It was a curious moment to be watching Nyck De Vries’ F1 debut sitting next to Sam Bird. I was covering the Italian Grand Prix for the BBC, and that weekend the Jaguar TCS Racing driver was with me in the commentary box as we watched Nyck’s calm, assured drive to an impressive ninth place.
I don’t want to seem wise after the event, but I never had any doubt that he would out-perform Nicholas Latifi that weekend. There’s no doubt that Latifi is not the strongest rival Nyck could have had in his first race, for example were it the Canadian that were ill, I think Nyck would have had a much tougher time against Alex Albon. But you can only beat what’s in front of you, and Nyck did it with conviction.
There was a real sense of excitement around Formula E when de Vries joined in Season 6. The Dutchman had wrapped up the Formula 2 title only a month or so earlier, and the fact that he was joining Formula E was something of a coup for the series. There were some, few but certainly some, who felt Nyck would come in and be the class of the field, but that was to completely underestimate the quality of the rest of the field.
In his first season, he picked up just four points finishes, and one podium in the final race of the year in Berlin and finished 11th in the championship, while his Mercedes-EQ teammate Stoffel Vandoorne finished second. Season 7, though, was a different story, as de Vries became the first ever Formula E World Champion. A win in the opening race of the season, and two superb second places in London were what secured him the title, even though he wasn’t favourite going into the final race.
This most recent season was tricky for de Vries as well. After winning the opening race as reigning champion, he picked up another win in Berlin later in the year, but it was only enough to finish ninth in the championship.
Probably the key part of de Vries’ involvement in Formula E was joining with the Mercedes squad. Toto Wolff came to races, while de Vries and Vandoorne became the F1 team’s reserve drivers. Add in to the mix the fact that the Dutchman classed a rookie and was eligible to take part in F1 Free Practice sessions for Mercedes, Williams and Aston Martin.
For me the most impressive part about De Vries’ one off race for Williams - which ultimately got him his permanent seat with Alpha Tauri – was his mature and intelligent approach. He pushed when he needed to and showed his raw speed despite to out qualify Latifi, but it was his race management that made him stand out. He was able to press Pierre Gasly in the closing stages, and showed composure to keep Zhou Guanyu behind, all whilst dealing with different engine modes and settings.
I am fairly confident that 2019-spec de Vries would not have achieved the same result. The pace would have been the same, and maybe his qualifying performance would have been similar, but coming from Formula E, which is widely agreed to be the most mentally challenging race series in the world, I don’t believe he would have been as in control during the race.
What de Vries’ move to F1 has really proven is the quality of the Formula E grid. De Vries is excellent, and a more than worthy champion, but by no means the class of this field, once again illustrating the strength in depth of drivers in this championship.