Getting into the Red Bull Driver Development Scheme seems to have a double-edged sword – if you don’t prove yourself (and quickly) you are out of there! Just ask Brendon Hartley that, a talented New Zealander who was ditched by Red Bull in 2010 and is now rebuilding his career in GT racing and with the Mercedes F1 team. Another driver that has seen Red Bull sponsorship come and go is former McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner Lewis Williamson, who was given five (yes, only five) races to prove himself in a brand new team in Formula Renault 3.5 back in 2012.
The 23 Year Old Scot began his single seater career back in 2008 driving for the Highland Arena Ltd team in the British Formula Renault 2.0 Winter Series, scoring two podiums in the four races he competed in, finishing 6th in the final standings. At the same time, he competed in two races in the Portuguese Formula Renault 2.0 Winter Series for the CR Scuderia team, and claimed one podium finish and 18 points, putting him fourth in the championship. He also had a couple of races in the Formula Jedi series, winning one of them.
2009 saw him progress to a full-time entry In the British Formula Renault 2.0 series, driving for the CRS Racing outfit. He grabbed two podium finishes in the 20 races, scoring 229 points and placing 10th in the standings. 2010 saw a much improved effort, now in the Manor Competition team, winning 5 times, finishing on the podium an additional 5 times, and finishing a close second in the standings behind fellow Brit Tom Blomqvist. The season saw him awarded the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, which earned him £100,000 and a McLaren F1 test drive.
After a successful end of season test in a GP3 Series car, Williamson moved to the MW Arden team in 2011, winning race 2 at Silverstone, and grabbing additional podiums, both seconds, in Valencia and the Nurburgring. He finished 8th in the championship with 31 points. He also book-ended his season with appearances in the Formula Renault 3.5 series with the ISR Racing team, failing to trouble the scoreboard however.
Then we get to 2012. Signed up by Red Bull to their Driver Development Scheme, Williamson was given a drive in a newly set-up Formula Renault 3.5 series outfit – Arden Caterham. Whereas previous Red Bull backed drivers were placed with teams already proven teams, Williamson was put in a team that struggled in pre-season testing to get a grip on the series and the car, both of which were new to them.
However, despite failing to score points, the race at Spa should be highlighted. Qualifying fourth and having a stormer of a race, a ill-timed safety car period, just as Williamson was set to hit the pitlane, cost him dearly. Force to stay out (pit lane was closed), the team told him to use the race as a test session, which he did wonderfully in changeable conditions. He finished first on the road, but the failure to pit meant a 60 second penalty and relegation to the low teens in classification. He was a star that day, but he wouldn’t get any more time to show his obvious talent as he was replaced by Portuguese driver Antonio Felix da Costa for the following event.
A spokesman for Red Bull said Williamson “had not had the success everyone expected this year in the Renault 3.5 series that is seen as a direct step into Formula 1”. Very harsh words, especially after 5 races and only 3 race weekends. Another driver had been ditched from the Red Bull family, and his career apparently was on the rocks at only 22 years of age. Now it was up to him to rebuild it. However offers of drives were not far away.
He took up one of the offers from Status Grand Prix, and returned with them to the GP3 series for the Hockenheim races. In the following event in Hungary he scored two fifth places, and ended the season with 11 points in 17th place in the standings. He continues this year in GP3 with the Bamboo Engineering team, and has 22 points so far including two fourth places in Germany. He has been competitive for most of the year, and has had some dreadful luck and unfortunate crashes throughout, noticeably when Carlos Sainz Jr shunted him out at Silverstone. He should be higher in the championship standings than 14th. It also should be pointed out that Bamboo are new to the series, so like in Formula Renault 3.5, the team is learning all the time. Thankfully this time, Williamson has been given more time to help develop the car and move the team forward.
So how has the Red Bull debacle affected Lewis Williamson? Whereas he has yet to win a race since 2011, there is no denying the obvious talent the young Brit possesses. He has kept his head held high and hasn’t spoken out of turn, a sign of a top bloke. I predict big things for Williamson in the next couple of years, hopefully it’ll see him progress into the GP2 series and then possibly, if all things work out, into Formula 1. I’d love him to be the one that got away for Red Bull, I really would.