A lot had been made of the lack of an American driver in Formula 1 prior to Logan Sargeant’s promotion to the Williams seat this year, and with that news came the further discussion about what it would take to move the needle.
In many ways, it took the pressure off Sargeant that the really significant levels of patriotism were only likely to kick in when there was an American in a truly competitive seat, and one who was able to capitalize on it.
Given where Williams has been in recent years, and the fact that the Floridian was being handed his chance after just one year of Formula 2 – when he ended up fourth in the championship – the expectations were not overly high.
Perhaps it could be best summed up by Circuit of the Americas boss Bobby Epstein’s reply earlier this month, when asked if he was expecting any impact of Sargeant’s place on the grid on interest for the United States Grand Prix this year: “No.”
Then again, I doubt many people were expecting Sargeant to be part of a team that was going to be capable of reaching Q3 on six occasions – one of those by the rookie – and earning a spot as high as fourth on the grid at Zandvoort.
Williams has excelled at times, and it’s been Alex Albon leading the way. With 15 points to his name, Albon has single-handedly lifted the team to seventh in the constructors’ championship, while Sargeant is the only full-time driver yet to score (though Nyck de Vries also failed to do so during the first 10 rounds prior to losing his seat).
But the signs of progress have been there. At Zandvoort, Sargeant was still lacking some pace compared to Albon but was executing better until he reached Q3, when he crashed with what he admitted was “a millimeter mistake”, changing the narrative completely.
“Q1, Q2, I missed a little bit of pace in the wet, but I think the biggest positive for me is delivering laps when I needed to, and that’s something I’ve lacked this year, and to be able to do that has been really nice,” he said on Saturday night, before admitting his crash had then ruined his outlook.
At that stage of the weekend, Sargeant was still talking a good game despite his obvious frustration at the way his day had ended, and the work he had given Williams to do overnight.
“We’ve had probably the most difficult European leg I can think of in forever with mixed conditions, and that doesn’t make my life any easier,” he said. “It’s also no excuse. I do the best I can every time I get in. I personally see the progress. I know those mistakes are costly. It’s not what I’m trying to do of course. Moving forward, I have to dial those out.
“I think the refresh (over the break) helped. I think I’ve personally seen this progress through the entire European leg, and there was a matter of time, I know in full dry conditions, I’m really close now, which is a huge positive for me.
“I’m starting to understand how to extract all the time from the car, and even going into that Q3 session, I knew we had a great chance, as Alex showed. We had a really good car in the dry. That’s what makes it even more painful to make that mistake. Live and learn, I’ll move on, and not dwell on it for tomorrow.”
Talking a good game is one thing, but doing it is another. When rain hit on the opening lap, Sargeant admitted he was too cautious because he was wary of making another mistake after his qualifying crash. That led to a drop in tire temperatures, and a downward spiral that saw him rapidly drop to the back of the field from his P10 starting spot.
Then came his second crash of the weekend, one that understandably had most observers assuming was driver error after the previous day, before Williams confirmed a loss of hydraulic pressure played a central role.
“He took an apex curb, an apex curb that he took a number of times on Friday and again a number of times before that lap in the race,” team principal James Vowles explained on SiriusXM. “On this particular lap we can see the hydraulic pressure, there’s a large impact and the hydraulic pressure drops to zero.
“Now that may not describe fully what happened but your steering systems and a number of systems – gear shifts, clutches – work off having hydraulic pressure. Without that you fundamentally don’t have any steering assistance and that’s what happened, he was a passenger from that point onwards.
“This happens in milliseconds. You question what happened and he took the brunt of it on his own shoulders, as he has the nature of doing. We have just a few days to clear his head and make sure he understands that he has the complete backing and support of myself and the team and we’re going to move forwards as one.
“We win as one, we lose as one, and there are still points with his name on it. It’s time to go and get them.”
As refreshing as it is to hear a team boss focusing on how to help an inexperienced driver through tough times, the last line also hints at growing pressure that a contribution to the constructors’ tally is needed from Sargeant’s side of the garage.
And if there’s going to be a chance to do so, it’s likely to be Monza, another track he knows well and where Williams should be strong. In fact, it’s one of the tracks he knows best and comes at the end of the European season where Sargeant was most likely to show he could deliver on his potential in F1, after a tough opening at unfamiliar venues.
But Vowles insists it’s not just the end result that will tell him if the 22-year-old has got what it takes to remain with the team, but other indicators that he was starting to see before the expensive way Saturday and Sunday ended.
“I still take the positives out of it,” he said. “It’s our job to do so. Every single one of us here – I make a number of mistakes a day, I just hide them very well. He has our support, and that support is genuine and provided. So I focus on the fact that he has made some steps in performance of what we’re looking for here, just bring that all together now.”
In Vowles, Sargeant has the ideal boss for the situation. The Williams team principal was heavily involved with young drivers at Mercedes and will give his latest project every chance to succeed. But it all comes down to the driver himself delivering performances that don’t require Vowles to explain.
An error-free trip to Monza where he displays all the positive aspects of his Zandvoort weekend is close to a necessity now, with Singapore and Japan to follow and races rapidly running out after that to cement his place on the grid and try to turn Epstein’s “no” into a “yes” in future.