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BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 10: Oliver Bearman of Great Britain and PREMA Racing (8) looks on during day one of Formula 2 Testing at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on May 10, 2023 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros - Getty Images)

Why Oliver Bearman is Ferrari’s new biggest problem

Ferrari's junior programme has a bright prospect nearly ready for Formula 1, but what are they going to do with him?

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In just his fourth weekend of Formula 2, Oliver Bearman topped every single session. Practice, Qualifying, the reverse grid Sprint Race where he started from tenth, and then the Feature Race.

Bearman Formula 2
Bearman celebrates at the P1 spot after winning the Formula 2 Feature Race in Baku (Image Credit: Joe Portlock – Getty Images)

The 18 year-old member of the Ferrari Driver Academy has been turning heads for the past few years. After a dominant charge to the title in his first full season of Italian Formula 4, Bearman joined Ferrari’s junior programme and stepped up to Formula 3. 

In his rookie season of Formula 3, Bearman fell short of the title by just seven points, finishing third ahead of both of his more experienced teammates. Now, it looks like he’s ready to compete for the Formula 2 title in his rookie year as well.

For Ferrari, watching a member of their driver academy have an unprecedentedly brilliant weekend just a few rounds into his Formula 2 campaign is something you’d imagine they’d be pleased with. 

But when you consider the full situation, Bearman’s rise to success in recent years might prove more of an issue for Ferrari when it comes to their plans for him when he’s inevitably ready to graduate in a season or two.

Ferrari Driver Academy in recent years

Ferrari’s driver academy has made notable changes in the past few years to reflect the status of their Formula 1 team. In 2020 the team had five junior drivers racing in Formula 2: Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott, Robert Schwartzman, Marcus Armstrong, and Guiliano Alesi.

Ferrari Driver Academy
The 2020 Ferrari Driver Academy lineup (Image Credit: Ferrari)

That number dropped to two in 2021, with just Schwartzman and Armstrong sporting Ferrari colours in the top step of the F1 feeder series. By 2022 there were no Ferrari juniors in Formula 2.

Why? They didn’t need them. Both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are locked in at Ferrari’s Formula 1 team until 2024. Once those contracts were signed, there was no reason for Ferrari to believe they’d need a replacement anytime soon with two highly rated but still young drivers set to stay with them for the foreseeable future.

All of a sudden, the five drivers sitting in Formula 2 were no longer necessary.

No use for juniors

Schumacher won Formula 2 in 2020 and was promoted to Formula 1, albeit to Haas, where Ferrari could watch him develop and see if he was in contention to replace either Leclerc or Sainz when their contracts ran out. As it happened, he didn’t manage to impress them in two seasons at Haas, and Ferrari ended their contract with him.

After 2020 Ilott was relegated to endurance racing, still under Ferrari’s supervision, and then switched to IndyCar for 2022.

Schwartzman remained in Formula 2 for another season before taking a year off professional racing to do reserve and test duties for Ferrari. He’s still under contract with the team, though his chances of ever getting a Formula 1 seat now are slim to none.

Alesi and Armstrong both departed the academy as well, so by 2022 Ferrari had sidelined everyone (but Schumacher at that point) and completely turned the page in their junior programme. 

But now Bearman’s performing just one step away from Formula 1, and with Leclerc and Sainz locked in until 2024, Ferrari has a choice to make with Bearman on the trajectory to be Formula 1 ready in the next season or two.

Relegating to smaller teams

The most likely option is that Ferrari will negotiate with a smaller team like Haas or Alfa Romeo to give Bearman a seat once they deem him ready for Formula 1. These days it’s normal for big teams to send their junior drivers to smaller teams first to see how they perform in Formula 1.

Bearman Formula 2
Ferrari Team Principal Frederic Vasseur congratulating Bearman after his first Formula 2 win in Baku (Image Credit: Joe Portlock – Getty Images)

There have been perfect examples of this strategy working for Ferrari in the past: offloading their junior drivers to a smaller team and watching their progress closely. While this path worked wonders for Leclerc, who, after just one season at Sauber, was promoted to Ferrari, others have struggled. Antonio Giovinazzi, another Ferrari junior, replaced Leclerc at Sauber, only to languish at the back of the field for three seasons until he was replaced by Zhou Guanyu.

The same thing happened to Schumacher, who, after winning the Formula 2 championship, went to Haas at the behest of Ferrari. He spent two seasons unable to find his footing, and when Haas couldn’t afford to keep him any longer, he lost the backing of both the team and the Ferrari Driver Academy.

Other examples

Mercedes has also had varying success with this strategy. George Russell lingered in the back of the pack with Williams for three seasons, but proved he could outperform sub-par machinery and was promoted to Mercedes for 2022. Other members of the Mercedes Junior Team, like Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein, have had some success at smaller teams but left the academy before they were given the chance to step up.

It’s easy to say this strategy has worked well for both Ferrari and Mercedes, separating the drivers who can’t quite keep up from the (so-called) generational talents like Leclerc or Russell. And teams like Haas and Alfa Romeo (less so Williams now that they have their own, successful driver academy) have been happy for the money and the chance to, on occasion, have the next great Formula 1 drivers in their cars. 

But it’s a curious deal, and can easily lead to issues for both teams and drivers if everything isn’t handled very carefully.

The Piastri precedent

Failure to give your best junior drivers a chance at Formula 1 can prove catastrophic for a team. Take Alpine, for example, who ended up in a very uncomfortable situation last season after announcing they’d finally given a Formula 1 seat to their junior driver Oscar Piastri, only for Piastri to announce he’d already signed a contract with McLaren.

Piastri McLaren
Piastri (left) ahead of his first Formula 1 Grand Prix, racing for McLaren (Image Credit: Michael Potts/BSR Agency – Getty Images)

This very public saga ended in disaster for Alpine, who lost one of the most promising young drivers in recent years and were left with nothing to show for it but a failed lawsuit and a bruised ego.

The Piastri fiasco set a precedent for teams to take their junior talent seriously. You can’t just add a promising young driver to your junior roster and let them sit there until you’re ready for them, because if you’re not proactive enough they’ll get tired of waiting and find someone else who wants them.

Piastri also set a precedent for young drivers like him, proving you don’t have to sit around and count on the Formula 1 team you’ve signed up for to eventually get you a seat. The driver market is in a constant state of flux, and, if you’re looking for them, opportunities could open up at any moment.

If Ferrari isn’t careful with Bearman, they could easily lose him to a team that needs a driver and can offer him a competitive seat straight away.

What will Ferrari do with Bearman?

As previously mentioned, the most likely option is that Ferrari will try to find Bearman a spot at Alfa Romeo or Haas, teams lower down the field that have ties with Ferrari and have previously housed juniors for the Prancing Horse.

But there are plenty of other factors at play that Ferrari will have to account for. One such factor is Sauber junior Theo Pourchaire, who, amongst other drivers, will be hoping to stake his claim at one of the Alfa Romeo seats for 2024. 

Pourchaire’s not likely to get sold off to a different team than the one he’s already tied to, and although he’s in his third season of Formula 2, he’s been a contender for the Alfa Romeo seat after both his first two seasons and is likely to remain one.

Another factor to consider is what Ferrari intends to do with Bearman in the long-term, provided he adapts well at a backmarker team (never a given, seeing as how difficult some of the Formula 1 cars have been proven to adjust to).

Formula 2
Bearman celebrates with a PREMA team member on the podium after his weekend sweep in Baku (Image Credit: Joe Portlock – Getty Images)

Leclerc and Sainz seem quite content at Ferrari, and Ferrari with them, at least for now. Would the team replace one of them with an up-and-coming Bearman in 2025 or 2026? And if they hesitate to do so, will Bearman find someone else to give him a chance?

For sure, having what looks like a generational talent amongst your junior ranks is a problem well worth having for Ferrari, provided they can navigate the situation well.

It’s always a shame to see talented drivers sit on the sidelines of the exclusive Formula 1 grid, and it’s something we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. Will Bearman join their ranks, or will he be Ferrari’s next Leclerc?

It’s too soon to tell for now what his Formula 1 career may hold, but it’s not hard to see the inevitability of his readiness for the series.

Feature Image Credit: Alex Caparros – Getty Images

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