GRR

INTERVIEW: Oliver Bearman is keeping his cool on the cusp of a F1 seat

27th June 2024
Ian Parkes

"Silverstone is going to be crazy, that's for sure. There's a lot of stuff happening."

The words of Oliver Bearman ahead of next month's British Grand Prix weekend where his name and face will be more well known than ever, after rocketing his way into Formula 1's consciousness earlier this year with a cameo drive in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix with Ferrari.

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This time a year ago, it is fair to suggest that Bearman's name would not have been familiar unless you were heavily into motorsport, and not just a casual F1 follower.

The 19-year-old went into last year's British Grand Prix weekend relatively under the radar, regarded as an up-and-coming British driver competing in Formula 3, albeit after winning the ADAC and Italian Formula 4 championships in 2021, helping to earn him a place in the Ferrari Driver Academy at the end of that year.

After Formula 2 victories in the sprint and feature races in Baku in 2023, and a further feature race triumph in Barcelona, Bearman emerged from Silverstone last year with credible sixth and eighth places over the two events. At that stage, it was hard to determine what the future held in store.

But, two first practice sessions in F1 with Haas in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi late last year, and that out-of-the-blue drive in Jeddah back in March after Carlos Sainz contracted appendicitis have since thrust Bearman into the mainstream.

Returning to Silverstone next weekend, it is my understanding that it will be on the back of confirmation that he will be in F1 next season as a driver with Haas. How times have quickly changed for the teenager from Chelmsford in Essex.

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When probed ahead of an FP1 outing for the Spanish Grand Prix last week, on whether choosing the British GP weekend would be ideal for an announcement to be made, Bearman's face flushed. He then giggled, and as he lowered his head, he replied: "That's not in my hands." His body language said it all, however, and a few discrete enquiries revealed that news should follow at some stage next week.

Aside from that flushed moment, Bearman has been taking everything in his stride over the past few months since finishing a composed seventh in Saudi Arabia, ahead of McLaren's Lando Norris and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton. The day before, the seven-time F1 champion had scraped into Q3 after out-qualifying his younger Briton by a mere 0.036s.

The hype, that Bearman remarked has been growing "exponentially", is about to go stratospheric in Silverstone should Haas officially announce him as the replacement for the Stake/Audi-bound Nico Hulkenberg. At Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya, Bearman was asked about how he was dealing with the added fame, particularly in what is otherwise proving to be a difficult season in F2 given the lack of performance of Prema Racing. Team-mate and Mercedes prodigy Andrea Kimi Antonelli, also destined for F1 in the near future, has been equally all at sea on occasion.

"Jeddah was quite a big step in terms of people knowing me," said Bearman. "I remember when I arrived in Australia [the following race] and there were a lot of people who suddenly recognised me, which is a great feeling, honestly. I'm not in F1, but in terms of, maybe popularity and fans and stuff, I'm almost there. So it's really nice to have the support."

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As to how he was handling that 'exponential growth', Bearman underlined the ease with which he is seemingly taking his sudden rise in popularity in his stride.

"When I'm on track, during the race weekend, it's quite okay," he said. "The only thing is that being in F2, you don't get the benefits of being an F1 driver, like we have to park outside the track and then walk in." Cue laughter.

"I need to leave a bit of time to get in. It's part of getting up towards F1, something you have to get used to and enjoy as well."

Since joining the Ferrari Academy, Bearman has had the privilege of test days in relevant machinery to help him acclimatise, as well as his FP1 outings with Haas. They have naturally proven beneficial and helped him quickly identify his strengths and weaknesses, and where he needs to improve once he is in F1 on a full-time basis. Starting at Silverstone, that will be the first of an additional four FP1 sessions this year.

"I tend to get up to speed pretty well," said Bearman. "That's one of my strengths. In Jeddah that was the case, and in Imola I seemed to be on the pace pretty quickly.

"But whenever we do a quali[fying] sim[ulation] on soft tyres, I don't make the step that easily because it's quite a big step. The track is evolving a lot, the tyre grip is suddenly much higher and the fuel loads are lower, and I have tended not to maximise that yet.

"But I don't need to really overthink that or worry about it. It's just something that comes with experience, and it will come. I'm not worried about that. It's just I have identified it as something that I can work on and improve."

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The fact he has been unable to prove himself in F2 this year, though, is something he concedes he has found "really difficult," particularly when he feels he has "been performing at the highest level" of his career so far, and is now "the most experienced" he has ever been, and with "the most knowledge".

"But the results aren't showing," said Bearman. "There have been a lot of factors which have limited that – in Jeddah I didn't do the race; in Australia my engine failed in qualifying; in Imola, we had a problem with the pitstop when I was leaving.

"It's been a struggle, but the pace has been there. I feel like Monaco was the first weekend where we really showed what we could do. I started from 11th and finished P4, but on a track like Monaco, that's no mean feat. So I'm looking to try and keep this momentum up now and translate my performances in F1 back into F2."

Thankfully for Bearman, there has been no need for him to prove himself to anyone at Ferrari or Haas, where he shone from the moment he stepped into the car for first practice in Mexico City. Team principal Ayao Komatsu said earlier this year that it was "totally clear to me and most of us he is something special".

That 'something special' should translate itself into confirmation of a full-time F1 drive, only adding to what Bearman will have to go through at Silverstone next weekend.

"Last year was busy, but as well as the fact that I'm doing FP1, there are a lot more things happening behind the scenes, a lot more fun appearances and stuff," he said. "It's going to be a busy weekend.

"But I'm so excited for my home race, I really can't wait, it's going to be great, fantastic!"

 

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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