De Vries was once McLaren’s ‘next Hamilton’ – so why did he end up elsewhere?

2022 F1 season

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It’s likely there would be no Lewis Hamilton in Formula 1 were it not for McLaren. The support he received from the team during his junior career influenced how driver development programmes operated in the years after.

With Nyck de Vries, McLaren sought to replicate the success they enjoyed with Hamilton. But De Vries will make his debut as a full-time driver with a different team next year, long after parting with McLaren. So what led the team and their promising young talent to part ways?

After taking Hamilton up to F1, McLaren (whose young driver development programme was run jointly with Mercedes) only had Giedo van der Garde on their books in junior single-seaters. He entered the scheme in 2006 at the same time as he joined the crack ASM team in the Formula 3 Euro Series, taking over the seat Hamilton occupied the year before.

That his entry into the programme was connected to his seat drew immediate Hamilton comparisons; the same was true for McLaren’s next signing, Oliver Rowland. The British karter was signed up in May 2007 at the age of 14 – one year older Hamilton was when he joined the team almost a decade earlier. Both had won Super 1 national titles at the junior level the year before.

McLaren were quick the play down the inevitable parallels. “No driver is the next Lewis Hamilton,” they said at the time. “Each driver is individual and we have certainly not brought Oliver into the programme with the aim of him following Lewis’s exact career path.”

McLaren sponsor Lucozade backed De Vries in Eurocup
Rowland himself added “it is not for me to draw comparisons with Lewis”, and he was right to. Because it was actually another Dutchman, rather than a Brit, that felt the true brunt of being the next ‘chosen one’ after Hamilton.

Ron Dennis, as with every part of McLaren during his time as team principal, was meticulously picky with supporting young drivers and made sure McLaren had a say in almost every detail of Hamilton’s junior career. But by 2009 he had stepped back in charge of McLaren’s F1 team and was succeeded by his right-hand man Martin Whitmarsh. His approach was different, but still heavily influenced by the structures and systems that Dennis had put in place, as well as the success of Hamilton.

In March 2010 – notably during the same week that McLaren bought back 29% of Mercedes’ 40% share in the team – an expanded, eight-member young driver programme was revealed.

Rowland and Van der Garde remained, while four single-seater racers joined and two more long-term prospects from karting were added. One was Alexander Albon, the other Nyck de Vries.

But Albon then landed sponsorship from Red Bull for his karting exploits, so De Vries became effectively the ‘Hamilton’ of the Whitmarsh era: a driver who would be immersed into the team from karting and be directly taken all the way into an F1 race seat by McLaren.

Adding to the similarities, Hamilton’s father Anthony was even recruited as De Vries’ manager following his success in guiding his own son’s career under the direction of McLaren. But that increased control came at the cost of De Vries’ and his father’s ability to make decisions.

De Vries was considered a prodigal talent, winning the World Karting Championship in 2010 and 2011. When he moved up into cars in 2012 – jumping straight into Formula Renault 2.0 just like Hamilton did – McLaren sponsor Lucozade came onboard as his primary backer.

As such a in-demand talent, De Vries could have had his picks of the teams. But McLaren organised tests with three teams and picked the one it had closest relations to based off links to Hamilton’s junior career. The R-ace GP team that De Vries joined in 2012 was connected to ART GP, previously known as ASM and the team that Hamilton had won F3 and GP2 titles with.

De Vries delivered the Eurocup title at his third attempt
Like Hamilton, De Vries finished fifth in the Eurocup as a single-seater rookie. But R-ace was bettered by several teams, including the one de Vries had wanted to join in the first place.

De Vries got his way and was able to move to the more competitive Koiranen GP squad in 2013, but their previous advantage faded as a new car was introduced and De Vries came fifth again. On top of that, McLaren now also had 2012 Eurocup champion Stoffel Vandoorne on their books.

So De Vries had to spend a third season in Formula Renault, and he comfortably won the Eurocup and Alps series in 2014. Although the original plan would have been to move up to F3 for his third year in cars, just like Hamilton did, the double title success was at least an encouraging sign of progress.

But the results on-track masked how De Vries’ position within McLaren was shrinking. De Vries was once such an integral part of McLaren’s team he even appeared in their short-lived animated series Tooned during 2012 alongside its championship-winning due Hamilton and Jenson Button, plus numerous of the team’s legends. But by 2014 McLaren was no longer a race-winning team by 2014 and Dennis had retaken control from Whitmarsh.

After that it was quite simple. McLaren funded De Vries’ career, but sponsors funded McLaren based on return on their investment and McLaren was losing their ability to provide value to sponsors as they slid down the F1 pecking order. Replacing Mercedes with Honda as engine supplier in 2015 guaranteed more funding for the team, but reduced McLaren’s competitiveness even more.

It also prompted changes in its young driver programme. This continued with fresh Honda investment, and Honda juniors, much as the partnership with Mercedes enabled McLaren to support young drivers such as Hamilton in the 2000s.

By the time the Honda deal was struck, Hamilton had already left McLaren to race for Mercedes’ factory team in F1, a move that enabled him to reach record-breaking highs in the world championship.

De Vries was a race winner in GP3
Once the support of young drivers became a pawn in the internal political game at McLaren, it left De Vries without a direction in the team. When Hamilton was a junior, he was put on F1 straight-line testing duty and given various other work with the team that meant he could reinforce his value to Dennis even if his results dipped (as they did in his first year racing in F3).

Demonstration runs in old cars at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed was the closest De Vries got to that, although he was a simulator driver too (a role that did not exist in Hamilton’s youth). In over nine years at McLaren he remarkably never drove a contemporary F1 car, and so missed opportunities to impress upon other senior figures in the team how talented he was.

This lack of seat time to help keep his feet under the table became a two-fold issue. While there were a lot of Mercedes juniors when Hamilton was rising up the ranks, he was basically the only talent officially backed by McLaren. Once De Vries got to FR3.5 in 2015, his McLaren stablemate Vandoorne had already established himself in GP2, and – despite being impacted by the same problems De Vries was having within McLaren – was considered to be en route to an F1 seat.

The second part of the problem was another management change. At the end of 2016, Dennis was out again and Zak Brown was in. And he had his own driver he wanted to back.

While Hamilton, Vandoorne and later Lando Norris would be financially supported all the way up to F1, McLaren stopped funding De Vries’ racing after 2016 but kept him on as a junior. This decision undoubtedly added several years on De Vries’s route to F1, and prompted a follow-up decision from the Dutchman that also prolonged his wait to reach the top.

Becoming F2 champion did not lead to an F1 seat
Although McLaren were unwilling to fund De Vries in Formula 2, they wanted him to still do paid simulator work at their Woking headquarters. De Vries, believing on-track results were now more critical than ever to his F1 hopes, made F2 his focus instead.

He had underperformed with ART GP in GP3 in 2016 when dwindling McLaren funding meant he couldn’t move straight across to GP2 from FR3.5, and so when he was dependant on his own budget in 2017 he had no chance of grabbing an F2 seat with the team and making the most of it with a stunning rookie season like Hamilton and Vandoorne had before.

Instead De Vries found a way onto the grid at an underfunded Rapax team, but had to switch to Racing Engineering mid-season and finished seventh in the standings with one sprint race win. At this point his McLaren story was basically over, especially with Brown’s protege Norris arriving in F2 for 2018.

Fellow driver Sean Gelael’s father helped De Vries stay in the series for a second season by making him Gelael’s team mate at back-to-back champion team Prema for 2018, but a troublesome new car introduced that year meant De Vries was alone in leading Prema’s charge and although he came close to being championship runner-up and won three races, he finished behind Norris.

De Vries was noted for his maturity when he entered FR2.0, but it was no standout trait by the time he and his rivals had reached F2, and his media personality was also shaped by McLaren’s rather corporate past approach.

In May 2019 he officially left the team, and just like Hamilton, the freedoms he was afforded by that departure seemed to unlock his character both on and off-track. In a different world, he could well have been the driver to unlock feverish Dutch passion for F1 had Max Verstappen not exploded onto the scene in 2015.

Nyck de Vries, Williams, Monza, 2022
An unexpected grand prix debut came at Monza
De Vries reunited with ART GP for 2019 and won the Formula 2 championship, with some exemplary performances in the wet and dry and being rapid in qualifying and races. A few days after charging from 17th to third at Monza, De Vries was announced as Mercedes’ first driver for Formula E. In F1’s eyes, De Vries’ high standard that season was devalued by a failure to win the title earlier. No matter how dominant the 2019 campaign was going to be, the ship had already sailed on it turning into an F1 opportunity.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that, like Hamilton, De Vries was then able to become a world champion with Mercedes. His Formula E crown was followed up by an erratic title defence, but his F1 test performances since 2020 and now his starring race debut in the recent Italian Grand Prix has convinced multiple teams of his calibre.

De Vries isn’t the only young driver who has been unfairly hampered by F1 team management changes. Ferrari’s extremely exciting protege Raffaele Marciello suffered a similar fate in 2015 but also ended up fulfilling early career expectations of conquering global motorsport by joining Mercedes. He’s not the first F1 team-affiliated talent to be shuffled backwards by a new arrival – a regularly occurrence for many years over at the Red Bull Junior Team.

But De Vries is probably the best case study for why F1 teams plotting out paths for prodigal talents from a very young age can actually do more harm than good and lead to a longer route to F1 rather than the rapid rise (which it was for its time) of Hamilton and even more extreme examples since. In the end, De Vries did get his F1 chance, and he made it count.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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18 comments on “De Vries was once McLaren’s ‘next Hamilton’ – so why did he end up elsewhere?”

  1. Fantastic insightful article, thanks!

  2. This is an interesting read, thank you.

    I have been following De Vries closely and he crossed paths with many F1 regulars during his time in the junior series. I think that one of the reasons he was sidelined from his route to F1 is that some drivers he competed against were just more promising. I am thinking of Leclerc, Russell and Norris. But De Vries also raced against Albon and Gasly and I feel they are similarly talented. Anyway, the junior categories are in the past now. He finally gets his shot and I wish him all the best.

  3. Good article!
    This is also why Verstappen’s management did not want to run the risk of having to do another season in a junior category. In an interview Marciello was their main example of how risky that is. So it was immediately into F1 – all or nothing.

    (ps. Interestingly enough, previously Vettel was the only Red Bull driver that was not allowed to do a full season in a single seater class after not winning the F3 championship with ASM – after that their program was focused on drivers having to win, e.g. Sainz)

  4. De Vries on par with Vandoorne as mentioned multiple times through the article. Both Formula E champions and both well deserving of a current F1 seat.

    Hopefully Vandoorne can earn his way back similarly. If anything F1 has shown lately, it’s that it’s entirely pointless for successful young drivers to be dropped after a year or two just because they have an uncompetitive car.

    The promotion of drivers purely for their “DNA” *cough*money*cough* simply needs to stop.

    1. I mean really, how many teams employing young racing money have been successful? Red Bull are realistically the only team that have put their young drivers truly first, and look at where that’s led them.

      1. Constantijn Blondel
        15th October 2022, 17:27

        I think that’s quite a fair observation, actually … the amount of harshness in the program is outside of my own personal comfort zone, but in fairness to them, they don’t lie about it, and I don’t get any impression of actual favoritism (outside of the ‘golden boy’ vs. #2 tendency of the main team) in their youth program (but I recline to be corrected on that).

        When I think of Red Bull juniors though, I think of SebVet, Max, Danny Ric, as some pretty big and respected names, but I also think of Gasly, Albon, and Buemi whom I each think are mightily skilled in their own right.

        I can’t really think of any other young driver program that built up similar pedigree. Closest I can think of right away are McLaren, with Lewis and Lando.

      2. Is it for altruistic reasons they employ a youth conveyor belt though or because its a chance to catch the next big talent very cheap. Ferrari have had long standing relationships placing their young drivers in the likes of Sauber, Haas, etc. Obviously Mercedes have placed drivers at Williams, Force India, etc. Its just more visible for Red Bull with their second team. They’ve arguably brought more drivers into F1 but given the number that managed to stick around that’s not necessarily a Good thing.

        I think the article is quite right in summarising that interference in Young drivers careers is sometimes not for the best.

  5. I loved watching him race in F2 – so exciting. It was such a disappointment when he shuffled over to Formula E rather than F1. But better late than never – I am very happy for him that he’s got his chance. He’ll already be 28 years old in February, which I put a lot of emphasis on and think is a great shame. It feels to me as if he’s already missed the boat, regardless how he does next year. I know that’s possibly a silly way to look at it but with such fantastic young marketable talent coming through and an amazing Dutch driver already on the scene, I somehow feel that it doesn’t matter how well he does at Alpha Tauri – even if he replaces Perez at Red Bull – he won’t be kept for very long. With Verstappen only just turning 25 years old and with probably years and years of top notch driving in the tank – and his seeming loyalty to his team – I don’t see a permanent place there for de Vries.

    I’d be very interested in all your thoughts on this one. Do you think I’m way off the mark?

    1. With Verstappen only just turning 25 years old and with probably years and years of top notch driving in the tank – and his seeming loyalty to his team – I don’t see a permanent place there for de Vries.

      RBR needs a very strong and mature #2. De Vries might very well become that driver.
      Just not sure if it’s attractive sponsorship wise to have two drivers from the same small country. But who knows, maybe Spyker revives once more and takes over RBR.

  6. Marciello and De Vries’s stories remind me: if an F1 team is not willing to give you a better F2 seat than Rapax or Trident, leave. Make your name elsewhere.

  7. José Lopes da Silva
    15th October 2022, 16:37

    A Brazilian blogger said, a couple of years ago, that F1 should have not 26 but 30 or 40 cars.
    He made a comparison between the 1989 rookies previous season and today; he took the same racing levels (F3000 for F2, for instance) and the same championship positions, and we could look at the drivers not making it there.

    Already seemed obvious that De Vries deserved the chance. Eventually he is not going to be World Champion, but he may develop a solid F1 career. Likely better than Brendon Hartley – a driver who maybe did not deserve such an opportunity but that I liked to watch around, because he was not Stoll or Latifi or Ericsson or Mazepin.

    Please stop the criticism of Red Bull. They’re the ones who open more real opportunities to drivers to show up.

  8. Formula One drivers are getting younger these days. There was a time when drivers would be in their mid to late twenties before getting an F1 drive. I don’t have any firm stats to check this but the top three youngest ever to start (Verstappen, Stroll, Norris) are all current drivers. Coupled with that, drivers seems to spend longer in F1 (again, that’s an impression, no stats to confirm this), and the number of teams in F1 is so small nowadays. What this all means is the rate at which new seats become available in F1 is smaller than ever.

    That’s not the whole problem though. The world is more contract based and litigious. Gone are the days when an underperfoming driver could be cut mid-season and a rising star given a few races. Drivers increasingly negotiate mult-season deals and if a driver is cut mid-season, there are contractual issues, as well as financial issues, both with the large salaries that drivers are guaranteed, and because of sponsorship tie-ins.

    The lack of testing has also had a knock-on effect on the driver market. When testing was still allowed, the role of the test drivier was important, and the test driver would get real track time each week in the car. It was a trivial matter for teams to give test runs to rising stars, to find out how they would perform in F1 machinery. I think Button and Coulthard were both test drivers promoted to race seats. Senna got to test drive a Williams at Donnington Park and Nico Rosberg became the youngest driver ever to drive an F1 car when they let him do a straight line test when he was about 15. All this meant that there were objective ways to measure drivers in F1 machinery. These days, the test driver spends most of their time in a simulator, and good as they are, it still isn’t as good as driving a real car.

    Finally, I think the reason drivers find it harder to get into F1 is the pool of contenders is so much bigger. When Hamilton came through the McLaren young driver program, some people seemed to find this objectionable, that he was being “favoured” by Ron Dennis. Nowadays, many teams have young driver programs, hoping to find another Hamilton. Potential drivers are also coming from a much wider geography, countries which were barely represented in F1 twenty years ago, and coupled with that, we have the internet and many of these upcoming drivers can create a significant social media presence, so the pool of talent is visibly larger.

    1. Nail on the head.

  9. These “next Hamilton” guys are a dime a dozen. Even to outsiders like us Hamilton and Verstappen are just at another level. It’s obvious. It’s also obvious when they don’t have it. No reason to keep them around for more than a season or a race when there are so few seats.

    1. That’s what I don’t understand either. Apart from Lewis, Max, Charles, maybe Lando and for nostalgic reasons Alonso I do not see any reason to keep any other current F1 driver in F1 for next season. We’ve seen them, they are good drivers but not likely WDC’s. Just simply give way more people a chance. Way more. And make it mandatory as well. Winning F2 should guarantee an F1 seat for at least one season. It is called the pinnacle of Motorsport but I am convinced we do not see the pinnacle of drivers at the moment. Lots of mediocracy which is still at a very high level but should perhaps be more something for another racing category. F1 should be exceptional

  10. he is going to have a strong season alongside Tsunoda. in the end he has been extremely lucky, got good running on 22 cars then got fp1 monza and ended driving williams best chance for a good result, and now he has Tsunoda as a team mate. he is average maybe he will prove me wrong but some drivers are just quick to get to speed and that is it, like kvyat, magnussen, sainz jnr. some of the problem is wsr bias. Perhaps the point is not to look for something special, after all drivers like Hulk are out of f1.

    1. Hulk’s returns to F1 (and retaining “experienced” drivers for too long) could also be considered an embarrassment to the sport. It shows experience with the electronics and procedures is more important than racing talent.

      Simulators really helped here, bringing much needed youth to F1 in the past few years.

  11. The article shows why drivers like Piastri need to do what he did.
    If you want to be in F1 you’d better grab the chances when they come to you. Waiting loyally is almost never paid off, and can cost the career of a driver.
    Atleast, when driving in F1, one is in the spotlight and can proofs one’s merit.

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