The Formula 2 grid will take to the track this weekend in Bahrain, for the opening round of the 2021 championship.
It only feels like yesterday that Mick Schumacher was crowned the 2020 F2 champion, but a lot has changed since the series left Bahrain last December. For starters, there’s a new race weekend format for the teams and drivers to get their heads around this year.
Instead of a Saturday feature race and Sunday sprint race, the F2 weekend will now feature three races — two sprint events on Saturday, and a feature before Sunday’s F1 Grand Prix. Friday qualifying will still determine the feature race grid, while the first sprint race grid will be set by reversing the top ten from qualifying. The starting positions for the second sprint race will then be a reverse of the first race’s top ten finishers.
The weekend format might be different though, but for the eleven drivers returning to F2 this year, the goal of winning the championship and reaching F1 remains the same. And of those drivers, Robert Shwartzman is going to come to Bahrain with the most expectation on his shoulders.
In his rookie season last year, Shwartzman took the most wins of the field, helped Prema to the teams’ title, and was in championship contention himself for most of the season. He’s already proven he’s quick in Bahrain — one of his four wins last year came in the sprint race there — so Shwartzman will be the one with the target on his back in the opening round.
But there are plenty more drivers from the class of 2020 who will be out to prove this weekend that it’s not all about Shwartzman. Jehan Daruvala and Dan Ticktum have a great chance of opening the year with a win, as their Carlin team had rapid pace in Bahrain last year. Watch out for Marcus Armstrong too, who was also quick here last year and is starting a new partnership with DAMS.
And lastly, Felipe Drugovich will be a driver with plenty of attention on him in the opening round. After being one of last year’s revelations, the Brazilian has earned himself a move to UNI-Virtuosi alongside Guanyu Zhou and the perfect chance to prove he can challenge the likes of Shwartzman for the title.
But while the returning field is strong, they’ll have a real fight on their hands to keep ahead of an equally impressive crop of rookies.
One of those new faces will be the 2020 Formula 3 champion and Alpine F1 junior Oscar Piastri. Coming into F2 with Prema, Piastri is expected to be a natural title contender this year — and if his F3 days are anything to go by, he won’t be taking any time at all to get his campaign underway.
Piastri isn’t the only rookie looking to impress an F1 academy, though. Hitech is fielding an all-Red Bull junior lineup this year with Juri Vips and Liam Lawson, both of whom were consistently rapid in pre-season testing.
A lot of the spotlight will fall on Vips after he made his F2 debut last year substituting for Sean Gelael in four rounds, and scored a podium at Mugello. But Lawson is no slouch either — he was a multiple race winner with Hitech in F3 last year, and is every bit as quick as Vips.
And then there’s Theo Pourchaire. Like Vips, Sauber F1 junior Pourchaire made his F2 debut in a handful of rounds last year — including Bahrain — before a full campaign for 2021. He came within three points of snatching the F3 title away from Piastri last year and has been widely tipped as a future F1 star. Driving for ART this year, he’ll be with a team capable of challenging for podiums and wins right from the off.
But as Drugovich showed last year, it’s not just the F1 juniors to watch for. Between Formula Regional European champion Gianluca Petecof, F3 race winners Lirim Zendelli, David Beckmann and Bent Viscaal, and F3 podium finishers Richard Verschoor and Matteo Nannini, there are plenty of lightning-fast rookies coming in under the radar this weekend.