Partnering Italian footballer Ciro Immobile in the virtual AlphaTauri Formula 1 team probably wasn’t part of Liam Lawson’s initial pre-season plans, but, it’s not exactly been the standard pre-season for the Hitech Grand Prix driver.

Speaking over the phone following his return to Europe from his family home in Auckland, New Zealand, Lawson is preparing for what is arguably the biggest season of his career to date.

He’s been ready for some time now, but, like the rest of the Formula 3 grid he’s been forced to wait, with racing postponed for three months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s the longest break from racing he’s had in his fledgling single-seater career, but he remains calm and composed, aware of the challenges that await him, but unfazed by the prospect of them.

An intense break

In many ways Lawson has spent the break from racing like the rest of us: intense training and exercise, simulator work and go-karting… Okay, maybe not quite like the rest of us.

Lawson returned to his home in New Zealand shortly after the pre-season tests in Bahrain, prior to the lockdown. Faced with such a prolonged period of free time, Lawson has undergone what is possibly his toughest ever training regime. His time has been split primarily between exercise, and work in the simulator. This included sessions with his trainer over facetime, who also provided him with daily workouts and routines.

Like the rest of the racing community, Lawson has been taking part in the variety of virtual races that have been held throughout this period. The Red Bull junior took part in both the F1 and F2 Virtual Championships, getting the call-up from AlphaTauri through his Red Bull junior status. It was there that the Kiwi was the teammate of Lazio and Italian forward Immobile for the Chinese Virtual Grand Prix.

He later took part in the F2 version of the Championship, sealing third place with Campos in the opener, on the Bahrain International Circuit.

“Sim racing in general has been massively boosted in this period,” he explained. “With there not being any actual real racing, people still wanted to watch some sort of racing, so the virtual e-sports and e-racing became really, really popular.

“I know some people who actually enjoy watching it more than the real thing, so it was quite cool for us drivers to be able to keep racing each other in a massive variety of different cars and different tracks.”

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Getting back to normal

Lawson returned to the UK just over two weeks ago, ramping up his preparations for the campaign with his new team, Hitech. He has been fortunate enough to get some time in a go-kart, and still hopes to get behind the wheel of a single-seater before the opener in Spielberg, although admits this is probably unrealistic.

Like the majority of the grid, Lawson took part in pre-season testing at Bahrain in March, but hasn’t driven an F3 car competitively since finishing seventh in the Macau Grand Prix in November 2019, more than six months ago.

No matter how much training you do, there is nothing like actually driving, so I think physically it will be tough to get back in again.

He continued: “I am hoping to get into a car, but it is pretty unlikely to be perfectly honest, because I am not sure what I would be able to get into, but I would like to drive something at least.

“None of us have been in a car for a long a very long time. We haven’t raced in a very long time and we will have just 40-minutes to learn everything and then go straight into Quali, so it is going to be pretty tough.

“I am hoping it won’t take too long to {get back up to speed}, but it is hard to say. No matter how much training you do, there is nothing like actually driving, so I think physically it will be tough to get back in again. In terms of the preparation we've done, I don't think there is anything more that we can do. We’ve got just as much chance as anybody really.”

A crucial campaign

Lawson will be well aware of how vital this season could be to his aspirations of breaking into F1. A debut campaign provides drivers with a safety net of sorts - rookies aren’t expected to win a title in their first year of F3, so there’s a place to hide when results don’t go their way. Now in his second season, and with a seat at one of last year’s frontrunning teams, Lawson will be expected to deliver a title challenge at very least.

The problems with that? So will his fellow second years, which will make his strategy key.

“Obviously without sharing too much - I think in any championship you need a lot of luck and you need a lot of things to go your way, but obviously you have to be consistent across the whole season and finish with as many points as you can.

“There is quite a big drop from first to second in points, so it is an advantage winning races for sure, and that is what we will be going for. But, at the end of the day, we do want to win this championship and I think the best way to do that is to be smart and to know when to take risks, and when not too. I think that will be the biggest balance to manage throughout the season.

“For sure it helps having a year of F3 behind me, mostly for the experience of learning what to do and what not to do with these tyres. But, I think that a lot of the rookies have actually jumped straight in with very good teams, with good teammates, so I don’t think the learning process for them will take too long. “

Fitting in at Hitech

During normal circumstances Lawson would have already spent a significant amount of time with his new side, Hitech Grand Prix, with time between races to work on both the car and their relationship as team and driver. With eight races in a 10-week period, no one will have the luxury of working on things as they go to the same extent, which makes his choice of team all the more important.

Luckily for him, it seems to have been a pretty perfect match so far.

With the work that we are doing, we have a good opportunity to take the fight to them this year.

“They have been extremely professional and hard-working,” he explained. “I think that we have got a very good opportunity with Hitech this year and I am very, very excited to work with them.

“From the preparation that we did for the tests, and the preparations that we are going through now for the season, there is nothing more that we can really do.

“It is going to be very, very tight between a lot of teams, especially against PREMA, with how strong and how dominant they were last year, but I think that with the work that we are doing, we have a good opportunity to take the fight to them this year.”