F2 Sochi preview: focus on 2021

Formula 2 returns this weekend for round 10 of the championship at Russia’s Sochi Autodrom, where all the field will now be driving with one eye on their 2021 plans.

With only three rounds of the season left, the focus of the championship has shifted to who’s gunning for an F1 graduation, and who’s teeing up a campaign for next year’s F2 title. Obviously the driver attracting the most spotlight at the moment is championship leader Mick Schumacher, who is reported to be a firm favourite for one of Alfa Romero’s 2021 seats.

If Schumacher wants to solidify his chances he’ll have to continue to pull away from his title rivals Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman. And doing that means having a much better weekend in Sochi than he did last year, when he scored nothing after retiring from both races. A repeat of that this year would be disastrous for his title aspirations.

Robert Shwartzman, Prema (Scuderia Ferrari Press Office)

For Shwartzman in particular though, a troubled weekend for the title leader would be just what he needs. After two non-scores last time out at Mugello, Shwartzman has now dropped to fourth in the standings behind Schumacher, Ilott and Christian Lundgaard, and is 21 points off the championship lead he’d previously held for so long.

Shwartzman fortunately has a great relationship with the Sochi Autodrom to help him this weekend. As well as being the Russian’s home circuit, it was at this track last year that he wrapped up the Formula 3 title in commanding fashion, with pole position and two podiums to leave him 54 points ahead of runner-up Marcus Armstrong.

If Shwartzman can bring that kind of form again this year, there’s no reason he can’t make up for Mugello and get right back in the title hunt.

Another driver whose 2021 F1 shot is looking in danger after Mugello is Yuki Tsunoda. After his pole and win in the Spa feature race made him a shoe-in for AlphaTauri next year, Tsunoda has only scored once in the five races since. Crucially, he’s dropped from fourth to sixth in the standings, and if he doesn’t improve from there he won’t secure the superlicense points he needs to move up to F1.

What Tsunoda needs most of all is a clean race weekend. He’s shown no lack of speed since Spa, but some scruffy racing like his incidents with Dan Ticktum and Felipe Drugovich at Mugello have kept that speed from translating into the points finishes Red Bull are expecting of him.

Christian Lundgaard, ART (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

What makes things more difficult for Tsunoda is that he’s racing for that fourth spot against Lundgaard and Nikita Mazepin. Both drivers are on excellent form and will almost certainly be title contenders if they remain in F2 next year.

Neither of them had a particularly profitable outing at Sochi last year. Mazepin finished eighth in the F2 feature race but retired from the sprint race, while Lundgaard finished fourteenth and ninth in the two F3 races.

But in terms of their recent results, Mazepin and Lundgaard are both riding high as the winners of the Mugello feature and sprint race respectively. Lundgaard especially has a lot of momentum behind him, as he was on pole for the Mugello feature race as well and scored a double podium at Monza the week before.

Lundgaard’s results have put him back into the championship’s top three after a run of non-scores in the middle of the season knocked him down the order. Although he’s touted as one of next year’s title favourites, the Dane is only 16 points off Schumacher and could be a surprise late contender for the 2020 crown instead.

Giuliano Alesi, MP Motorsport (Scuderia Ferrari Press Office)

There have been two driver changes ahead of Sochi. Nobuharu Matsushita has left MP Motorsport, saying in a statement that he’s “decided to move on to fresh challenges elsewhere”. He’s been replaced by Giuliano Alesi who moves over from HWA, and in turn HWA have promoted their F3 driver Jake Hughes to take Alesi’s seat.

Alesi will be hoping that MP, who have won three races this year with Matsushita and Drugovich, will provide him with a car more capable of challenging for points than HWA. Alesi’s only points this year came with sixth place in the opening race in Austria.

Finally, Juri Vips will continue to drive for DAMS this weekend. The Estonian was initially only due to replace the injured Sean Gelael for three rounds ending with Mugello, but this has been extended to include Sochi as well.

Jake Hughes, HWA (Bryn Lennon / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

F2 Mugello: Lundgaard dominates sprint race

Renault junior Christian Lundgaard took his second win of the F2 season with a dominant performance in the Mugello sprint race, ahead of Louis Deletraz and maiden podium finisher Juri Vips.

Starting from third, Lundgaard got a rapid launch to get ahead of polesitter Artem Markelov and second-placed Vips into Turn 1. Deletraz also made up several places at the start to go from sixth to third ahead of Vips, Mick Schumacher and Felipe Drugovich.

Lundgaard started breaking away from Markelov and the chasing pack almost immediately. By the end of lap 4 he was already over three seconds ahead of Markelov, which only kept increasing as Markelov struggled to keep pace.

Markelov’s difficulties saw him lose second place to Deletraz on lap 6, then third to Vips a lap later. But despite Deletraz finding clear air ahead of the HWA, he was unable to make up any more ground to Lundgaard than Markelov was. By the halfway stage of the race Lundgaard had increased his gap to almost seven seconds, which swelled to 14.5s by the chequered flag.

As Lundgaard flew clear, Deletraz came under pressure from Vips later on in the race. In the final laps the gap was just a few tenths and Vips made several attempts to get by into Turn 1. But ultimately Deletraz was able to keep ahead and take second place, while Vips finished third for his first podium in F2.

Juri Vips, DAMS (Rudy Carezzevoli / Getty Images)

Mick Schumacher finished just off the podium in fourth, taking valuable points to extend his new championship lead over Callum Ilott. Guanyu Zhou took fifth place after a superb charge through the field from near the back after his retirement in yesterday’s feature race. After making steady progress through the backmarkers early on, Zhou found his way into the points on lap 17 and continued moving forwards with a late burst of pace.

Ilott finished behind his UNI-Virtuosi teammate in sixth ahead of Jehan Daruvala, while Trident’s Marino Sato picked up his first point of the season in eighth. Markelov continued to struggle for pace throughout the race and eventually finished in last place, while Drugovich also slipped back out of the points and down to 15th by the flag.

After taking a 1-2 finish in yesterday’s feature race, Hitech had a complete reversal of fortunes in the sprint race. By the halfway stage Nikita Mazepin and Luca Ghiotto were running fifth and sixth, but on lap 15 they collided at Turn 1 as Mazepin locked up while Ghiotto tried to pass him on the outside.

The crash saw Ghiotto retire on the spot. Mazepin was able to continue in fifth initially, but shortly after was given a ten-second penalty and then forced into a pit stop by damage concerns, which saw him finish in 18th.

Luca Ghiotto, Hitech (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

After Mugello, Schumacher leads the championship by eight points from Ilott, while Lundgaard moves into third place ahead of Shwartzman by five points. In the teams’ standings, Prema now has a 40-point lead over UNI-Virtuosi.

Formula 2 returns in two weeks’ time at Sochi in support of the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix.

Full race result:

Pos. Driver Team Points
1 Christian Lundgaard (FL) ART Grand Prix 17
2 Louis Deletraz Charouz Racing System 12
3 Juri Vips DAMS 10
4 Mick Schumacher Prema Racing 8
5 Guanyu Zhou UNI-Virtuosi Racing 6
6 Callum Ilott UNI-Virtuosi Racing 4
7 Jehan Daruvala Carlin 2
8 Marino Sato Trident 1
9 Robert Shwartzman Prema Racing
10 Roy Nissany Trident
11 Marcus Armstrong ART Grand Prix
12 Pedro Piquet Charouz Racing System
13 Jack Aitken Campos Racing
14 Nobuharu Matsushita MP Motorsport
15 Felipe Drugovich MP Motorsport
16 Guilherme Samaia Campos Racing
17 Dan Ticktum DAMS
18 Nikita Mazepin Hitech Grand Prix
19 Yuki Tsunoda Carlin
20 Artem Markelov BWT HWA Racelab
Ret. Luca Ghiotto Hitech Grand Prix
Ret. Giuliano Alesi BWT HWA Racelab

 

F2 Mugello preview: Ferrari juniors on top in Ferrari’s backyard

Formula 2 returns this weekend for round nine of the championship, in support of the Tuscan Grand Prix at Mugello.

Mugello is set to be a special weekend for F1, being Ferrari’s record 1,000th Grand Prix and taking place at a circuit they own. But while the Scuderia is currently suffering through one of its worst seasons in F1 to date, its academy drivers Callum Ilott, Mick Schumacher and Robert Shwartzman will give them plenty to be proud of as they enter the weekend first, second and third in the F2 championship respectively.

Callum Ilott, UNI-Virtuosi (Photo by Bryn Lennon / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Monza proved a particularly happy hunting ground for the Ferrari academy, with Schumacher taking his first win and eighth podium of the season in the two races. But it was Ilott who came away with a seven-point lead in the standings, having taken pole for the feature race and inheriting the sprint race win from the disqualified Dan Ticktum.

Trying to predict whether they’ll have the same form at Mugello is tricky. Shwartzman and Schumacher both have competitive experience of the track, but nothing more recent than their last Italian F4 campaigns in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

However, the Prema team they drive for has spent many a race weekend at the circuit over the years. They’ll have plenty of knowledge to draw on, and arguably have the best chance of giving their drivers a winning car.

And speaking of winning cars, Schumacher will have an opportunity this weekend to drive one of the very best, as he will take his father’s Ferrari F2004 around the track in a very special demonstration run.

Mick Schumacher driving the Ferrari F2004 at Hockenheim in 2019 (Scuderia Ferrari Press Office)

As well as Schumacher and Shwartzman, five other drivers on the current F2 grid have experience of Mugello: Guanyu Zhou, Luca Ghiotto, Marcus Armstrong, Marino Sato, and DAMS stand-in Juri Vips.

Armstrong and Vips have the most recent experience, having raced there in the 2017 Italian F4 championship. Both had strong results that year: across the two rounds raced at Mugello, the two drivers collected five poles, three wins and five further podiums between them.

Of course, results in 2017 Italian F4 don’t guarantee results in 2020 F2. But Armstrong and Vips will both be hoping their prior knowledge of the trick will give them some edge at least over their rivals.

After a strong start to the year with two podiums at the Red Bull Ring, Armstrong has yet to finish in the points again since. As another one of Ferrari’s juniors, he needs to get back to the kind of form he showed in F3 last year if he wants the FDA’s focus for a 2021 F2 title campaign. Armstrong still has four rounds of the season left to recover from his 14th position in the standings, and there’s no better place for him to start than on Ferrari’s home turf.

Marcus Armstrong, ART (Scuderia Ferrari Press Office)

As for Vips, Mugello may mark his final opportunity to score points in F2 this year as Sean Gelael is currently marked to return to DAMS from Sochi onwards.

Vips has enjoyed an impressive debut so far, having challenged for points in each of the four races he’s contested despite being parachuted into the series with little to no preparation.

However, the Estonian must be frustrated that for all his efforts, he’s finished just on the wrong side of the top ten each time. In fact, his average finishing position from the last two rounds is 10.5, so it’s not as if Vips needs a gargantuan upshift in form to break into the points.

It’s not yet been announced whether Vips is targeting a full-time F2 campaign next year, or if he will try to contest Super Formula again instead. But whichever route Red Bull chose for him, capping off his first run in F2 with a couple of points will be an excellent way to make the most of what’s been a challenging year for him.

Juri Vips, DAMS (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

F2 Spa: Tsunoda wins feature race after Mazepin penalty

Red Bull junior Yuki Tsunoda took victory in the Spa feature race after on-track winner Nikita Mazepin was penalised for forcing Tsunoda off track.

Tsunoda got a near-perfect launch from pole position to head off the pack into the first corner, while Nobuharu Matsushita jumped Mazepin for second. Behind them, Mick Schumacher got a good start from seventh on the grid to jump up to fourth, while title protagonist Robert Shwartzman dropped from fourth down into the pack.

At the end of the first lap Tsunoda had already opened up a second over Matsushita, as Mazepin closed back in on the MP Motorsport to retake second. Mazepin took the position back on lap 3 while setting the fastest lap of the race, by which point Tsunoda had pulled almost three seconds clear of the pair.

After losing second to Mazepin, Matsushita then started to drop back through the field. Schumacher demoted him to third at the end of lap 3, then on the following lap Matsushita was passed by Louis Deletraz, Shwartzman and Guanyu Zhou.

At Blanchimont Matsushita was set to lose another position as teammate Felipe Drugovich drew level around the outside. But the two made contact instead, breaking Drugovich’s front wing and sending Matsushita into the wall with a puncture, resulting in the virtual safety car being deployed.

Nobuharu Matsushita, MP Motorsport (Lars Baron / Getty Images)

The virtual safety car was withdrawn on lap 6, with Mazepin being quicker than Tsunoda on the restart to gain six tenths on the Carlin. Tsunoda responded over the following laps as Mazepin’s soft tyres started to fade, and the gap returned to over two seconds by the time Mazepin made his pit stop on lap 9.

Tsunoda stayed out a lap longer than Mazepin, but when he came into the pits his own stop was slow and he rejoined the track behind the Russian in 14th place. However, race control then announced Mazepin was under investigation for an unsafe release, as he came close to hitting several of Trident’s pit crew on leaving his box.

With the Mazepin incident to be decided after the race, Tsunoda stuck close to the back of the Hitech as they made their progress through the alternative strategy runners ahead of them. By lap 16 they were back up to the front of the field with a second between them, which Tsunoda then reduced to half a second by lap 19.

Over the next few laps Tsunoda made two moves for the lead around the outside going into Turn 5, but Mazepin headed both off and Tsunoda ran wide as he bailed out. On the penultimate lap Tsunoda tried the move a third time and once again ran wide as Mazepin defended the position. Unable to get close enough to try another pass, Tsunoda ended up crossing the line in second behind Mazepin.

However, shortly after the chequered flag Mazepin was given a five-second time penalty for forcing Tsunoda off track at Turn 5, reversing their positions and giving Tsunoda his second win of the season.

Nikita Mazepin, Hitech (Rudy Carezzevoli / Getty Images)

Schumacher completed the podium in third, the German having a relatively quiet race with five seconds separating him from fourth-placed Deletraz. Shwartzman managed to recover to fifth after his poor first lap, and Dan Ticktum finished sixth for DAMS as the highest alternate strategy driver.

Zhou briefly led the race on the same strategy as Ticktum, but the Chinese driver stayed out later than anyone and wasn’t able to make the places back after his stop, coming home in seventh.

Roy Nissany also ran the alternate strategy and was second behind Zhou for a while, but was likewise unable to carve back through the field on the soft tyres later. However he did manage to pass Luca Ghiotto and Callum Ilott to take reverse grid pole for tomorrow. Ghiotto and Ilott took the final points positions, just keeping DAMS stand-in Juri Vips out of the top ten on his F2 debut.

Post-race penalties:

Mazepin has been given a five-place grid drop for the Monza feature race for “potentially dangerous and unsportsmanlike conduct”, after the stewards judged him to have entered parc-ferme too fast.

Hitech were reprimanded for Mazepin’s pit stop, which was investigated as an unsafe release, while Trident have been fined for their mechanics standing too far forward in the pitlane and thus being in Mazepin’s path.

Matsushita has been given a three-place grid drop for the sprint race for causing his collision with Drugovich on lap 3. Drugovich himself, who finished in P20, was disqualified for making his mandatory pit stop on the final lap, which is a breach of the sporting regulations.

Finally, Marcus Armstrong was given a five-second penalty for overtaking Jack Aitken off-track and drops from P13 to P15.

Full race result:

Pos. Driver Team Points
1 Yuki Tsunoda Carlin 25
2 Nikita Mazepin Hitech Grand Prix 18
3 Mick Schumacher Prema Racing 15
4 Louis Deletraz Charouz Racing System 12
5 Robert Shwartzman (FL) Prema Racing 12
6 Dan Ticktum DAMS 8
7 Guanyu Zhou UNI-Virtuosi Racing 6
8 Roy Nissany Trident 4
9 Luca Ghiotto Hitech Grand Prix 2
10 Callum Ilott UNI-Virtuosi Racing 1
11 Juri Vips DAMS
12 Pedro Piquet Charouz Racing System
13 Jack Aitken Campos Racing
14 Marino Sato Trident
15 Marcus Armstrong ART Grand Prix
16 Artem Markelov BWT HWA Racelab
17 Christian Lundgaard ART Grand Prix
18 Giuliano Alesi BWT HWA Racelab
19 Jehan Daruvala Carlin
20 Guilherme Samaia Campos Racing
Ret. Nobuharu Matsushita MP Motorsport
DSQ Felipe Drugovich MP Motorsport

F2 Spa preview: Red Bull juniors aiming to impress in Belgium

After a week off, Formula 2 returns this weekend for the start of another triple header at Spa-Francorchamps, in support of the F1 Belgian Grand Prix.

One driver looking for a big result when track action begins is Yuki Tsunoda. After taking his first F2 win at the second Silverstone round, Tsunoda has been touted by Alpha Tauri boss Franz Tost as a potential driver for the team next year.

At the moment Tsunoda is doing everything he needs to get his F1 shot, as his fourth place in the standings will earn him enough points for a 2021 super licence. But in a series like F2, the championship order can change from weekend to weekend, so Tsunoda can’t afford to rest easy now.

With only five points between him and Christian Lundgaard ahead, another top three result in either race this weekend would do much to secure Tsunoda’s bid for a 2021 F1 drive.

But Tsunoda won’t be the only one aiming to impress Tost this weekend. As well as his Carlin teammate Jehan Daruvala, the Red Bull junior team will also be represented by Juri Vips. The Estonian is racing for DAMS for the next three rounds, standing in for Sean Gelael as he recovers from the back injury he suffered in Spain.

DAMS have said they’re treating Spa as a test weekend for Vips rather than a proper race outing, given that he’s jumping into F2 machinery for the first time. But with Vips’ pedigree and results from F3 last year, he should be able to get up to speed very quickly and may give some of the grid’s more established drivers something to worry about before the weekend’s through.

Callum Ilott, UNI-Virtuosi (Rudy Carezzevoli / Getty Images)

While these two Red Bull juniors will be battling for their F1 shot, Ferrari juniors Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman will be picking up where they left off in their tight duel for the F2 title.

As things stand Ilott is 18 points ahead of his rival, following a clean weekend in Barcelona while Shwartzman again missed out on points in the sprint race. Where Shwartzman had started off the season in dominant form, Ilott has been the more consistent driver since, picking up 58 points to Shwartzman’s 16 over the second triple header starting at Silverstone.

After a week off, Shwartzman will be hoping to regroup in Spa, where he took a commanding double podium in F3 last year. Two consistent points finishes after his barren run in the last three rounds would do a lot to restore his campaign. But with Ilott building a gap Shwartzman realistically needs to be targeting the podium again this weekend if he’s to regain the lead before it’s too late.

But although there’s plenty to talk about on-track this weekend, F2’s return to Spa is also about remembering the tragic loss of Anthoine Hubert in last year’s feature race, and the serious injuries suffered by Juan Manuel Correa in the same incident.

Ahead of this year’s race F2 has announced that it will permanently retire Hubert’s number 19 from the championship, which was not assigned to any car this year. A minute of silence will also be held before Saturday’s feature race, as well as Sunday’s F1 Grand Prix, to remember Hubert.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

Vips replaces injured Gelael at DAMS

Red Bull junior Juri Vips will join DAMS for the next three rounds of the Formula 2 championship, stepping in for Sean Gelael after the Indonesian injured his back in Spain.

Gelael suffered a D4 mid-spine fracture in a 45g kerb impact in the Barcelona feature race. He was released from hospital shortly after and is expected to make a full recovery, although he has been ruled out of action for the next six weeks at least, covering the next F2 triple header at Spa, Monza and Mugello.

Vips had been due to race in Super Formula with Team Mugen this year, but thanks to the 2020 season’s postponement until 30th August he has been contesting the Formula Regional European Championship instead.

DAMS owners Gregory and Oliver Driot said: “We have the pleasure to bring on board Juri Vips, who’s a very talented driver and has showed his pace in junior categories.

“It will be difficult to get started because he’s never driven in F2, so Spa is going to be more of a test than a proper race weekend. He will have good support from the team, so we hope for a strong start to the second half of the season.”

Juri Vips, Hitech Grand Prix (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

F3 Great Britain preview: can ART or Trident halt Prema’s dominance?

Formula 3 returns this weekend at historic Silverstone, for the fourth round of the 2020 season.

As things stand coming into Great Britain, championship leader Oscar Piastri has begun to break into a dominant position in the title fight. On 76 points so far, he is more than a feature race victory ahead of his nearest rival, teammate Logan Sargeant.

Apart from one eighth place in the first Austria sprint race, Piastri has consistently finished in the top five in every race so far this season, including a double podium last time out in Hungary. Meanwhile, Sargeant has yet to take victory this year, while third-placed driver Theo Pourchaire didn’t score points at all in the first round of the season.

David Beckmann, Trident (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Piastri’s rivals might take some heart from the fact that Silverstone was one of the few rounds Prema didn’t dominate last year, with Juri Vips and Leonardo Pulcini taking both victories for Hitech Grand Prix.

Hitech don’t look to be the same contenders they were last year, despite Liam Lawson winning the first sprint race of the year in Austria and Dennis Hauger finishing third in Hungary. However, Trident and ART have both been close challengers to Prema in 2020 and will be pushing to deal any blow they can to the Italian team this weekend.

One driver in particular who could be a real headache for Prema and Piastri is David Beckmann, who comes to Silverstone off the back of his first F3 win in the Hungary sprint race. With two further podiums already to his name, Beckmann is also one of only three drivers—alongside Piastri and Richard Verschoor—to score in every race so far this season.

Aleksandr Smolyar, ART (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

As for ART, Pourchaire underlined his own championship credentials in Hungary by becoming the only repeat race winner of the season so far. The young Frenchman has a bit of ground to make up after his slow start to the campaign, but clearly has the speed to challenge for the podium this weekend.

But it’s not just Pourchaire carrying ART’s hopes. The French team has plenty more talent in its lineup in Sebastian Fernandez and Aleksandr Smolyar, both of whom have taken a feature race pole this year.

So far luck hasn’t been on their side, with Fernandez and Smolyar both retiring early from their respective pole position starts. But if either of them can marry up another strong qualifying performance with a clean race on Saturday, there’s no reason they can’t join the fight at the front with their teammate.

Why Red Bull’s misuse of Super Formula needs to end

A typhoon warning may have left the Suzuka circuit barren, but if thoughts were the metric to go by the minds of Pierre Gasly and Helmut Marko’s were anything but. They were only half-a-point away from the ultimate prize, after all.

Pierre had his own considerations, certainly about how he was staring down a double-barrel gun of success (were he to prevail, he’d be the first overseas champion since Andre Lotterer in 2011, first rookie since Ralf Schumacher in 1996 and first overall for both since the renaming from Formula Nippon in 2013), but Marko’s were likely about just what a blinder they’d played with their decision.

Opting not to fast-track Gasly into a Toro Rosso F1 seat after his 2016 GP2 title win, the time spent putting noses out of joint in Japan’s elite open-wheel series looked every inch a masterstroke. Red Bull and Honda’s relationship began to blossom and their next hopeful’s confidence was sky-high. It offered another nugget to chew on, too: did they need to bother with the de-facto ladder to F1 at all?

Two years on, it’s almost time for the Suzuka finale once again. There’s not been a Red Bull-backed entry in the renamed F2 full-time since Gasly, and yet three of their academy hopefuls have featured in Super Formula just this season. None of them have replicated anything like the silky form of their French predecessor, nor have they been given the chance.

The #15 Team Mugen car, one of two Red Bull-backed seats in the series, began the season in the hands of the controversial Dan Ticktum. Dan had only just graduated from European F3 the season before, and toiled in the Asian Series not long after, yet Red Bull saw the risk of placing their baby cub into the lion pit of sage ex-F1, DTM and WEC drivers as a worthwhile one.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Three races, three struggling endeavours and a solitary point later, allegations of Ticktum’s attitude hitting rock bottom and even acts of assault on a Mugen team member had the Brit packing his bags for the first flight out of both Japan and the Red Bull Junior Programme. It spelled disaster for a man the casino chips were placed on, but as luck would have it the energy drink colossus had snagged a promising IndyCar driver struggling for funds in Patricio O’Ward.

The new poster child of the Junior Programme, the dust was brushed off the seat of the #15 car and Pato was placed firmly inside, in an attempt to acclimatise the 20 year old Mexican into more traditional open-wheel racing alongside a crack of the F2 whip in Austria as a one-off. 

Three races, three growingly impressive efforts and three points later, Pato has now disembarked from the Red Bull train after just four months and four events raced under the Junior Programme’s tutelage. Bereft of expected Super Licence points, the jig was up. The #15 Team Mugen welcomes it’s third Red-Bull backed starlet in Estonian F3 graduate Juri Vips while Pato looks set to make up for lost time back in IndyCar for 2020.

Three. Drivers. Let’s evaluate the season: an F3 graduate, short (admittedly of his own fault) on confidence and recent career racing, was deemed a worthy competitor for Super Formula’s high calibre. Once his old habits and inexperience set ablaze his title chances, Red Bull replaced him with a similarly inexperienced prospect mid-season. Pato’s North American schooling was given all of three events to be repurposed before a short-term fast-tracking broke down, and now another F3 graduate is taking the mantle for the finale.

Aside from Red Bull’s other championship effort, Lucas Auer – an ex-DTM driver deemed unlikely to ever be in their future F1 plans – who sits third in the table, the Junior Programme’s 2019 trip east has been an unmitigated disaster. One driver was thrown into the deep end too soon, and the other was submerged in the waves even sooner, and was deemed little more than a vanity project the moment the plan A for him became an impossibility.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Gasly, like other F1-attached junior drives such as Stoffel Vandoorne, were able to not only survive but succeed in Super Formula because they were at the tail-end of their growth. Two GP2 champions, brimmed with open-wheel experience and virtually ready for the big time, they had the necessary time to grow stronger and wiser before they were unleashed on a series filled with stalwarts in the primes of their careers. F3 and inexperienced Indy graduates aren’t at such a level and either need to be given the time to acclimatise, or not be placed there at all.

Red Bull’s usage of Super Formula as an alternative to F2 has been one marred with underestimation of what it takes to succeed in the series, and drastically short-term ambitions for the drivers they deem fit to place in it. Ticktum’s warning signs were well apparent even before he made the leap, and yet Red Bull didn’t recognise the error they were making. Pato was beginning to adjust to a jarring challenge with aplomb, yet Red Bull have no desire to see his development through, and now Vips stands to be deemed fit for a 2020 Team Mugen seat despite his own premature stage of development.

In a way, it’s a sign of just how far Red Bull’s Junior Programme has fallen; what was once an environment in which talent aplenty flowed through the mains, and World Championships were wringed out of the system, is now a barren wasteland frequently topped up with drivers they’d deemed inadequate years ago or bundled into F1 without prior funding. Current Red Bull Racing duo, Max Verstappen and Alex Albon, are signs of this.

Max never suffered rejection from the programme, but neither can it lay claim to truly nurturing him pre-F1 – he spent all of one week in it before being announced as a 2015 Toro Rosso race driver, and was already a made man by the time they inquired for his services – while Alex spent a solitary season with them in 2012 before being released. 

Toro Rosso now sees two drivers who were both ruled as unneeded at the A-team and sent to bide their time back in Faenza, with Daniil in particular even being dropped from the Red Bull lifeline for over a year in 2017 before, once again, the talent tank ran dry and an ex-employee’s services were required. Recent Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley is another example of such a scenario.

The Super Formula experiment is backfiring for Red Bull, and it’s of their own doing. Shunning a ready-made proving ground in F2 and treating the proud, developed Super Formula as a junior series without consideration for the culture shock it provides to drivers not yet properly developed has and will continue to be a disaster, and for every victim it creates there aren’t enough phone numbers in the exes list to realistically ring as last resorts. It had Pierre teetering on the edge of glory two years ago; it has the Junior Team on the brink of implosion now.

 

[Featured image – Sho Tamura / Red Bull Content Pool]

F3 Russia: Vips sees off Armstrong for final sprint race win

Red Bull junior and Hitech driver Juri Vips took victory in the final sprint race of the season in Sochi, seeing off a charge from yesterday’s feature race winner Marcus Armstrong.

Vips was slow away from his reverse grid pole position, which allowed second-placed starter Jake Hughes to challenge him into Turn 2. Behind them, Leo Pulcini went around the outside of Pedro Piquet to take third place while Armstrong got the jump on Robert Shwartzman and Niko Kari to move up to fifth.

Hughes kept up the pressure on Vips throughout the early laps and on lap 4 pulled alongside the Hitech into Turn 13. But Vips closed the door and Hughes dropped back from the lead to come under attack from Pulcini. The Italian driver set up a move on Hughes into Turn 5, but came off worse as the pair banged wheels and Pulcini was spun out of the points.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

Their incident allowed Piquet and Armstrong to both pass Hughes for second and third. Armstrong then took second from Piquet at the start of lap 7 only to be repassed by the Trident at Turn 13, but on the following lap Armstrong once again passed Piquet into Turn 2 and got far enough ahead to keep the position.

After breaking out of DRS range of Piquet on lap 10, Armstrong set about reeling in Vips with a series of fastest laps. At the start of lap 14 Vips had an advantage of 3.5 seconds over Armstrong, but this dropped to half by lap 17.

However, Armstrong’s charge faded in the final few laps as his tyres eventually ran out of grip. Vips was able to open the gap back up between them, having two seconds in hand when he crossed the line to take his third win of the season.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

After being demoted by Armstrong, Piquet had been running in a comfortable third for most of the race. But on lap 17 the Brazilian driver pulled over and retired with a mechanical problem, promoting newly-crowned F3 champion Shwartzman to third.

Hughes finished in fourth after his clash with Pulcini, and Kari was fifth for Trident. The battle for the last three points positions raged throughout the final laps with Richard Verschoor, Yuki Tsunoda and Max Fewtrell all changing positions. But in the end Hitech’s Yi Yifei, who was trailing at the back of the trio, took advantage of their fighting and managed to jump all three to take his first points of the season in sixth. Verschoor finished seventh, and Liam Lawson took eighth place after Tsunoda and Fewtrell both ran off the road with fading grip.

With second place and the fastest lap, Armstrong gained enough points from the sprint race to overhaul his Prema teammate Jehan Daruvala for runner-up in the final standings. Daruvala had been due to start from fourth on the grid, but was relegated to a pitlane start due to an engine problem before the formation lap. He then picked up a five-second penalty later in the race for leaving the track and gaining an advantage, and ultimately finished in 15th place.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

F3 Russia: Shwartzman clinches title as Armstrong wins feature race

Ferrari academy driver Robert Shwartzman sealed the 2019 Formula 3 title in the Sochi feature race, but was denied a home race victory by his Prema teammate Marcus Armstrong.

Shwartzman qualified for the race on pole, his first since the season opener in Barcelona, with his sole remaining title rival Jehan Daruvala alongside him in second. But it was Armstrong starting from third who got the best launch of the three Premas, as he passed Daruvala off the line before slipstreaming Shwartzman for the lead through Turn 3.

While Armstrong went off into the lead ahead of Shwartzman, Daruvala’s chances of taking the title to the final sprint race all but disappeared. Shwartzman’s points gap coming into Sochi meant that Daruvala had to win the feature race to have any chance of snatching away the title, but after being passed by Armstrong he then lost further places to Niko Kari, Christian Lundgaard and Leo Pulcini.

Daruvala managed to repass Lundgaard for fifth on lap two, but struggled to gain any more ground as Pulcini had too much pace ahead of him to present an opportunity.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

The early stages of the race were made tricky as light rain fell on some parts of the circuit, while the rest remained dry.

On lap 2 Bent Viscaal put his HWA into the wall at Turn 5, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car. Devlin DeFrancesco and Felipe Drugovich took advantage of the situation to gamble on a switch to wet tyres, although they were the only drivers to do so.

The VSC was withdrawn on lap 3, but on the following lap the full safety car was deployed when Leong Hon Chio, making his series debut with Jenzer, crashed out as well. The safety car remained out for two laps, during which the rain stopped and DeFrancesco and Drugovich both pitted again to switch back to slicks.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

Armstrong managed the restart on lap 6 well to pull away from the field, although Shwartzman behind was caught by Kari and demoted to third place. Meanwhile, further back in the top ten Juri Vips hit the rear of Lundgaard while trying to position himself for an overtake, spinning the ART out of the points and earning himself a 10-second time penalty.

Once clear of Shwartzman, Kari set the fastest lap to close up to the back of Armstrong. On lap 9, the Finnish driver then went around the outside of Armstrong into Turn 13 to take the lead.

Armstrong continued fighting back against Kari over the following lap, but on lap 11 Kari’s lead seemed to be secured when Armstrong went deep into Turn 2 trying to retake first and instead dropped to fourth behind Shwartzman and Pulcini.

However, Kari’s time in front didn’t last long, and on lap 13 he was passed by championship leader Shwartzman into Turn 2.

One lap later Armstrong got back into the podium positions after passing Pulcini for third, then managed to work his way back past Kari for second on lap 17.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

With four laps remaining Shwartzman looked to have enough of a buffer to keep ahead of Armstrong, and wrap up the championship with a home race victory. But Armstrong quickly settled into a rhythm and closed steadily up to the back of his teammate.

At the start of the final lap, Armstrong pulled to the inside of Turn 2 and took the lead away from Shwartzman, who offered little defence with the title on the line. Armstrong then crossed the line with just over a second in hand over Shwartzman, to take his third win of the season and his first in a feature race.

Kari held on to third for his second podium of the year, with Pulcini fourth ahead of Daruvala, Pedro Piquet and Jake Hughes, who also took two points for the fastest lap. Vips managed to finish third on the road ahead of Kari, but with his time penalty dropped to eighth and will start on reverse grid pole tomorrow morning.

Sauber Junior Team’s Raoul Hyman scored his first points of the season in ninth, and Richard Verschoor took the final point in tenth.

David Schumacher, making his F3 debut for Campos in place of the injured Alex Peroni, finished in P22 after being spun around by Keyvan Andres on lap 11.

Sauber’s Fabio Scherer retired on lap 9, while the team’s third driver Lirim Zendelli withdrew from the round ahead of the race.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship