired. I do actually remember it a little bit.”
Karting titles followed in successive years between 2013 and 2016, before he made the step-up to single-seaters in 2018, aged just 14. He claimed two titles – French F4 junior and ADAC F4 – and two years later he was racing on an F1 weekend.
He wasn’t necessarily comfortable with the switch though, even if he was in support of it.
“I came into the first weekend of F3 really, really stressed,” Pourchaire admits. “I didn’t know how anything was going to work. I started the first Free Practice with 29 other cars on track and I’m just like ‘wow.’
I put a lot of pressure on myself because I didn’t want to disappoint my family or the people who work for me - I am here because of them.
“The level in F3 is amazing. It was a big jump. I also had to adapt to working with a team like ART, who are a crazy big team in the history of motorsport. Moving from go karts to F4 was difficult, but from F4 to F3, that was even more difficult.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself because I didn’t want to disappoint my family or the people who work for me - I am here because of them.”
Pourchaire finished 20th in his first Qualifying session and failed to score a point across the weekend. But that was to be expected – it was assumed he would need the majority of 2020 to bed in before mounting a title challenge in 2021.
JOINING THE ROAD TO F1
What no one expected was for that progress to come as quickly as Round 2.
“The second weekend, everyone told me 'Théo, you have to be calm. You know how to drive fast.” He proved that in spades. He was the fifth quickest qualifier and finished ninth in Race 1, but his defining moment came in Race 2, when he took a maiden victory at the Red Bull Ring.
Many will remember the collision between race leaders Liam Lawson and Jake Hughes that handed Pourchaire the lead, but what’s often forgotten is his exceptional start, when he burst into the lead from second. He dropped to third a few laps later, but he refocused and capitalised on a mistake from the frontrunners. The win was far from pure luck; it was well earned.
“I was really proud of that, you know?” he says, grinning. “I can learn new things quite fast, but I still have some weak points for sure. I can improve in many areas, but I do think I can learn things faster than some drivers.”
A second win followed in the next race, this time at Budapest, before an exceptional end of season run that included five podiums in the final six races.
The run came almost out of nowhere but catapulted him into an unexpected late title charge. He was fifth at the time, 51 points off then-leader Logan Sargeant, but he ended the season in second, just five off champion Oscar Piastri.
Key to that run was the carrot dangling in front of him. Discussions had taken place between his father, ART and Sauber to secure him for a second season of F3. The belief being that he could dominate in 2021. But true to form, Pourchaire wasn’t happy waiting around. He was adamant that he was ready for Formula 2, sooner rather than later.
In my head, I wanted so badly to go to F2.
“In my head, I wanted so badly to go to F2,” he says. “We discussed doing another season of F3, but I wasn’t for that, and I told myself, if you get good results, then you will get to F2.
“But there was no pressure to get the title because, for me, I couldn’t win the title. I nearly did at the end, but that was crazy. Before Mugello I was saying 'P5, P4 in the Championship, maybe P3, that would be good’. It was a crazy end to the Championship, but I was so motivated to get to F2.”
STEPPING UP TO F2
Finishing as vice-champion, Pourchaire wasn’t going to be denied his dream move into the second tier. But his team knew there was a lot of work to be done.
A two-round stint in F2 with HWA RACELAB opened up and provided the ideal opportunity for him to cut his teeth.
“It was a great experience, even though I was at the back of the grid,” says Pourchaire. “I was with Artem Markelov, who’s a really good driver with a lot of experience - he helped me.
“Bahrain was important for me because I could learn about all of the race procedures, the pitstops and strategy. There were so many new things to learn, so the experience helped me.”
His involvement in Sakhir made the full-time transition a lot simpler and a lot less daunting. That is until it came to Monaco. The ART driver made the one-hour journey from his house in Grasse on the back of two top 10 finishes from Round 1. It was a solid start, but he knew that Monaco was going to be an entirely different proposition.
Walking the iconic street track on the Thursday, Pourchaire was left in awe, most notably by how close the walls felt. “The track looked so tight, I said to myself 'this is going to be a really tough weekend.”
But unlike his debut in F3, he didn’t allow his fears to overwhelm him, instead using them as motivation. By the end of the weekend, he called himself F2’s youngest ever winner. But perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect of the round was his Qualifying performance.
Winning at 17-years-old was amazing, but I want to do it again
Taking pole by four-and-a-half tenths, he produced a peerless performance, officially announcing himself to the very few people who were yet to know his name.
“Monaco is one of the most difficult tracks in the world. It is so tight. I pushed every corner to the maximum and I almost touched the wall a few times. It was crazy, but when you cross the line and your engineer tells you that you’re on pole, it’s amazing. And by four and a half tenths – that’s crazy!
“Then, winning at 17-years-old was amazing, but I want to do it again. Youngest polesitter, youngest winner - Monaco was perfect.”
REACHING THE TOP
A fractured wrist suffered in the Round 3 Feature Race at Baku hasn’t slowed down talks of a future move into F1, speculation that’s been fuelled by Vasseur’s refusal to rule out a promotion, with the Alfa Romeo boss hailing Pourchaire as “one of the best” for the future.
It’s a move that the young Frenchman is undoubtedly keen on, but unlike in previous seasons, he’s in no rush. Pourchaire and his team all feel that any move has to come at the right time, and not before he is ready.
An official test in the 2019 Alfa Romeo at the Hungaroring in August gave him his first taste of F1 machinery and means that he’s completed the required 300km to apply for an FIA Super Licence.
However, his results in Rounds 3 and 4 were both hindered by the fractured wrist, with the Frenchman still experiencing pain at Silverstone. That makes the second half of the campaign crucial in establishing whether he is ready yet.
A turn of form like the one he enjoyed last year is more unlikely in F2, but certainly not impossible.
“Why not? I hope so,” smiles Pourchaire, when asked whether he can replicate his 2020 end of season run. He’s fifth as things stand, 58 points off Championship leader Piastri, with two wins. “We never know, we never know... There is no direct target from Sauber. I am 18 now and I am free to race in F1, if they decide that the results are good.
"Sauber are helping me a lot,” he continues. “It’s really important to be with them. At the moment, they are just letting me do my F2 season. I’m sure that they’re looking at the season closely – I’m just grateful for their support.
“It’s important to be ready if you go to F1. It’s another world, completely different to anything else. I had a chance to see the Sauber factory and it is crazy. There are so many people working there.
“You have to be ready to go to F1, so if I do another F2 season then it will not be a problem. I am still really young, so it would not be a problem. My dream is to drive in Formula 1 one day - I know what I have to do in F2 first.”