Formula 2 Thoughts Post Austria/Styria: Ferrari’s Conundrum

I love Formula 2, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing drivers like Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell excel in F2, make the leap to F1 and show their capabilities at the top level.

Formula 2 in 2019…the crop of drivers who could make a realistic leap to F1 wasn’t great. While there were some exciting rookies, none of the F2 grid really had the star potential to make the leap to F1 in the same vain as a Leclerc or a Lando Norris, and only runner-up Nicholas Latifi made the leap due to his connections with the Williams F1 team. Champion Nyck de Vries was left to look elsewhere to drive.

F2 in 2020 has a much more exciting crop of young drivers to get excited about and a number of them could end up making the leap to F1 in the next few years. Not only have the rookies from last year made a step forward (Callum Ilott, Guanyu Zhou, Mick Schumacher to name some) but the rookies coming in from Formula 3 have injected great excitement into this season, such as Robert Shwartzman, Christian Lundgaard etc.

Now that we’ve seen four races over the two weekends, we’ve kind of got a glimpse of the names we’re likely to see towards the sharp-end of the F2 grid this year.

But before we get into some of those conversations, let’s talk about with the returning crop of drivers from last season (and beyond).

New to F2 this season are the 18-inch wheels, set to debut in Formula 1 next season. Normally, experience counts in F2 and, unless you’re elite, rookies generally struggle in their first season compared to those who are returning.

Tyre management is a crucial part of Formula 2 and rookies struggle with this compared to the more experienced drivers who have had some experience. This gap between the rookies and the rest hasn’t been the case as much this season as everyone has to adjust to the new 18-inch wheels and it has allowed the rookies to hit the ground running and take the competition to rest a lot more so than previous years.

The rookies returning from last year — Ilott, Zhou, Schumacher in particular — have taken a step forward and have found themselves competing near the front of the field. That probably isn’t surprising.

What has been surprising is how far some of the more experienced F2 drivers have struggled: the guys who have been there for more than two seasons.

Louis Deletraz, Nobaharu Matsushita, Artem Markelov, Luca Ghiotto, Roy Nissany, Sean Geleal… These the drivers with the most F2 experience and yet, this year, they’ve been relatively no where near the front as they probably should be with their experience — they’re nearly all genuinely struggling.

I was excited for the return of one of the ballsier GP2/F2 drivers in its history in Artem Markelov and he has been absolutely no where.

I’ve also been a little disappointed by Jack Aitken so far this season. Having left the Renault academy and signing for Williams in a reserve role, I thought he would be closer to the front but hasn’t shown the pace of a front-runner, often having to defend from cars following him.

But let’s not dwell too long on those who don’t have the pace and focus on those that do.

Let’s start with the drivers returning from last year.

Guanyu Zhou, arguably, should be leading the championship but car troubles in the feature race of the Austrian Grand Prix weekend denied him a certain victory before finishing out of the points. He has since continued to show pace and has finished ahead of teammate Callum Ilott in both races of the Styrian Grand Prix weekend: a solid 3rd and 4th.

Ilott appears to be much improved from last year, and though he inherited a straightforward feature race victory at the Austrian Grand Prix, his pace has been strong. We’ll talk more about Ilott later.

Mick Schumacher has shown he has the pace to finish on the podium but a costly error in the feature race in Austria cost him a podium after he was contending for the race-win, followed by an unfortunate fire extinguisher malfunction that cost him while he was running 3rd in the sprint race in Styria. Mick has shown he has the pace but just needs to put together a full weekend to show his credentials.

Let’s move onto the rookies, who have made an instant splash in F2 in 2020.

Probably no better place to start than Robert Shwartzman, the driver leading the championship after four races. He’s been very consistent in his pace and took a stellar victory in rain-soaked Styrian Grand Prix feature race. The only blot on his copybook is that he should be leading by more, a driver-error on lap 1 coming out of turn 1 in the sprint race as he lost the rear of the car and was unable to get back going forced him into a self-inflicted DNF. We’ll talk more about Shwartzman soon but he has impressed thus far.

Christian Lundgaard has been a steady performer but showed great pace in the wet in Styria before taking victory in the sprint race in Styria. The Renault academy driver was one of the contenders for the F3 title last season and is currently a just five points behind F3 title rival Shwartzman.

Dan Ticktum is not a driver I particularly like (due to his past actions on the track, feel free to Google them) but the Brit has performed well, taking two podiums so far in F2 and sits in a strong fourth in the standings. Too bad this form wasn’t there in the old F3 where he lost the lead of the title to Schumacher, costing him his Superlicence and his all but certain drive with Toro Rosso for 2019…

Yuki Tsunoda showed great pace in the feature race of the Styrian Grand Prix and probably should’ve won had he not suffered radio issues. Would’ve been a nice way to make up for spinning his teammate, Jehan Daruvala, on lap 1 of the feature race in Austria but alas… Tsunoda is certainly a driver to monitor, we’ll talk about that more soon.

I think this season (as well as next season) of Formula 2 is a very important one.

I don’t think it’s groundbreaking to say that there could be a few seats in Formula 1 up for grabs in 2021, with a number of teams’ lineups yet to be confirmed. Williams could potentially have a seat available, Alfa Romeo may have an opening, Alpha Tauri may have an opening and Haas technically have two open seats (but haven’t wanted to fill it with a young driver as of yet).

2022 is its own conversation for another time but the sooner some of these drivers can lay down the groundwork this season, the better. Let’s stick with 2021.

Probably easier to break this down by driver academy, as all of these drivers we’ve talked about belong to an academy of some sort…

Let’s start with Renault, because this will be quick. While their two drivers — Zhou and Lundgaard — are impressing in F2 this season, their path to F1 is blocked for at least a year with Renault’s confirmed lineup of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso for 2021. Should Zhou or Lundgaard win the F2 title (and, thus, unable to return to F2), it would create a problem in terms of finding somewhere to drive for 2021 but they’re basically set for another season in F2 should neither win the title as there’s just no way forward to Renault, and I don’t think any other F1 team is going to help nurture Renault’s talent.

Red Bull/Honda have an interesting duo of Daruvala (Red Bull) and Tsunoda (Honda). Both have shown promising pace, and I wonder if their battle as teammates in the standings will become a shootout for a potential drive at Alpha Tauri. It depends a lot on what happens with Pierre Gasly/Alex Albon/Daniil Kvyat and if any of them leave the Red Bull program to join another team (such as Haas, potentially). At this early stage, Tsunoda has shown a little more and Tsunoda is the first potentially promising Honda driver who could make the leap to F1 (no offense, Matsushita). However, it’s very early for that kind of talk yet but it’s out there…

The real conundrum comes with the Ferrari academy drivers: Robert Shwartzman, Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott and Marcus Armstrong. We haven’t really talked about Armstrong (he’s been solid in F2 so far, sitting in 5th place), or fellow Ferrari academy driver Guilano Alesi, but Alesi won’t be part of what we’re talking about here.

Whether a seat appears at Alpha Tauri remains to be seen, but I think it’s very possible an opening appears at Alfa Romeo, maybe even two.

Kimi Raikkonen obviously has a decision to make with what he wants to do post 2020 and Alfa Romeo/Ferrari have a choice with Antonio Giovinazzi. Gio has closed the gap to Raikkonen since the beginning of 2019 but the star potential sitting in Ferrari’s academy cannot be ignored and Gio — who turns 27 in December — is not immune from being replaced. No one owes him anything in Formula 1.

If there is a seat or two up for grabs at Alfa Romeo, the competition between Ferrari’s academy drivers becomes a lot more significant, and the Formula 2 standings may end up being the deciding factor in one potentially being selected. The fact that there are four Ferrari drivers who are amongst the front-runners so far means that the competition between these drivers may become very intense as they understand the stakes.

I think Mick Schumacher is still probably at the front of this queue right now — he probably always has been, he just needed to show some front-running pace to validate that. He has the name and he has F1 testing experience (and experience driving some older F1 cars belonging to his father too).

Right now, Robert Shwartzman is the obvious threat to Schumacher as he currently leads the F2 standings, and if he were to win the title and unable to return to F2, it puts Ferrari in a tough spot. Shwartzman appears to be legit and Schumacher needs to close the gap and eliminate some of these errors that have cost him so far.

Ilott was an underwhelming Ferrari junior at times last year but has taken a step forward so far this season, and that keeps all of the other Ferrari members on their toes. He’s seemingly a force to be reckoned with and is one of the quickest drivers on the F2 grid so far and an early contender for this F2 title. He may not be a favourite to land an F1 seat, but he can certainly give Ferrari a headache and that’s all he can do in his position.

Marcus Armstrong is certainly on the outside looking in, as is Alesi, but Armstrong has had some solid performances already in F2 and he has shown he has the pace, which will always give him a chance to contend near the front (whether it’s in the feature or sprint race with a strong starting position on the reverse grid). That said, he has a lot of work to do to put himself ahead of Schumacher, Ilott and Shwartzman.

Ferrari/Alfa Romeo certainly aren’t helped by having a straightforward option to choose from, should a seat open up at Alfa Romeo. Often in the races, three of the top six consist of Ferrari Academy drivers.

It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to watch that championship in its own right unfold as an opening in Formula 1 potentially presents itself.

Ferrari certainly has a lot to think about…

Winners and losers on Renault, McLaren, Honda and Red Bull agreement

Image: Sutton Images 

On Saturday 15th of September it was announced that the multi-team deal between Renault, Red Bull/Toro Rosso, McLaren and engine providers Honda was done. Here’s the lowdown:

Renault get: Carlos Sainz on a years loan from Red Bull

McLaren get: Renault engines from 2018

Toro Rosso get: Honda engines from 2018

So, who won in this flurry of activity?

McLaren (for now)

We’ll start with McLaren, the reason this deal happened in the first place.

They’re finally free of Honda and, with a Renault engine for 2018, might stand a chance of returning to where they belong.

They had to act because everyone was losing in this situation because of Honda’s poor performance: the team, sponsors, the fans and, of course, the drivers. The move also all but ensures that Fernando Alonso hangs around for at least one more season at Woking, ensuring that a world-class driver remains with the team.

There is an issue though. Sure, Honda are gone from the lives of McLaren, but how far will Renault push McLaren? Will that gap to Mercedes and Ferrari ever close up before the new engine regulations expected for 2021? How much happier will they be?

Time will tell.

Red Bull

Red Bull are also winners but not from an engine point of view. Sure, having Honda supply Toro Rosso keeps Red Bull’s options open but from what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner hinted at the end of FP1 that Red Bull could be running Aston Martin engines in 2019.

No, Red Bull are winners from a drivers perspective.

They haven’t lost Carlos Sainz in all of this — he’s loaned to Renault for a year. This is huge for Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen can both hit the driver market for the 2019 season and, if rumblings are to be believed, both drivers are considering leaving — both have eluded to wanting a race winning car and Red Bull haven’t been providing that. Should one, or both of Ricciardo or Verstappen leave, Red Bull could slot Carlos Sainz into the Red Bull, something Sainz has always wanted to do.

The idea of loaning Sainz was an excellent idea and keeps at least one ace card in Red Bull’s driver deck for 2019 should things go wrong with either Ricciardo or Verstappen.

Renault (at least for 2018)

Renault are winners because they now boast a very interesting driver lineup for 2018 with Carlos Sainz joining up with Nico Hulkenburg.

While this is a great lineup to have for 2018, it might only be for that — 2018.

Sainz is loaned from Red Bull and who knows what’s going to happen with Ricciardo and Verstappen from 2019 onwards. What happens at Red Bull will be integral to Renault’s ability to keep Sainz long-term. In an ideal world, Sainz would’ve been locked up for the long term by Renault but that’s not the reality of the situation.

Long term, who knows, but for 2018 Renault look promising.

Losers

Toro Rosso

What did Toro Rosso gain out of this?

They lost their best driver in Sainz and they’re stuck with Honda engines from next year. If that Honda engine anything like it is this year, Toro Rosso are going to be right at the back. Toro Rosso have been used to scrapping for points for years now, it’s been a long time since they’ve been a back-marker team — 06, 07?

Unfortunately, those are the breaks when you’re a B-Team, but at least there’s a seat for Pierre Gasly next year? Yay?