F2 Tuscany Report: The Great Dane

Another week, another weekend of drama in the ever twisting title tale of the most fiercely contested title battle for many seasons in Formula 2, this time — and for the first time — around the mighty Mugello.

Fringe contender Christian Lundgaard took a great pole position on Friday, giving him a great chance to make some inroads on the points leaders ahead of him as he looked to continue his good run of form.

While Lundgaard was the first to pit onto the hards, he was very much in control of proceedings at the front having to make many overtakes (on those who had yet to pit) to get back to P1. While we don’t know how the end of the race would have shaken out with the tyres, Lundgaard was in control before the safety car was deployed, where the race flipped on its head for Lundgaard as it brought the field close together again, undoing his work and, perhaps more worryingly, bringing those on softs close to the action.

The first safety car restart was well handled by Lundgaard but was overtaken by the Luca Ghiotto on the second safety car restart and was promptly overtaken by Nikita Mazepin on soft tyres. Lundgaard was then picked off by more soft-compound runners in the form of Felipe Drugovich, Louis Deletraz and Mick Schumacher, leaving Lundgaard to eventually finish the feature race in 6th place.

Safety cars can be cruel in F2 and this one definitely hurt Lundgaard, who was set to take the full 25 points on a day where Robert Shwartzman DNF’d, Mick Schumacher running outside of the top-10 and Tsunoda and Ilott obviously behind the ART driver.

However, he was able to make some sort of amends with one of the more dominant victories of the season as he finished 14 seconds ahead of Deletraz in the sprint race after a great start vaulted him past Juri Vips and Artem Markelov. By the time those with the pace passed Markelov, Lundgaard was clear and could control the race and his tyres.

The upshot of it is that Lundgaard is now very much in title contention, moving up to 3rd in the standings — 16 points adrift of Mick Schumacher with three rounds and six races to go.

Again, it’s worth mentioning that Lundgaard has seemingly no immediate route into F1 for 2021 with both Renault seats filled and Fernando Alonso already confirmed for 2022. Winning the F2 title would put him in an interesting spot as to where Lundgaard would drive in 2021 (since champions cannot return to F2) but let’s see what happens.

It was a weekend that began very nicely for Callum Ilott, who qualified 3rd while his main title rivals — Robert Shwartzman and Mick Schumacher — qualified 9th and 15th respectively.

However, Ilott’s start was poor, falling down to 7th place at the start. It was a bit of a slow-grind for Ilott to get through the field but he fought back up the order and was looking very good to increase his lead at the top of the championship, with Schumacher down the pack on the alternate strategy and Shwartzman running into bad luck and a DNF in the feature race.

The entire race flipped on its head when a safety car was deployed after Guliano Alesi’s car was unable to be recovered in the first sector after an engine failure (to which father Jean Alesi was less than enthused), giving the opportunity to those who had recently pitted onto the alternate strategy to close up to the hard runners, leaving them vulnerable.

The safety car restart was chaos and Ilott found himself in trouble, forced to pit and replace his front wing. We didn’t see what happened that required the wing to be replaced but he and Schumacher were running side-by-side after the restart, perhaps some contact happened there?

Regardless, it put Ilott well out of contention for the reverse grid — finishing 12th — but did well to fight back up the field to help his grid position for it, helped in that regard by the second safety car, required for the three-car collision between Guanyu Zhou, Mick Schumacher and Jack Aitken.

From P12 in the sprint race, Ilott did well to score some points on the weekend — sixth in the sprint race — and his pace throughout the weekend was clear to see. While his start in the feature race wasn’t great and left him with more work than he needed to do, he was very much one of the victims of the first safety car, sitting in fifth place when it was deployed having just been overtaken by Yuki Tsunoda.

Ilott can consider himself fortunate that the gap between himself and Mick Schumacher is just eight points heading to Sochi in a fortnight.

Speaking of the German…he can also consider himself very lucky this weekend.

An error in qualifying — one he was lucky to avoid stuffing it into the barrier again — meant he was on the back-foot with a damaged car and could only qualify 15th. He was one of the drivers who gambled on the alternate strategy, and while there was no safety car to be found while those at the front who pitted onto hards from softs fought through the field, there was eventually safety car to bring those new soft runners — like Schumacher — closer to the fray.

On the safety car restart, Schumacher can count himself lucky that he (a) wasn’t sent into the barrier after contact with the sandwiched Guanyu Zhou and (b) was largely unaffected/undamaged from the hit he sustained and could carry on.

After that, Schumacher was able to bring it home in P5 to pick up 10 unlikely points and the championship lead.

Schumacher extended his slender lead to eight points with a P4 in the sprint race to complete a successful weekend where his rivals dropped points in one fashion or another (other than Lundgaard, who wasn’t the most immediate threat heading into the weekend). An eight point lead isn’t much, but it’s a lead nevertheless. Schumacher has had the pace all season long, as well as the consistency. Now that he’s in front, can he see it out?

Moving on, what is there to say for Robert Shwartzman?

Qualifying in the P9-range isn’t anything too unusual for Shwartzman but while running ahead of Schumacher, Zhou and Deletraz on the alternate strategy, the Russian being forced into a DNF in the feature race was just about the worst thing that could have happened for his weekend.

His drive in the sprint race from the back was fantastic but his efforts went unrewarded, finishing P9 after being overtaken by Marino Sato on soft tyres after pitting under the VSC.

All of a sudden, Shwartzman is now on the outside looking in, suddenly dropping to fourth place in the standings but is still just 21 points behind Schumacher. Not impossible but he will have to beat the other three drivers in the process, starting in qualifying first and foremost — can’t contend for a title qualifying outside the top-5 as consistently as Shwartzman has. Not now, not when there’s this many contenders for the title now.

Speaking of another driver who has slid down in the standings, a rough weekend for Yuki Tsunoda.

Tsunoda was in P4 after the safety car restart and attacking Dan Ticktum for third, only to make contact with the DAMS driver before falling down the field as he, like many, was overtaken by those on softs before a five second penalty for the collision with Ticktum took him out of the top 10, finishing in 16th place.

In the sprint race, Tsunoda then damaged his wing after hitting the rear of Felipe Drugovich and was shown a black and orange flag, forcing him to pit and any hopes of points for Tsunoda disappeared.

Tsunoda is now in sixth in the standings on 123 points, now 38 points behind Schumacher. More importantly though than the title is the fact Tsunoda, I believe, needs fourth place in the standings for sufficient superlicence points and he’s now 17 points behind the man who holds that position: Robert Shwartzman.

Tsunoda has a legitimate shot at an Alpha Tauri seat for 2021 and he’ll need to find a way to stay out of trouble in these last three rounds and needs to show the pace everyone knows he’s capable of to get back to that P4. He was unlucky in terms of the timing of the safety car but hitting Ticktum wasn’t what he needed to do.

The man who jumped ahead of Tsunoda in the standings was feature race winner Nikita Mazepin. I don’t have a ton to say here but Mazepin got lucky with the safety car as he was one of the alternate strategy runners, made up a few positions in the first corner on the restart before jumping up to P3 and quickly took the lead after the second restart and there you go: a winner from P14 on the grid. Sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time, sometimes you’re not.

Mazepin then took his teammate, Luca Ghiotto, out in the sprint race and finished in a well-deserved 18th place and only served to further influence people to dislike him with a radio meltdown after he was boxed by Hitech after the collision with his teammate.

Mazepin sits 34 points behind Schumacher and is still on the fringes of contention ahead of his home grand prix.

Alright, quick-hitters…

  • A solid weekend for Luca Ghiotto: holding onto P2 on hards in the feature race was a fantastic showing…before being taken out by his teammate in the sprint race.
  • Gunayu Zhou can consider himself unlucky to be squeezed by Jack Aitken (who it seemed like just didn’t realise Zhou had a car on his right-hand side) and into retirement when Mazepin was behind him when the race restarted. However, Zhou’s drive from the back of the field to finish P5 in the sprint race.
  • Dan Ticktum was another driver who was screwed by the safety car in the feature race and then hit by Tsunoda to take him out of podium contention but cannot continue these radio tirades. They’re just embarrassing. That said, it was hilarious to hear Ticktum ask what he did to ‘deserve this bad luck’. HMMMMMMMMM. LET ME THINK ABOUT THAT FOR TWO SECONDS, HUH.
  • Finally, a weekend and long awaited points for Juri Vips finally came his way in Mugello, with the Estonian collecting the P3 trophy having just fallen short of snatching second away from Louis Deletraz.
  • Speaking of Deletraz, a double podium on the weekend means he’s now just one point behind Yuki Tsunoda and four points behind Nikita Mazepin. A quietly good season for Deletraz, who still chases a maiden victory in F2. He’s becoming the Nick Heidfeld of F2 (no disrespect there, I loved Nick Heidfeld).
  • Poor old Marcus Armstrong was relatively on pace this weekend and scored his first points since STYRIA. That’s how long ago it was.
  • We finally saw Artem Markelov at the front of an F2 grid again, sitting on pole position for the sprint race after his eighth place finish but could not hold on and found himself sliding down the field before being forced to pit with wing damage and finished last of all in the sprint race.

I think that covers it.

Mick Schumacher is the one who leads the way now but the chasing pack draws close. Too close to comfort and too close to have to wait another two weeks to see the next instalment of FIA Formula 2…

The title fight carries on…

F2 Belgian Grand Prix Report: No Longer a Party of Two

The Formula 2 title race took another twist across the weekend of the Belgian Grand Prix, one that saw Yuki Tsunoda and Robert Shwartzman claim crucial victories at the expense of a difficult weekend for championship contender Callum Ilott.

Ilott had struggled for much of the weekend and for the first time this season found himself down the order after qualifying, where he qualified 12th for the feature race. Ilott was unable to recover to reverse grid pole as he took 10th place and one singular point, and any hopes of a good result in the sprint race was taken away as he was punted by Yuki Tsunoda after Les Combes.

Ilott has been a very consistent performer all year (the most consistent, in fact) and it says a lot about this season of Formula 2 that the one weekend Ilott was off the pace, he’s overtaken in the standings. However, there’s a lot of season left for Ilott to get back on the top step of the podium and back on top of the standings, where he now trails Robert Shwartzman by just 10 points.

Speaking of the Russian driver, a solid haul of points returns him to the top of the standings once again — P5 in the feature race and a very straightforward sprint race victory. There’s not a whole lot to say about the feature race but Shwartzman benefitted from the collision between Roy Nissany and Dan Ticktum, who were contesting the lead of the race while Shwartzman sat behind in third.

Once Shwartzman got through, that was that. Ticktum’s pace deficit after the incident backed the pack up as the Russian driver just pulled away and never looked back. The stars truly did align for Shwartzman on the Sunday, between that incident, Ticktum holding everyone else up — allowing Shwartzman to drive away from the field — and Yuki Tsunoda taking Callum Ilott out of the race whilst finishing outside of the points himself after receiving a penalty for said accident.

His lead at the top of the standings is only 10 points but it’s the lead nevertheless. The only issue is now Shwartzman and Ilott aren’t the only title contenders anymore…

Which brings us nicely to the aforementioned Yuki Tsunoda…

Tsunoda was the pace-setter for much of the weekend but a slower pitstop than Nikita Mazepin put the Japanese driver behind the Russian. Tsunoda caught Mazepin late-on but couldn’t find a way past, with Mazepin firm in his defence of the lead. On the slow-down lap after the race, Mazepin was slammed with a 5-second penalty, promoting Tsunoda to the top-step of the podium.

We’ll talk about Mazepin later but Tsunoda deserved to win that feature race — he was the quickest driver across the weekend. Sadly for him, he couldn’t complete the weekend in the sprint race, punting the back of Callum Ilott on the opening lap and very much in the thick of the Tickum-Train, meaning he kept in that group without much chance to pull out the gap he needed to stay in the points once his penalty was applied when crossing the line.

Not sure why he wasn’t slapped with a grid penalty for the next race, 5-seconds seems far too lenient for knocking someone else out of the race but alas…

Sprint race aside, Tsunoda is now officially a title contender, sitting just 11 points adrift of Callum Ilott and 21 points off of Robert Shwartzman for the lead of the title. I remember writing earlier in the season that Tsunoda had the pace to be towards the front but his consistency was the problem — he picked up 24 points in Styria between his pole and 2nd place in the feature race but drew blanks in Austria as well as Budapest. However, since the Great Britain, Tsunoda has been consistently scoring, the consistency he needed.

Now, thanks to that, Tsunoda is very much in the title hunt with a quite a ways yet to go in this championship.

Another driver who has shown consistency from Great Britain is Nikita Mazepin.

Mazepin found himself at the sharp end for the feature race and jumped Tsunoda in the pits. His defence of first place was firm, too firm in the eyes of the stewards which saw him slapped with a 5-second penalty and the race victory he worked hard to hold onto taken away.

The common thinking, from everything you hear on team radio and what you see on the track to confirm this, is that not many feel very comfortable racing Mazepin. Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher weren’t too pleased with some of the driving from Mazepin, who many seem to label as dangerous. He’s a hard racer, sure, but a very boneheaded racer in some situations too.

Mazepin can be slightly ticked off for how his race win was taken away (it could’ve easily gone either way) but what was unacceptable was his behaviour afterwards. Yes, it’s fine to be mad but to act in the way he did with the position-board in parc-ferme, his interview after the race, his behaviour on the podium and almost walking away from the the afters where the podium finishers held up a French flag to honour Anthoine Hubert.

Mazepin was hit with a suspended 5-place grid drop for the board incident but there shouldn’t be anything suspended about it: that very nearly hit Yuki Tsunoda.

That being said, even with his 2nd place in the feature race, Mazepin is now a fringe title contender, sitting in 5th place in the standings 31 points behind Shwartzman — that’s not incredibly far and Mazepin has showed pace to win races.

However, Mazepin simply doesn’t have the maturity — on or off the track — for F1 right now, even if he is one of the most improved drivers in F2 this season. He does have the financial backing though, which is a little more worrying (in that money does find a way to get a drive in F1).

If Yuki Tsunoda is now a title contender, then Mick Schumacher has to be in the same conversation too.

A very solid weekend for Schumacher, whose love of this track is well documented. A double podium (3rd in the feature race after a great start, 2nd in the sprint race) for Schumacher launches him into contention, sitting in 4th place on 106 points, 5 behind Tsunoda, 16 behind Ilott and 26 behind Shwartzman.

Schumacher has shown pace all season long and can count himself very unlucky he isn’t leading the title itself after missing an opportunity in Austria in the feature race from the top-3 and a fire extinguisher putting out his hopes while running in P3 in Styria.

What’s missing for Schumacher however — the one thing those in front (and some behind) have — is a feature race victory: Schumacher needs to pick one up to have any hope of hanging in this title fight. If he can knock that monkey off of his back, then we’re talking.

Dan Ticktum did very well to make up for a lack of running on Friday after an inconclusive Covid test meant that he couldn’t run in practice. Of course, that wasn’t the talking point for the weekend with Ticktum, who collided with sprint race pole sitter Roy Nissany in the early exchanges of the sprint race. I thought Ticktum was through around the outside of Les Combes (a contentious overtaking spot across the weekend) and Nissany should have gotten out of it, but he didn’t, he made contact with Ticktum which forced Ticktum off of the track and when the Brit rejoined the track the curb spat him into Nissany, who ended up in the wall and out of the race.

Having to carry on with the damage, Ticktum did well to hold on for as long as he did (as Shwartzman, and then Schumacher and Zhou escaped up the road once Ticktum was overtaken) but could not prevent the train he created from overtaking him. Again, he did well to hold on for as long as he did but had nothing to show for it in the end.

Looking at some other drivers across the weekend, a solid weekend for Guanyu Zhou has lifted him to 92 points and 6th place in the standings, solid podium for the sprint race. Still a little disappointing on the season overall though, and like Schumacher, could do with a feature race win.

Louis Delatraz also enjoyed a solid weekend, and is putting together a decent season (as one should maybe expect for someone as experienced in F2 as him).

Artem Markelov finally scores his first point of the season in the sprint race, so congratulations to him.

Juri Vips made his F2 debut over the weekend in place of the injured Sean Galael and, despite starting at the back in the feature race and stalling on the grid in the sprint race, Vips was very impressive over the weekend.

…I think that about covers all I care to write about for F2 this weekend. It was an emotional one, given what happened last year. It was on the minds of everyone (which was another reason why Mazepin’s tirade after the feature race was so embarrassing on his behalf because there were clearly bigger things going on this weekend) and, honestly, I was scared watching the action live, hoping everyone would get through unscathed.

Thankfully, they did, and I’d call that a success over everything else.