After running an experienced line-up in 2020 - featuring second year duo Liam Lawson and Max Fewtrell, backed up by a rookie who has gone on to lead the Championship with PREMA Racing, Dennis Hauger - it was a little surprising that Hitech Grand Prix opted to go the other way in 2021.
Choosing an extremely promising, but inexperienced trio of rookie drivers, which include two Red Bull rookies and the youngest second year on the grid, was a move away from the prior two seasons.
The decision was largely fuelled by their increased partnership with Red Bull, but Oliver Oakes was extremely excited by the talent that the Formula 1 academy handed him, with Jak Crawford and Ayumu Iwasa both impressive in pre-season testing. While the Hitech team boss also backed his team to turn Roman Stanek – still only 17-years-old - into a frontrunner.
So how have the trio fared in the first half of the season? We spoke with Oakes to get his view on their performances and where they can still improve…
Eyebrows were raised when a 15-year-old driver debuted in post-season testing at Barcelona last year, with many on social media exclaiming that Jak Crawford was too young for this level. But the American felt otherwise, and more importantly, so did Red Bull and Oakes.
“People always comment online about who gets what opportunity in testing and a lot of people were asking how Crawford got that chance at 15, but I think that he thoroughly proved that he deserved it,” asserted Oakes.
“Jak is a huge talent. When people think of 15-year-olds, they probably think of their own kids at home who aren’t in sport, but I think anyone who is competing at a level in a sport from a young age, whether that be motorsport, football or whatever, they are not 15, they are already acting like they are 20, 21-years-old, and that is the case with Jak.
“The only difference is that you are worrying about how they will get to places because they are not old enough to drive yet, but he is pretty mature considering his age.”
Crawford impressed at testing and punched in a number of top 10 worthy times, but he knew that things would be harder under the pressure and the spotlight of a race weekend.
Despite the sizeable jump from ADAC F4 to F3, the American has shown flashes of quality so far with three top 10 finishes. Oakes is firmly backing him to improve on that number in the second half of the campaign.
“I always find it interesting that rookies at testing always end up getting to the front. But in the actual rounds where they just have 45 minutes of Free Practice, and they have to go and do it in Qualifying with 30 cars, they don’t always get it right under the pressure. But then we are seeing that they are always going forward in the races.”
The eldest of the trio and the most successful so far, Ayumu Iwasa is in just his second year of European racing and is still getting used to a whole bunch of new circuits, but he has largely impressed so far with his consistency.
A maiden win in Budapest was well deserved, even if it came in unusual circumstances, the Japanese finishing second on track to Lorenzo Colombo in Race 1 before being handed the win when the Campos driver was penalised.
The 2020 French Formula 4 champion has finished in the points in all bar five races so far, an impressive achievement given his lack of experience at this level and on these tracks. Oakes says he’s been delighted with his sharp progress so far.
“He has been a real surprise in terms of how he has developed,” said Oakes. “I don’t think he gets enough credit because he doesn’t know any of these tracks at all, so I think that he has done a phenomenal job.
“He is such a harder worker, and he is doing a great job. To come over from Japan and live in Milton Keynes, that is a hell of a shock, but he is really embracing it.
“In Paul Ricard when he was fighting for the victory, he was a little too opportunistic with his pass on Logan (Sargeant), but he really did deserve a victory.”
Aligned with Red Bull and Honda in the same way as his compatriot Yuki Tsunoda, it isn’t a surprise to Oakes that parallels have been drawn between Iwasa and the Alpha Tauri F1 driver, but he insisted that the 19-year-old needs to be given the time to develop at his own rate.
Oakes continued: “In racing, drivers always get analysed versus someone else from where they have come from, and I think that there will always be that direct comparison with Yuki (Tsunoda) and him because of the Red Bull and Honda links and because they are both from Japan.
“Yuki threaded that needle perfectly from FIA F3 to FIA F2 in the Covid season and the opportunity in F1. Looking at how Ayu is developing compared to Yuki, there is a comparison. He has got time to develop, and he is doing really well.
“It is amazing when you look back at where he started with us. He didn’t do any of the winter testing, he arrived with us in Asian F3 and had to get to know the team, and it is amazing between now and then, how much he has developed.”
The most experienced of the trio at this level, Roman Stanek is only a year older than Jak Crawford and more than a year younger than Ayumu Iwasa. Joining Charouz Racing System in 2020 as the youngest on the grid, Stanek suffered a tough introduction to life in the third tier.
Starting the season without any pre-season testing, Stanek scored just one points’ finish – P8 in the Monza Race 1 - and Oakes admits he arrived low on confidence.
Tasked with turning around the young Czech’s fortunes, Oakes has overseen continual improvement from Stanek, who took his first podium at this level in the last round at Budapest, scoring P3 in Race 2.
The last two rounds have been his strongest by a distance, with 18 points picked up overall, compared to just one point in the prior two rounds.
“We knew Roman from last year and he had a bit of a difficult season, but he is doing a lot better this year and improving every weekend,” said Oakes. “It is interesting with Roman because I didn’t realise quite how young he was. The age of the three of them combined is pretty crazy.
“Roman was originally going to drive in F4 in 2020 but then those plans got changed and he was thrown in FIA F3 and had a bit of a tough year. Confidence wise, he was pretty low.
“He's just had his best results and I hope he can keep carrying that through. Budapest was the midway point, so it is from now onwards that we will see what they are made of.”