You could’ve looked in a number of different directions across the F2 grid after the first two Grand Prix weekends for potential contenders (you can catch up on that here).
However, as F2 departs Hungary for Silverstone for a back-to-back slog, a couple of drivers have taken big steps forwards, while others have taken a step back in the context of the championship.
Ferrari academy driver Robert Shwartzman led the way heading into the weekend despite a driver error forcing him into a DNF from the sprint race in Styria. He now leaves Hungary with a strong 18 point lead after taking victory in the feature race and P4 in the sprint race.
This was such a weird weekend in F2.
Firstly, practice running was ran in damp conditions and qualifying took on the same turn of fate. A red flag towards the end of qualy really helped the Virtuosi pair of Callum Ilott and Guanyu Zhou, who had set their times just before the flag and lined up first and third ahead of the feature race.
Things looked bad for Shwartzman, who lined up in P11 and behind many of his rivals, including main rival Ilott who obviously sat on pole position.
No one, however, could’ve predicted how the feature race would’ve unfolded.
The alternate strategy isn’t always one that works out in the feature race and you don’t see too many drivers opt for it, no matter their grid position. However, a few took the plunge, including Shwartzman: a gamble from P11, with a good chance of reverse grid pole.
A poor start from Zhou meant he was swallowed at the start whereas Shwartzman, on the medium tyre, vaulted into a quick P6, a fantastic return on the harder tyre off of the line. The race unfolded as you’d expect to start off: those on softs eventually peeled in to swap onto the mediums. Some, like Dan Ticktum, chose to do so at the first possible opportunity. Others, like Mick Schumacher, opted to go a little farther.
With limited running in dry conditions, the drivers who pitted from softs found out that the medium tyre just fell apart and those who started on the mediums seemed to fare far better, with Shwartzman leading the majority of the race on them. You don’t want to make a second stop in F2, which meant everyone just had to manage or limp onwards on their mediums, which made for a lot of ‘chop-and-change’ throughout the grid.
Once those who started on the mediums pitted for softs towards the end of the race, they just absolutely gobbled those on the old mediums. Once Shwartzman overtook Schumacher for the lead, he was five seconds clear within a lap and never looked back. The others on the alternate strategy like Nikita Mazepin, Jehan Daruvala and Felipe Drugovich scored some strong points (including a maiden podium for Mazepin) — it was clearly the much quicker race strategy as it turned out.
The Virtuosi pair sank like a stone in the race (P8 for Ilott, P10 for Zhou) but some of the more experienced heads had a better time of it this weekend, such as Luca Ghiotto and Louis Delatraz (and that’s generally speaking).
The sprint race also threw up a surprise.
Normally, it’s a race from lights-to-flag with no pitstops. Some took the plunge, using the knowledge of the tyres that they discovered from the feature race and fitted the soft tyres while others, like Luca Ghiotto, elected to stay out in hope they wouldn’t be caught and passed by those who stopped. Some were caught and passed but Ghiotto was able to just about hold on from the charging Ilott to take victory, who probably needed one more corner to take victory.
It was a weird weekend in general, one where the strategy dictated the final result more so than driver skill and overall pace (though, an element of that was obviously required when it came to tyre management) — a bit of a rarity in F2. With no disrespect to Nikita Mazepin, he’s never contending for a podium without extraordinary tyre circumstances like what we saw in the feature race, it was that much of a factor.
Shwartzman, though, was the star of the show, victor of his second straight feature race. Irregardless of how the tyres in feature race played out, his start on the harder medium tyre put him in a great position to be a factor from P11. The way the strategy played meant that it wasn’t even close, but victory would’ve been a possibility regardless after that point.
Ilott charged well during the sprint race but faded a bit in the weird feature race before being gobbled by all of those who chose the alternate strategy. He’ll be satisfied enough the gap isn’t larger to Shwartzman and has still shown great improvements from last year.
A tough weekend for Guanyu Zhou. A fortuitous P3 in qualifying after the red flag but he couldn’t convert that grid position and a poor start in the feature race stuck him in the pack. He had a chance of reverse grid pole but that was struck away late on as he was overtaken. After setting the pace in Austria, with how things have worked out, it seems he will not be a contending driver for the F2 title this year, and that’ll work out fine since there’s no way to jump to Renault in 2021 with Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso already confirmed.
The ART pair of Christian Lundgaard and Marcus Armstrong had a weekend to forget: zero points for either driver. Lundgaard was unlucky as a late reaction from Ghiotto cut the front tyre off of Lundgaard’s car in the feature race and that was it for his weekend from there, effectively.
Dan Ticktum had a rough weekend. Problems in the sprint race meant he didn’t finish, and he in particular really struggled with the mediums in the feature race and he also sank like a stone, finishing in P9. He’s had a strong season but he’s one of a few drivers who will be happy to see Hungary behind him. It was just a weekend to forget for all Williams academy drivers: Jack Aitken was just nowhere, and Roy Nissany ploughed into his teammate in the feature race on cold tyres.
Really strong weekend for Mick Schumacher: a double podium weekend at the track he took the sprint race victory last year. Schumacher was the quickest of the drivers who started from the softs and fitted the mediums in the feature race. Under different circumstances with the tyres, he probably wins that feature race, or finishes close with Shwartzman at the very least, but given the weirdness of it, he did well to finish P3 in the feature race. Schumacher has shown strong pace all season so far, he deserved a weekend where it came together.
Jehan Daruvala is worth a brief mention here too. He obviously benefitted massively from the alternate strategy in the feature race but he put three successive moves around the outside of the final corner, and that was very fun to watch. Alternate strategy or not, that’s an impressive feat.
Looking at the bigger championship picture…
Shwartzman and Ilott were able to pull away this weekend, and it says a lot about the weekend and how everyone else struggled when Lundgaard — who scored no points this weekend — was able to remain in P3 when all was said and done.
Right now, it’s Shwartzman’s and Ilott’s title to challenge for, and even though there are (right now) still 12 total races to run across six Grand Prix weekends, it’s hard to imagine anyone else bursting onto the scene to contend with the leading pair — especially given the fact the gap from Shwartzman to Lundgaard in third is 38 points.
Schumacher has shown he has pace across all weekends so far, but will obviously need slip ups from both Shwartzman and Ilott along the way to have any hope of contention, as well as no further mistakes from Schumacher himself: no more excursions like the one during the Austrian feature race.
Robert Shwartzman has been the class of the field so far, and is surely one step closer to Formula 1…