Williams debut shows Aitken was right not to regret leaving Renault

2020 F1 season

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For the first time since 2006, there will be no Lewis Hamilton on the F1 grid this weekend, following his positive test for Covid-19 two days ago.

Hamilton’s misfortune, from which he will hopefully make a swift recovery, has handed opportunities to two of his fellow British racers. George Russell will get the chance to show what he can do in a front-running car.

Jack Aitken, meanwhile, has been handed his grand prix debut in place of Russell. It’s a welcome turn of events for the driver who earlier this year seemed to have missed out on a route into a Formula 1 car.

Aitken had been part of Renault’s young driver programme, which he joined in 2016. The year before that he scooped titles in two Formula Renault 2.0 classes, ALPS and Eurocup.

His recovery in the more prestigious latter series was especially impressive. He lay 13th in the points after four races of 17, having been smashed out of second place in one race by rival Martin Kodric during a Safety Car period. He clawed his way back into contention and arrived at the final triple-header round trailing Louis Deletraz and Kevin Joerg, but pulled off a pair of wins to beat them to the title.

Britain has not been short of emerging talents in recent years and both George Russell and Lando Norris have made their way through the lower echelons more swiftly. Russell arrived as Aitken’s team mate at ART in GP3 in 2017 but beat him to the title. Russell then won the F2 title the following year.

Aitken’s second year in F2, 2019, was his most successful, yielding a trio of wins. It also brought tragedy, as his fellow Renault junior driver Anthoine Hubert was killed in a crash at Spa. Aitken and his fellow juniors wore replicas of Hubert’s helmet in tribute at the next race.

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At the time Renault’s revived Formula 1 team had appointed five different drivers in four seasons, none of which drawn from its expanding roster of junior talent. The team’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul said in the second half of 2019 it intended to promote one of its juniors by 2021.

By the beginning of this year Aitken was no longer part of the programme and was now appointed as reserve driver at Williams. This looked like an ill-timed move when when, in May, Daniel Ricciardo announced he would leave Renault for McLaren.

Had Aitken missed out on an opportunity to make his F1 debut with Renault? He did not think so, insisting at the time he saw Ricciardo’s exit coming. Sure enough, Renault did not appoint a junior driver for 2021, seizing the opportunity to reunite with Fernando Alonso instead.

While Aitken has had a tough 2020 season, including a heavy crash with Luca Ghiotto at Sochi, he made his practice debut with Williams at the Styrian Grand Prix in August. His prior performances assured the necessary F1 superlicence was already in place, and Hamilton’s misfortune means the opportunity to join the F1 grid has presented itself.

Like Russell at Mercedes, Aitken has an opportunity to prove he deserves to take the next step in his career this weekend. His team mate will be Nicholas Latifi, whom Russell has decisively out-qualified and often out-raced, and whom Aitken frequently raced with in F2 last year. Latifi’s considerable extra experience in the FW43 will put him at an advantage, however.

In one of the trickiest Formula 2 seasons to read for years (old hand Artem Markelov, 2017 runner-up to Charles Leclerc, is languishing in 18th) Aitken is one of several drivers who could reasonably claim his present championship position is not a fair reflection of his ability. This weekend he gets the chance to prove it. Good thing he was in the right place at the right time.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 5 comments on “Williams debut shows Aitken was right not to regret leaving Renault”

    1. Jose Lopes da Silva
      2nd December 2020, 15:09

      Russell, Aitken and Fittipaldi are all good news, and Schumacher too. It’s going to be a tough fight for 17-18ish seats available in Formula 1. Good luck to all!

    2. Why are drivers like him and Markelov struggling this year? The switch to the 18 inch wheels?

      1. @paeschli Dunno about Markelov, he’s been outqualified by all his teammates (Alesi, Hughes, Pourchaire) this year, but with Aitken it seems Campos are lost on setups after losing some of their main engineers to Hitech.

    3. What does Frank Williams make off all this? Can’t Keith contact him on his yacht in Bermuda?

    4. Drivers are expected to win the F2 Championship within 2 seasons. Else they wont go to F1 even if they had a terrible car a few seasons, they still will be rated not good enough.

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