Following a two-month absence for Formula 1’s feeder series, the Formula 2 championship returns this weekend for a showdown across two events that will decide the outcome of the title.
After runaway title triumphs for Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Nyck de Vries, the 2020 title has been the most hotly contested since the 2016 GP2 Series, when Pierre Gasly out-classed Antonio Giovinazzi at the final round.
With four races left to run across Bahrain’s two separate layouts, there is still a lot to play for at the upcoming double-header.
Schumacher and Ilott: The favourites
Perennial front-runner Prema is back in the hunt once again this year with current championship leader Mick Schumacher, who carries that juggernaut surname and is aiming to cap off a successful season which has firmly placed him on the F1 radar.
Schumacher’s nearest competition comes from a fellow Ferrari Academy Driver, Callum Ilott, driving for UNI-Virtuosi. Ilott has won three races to Schumacher’s two but the latter’s consistency in recent rounds has enabled him to stretch his lead at the top of the standings to 22 points.
Schumacher has scored seven podiums in the last 10 races, compared Ilott’s two, who more often than not has had to settle for point-finishing positions outside the top three.
Ilott has arguably been the field’s most impressive qualifier this year, with 16 of his championship points coming from claiming four pole positions, while he has been a solid top three Friday man elsewhere. Schumacher, meanwhile, hasn’t even qualified on the front row of the grid at any 2020 round.
However, Schumacher’s run of podiums has left him in a strong situation – but is it fair to say that momentum is on his side, considering the large gap in time between the last event in Sochi and this weekend’s round in Bahrain? Schumacher himself doesn’t necessarily think so, conceding that the battle is still ‘wide open’.
Schumacher vs Ilott in 2020
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Schumacher’s landing spot for 2021 very much appears to be in F1, regardless of how he performs in these final two rounds.
The German is expected to be paired at Haas with Russian Nikita Mazepin, an F2 colleague of Schumacher, with Ilott unlikely to feature in Formula 1 – though he will still receive a run with Alfa Romeo in the post-season test.
The champion of Formula 1’s feeder series stands a strong chance of graduating – of the last 15 champions, dating back to the creation of Formula 2’s parent GP2 in 2005, 11 have made it onto the Formula 1 grid. 2019 champion de Vries, the only one of the last six to miss out, is currently contracted to Mercedes in Formula E.
But 2021 aspirations will not be on the mind of either Schumacher or Ilott in Bahrain, as they scuffle to prove their worth in the ‘here and now’ – which is nothing less than winning the prestigious F2 Championship.
Can the rookies shine through once more?
Formula 2 in 2020 has been littered with talent, with three rookies in particular having eye-catching seasons, despite being outside bets to claim the Drivers’ Championship.
Yuki Tsunoda entered the season bearing all the weight that comes with being a member of the Red Bull junior scheme, knowing success can bring stardom and failure a one-way ticket home. The Japanese racer was given the firm target of reaching fourth in the standings by the demanding Dr Helmut Marko in order to gain a Super Licence for F1 – an achievement that is well within his grasp.
With the FIA making changes to the Super Licence amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Tsunoda seemingly has one foot in the door in F1 for 2021, as Red Bull looks to promote its first contracted junior driver since Gasly in 2017, by placing Tsunoda at AlphaTauri.
But the competition behind the 20-year-old is fierce, with just seven points separating Tsunoda in third and Mazepin in sixth.
Lodged in between the aforementioned drivers is Renault junior Christian Lundgaard and Ferrari academy member Robert Shwartzman.
Lundgaard recently tested Renault’s 2018 Formula 1 car in Bahrain, making up for lost time, having missed the entirety of Formula 2’s pre-season test at the circuit in March owing to quarantine measures.
“I had the R.S.18 Formula 1 test there a couple of weeks ago and that was my first time at the track,” Lundgaard said. “Getting to run on the track before the race was very important.
“I think we’ve had our struggles this year and we’ve worked quite hard during this break to figure out the problem and how we can make sure we are straight on the pace for the first Bahrain round.
“It’s quite important we start with a good baseline set-up and we should be looking quite good for that. Competing for the title is still there, but my target is to win the races, improve race by race and then see where we are.”
Shwartzman, who was one of the favourites for the title following a strong start to his campaign earlier this year, has taken three race victories. But zero points in the last four races has seen his title hopes slip, meaning last year’s Formula 3 champion is now more likely to play a support role for team-mate Schumacher in the upcoming races before having another shot at F2 glory in 2021.
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Prema on course for Teams’ title
The dominance that Prema has enjoyed in Formula 3 over the last couple of years has not quite translated over to F2, however the Italian outfit is set to take the Teams’ Championship this year amid a taxing season, which would be its second in GP2/F2 after its 2016 triumph.
Back-to-back team titles in F2 are rare – so rare in fact, that it has only happened once since GP2 was set up – ART Grand Prix won the titles in 2005 and 2006, and no team has gone two in a row since. DAMS, last year’s champions, has fallen from its position at the top of the standings and now is lingering in the bottom half of the championship.
But the title is not yet fully in Prema’s grip. It has a lead of 42.5 points over UNI-Virtuosi and the team has typically been strong in the desert heat of Bahrain, while the circuit has been one of the weakest for Prema, amid excessive tyre wear.
Prema has Schumacher and Shwartzman, while helping Ilott at UNI-Virtuosi is Renault’s Formula 1 tester Guanyu Zhou. The Chinese driver claimed a maiden win in the shortened Sochi Sprint Race and has been carrying out testing in Renault’s 2018 car at the circuit in recent weeks.
One of the most impressive outfits this year has undeniably been Hitech Grand Prix, as it strides towards a top three finish in its rookie year in the second tier.
The British squad has taken three race victories this year, two courtesy of Mazepin and one (which was also its first) coming at the Hungaroring via veteran Luca Ghiotto.
An agonising wait befell all followers and competitors of the series when Covid-19 intervened earlier this year – similarly, a stretched delay between rounds 10 and 11 has raised tensions, lifted expectations and boosted the excitement of finalising the outcomes.
It will also be the last pair of events under the current format, with a revised weekend schedule set to be introduced in 2021, when three races will take place per event.