Formula One is known to be a cut-throat sport with very little room for error. The sport has a knack of switching drivers mid-season, giving chances to rookies, which at times has gone on to shape the sport itself. These decisions have made or broken careers and some of them will go down in history as the boldest and most iconic decisions ever made.
Today we look at ten such occasions when teams decided to switch their drivers in the middle of a season.
Ferrari – 2009
Out – Luca Badoer
In – Giancarlo Fisichella
Ferrari’s driver pairing for the 2009 Formula One season was Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa. Massa though suffered a horrific injury mid-season at the Hungarian Grand Prix which left the Scuderia in quite a dilemma. Ferrari then replaced Massa with their test driver, Luca Badoer.
Badoer, though, wasn’t performing at the level Ferrari wanted him to. At the European Grand Prix, Badoer qualified in last place and finished the race in that position, while his teammate finished on the podium. At Spa, in the following race, he qualified last once again and finished 14th, which was effectively last as six cars had retired. What made matters worse was that the Belgian Grand Prix was won by Räikkönen and Ferrari could not afford to throw away crucial points.
Following the Belgian Grand Prix, Badoer was removed by the Scuderia and replaced by Spa pole sitter and Force India driver Giancarlo Fisichella. For Fisichella, an Italian, driving for Ferrari was the ultimate goal. While Fisichella went to Ferrari, Vitantonio Liuzzi replaced Fisichella at Force India for the remaining five races. Fisichella, though, couldn’t fare any better than Badoer and ended the season with a best finish of P10 at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
McLaren – 2006
Out – Pablo Montoya
In – Pedro de la Rosa
Juan Pablo Montoya was one of Formula One’s most sought-after drivers in the early 2000s, simply because of his ability to take the fight to the dominating Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. The Colombian’s impressive stint with Williams caught the eye of McLaren team boss Ron Dennis who signed him up for the 2005 season. Montoya was brought in to partner Kimi Räikkönen.
His first season was a mixed bag. Although he did manage three wins, an unreliable McLaren let him down on multiple occasions, along with his own struggles to handle the car. The following season, even though McLaren had one of the fastest cars on the grid, it was woefully unreliable. While Räikkönen was fighting for the championship, Montoya struggled to fight for wins. The tipping point for the team was his 2006 United States Grand Prix opening lap crash where he took out eight cars including that of his own teammate. Questions were being asked about his future in the paddock and the final nail in the coffin came when Montoya publicly announced he had signed up for the NASCAR series for the 2007 season. This effectively ended his Formula One career and he was removed from the team with immediate effect.
Montoya was replaced by reserve driver Pedro de la Rosa, who didn’t fair too badly, with a best finish of P2 in the Hungarian Grand Prix. The following season, Räikkönen left for Ferrari and was replaced by reigning world champion Fernando Alonso, while de la Rosa was shifted back to his reserve driver duties as a certain GP2 champion. Lewis Hamilton made his debut with McLaren.
Renault – 2004
Out – Jarno Trulli
In – Jacques Villeneuve
After struggling to keep up with rookie teammate Fernando Alonso in the 2003 Formula One season, Jarno Trulli started off the season quite strongly with multiple points finishes and even took his first victory after putting in a splendid drive in Monaco.
With Trulli regularly scoring points and taking a spectacular victory, you would think things were looking up for the Italian, but it wasn’t to be. Post the Monaco victory, Trulli expected a seat for the following year as well, but his relationship with team boss Flavio Briatore began to deteriorate. To make matters worse, Trulli publicly criticised the team for favouring Alonso. Shortly afterwards, Trulli announced he would be joining Toyota for the following season.
But that wasn’t it. Trulli, who was due to see out the season with the French team, left the team with three races to go, with the relationship between the management and the driver having gone so bad it was beyond repair.
Trulli was replaced by the 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, although it was Trulli who suffered the most from the spilt as his former teammate Alonso took back-to-back world championships with Renault.
Renault – 2017
Out – Jolyon Palmer
In – Carlos Sainz
2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer made his Formula One debut as a full-time race driver with Renault in 2016. After a mixed debut season with the French team, who returned as constructors for the first time since 2011, Palmer finished 18th in the Drivers’ Standings with a solitary point from the Malaysian Grand Prix. He signed an extension with Renault at the end of the season. His second season at Renault would be with the much-experienced Nico Hülkenberg.
The season got off to a woeful start for the Brit as he retired from the opening race of the season and failed to fight for points throughout the season, while his teammate was fighting with other midfield teams. Renault, who had Carlos Sainz signed on for the 2018 season, jumped their move and brought in Sainz with four races to go. Sainz was straight on the pace and score points on his debut and had two more points finishes out of the remaining four races, one of which he had to retire from.
Toro Rosso – 2007
Out – Scott Speed
In – Sebastian Vettel
Red Bull Racing’s Driver Academy racer Scott Speed made his debut with the junior Red Bull team, Toro Rosso, in 2006. Although the American had a pointless season, he was signed on with the team for the next season as well.
The following season, though, was an absolute disaster for the American. Along with poor reliability, Speed made numerous driver errors throughout the opening half of the season that saw him involved in multiple high-speed crashes with numerous drivers. Speed’s off-track antics, where he was involved in altercations with team boss Franz Tost, didn’t help either.
After the Hungarian Grand Prix, Speed was replaced by a young German named Sebastian Vettel, who was another driver in the Red Bull driver development programme. Speed, though, never raced in Formula One again, and Vettel since then has gone on to win four world championships and even gave Toro Rosso their first Formula One victory at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix.
McLaren – 1993
Out – Michael Andretti
In – Mika Häkkinen
Michael Andretti’s McLaren career was one that started off with extreme promise even before the American had driven the car on-track. He was signed up to partner Ayrton Senna and was also publicly praised by team boss Ron Dennis, who said, “I think he can win Grand Prix and become the World Champion. It’s not a question of which country you come from. It’s how you demonstrate your desire to win.”
With the pressure on him even before he got into the car, Andretti got off to the worst possible start with McLaren as he crashed out in the opening four races at the South African, European, Portuguese and Brazilian Grands Prix. After failing to even finish four Grands Prix, two of which were won by his teammate, all eyes were on Andretti.
However, the American managed a fifth-place finish in Spain, although he was lapped by his teammate. Andretti, though, just didn’t come to terms with the McLaren that year and further retirements sealed his fate. Even though he scored a podium in what would be his final Formula One race, at the Italian Grand Prix, Andretti left the team with three races to go and McLaren’s reserve driver Mika Häkkinen replaced the departing American. Häkkinen managed a third-place finish in the Japanese Grand Prix and was assured a seat with the team. Häkkinen would later go on to win two world championships with McLaren, in 1998 and 1999.
Benetton – 1991
Out – Roberto Moreno
In – Michael Schumacher
Roberto Moreno came in as a substitute driver for Benetton in 1990, filling in for Alessandro Nannini who had a helicopter crash that severed his right forearm. Substituting for the Benetton team, although he struggled and was comfortably overshadowed by teammate Nelson Piquet, Moreno did manage a P2 finish at the Japanese Grand Prix that secured him a drive for the following season.
The following season, though, the Benetton car was not as competitive as Moreno would have expected and even though his teammate Piquet was comfortably scoring points, Moreno was struggling to even finish races. Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore replaced Moreno with an upcoming talent, Michael Schumacher, and Moreno was offered the Jordan seat which the young German had vacated.
The move turned out to be a successful one for Benetton and Schumacher took back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.
BMW Sauber – 2006
Out – Jacques Villeneuve
In – Robert Kubica
After having secured a drive with Sauber, 1997 world champion Villeneuve was outperformed by his younger teammate Felipe Massa. As Massa went on to partner Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, Villeneuve stayed on with the Sauber outfit, now renamed to BMW Sauber.
Partnering Nick Heidfeld, Villeneuve was expected to score regular points to help the team fight in the midfield. But as Heidfeld scored regular points, Villeneuve struggled to maintain consistency and could manage only seven points in the opening twelve races, four of which he had retired from. His teammate had amassed almost double the points by then.
After receiving criticism from team boss Mario Theissen for his lacklustre performance, an opening-lap accident proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Villeneuve. He was replaced by Robert Kubica, who went on to score a podium finish in the remaining races.
Red Bull – 2016
Out – Daniil Kvyat
In – Max Verstappen
After having impressed in his debut season with Red Bull, Daniil Kvyat was expected to help Red Bull get to the front of the grid. Replacing four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, Kvyat had already outscored teammate Daniel Ricciardo in his debut season.
But the start to the 2016 season was not what the Russian had hoped for. After failing to start the opening race in Australia due to mechanical issues, Kvyat finished a lowly seventh in the Bahrain Grand Prix before finishing third in the Chinese Grand Prix. At his home race, though, the Russian ploughed into the back of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, ending Vettel’s race and leaving him in 15th.
The Russian’s antics, however, weren’t taken nicely by the Red Bull management who demoted Kvyat to the junior team, Toro Rosso, and promoted a young Dutchman, Max Verstappen, in his stead. Red Bull’s move to swap the drivers seemingly paid off immediately, as Verstappen won his very first race as a Red Bull driver in Spain.
Red Bull – 2019
Out – Pierre Gasly
In – Alex Albon
Red Bull are well known for swapping their drivers around mid-season.
Part of the Red Bull driver academy and a Toro Rosso driver, Pierre Gasly was signed on by the Austrian team in 2018 for a drive in 2019, replacing the outgoing Daniel Ricciardo. Gasly, though, was off the pace compared to his teammate, Max Verstappen, and struggled with the RB15. Although he was scoring points, Gasly was generally always a lap down on his teammate and even got lapped by Verstappen in the Hungarian Grand Prix.
While Verstappen was fighting for the win and podium places, Gasly was in the lower half of the top 10, just managing to get a few points for the team. As the summer break came, Verstappen was on 181 points with two wins while Gasly was on 63 points with a best finish of fourth. Right before the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix, Red Bull announced that Gasly would be demoted back to Toro Rosso while Toro Rosso driver Alexander Albon would partner Max Verstappen for the rest of the season.
Gasly’s return to Toro Rosso, though, was a successful one. Away from the pressure of Red Bull, the Frenchman found his rhythm and even scored a podium and win before Albon could for Red Bull. By the end of the 2020 season, Gasly was the lead driver at Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri while Albon faced similar issues as Gasly did and struggled to keep up with Verstappen, which eventually led to Albon losing his Red Bull seat at the end of the 2020 season.