In Formula 1, a driver’s image is influenced in a big way by the quality of his car. One who spends 10 years in race-winning machinery and enjoys even 10 or 15 race victories will almost certainly end their career with a good reputation. One who spends a few years at the back, or in the midfield, with a handful of points finishes will be looked on worse.
When Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo made the surprise announcement that was starting a new ‘lockdown diary’, he kicked things off by naming the five most underrated drivers he has raced against in F1. It was a pleasant surprise to see Marcus Ericsson on the list alongside the late Jules Bianchi, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Roberto Merhi and 2009 world champion Jenson Button.
Why was Marcus on the list? Ricciardo described him as “always properly quick” in junior categories, and referenced the Swede’s pole lap in Macau in 2009, for the Formula 3 Grand Prix.
“You’re no Sunday driver to put it on pole there, and six of us on the grid that year eventually made it to F1,” Ricciardo pointed out.
The ironic thing with that junior career highlight being in qualifying is that Ericsson’s problem in F1 was more about one-lap pace. Whether it was confidence in leaning on an underwhelming car or not quite cracking the softest-compound tyres – which is a seriously tricky task, thanks to the way the Pirelli era has developed – he was also much more dependable in executing a strong race than pulling out a blinding quali lap.
Ricciardo reckons that Ericsson was very highly rated as a junior, and I’d agree. A lot is often made about Marcus paying his way into F1 and paying to stay there, but I hate the ‘pay driver’ argument and think it’s way too simplified.
Any driver that gets to F1 has got there because someone has paid their bills. The key difference is whether you earn that money to begin with and do a good enough job to maintain the support, or you’re just benefitting from being in a wealthy family or in a situation where your results don’t matter.
Ericsson was a Formula BMW UK champion and a podium finisher as a British Formula 3 rookie. Then he won the Japanese F3 title in his first year there, claimed pole in Macau, and went on to win ‘proper’ races in GP2 (not reverse-grid sprints). There is little doubt that Ericsson deserved to make the progress up the F1 ladder, even if his momentum stalled a little in GP2, where the team makes a big difference in GP2 and also Pirelli replaced Bridgestone as tyre supplier for Ericsson’s second season. That category can be a lottery.
Unfortunately, as Ricciardo points out, Ericsson’s reputation didn’t last in F1. It’s the curse of being at the back of the grid, and all you can do in such an environment is prove yourself when possible.
The two years at Sauber/Alfa Romeo when he had competitive machinery, Ericsson picked up points but was overshadowed by team-mates Felipe Nasr and Charles Leclerc. Against Nasr, Ericsson lost ground in races with technical problems and collisions, and against Leclerc he had decent early momentum before Leclerc’s talent came to the fore.
“You could see that at the start of the year against Charles, but as the season went on Charles was obviously getting better as a rookie,” said Ricciardo.
“Since then he’s proved that he’s an absolutely top-tier driver. But Marcus’ speed, I felt, was probably a bit underrated.”
It’s also worth pointing out that when Ericsson had the edge, the car was worse. When the car got better, Leclerc gained the upper hand. One-lap pace was often Marcus’s downfall, but Alfa team boss Fred Vasseur always spoke very highly of Ericsson’s ability and the job he was doing, even once it was announced he would lose his drive. I’m inclined to think Vasseur knows what he’s talking about given his stellar record with junior teams.
Could Marcus have done a better job in F1? Probably. There were undoubtedly some missed opportunities and the struggles in qualifying were never properly addressed.
But can you judge him as a driver on his stint in F1? I don’t think so. I think any driver who spends years waiting for a good car, then gets one right at the very end while alongside one of the best drivers of his generation, is quite unlucky.
Ericsson will undoubtedly be one of the more surprising drivers on Ricciardo’s list. But that’s exactly why he’s underrated! IndyCar will be a better reflection of the driver he has become.
// Scott M