Nobody expected Jack Aitken to make his Formula 1 debut in 2020, least of all himself, but he realised his lifelong dream in December when a chance to race at the Sakhir Grand Prix fell his way, and it was an opportunity he did not want to squander.
An unprecedented 2020 season, in which no fewer than three drivers were ruled out of separate race weekends with positive coronavirus tests, proved that anything was possible.
Evidence of that was no clearer than at the penultimate round of the season when newly-crowned seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton contracted the virus, throwing yet another curveball into an already unique and unforgettable season as the Briton missed an F1 race for the first time in his 14-year career.
Mercedes subsequently replaced Hamilton with its protege and current Williams driver George Russell, which in turn paved the way for Aitken to be drafted in to make his F1 bow in unlikely circumstances. The 25-year-old London-born British-Korean had only joined the Grove-based outfit at the start of 2020 having made the decision to part ways with the Renault Sport Academy after four years.
In his role as official reserve driver, Aitken had already got a taste of driving Williams’ FW43 car once before during his practice debut at the Styrian Grand Prix in July and he would always have been first in line to be drafted in should either of the team’s regulars have been unable to race.
Making the step up at such late notice when he was preparing to contest the F1-supporting Formula 2 round at a completely new track would have been a daunting prospect for Aitken, but that did not stop him from flourishing in the new challenge.
Having quickly got himself up to speed, Aitken out-qualified the most experienced driver in F1, Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, and fellow debutant Pietro Fittipaldi to line up 18th on the grid for his first race. Despite suffering a late spin while attempting to catch his rivals ahead, Aitken went on to finish a more than respectable 16th place on his grand prix debut.
“It was pretty much what I hoped it would be,” Aitken told Crash.net as he reflected on his F1 debut during a Zoom interview at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
"In terms of going through everything with the team and getting up to speed on the track, I’d been waiting pretty much all year for that kind of chance to come along, so it’s not like when you get a chance like that fall into your lap you get into the car on Friday and are like, ‘oh my god’.
“You’ve been preparing for a long time, so I think that’s partly why it helped to get up to speed quickly.”
While Aitken seemed relatively unfazed by the lateness of his call up to drive for Williams, it still presented him with a big learning curve and a major step up from the machinery he was used to in F1’s direct feeder series, F2.
“The biggest things [to learn] were probably around the little quirks and getting used to the car and understanding how to get the best out of this kind of machinery,” he explained. “It’s a kind of level of detail that you just don’t get from any test session or a single FP1.
“F1 cars are so complex nowadays that there are a lot of systems working in the background which help you out a lot of the time, but it does mean that some of the things that as a driver you might traditionally take for granted, they just don’t work the same way.
“So understanding those quirks compared to the F2 car and getting up to speed in time for qualifying and the race was a challenge, but luckily it all went pretty well. The pace that we found from Friday to Saturday was a very decent step and after a bit of time to digest, I’m pretty happy with the weekend.
“I already have a lot more confidence in how to manipulate the car in order to get what I want and I think as well time-management is quite a big thing that probably wasn’t on my radar before the weekend.
“Even without fans at the track, you are a lot busier for an F1 weekend compared to F2. So staying on top of my schedule was quite difficult.”
Aitken partnered former F2 rival Nicholas Latifi at Williams and was able to hold his own against the Canadian F1 rookie throughout the weekend.
He was close to his teammate’s pace throughout practice and was the faster of the two Williams drivers in the first two runs in qualifying before eventually being pipped by less than a tenth of a second after making a slight mistake on his final flying effort.
Nonetheless, his performance across the weekend left Williams suitably impressed, with the team’s head of vehicle performance Dave Robson praising Aitken for stepping up to F1 in a “seamless” manner.
“I think they were happy that I was able to come in and there wasn’t too much of a learning process,” Aitken added. “It wasn’t like we got to Sunday and we were still trying to find half a second or whatever.
"So for them, I filled the role of reserve pretty well I think, stepped in with minimal fuss, and got on with the job.
“Pace-wise in qualifying was really decent, I just messed up the last run a little bit but we were still very competitive ahead of an Alfa and a Haas. To be that close to Nicholas after he’s done the whole season, I was pretty happy and the engineers were too.”
Aitken’s opportunity to impress came at the end of a difficult third season in F2. 2020 should have been the year of a serious title push for Aitken, but he could only muster two podium appearances and a 14th-place finish in the standings - marking his worst result in the championship - but it was not a true reflection of his abilities.
This is a driver who has enjoyed great success in single-seaters, sweeping both Formula Renault titles in 2015 and forging himself into a regular frontrunner as a multiple race winner in F2 until the victories dried up in a tricky year that was disrupted by significant team departures at Campos on the eve of the season.
Amid his struggles, he has witnessed first-hand the rise and rise of Russell, a former teammate that Aitken ran close en route to finishing runner-up in the then GP3 series in 2017. Aitken had hoped to follow Russell’s path of triumphing in F2 and graduating to F1, but for one reason or another, things have not quite materialised as planned.
During tough periods all athletes go through, the unwanted enemy of self-doubt often lingers not too far away and, like many drivers, Aitken has suffered a number of knock-backs since he began single-seater racing in 2012. After all, motorsport is a relentless and often unforgiving world.
Through it all, Aitken has persevered, continued to chip away, and his hard work was finally rewarded with an unlikely F1 debut - a chance he would have been forgiven for beginning to feel as though it was slipping out of his grasp.
“I think everybody has some form of doubt sometimes,” Aitken admitted. “All I mean to say by that is we are all human, and I think even if I’d had a really good run in F2 this year, or things had turned out differently, you would still have doubts no matter what.
"What I have done is just try to focus on having the same approach as this weekend, and previous weekends, and just do the best job you can in the car and the opportunities will present themselves.
“I think last weekend [in Bahrain] was a good example of that. Obviously, there was some good fortune involved in it but I put myself in the right position and made sure I was ready for it.
“The last few years have all been about trying to maximise my results on track every time I get out there and then putting myself in positions where those opportunities can present themselves.”
Now that he has had the taste, Aitken is hungry for more F1 chances to ensure that his dream Sakhir GP appearance will not go down as a one-off.
While Aitken is unsure whether he will return to F2 for a fourth season in 2021, it is clear that he wants to remain with Williams to pursue more F1 opportunities in his current role.
With Russell and Latifi both contracted until the end of the year, there could be a potential opening to fill for 2022 - especially if Russell receives a Mercedes promotion.
For now, Aitken is not letting himself get carried away with such thoughts. Instead, as has been a trademark of his career to date, he is fully focused on tenacious hard work and self-improvement.
That approach has served Aitken well so far, as he looks to thrust himself from the F1 periphery and into the equation for a future Williams drive.
“It definitely shows that I can do the job,” Aitken said. “Part of the reason I was so keen to go again was that after one weekend I felt I could put together a much better weekend even. But my focus has just been to get on with the job and do it as well as I can.
“If that benefits me down the line then all the better, but there’s not much point dwelling on the future right now. It’s just getting on and doing as well as I can in the car.
“2022 is a long way down the road. I’m just focusing on my performances on the track. There’s nothing that I can particularly say or do other than performing on the track that’s going to benefit me in 22.
“Equally, there are opportunities that I want to have for me before 22 so I’m keeping an open mind about things and it’s not necessarily all about thinking so far ahead.
“I just want to impress right here and right now and if I continue to do that I’m confident that I’ll end up in the right place.”