The definitive guide to F1's best (and worst) super subs
Some drivers spend their entire career waiting for that big break that never comes, but on the rare occasion it does, it's crucial to make a lasting impression. How many of these iconic F1 'super subs' can you remember?
THE MOST RECENT SUPER-SUB
Nyck de Vries - Williams (2022)
A strange set of circumstances saw Dutchman Nyck de Vries drive for TWO different teams during the 2022 Italian Grand Prix weekend - an FP1 outing for Aston Martin on Friday before a last-minute call to qualify and race the Williams on the weekend.
Having never raced an F1 car or turned a wheel in the Williams before, the 2021 Formula E champion was presented with a difficult task. However, in what turned out to be a fairytale weekend for de Vries, he not only qualified his Williams in the top 10 (albeit with some assistance from grid penalties) but drove superbly on Sunday to bring the car home ninth for two points on his debut.
De Vries was so tired after the race that he needed assistance to get out of the car in parc ferme, but once out, he was quickly congratulated by the likes of Pierre Gasly, Max Verstappen, and Lewis Hamilton for his eye-catching performance. As sub appearances go, de Vries' debut could prove to be career-defining with rumours of a full-time race seat now being mentioned.
THE MOST FAMOUS SUPER-SUBS
Michael Schumacher - Jordan (1991)
Arguably the most famous F1 substitute appearance of all time. When Bertrand Gachot was jailed for an altercation with a London taxi driver, Jordan team principal Eddie Jordan needed a substitute in time for the Belgian Grand Prix, and quickly.
Several well-known options were considered for the seat, such as former champion Keke Rosberg and the experienced Brit Derek Warwick, but their financial requirements were beyond Jordan’s modest budget at the time.
The name Michael Schumacher was suggested. Then 22 and a sportscar racer with Mercedes, the German’s manager Willi Weber was keen to get his young charger into an F1 car and saw the perfect opportunity to do so. Schumacher was not a complete unknown at the time, having achieved some success in F3, including a win at Macau, but his arrival on the F1 grid was certainly not expected that year.
With Mercedes agreeing to pay Jordan $150,000 to put Schumacher in the car, it was a win-win situation for Jordan. A test at Silverstone was hastily arranged, and despite some impressive times, few expected the young German to catch the eye in the way he did on his debut at Spa.
Such was Schumacher’s inexperience, he rode around on a fold-out bicycle to learn the circuit on Thursday. By Friday, Schumacher was already putting his newfound track knowledge to good use, placing 11th and fifth in the day’s two free practice sessions.
A day later, he shocked the F1 paddock by qualifying his Jordan seventh on the grid and by the time he’d finished fourth quickest in the Sunday warm-up session, everybody had taken notice.
Unfortunately, his grand prix debut was over almost as soon as it began as he was forced to retire on the opening lap with clutch failure. But in truth, it didn’t matter. Schumacher had already announced his arrival in F1, and just a few days later, Benetton had swooped to snatch him away from Jordan and into their car for the next race at Monza.
The rest is history. A year later, he returned to Spa with Benetton and secured the first of his 91 grand prix wins. It’s hard not to think what might have been for Jordan had they managed to nail Schumacher down to a long-term contract…
Nigel Mansell - Williams (1994)
The 1994 season was a tumultuous one for Williams and an altogether challenging one for Nigel Mansell. The team had been rocked by the death of F1 legend Ayrton Senna at Imola and needed some experience to steady the ship. Young test driver David Coulthard had been doing a respectable job at short notice, but with Bernie Ecclestone’s help, a deal was struck to bring Mansell back from the US where he’d been competing in IndyCar, winning the previous year’s championship at his first attempt.
Mansell’s F1 return was confirmed at the French Grand Prix, where he qualified his Williams on the front row despite being out of F1 for more than 18 months. The 1992 world champion’s F1 reunion was fleeting at first, but a further deal was struck for the Brit to return in October to see out the season with Williams.
With teammate Damon Hill locked in battle with Michael Schumacher for the 1994 drivers’ championship, Mansell found himself needing to play a supporting role, something he’d not done at Williams before.
After spinning out from the European Grand Prix, his final two races in Japan and Australia were much more reminiscent of the Mansell of old. His battle with former rival Jean Alesi in torrential rain at Suzuka was one of the season’s highlights, and he showed he could still cut it wheel-to-wheel with a daring final lap overtake.
In Adelaide, the scene of Mansell’s title heartbreak eight years earlier, ‘Nige’ secured his 31st and final F1 win after overtaking another former rival of his, Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger. After his strong end to the year, Mansell believed a deal was agreed to extend his stay, but Williams eventually opted for youth over experience and gave Coulthard the seat full-time for 1995.
WHEN FERRARI GOT IT RIGHT… AND WRONG
Mika Salo - BAR and Ferrari (1999)
When Michael Schumacher broke his leg in a high-speed crash at the 1999 British Grand Prix, Ferrari faced the unenviable task of finding a replacement at short notice for their star man and lead driver. With Eddie Irvine stepping up in Schumacher’s absence, a steady number two was required to support the Ulsterman, who was only narrowly adrift of points leader Mika Häkkinen at the time.
After Jean Alesi dismissed speculation of an emotional return to his former team, 32-year-old Mika Salo was offered the chance of a lifeline to resurrect his career.
In a bizarre set of circumstances, Arrows’ decision to drop the Finn had paved the way for him to take up not one but two substitute drives during the 1999 season. The former Tyrell driver replaced injured BAR driver Ricardo Zonta for three races earlier in the season and then made his Ferrari debut at the Austrian Grand Prix in July.
Salo competed in six races for Ferrari, placing second at the German Grand Prix and third at the team’s home race at Monza. Perhaps most notably, Salo looked on course to secure his first F1 win at Hockenheim but obeyed team orders to let Irvine pass him to maximise his points in the championship.
After an impressive stint with F1’s most famous team, Salo earned himself a full-time drive for the following season with Sauber on Ferrari’s recommendation.
Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella - Ferrari (2009)
While Ferrari’s decision to hire Salo paid off in 1999, the substitutes the team were forced to call on a decade later were notably less successful.
Felipe Massa had been seriously injured during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix when a loose part from Rubens Barrichello’s car struck him on the head. With half the season still remaining, Ferrari needed a driver familiar with the team who could get up to speed quickly.
Their first choice was Michael Schumacher, and the German legend was prepared to do it. Unfortunately, a motorcycle accident several months earlier had left the German struggling and in pain during a private test session, and the decision was made not to race.
Bizarrely, they then opted to promote Luca Badoer. While familiar with the team as a long-time Ferrari test driver, Badoer had last raced in 1999 and was more than a little rusty.
The 38-year-old appeared in two races- Valencia and Spa - and qualified plum last for both. With Ferrari realising they’d made a mistake, a call was made to poach Italian Giancarlo Fisichella from Force India for the remaining races.
As a passionate Italian, Fisichella was never likely to turn down his country’s most famous team and signed a six-race deal to see out the season, starting at Monza. While there was an upturn in performance compared to Badoer, Fisichella’s task was hampered by a lack of testing, and he too was unable to score any points.
Fisichella left F1 at the end of that season but still competes for Ferrari in GT racing.
THE RETURNING CHAMPIONS
Mario Andretti - Williams and Ferrari (1982)
After an unsuccessful 1981 season with Alfa Romeo, former world champion Mario Andretti called time on his Formula 1 career to return stateside. But just a few races into his first season back racing in IndyCar, Andretti was receiving offers to return to F1 at the ripe old age of 42.
The first of those came from Williams who needed a short-term replacement for Carlos Reutemann, who’d quit the sport suddenly. Andretti retired 19 laps into his comeback race at Long Beach and probably thought that was the end of his time in Formula 1, but it wasn’t.
But just a few months later, Ferrari were in touch. They too, needed a substitute as their driver Didier Peroni was unwell. 1980 world champion Alan Jones took too long to give Ferrari a decision when offered the seat, so they went to Andretti, who answered yes straight away.
Andretti made his final two F1 appearances for the team he’d scored his maiden win for a decade earlier. While there was to be no fairytale comeback victory, he did impress at Monza with pole position and a farewell podium before returning permanently to the US.
Jenson Button - McLaren (2017)
Another former champion, Jenson Button, also received a call to return to the sport. And while he was much younger than Andretti when he returned, his comeback was considerably less successful.
Button retired at the end of the 2016 season, but with Fernando Alonso opting to skip the Monaco Grand Prix to compete for McLaren in the 2017 Indy 500, the team opted to call on their former driver for one last hurrah.
Button was quickly back on the pace through practice and qualified a respectable ninth for the race (ahead of teammate Stoffel Vandoorne). But in the race, Button’s rustiness became evident. A clumsy-looking collision with Pascal Werhrlein left the Sauber on its side and wedged in the barriers at Portier.
Both drivers retired from the race, while Button was handed a three-place grid penalty to be taken on his next grand prix start. One penalty he’s unlikely to ever serve!
THE SAFE PAIR OF HANDS
Marc Gene - Williams (2003-04)
While contracted to Williams as a test driver in the early 2000s, Spaniard Marc Gene was fortunate enough to pick up three substitute appearances for the team, all of which came about when race driver Ralf Schumacher was injured.
Gene’s first opportunity came at the 2003 Italian Grand Prix when Schumacher was forced out with a concussion. The former Minardi driver then returned for two races in 2004, once again replacing Schumacher, who’d injured his back in a crash at Indianapolis. A fifth-place finish at Monza proved to be a career-best result for the Spaniard.
Pedro de La Rosa - McLaren (2006) and Sauber (2011)
Like his compatriot Gene, Pedro de La Rosa spent a large chunk of his F1 career as a test and reserve driver and achieved the best results of his career while deputising for a teammate.
De La Rosa’s first sub appearance came at the 2005 Bahrain Grand Prix when regular race driver Juan Pablo Montoya injured his shoulder. De La Rosa performed well, outqualifying Kimi Räikkönen before finishing a credible fifth the following day. He still holds the circuit lap record from that race.
Partway through the following season, de La Rosa was again asked to deputise for Montoya, but this time because the Colombian had left the team. Lewis Hamilton, then racing in GP2, was considered, but the more experienced de La Rosa was preferred.
The former Arrows and Jaguar driver saw out the 2006 season in the second McLaren seat, scoring in five of his eight starts, including a career-best second place at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
He made one more substitute appearance for Sauber in 2011. Having raced for the team in 2010, de La Rosa was called back to deputise for the injured Sergio Perez at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. De La Rosa is the only driver on this list to have made substitute appearances in three separate seasons.
Nico Hülkenberg - Racing Point (2020)
Frustrated to have lost his seat at the end of 2019, Nico Hülkenberg was forced to sit out the 2020 season but was quickly called into action when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Hülkenberg made two appearances for Racing Point early in the season at Silverstone after race driver Sergio Pérez tested positive for COVID-19, catching the eye with an impressive third place in qualifying for the second of those.
He was then handed what appeared to be his farewell F1 appearance at the Nürburgring six races later after a positive COVID-19 test for Racing Point’s other driver, Lance Stroll. Hülkenberg dashed to the circuit from a nearby coffee shop when Racing Point team boss Otmar Szafnauer put out the call, but the German was forced to start the Eifel Grand Prix 20th and last. He recovered superbly to finish eighth and was awarded ‘Driver of The Day’ for his efforts.
'The Hulk' was again called up by the Silverstone-based team at the beginning of this season. Now racing as Aston Martin, the team called on their former driver to replace Sebastian Vettel - another positive COVID cacse - for the opening two rounds in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
THE ROOKIE DEBUTS
David Coulthard - Williams (1994)
Then a test driver for the Williams team, David Coulthard got his big break as Damon Hill's teammate following the death of Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Following his debut in Spain, Coulthard made eight appearances with a best result of second in Portugal before reluctantly handing over to Nigel Mansell for the final three.
Alex Wurz - Benetton (1997)
Austrian Alex Wurz stepped in as substitute during the 1997 season when Benetton's regular driver Gerhard Berger needed an operation, and his stay was extended to three rounds when Berger's father passed away. Wurz performed well in his first three F1 starts, bagging a podium at Silverstone and earning himself a full-time driver for 1998.
Robert Kubica - BMW (2006) and Alfa Romeo (2021)
When Jacques Villeneuve was declared unfit to race at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, Robert Kubica was handed his F1 debut with BMW, a seat he would keep for the remainder of the season when Villeneuve left the team. Last year, he returned for a two-race stint with Alfa Romeo when Kimi Räikkönen tested positive for COVID-19.
Markus Winkelhock - Spyker (2007)
Following Christijan Albers's departure from the Spyker team midway through the 2007 season, German driver Marcus Winkelhock was signed on a one-race deal for the upcoming European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
In perhaps one of the most bizarre set of circumstances an F1 rookie has found himself in, Winkelhock qualified last but ended up leading the race at the end of Lap 1.
On the formation lap, with the other 21 cars all on dry tyres, Spyker gambled on full wet tyres with the threat of rain rolling in. As it happened, the downpour was torrential and forced all the other drivers to pit at the end of the opening lap.
This left the 27-year-old with a lead of almost 19 seconds within a couple of laps. Unfortunately for Winkelhock and Spyker, there was to be no fairytale debut win. With the race red-flagged and restarted, the team again opted to gamble on wet tyres but the weather cleared up.
Winklehock fell down the order and retired 15 laps into the race with a mechanical issue. He remains the only driver in Formula 1 history to start last and lead his first grand prix.
Sebastian Vettel - BMW (2007)
Four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel got his big break at the tender age of 19, deputising for the injured Robert Kubica at BMW. He immediately impressed, qualifying seventh and finishing eighth at the 2007 United States Grand Prix to become the then youngest F1 points-scorer of all time.
Kamui Koboyashi - Toyota (2009)
Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi was temporarily promoted from his test driver role when regular Toyota driver Timo Glock missed the final two races of 2009 with illness. Kobayashi put in a robust performance to finish ninth on debut in Brazil before bagging points for a sixth-place finish a fortnight later in Abu Dhabi.
Stoffel Vandoorne - Bahrain (2016)
GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne was handed a surprise F1 debut at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix following Fernando Alonso’s high-speed crash in Melbourne. The Belgian qualified ahead of teammate Jenson Button before finishing 10th for a point on his debut. Not bad considering he read the instruction manual for his steering wheel on the flight to Sakhir!
Antonio Giovinazzi - Sauber (2017)
GP2 runner-up Antonio Giovinazzi was handed an unexpected F1 debut at the 2017 Australian Grand Prix, replacing the injured Pascal Wehrlein. The Italian delivered a solid 12th-place finish in Melbourne but crashed heavily during both qualifying and the race a week later in Shanghai. Wehrlein was back in the car at the next race.
George Russell - Mercedes (2020)
With Lewis Hamilton testing positive for COVID, George Russell was handed a dream promotion as his replacement, and boy did he make the most of it! After narrowly missing pole to teammate Valtteri Bottas, the young Brit was leading when Mercedes called him in to pit during a safety period. A tyre mix-up forced him to return to the pits, and despite recovering back to second, his podium chance was all but over when he picked up a puncture late in the race. Heartbreaking.
Jack Aitken - Williams (2020)
Williams reserve Jack Aitken got his big break as replacement for Russell, and it was all going smoothly until his lap 61 spin. The safety car he triggered led to Russell's botched pit stop and his race unfolding from there. Not that it was Aitken's fault, however, but rather a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pietro Fittipaldi - Haas (2020)
Another to have made a brief sub appearance at the end of 2020, Haas test driver Pietro Fittipaldi - grandson of former world champ Emerson - stepped in to replace Romain Grosjean following his fiery crash a week earlier. Fittipaldi performed well in both his outings, seeing the chequered flag each time in what was an altogether tricky-to-drive Haas.
BLINK AND YOU'LL MISS IT...
Kevin Magnussen - McLaren (2015)
A substitute appearance it may have been, but the history books will show Kevin Magnussen’s Australian Grand Prix was a DNS. Asked to step in for the injured Fernando Alonso, Magnussen’s race was over before the lights went out as the Honda power unit in his McLaren expired on the formation lap. He never raced for the team again and was released from his contract at the end of the year