Ferrari is enduring a miserable Formula 1 season but when it looks down one category it will see a bunch of its junior drivers battling it out to reach the championship – perhaps as early as next year, as MotorsportWeek.com explains.
Ferrari placed five of its junior drivers in Formula 2 this year and already there is one standout, with a handful of others on the radar, as they chase promotion to Formula 1.
Ferrari has its Formula 1 driver line-up locked in until at least 2023, with Carlos Sainz Jr. set to join Charles Leclerc, but teams are always looking to the future. Where once Leclerc was on the cusp of Formula 1, and thrillingly showing his credentials, there is already a new wave of junior drivers backed by the Prancing Horse eager to follow in his footsteps.
In a condensed campaign Renault’s juniors have already lost out – with the marque conceding it could not wait to determine its 2021 pairing – while Williams, which has three affiliated drivers in Formula 2, has already confirmed an unchanged Formula 1 driver line-up. But Alfa Romeo, which has a close connection with Ferrari, has yet to sort its pairing. Since 2018 Ferrari has had an influence on one seat and it has so far been occupied by junior Leclerc and long-time reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi. Haas, which ran both Leclerc and Giovinazzi in Friday sessions, is also waiting to sort its line-up.
If there is to be a change at Alfa Romeo (or Haas) for 2021 then Ferrari has plenty of options – chief among them reigning F3 champion and current F2 title leader Robert Shwartzman. The charismatic Russian suffered a devastating personal loss in April when his father, Mikhail, became a victim of Covid-19. In Prema he has a family-run team that has helped him through the process and early doors that love has been re-paid in the form of trophies.
Shwartzman claimed a podium on his debut, then thrived in wet conditions to win the second Austrian Feature Race, before mastering the alternative strategy in Hungary to triumph from 11th on the grid. The only blot on his copybook was a clumsy first-lap Sprint Race spin in Austria while one-lap pace still needs work. But 81 points, and the title lead, is a strong return for a driver in the early stages of his Formula 2 career. He even had enough energy to sing some Pavarotti with his engineer on the cool-down lap in Hungary.
“I enjoy Feature Races as you have the strategy and pit stop,” he said after winning Saturday’s race in Hungary. “It’s more fun. When it’s a one-stint race [in lower categories] you don’t really have much possibility to get past the guys in front, but in F2 you decide when you want to push and when you want to save and I’m enjoying it as much as I can.”
Two of Shwartzman’s three nearest opponents are fellow Ferrari Driver Academy drivers both in their second season of Formula 2 competition: UNI-Virtuosi’s Callum Ilott and Shwartzman’s Prema team-mate Mick Schumacher.
Former Red Bull protégé Ilott has flown under the radar since stepping up to Formula 2 in 2019. With the unfancied Charouz team Ilott took a pole position, four podiums, and came on stronger as the season progressed, a feat made all the more impressive by effectively being Charouz’s sole driver after the horrific events in Belgium. Ilott switched to front-runner UNI-Virtuosi for 2020 and picked up a maiden win in Austria’s season-opener and holds P2 in the standings, on 63 points. His role within the FDA led to a first Formula 1 test in May last year though that ended badly when he backed his Alfa Romeo into Barcelona’s Turn 3.
Schumacher, meanwhile, is under the microscope like no other junior driver, on account of his famous surname. Being the son of Formula 1’s most successful driver is both a blessing and a burden, raising the scrutiny while ostensibly opening doors courtesy of marketing potential. Schumacher’s maiden Formula 1 test with Ferrari in April last year attracted huge attention but as Formula 3 champion it was not an unwarranted opportunity. His rookie Formula 2 campaign was so-so but his career record shows year one is a building year, and year two where he kicks on. This season he holds P4, on 39 points, but it could have been more. He was culpable for a Feature Race off in Austria that cost him second, but a faulty fire extinguisher and weekend-long engine glitches also hampered his prospects. In Hungary he was the best of the crop on the ‘wrong’ strategy and a maiden win cannot be far away.
“The mistake after the Safety Car was mine,” said Schumacher on his Austria off. “Nevertheless we always bounce back big time, considering both times we didn’t have any FP running at all, it shows the potential we have.
“In any conditions we were among the top guys. Maybe it didn’t always show on paper but it always was the case. It is early in the season, there’s a lot that can happen, a lot of races to come, but I’m looking forward to it.”
One aspect that has played more into Shwartzman’s hands as a rookie is Formula 2’s switch to 18-inch tyres. The rubber has so far been unpredictable and even accounting for a fine crop of rookie talent it has acted as a reset. Rookies Christian Lundgaard and Felipe Drugovich have impressed while veterans Luca Ghiotto, Nobuharu Matsushita and Artem Markelov are significantly further down the standings than expected. “It feels like a brand-new car,” says Ghiotto, who made his F2 debut back in 2016. “It’s like another series. Completely different from what it used to be.”
It is a viewpoint shared by Ilott and Schumacher, who spent much of 2019 getting a handle on Pirelli’s notoriously tricky tyres, having stepped up from GP3 and F3 respectively.
“It’s frustrating as a driver and as a team to start from scratch each weekend,” said Ilott. “We had a great first race in Austria, it was brilliant, the next race I don’t know where the car was at, in Hungary I kind of maximised what we had, this year with these tyres it’s frustrating and they’re changing all the time with the feeling they had.
“We can’t change what we have, we have to adapt to it, for all teams it’s a bit puzzling, some have done better than others, but it’s definitely puzzling. I’ve managed to get the points somehow, and somehow scramble back what I’ve lost, but it’s frustrating.”
Schumacher’s back-to-back third places in Hungary marked his first podium finishes since his sole F2 win at the same circuit 12 months previously.
“Everything we learned last year is quite different this year, it’s hard to use what we knew last year,” he said. “It’s mainly that you know the car, the championship and that helps but everything else is quite new. We have a strong field this year but it is easier for rookies to come in and understand the tyre as everyone starts from zero.
“With the 13-inch we knew normally the limit would be the rear, very rarely would be the front, this year it seems like the front we grain the most and the rear has more in tyre life, so it comes a lot closer to what they do in F3 at the moment. The difference is present, and it’s quite big, so we have to learn everything from scratch.”
It would be remiss not to mention Marcus Armstrong – last year’s F3 runner-up and currently sixth in the standings on two podiums – as an outsider contender while further back Giuliano Alesi has shown little to suggest he belongs at a higher level.
But up front Ferrari has a potential gem with Shwartzman, while Ilott and Schumacher are waiting in the wings to pounce and prove their worth. After all, there could be an Alfa Romeo seat for the victor. Ferrari won’t be short of options – and whoever misses out can feel hard done by.