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

F2 Great Britain: Tsunoda wins after Premas collide

Yuki Tsunoda took victory in the Silverstone sprint race after Prema teammates Mick Schumacher and Robert Shwartzman collided in the closing laps.

Shwartzman and Schumacher started from the front row of the reverse grid and rapidly pulled away from the rest of the field at the start. After the first few laps they were already two seconds clear of Tsunoda in third, while only half a second separated the two Premas themselves.

Schumacher made a move on Shwartzman into Brooklands on lap 5, but ran wide and dropped a second to his teammate. However the German made the time back up as Shwartzman started struggling with rear tyre grip, and by lap 10 was back in DRS range of his teammate.

After chipping away at the gap despite his own tyres losing grip, Schumacher closed to a few tenths of Shwartzman on lap 19 and tried another overtake at Brooklands. But after getting partially ahead on the outside, Schumacher turned in too early and clipped Shwartzman’s front wing, allowing Tsunoda through into the lead as a result.

Mick Schumacher, Prema (Bryn Lennon / Getty Images)

Schumacher was able to continue and took second place behind Tsunoda, albeit a long way adrift. Shwartzman initially stayed out on track in third despite the damage to his front wing, but on the penultimate lap he was caught by a pack led by Jack Aitken. Shwartzman was prompted swamped by the cars behind and dropped down to 13th by the chequered flag.

The stewards investigated the Prema collision, but ultimately deemed it a racing incident.

Aitken came through in third for his second consecutive podium of the weekend. Louis Deletraz finished fourth ahead of Guanyu Zhou, Callum Ilott, Dan Ticktum and Nikita Mazepin. Christian Lundgaard had been set to finish among this pack having run with Aitken and Deletraz for most of the race, but suffered a front left tyre blowout on lap 16 that dropped him to the back of the field.

Shwartzman’s finish outside the points caps off another troubled round at Silverstone, as title rival Ilott has extended his new championship lead to 21 points. In the teams’ standings, Ilott’s UNI-Virtuosi team has the same lead over Prema. Find the full F2 drivers’ and teams’ standings here.

Formula 2 returns next weekend at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, in support of the Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix.

Full race result:

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

F2 Great Britain preview: Silverstone reset for Shwartzman and Ilott

Formula 2 is back this weekend for the fifth round of the 2020 championship, returning to Silverstone in support of the F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

For title protagonists Robert Shwartzman and Callum Ilott, revisiting Silverstone will provide a much-needed second chance at the circuit after a trying round for them both last weekend.

For Shwartzman, who had previously only finished outside the top four once this year, the British Grand Prix weekend was little short of a nightmare. What began with a lowly qualifying position of 18th for the feature race ended with a best finish of 13th in the sprint race and no points scored for the championship leader.

Shwartzman’s pain was lessened somewhat by Ilott stalling on the feature race grid and spinning out of contention for the sprint race victory, meaning the UNI-Virtuosi driver was unable to capitalise on Shwartzman’s struggles and snatch away the championship lead. However, Ilott’s recovery to fifth in the feature race moved him to within eight points of Shwartzman.

Robert Shwartzman, Prema (Courtesy of Prema Racing)

Shwartzman and Ilott’s struggles mean they’ll now be driving with renewed focus on the chasing pack behind them.

In particular, Christian Lundgaard underlined the pace he’s been showing all season with fourth place in the feature race and second in the sprint race last weekend, putting him just four points behind Ilott and twelve behind Shwartzman. Another strong finish ahead of his rivals this weekend could well see Lundgaard leave Silverstone as the new championship leader.

The top two will also be keenly aware of Hitech’s Nikita Mazepin. The Russian came alive at Silverstone last weekend, taking his first F2 win in the feature race and battling up to fifth in race two, and certainly has the pace to be a threat again this time out.

What’s more, Dan Ticktum is lurking just one point behind Mazepin after taking his own maiden victory in the last sprint race. However, Ticktum’s three podium visits so far have all come in sprint races, so he’ll need to translate that clear speed to a top three in the feature races if he’s going to start troubling the title contenders.

Nikita Mazepin, Hitech (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Just behind the top five, a kind of “Class B” is forming between Guanyu Zhou, Louis Deletraz, Felipe Drugovich, Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda. While their results over the season so far haven’t kept them in touch with the title battle, they’re all still formidable over a race weekend and each proved this last time out in Silverstone.

Zhou, Deletraz and Tsunoda were all on the podium across last weekend, while Drugovich took pole for the feature race and Schumacher was in contention for the victory before his tyres gave up on him in the final stages.

All of them bar Drugovich are still looking for their first win this season, and given the pace they’ve already shown around Silverstone, that could come for any of them this weekend.

Yuki Tsunoda, Carlin (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

F3 Great Britain: Lawson holds off Premas for feature race win

Liam Lawson took his second win of the Formula 3 season at the Silverstone feature race, seeing off the Premas of Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant in a race fraught with incidents.

Lawson started from second behind polesitter Sargeant. Although Sargeant held first off the line, Lawson was close enough to harry him throughout the opening lap and make a lunge around the outside of Stowe to steal the lead.

After a brief interruption on lap 4, when Matteo Nannini slowed on track and brought out a Virtual Safety Car, Lawson began pulling away from Sargeant. The American driver then dropped back into the clutches of teammate Piastri, who demoted Sargeant to third on lap 7.

Piastri was better able to keep pace with Lawson than Sargeant, closing to within half a second by lap 9. On lap 11 Piastri drew alongside Lawson under DRS and looked set to take first place, but the Australian ran wide over the kerbs and couldn’t complete the move.

Oscar Piastri, Prema (Bryn Lennon / Getty Images)

With Piastri right on his tail, Lawson was handed a saving grace shortly after when the safety car was deployed for Bent Viscaal, who spun after contact with Ben Barnicoat through Luffield and collected Jack Doohan’s HWA.

The safety car remained out for four laps, but was then redeployed almost immediately when Olli Caldwell spun in the middle of the pack and was hit heavily by Lukas Dunner and Max Fewtrell.

With Caldwell’s rear wing and suspension across the track, the race went on to end under the safety car, preserving Lawson’s first place over Piastri and Sargeant.

Jake Hughes finished fourth ahead of the third Prema of Frederik Vesti, with Alex Peroni climbing up from 18th on the grid to take sixth. Sebastian Fernandez finished seventh, Clement Novalak took eighth and the fastest lap, David Beckmann was ninth, and Aleksandr Smolyar took the reverse grid pole for the tomorrow in tenth.

Logan Sargeant, Prema (Rudy Carezzevoli / Getty Images)

Full race result:

Pos. Driver Team Points
1 Liam Lawson Hitech 25
2 Oscar Piastri Prema 18
3 Logan Sargeant Prema 15
4 Jake Hughes HWA 12
5 Frederik Vesti Prema 10
6 Alex Peroni Campos 8
7 Sebastian Fernandez ART 6
8 Clement Novalak (FL) Carlin 6
9 David Beckmann Trident 2
10 Aleksandr Smolyar ART 1
11 Richard Verschoor MP Motorsport
12 Theo Pourchaire ART
13 Lirim Zendelli Trident
14 Calan Williams Jenzer
15 Igor Fraga Charouz
16 Dennis Hauger Hitech
17 Roman Stanek Charouz
18 Enzo Fittipaldi HWA
19 Federico Malvestiti Jenzer
20 Ben Barnicoat Carlin
21 Cameron Das Carlin
22 Sophia Floersch Campos
23 Matteo Nannini Jenzer
24 Alessio Deledda Campos
25 David Schumacher Charouz
Ret. Olli Caldwell Trident
Ret. Max Fewtrell Hitech
Ret. Lukas Dunner MP Motorsport
Ret. Bent Viscaal MP Motorsport
Ret. Jack Doohan HWA

F3 Hungary: Pourchaire commands interrupted feature race

Theo Pourchaire became the first double winner of the 2020 Formula 3 season at the Hungaroring feature race, seeing off championship leader Oscar Piastri through numerous restarts.

Starting in slippery conditions, the race opened with several incidents at the first corner bringing out the first safety car. Polesitter Aleksandr Smolyar was spun out of the race by Logan Sargeant, while behind them Frederik Vesti and Calan Williams came together to partially block the corner.

With Smolyar out and Sargeant driving a damaged car, Pourchaire moved up into the lead with Piastri second ahead of Sargeant. When the race resumed after a lap behind the safety car, Pourchaire immediately opened up a second over Piastri to protect against the DRS.

Piastri responded on lap five to bring the gap down to half a second. But before he could try a move on Pourchaire the race was interrupted once again when Liam Lawson pulled off with an engine fire, leaving a trail of oil throughout Turns 1 and 2. After one lap behind the safety car, the race was red-flagged to properly clear the track.

When the race resumed after a start behind the safety car, Pourchaire again bolted from Piastri and within two laps the Frenchman had broken out of DRS range again. From there Pourchaire kept improving, setting a series of fastest laps to add almost a second per lap on Piastri.

By the chequered flag, Pourchaire crossed the line more than twelve seconds clear of Piastri to take his second consecutive win of the season, and become the first double winner of the year.

Logan Sargeant, Prema (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Sargeant finished third behind Piastri to make it two Premas on the podium. Nursing damage throughout from the first corner collision with Smolyar, Sargeant was under pressure from both Lawson before his retirement and Sebastian Fernandez after the final safety car restart.

The American’s struggles were clear as he ran wide multiple times. However, he managed to hold onto the position until lap 15, when Fernandez’s tyres dropped off and he dropped behind the MP Motorsport pair of Richard Verschoor and Bent Viscaal.

As Verschoor and Viscaal then battled between themselves for fourth, Sargeant was able to pull away and comfortably keep his podium position. Behind, Viscaal came out on top with a last lap move through Turn 2, taking fourth place and his best F3 finish to date. Verschoor finished fifth and Fernandez was behind in sixth.

Alex Peroni finished in seventh, returning to the points for the first time since his podium in round one. Red Bull junior Dennis Hauger took his first F3 points in eighth place ahead of Clement Novalak, who rose 17 places from his grid position, and David Beckmann took the final point in tenth as well as pole position for tomorrow’s sprint race.

Dennis Hauger, Hitech (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

F2 Hungary preview: rookie leaders prepare for battle in Budapest

FIA Formula 2 takes to Budapest’s Hungaroring this weekend for round three of the 2020 championship.

While the opening round of the season was dominated by returning drivers Callum Ilott and Guanyu Zhou, last weekend was the turn of F2’s rookies. Robert Shwartzman and Christian Lundgaard took their first victories in the series to assume the lead of championship from Ilott, while Yuki Tsunoda, Dan Ticktum and Marcus Armstrong all impressed with podium finishes.

When F2 arrives in Hungary these rookies will be aiming to build on that momentum and take charge of the championship. Expect to see Shwartzman come out of the gates strong as he tries to make up for retiring from last weekend’s sprint race, while Tsunoda will be hungry to reclaim the feature race win that was taken from him by a team radio failure in Austria.

Robert Shwartzman, Prema (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Mick Schumacher will also be one to watch this weekend. Not only will he come to Hungary with confidence from having won there in F2 last year, but he’s also on a much-improved run of form this time around.

In both rounds at the Red Bull Ring, Schumacher showed he had the pace to come away with at least a podium finish, if not a win. However, a spell of bad luck—including his fire extinguisher going off in his cockpit while running third last Sunday—means he’s currently lagging behind his title rivals, and will be pushing even harder this weekend to catch up.

And he won’t be the only one. Zhou will also be looking ahead to the Hungaroring weekend as a chance to get his championship campaign back on track. The Renault junior will be sorely disappointed after leading both feature races in Austria but coming away with only one podium, and will need to lay down a marker this weekend to avoid the title fight slipping away from him.

Guanyu Zhou, UNI-Virtuosi (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Further back, the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend will also provide a much-needed reset for some of the drivers still yet to score any points.

Chief among these will be Hitech’s Luca Ghiotto. Used to being a title protagonist, Ghiotto’s best finish so far has been tenth in the second Austria sprint race, with an array of incidents and technical issues helping to keep him away from the points.

Also in need of a breakthrough soon is Jehan Daruvala. At the start of the season the Red Bull-backed driver talked up his goal of vying for an F1 seat with Alpha Tauri next year, but so far he’s had a mixed start to the season and is currently only P17 in the standings.

Daruvala has been solid in qualifying this year, starting both feature races well inside the top ten, but scruffy performances on race day mean he’s yet to convert any of those starts into points. With his Carlin teammate and fellow Red Bull junior Tsunoda already fighting for wins and podiums, Daruvala will need to tidy up his racecraft this weekend and make good on his pace if he wants to avoid losing Red Bull’s focus.

F2 Styria: Lundgaard beats Ticktum to dominant sprint race win

Christian Lundgaard took victory in the Styria sprint race, taking the lead early and going on to command throughout.

Lundgaard started the race in third behind reverse polesitter Dan Ticktum and ART teammate Marcus Armstrong, but passed Armstrong for second at the start. He stuck with Ticktum through the opening few laps and on lap 4 passed the DAMS on the inside of Turn 3 to take the lead.

Once in front, Lundgaard continued pushing and opened up a two second gap over Ticktum by lap 8—this increased by another second by lap 12. Ticktum responded in the middle phase of the race to take a few tenths out of Lundgaard, but a series of lock ups allowed the gap to open back up to 3.2s by lap 22.

Lundgaard began to ease off towards the end of the race as his tyres degraded, but by this point Ticktum’s own tyres were also running out of grip and the DAMS was unable to close the gap. By the chequered flag Lundgaard took the win with 2.3s in hand over Ticktum, as well as two extra points for setting the fastest lap earlier in the race.

Dan Ticktum, DAMS (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Armstrong was unable to keep up with Lundgaard and Ticktum up front, and on lap 12 he was passed for third by Mick Schumacher into Turn 3. However, Armstrong regained the position two laps later when Schumacher’s fire extinguisher went off in his cockpit, forcing the German to retire. Armstrong held on to the position until the end of the race to take his second podium of the season.

UNI-Virtuosi ran a quiet race behind the top three. Guanyu Zhou passed teammate Callum Ilott at the start and was promoted to fourth after Schumacher’s retirement.

In the final laps Ilott closed up to the back of Zhou and looked to have the pace on his tyres to pass his teammate. But the pair caught up with Armstrong on the last lap which gave Zhou DRS to defend and keep Ilott behind in fifth.

Jack Aitken finished sixth ahead of Sean Gelael, while Nikita Mazepin picked up his first point of the season in eighth. Saturday’s feature race protagonists Robert Shwartzman and Yuki Tsunoda both retired, the Prema spinning out at the start and the Carlin stopping with a clutch issue.

At the end of round 2, Shwartzman holds a narrow five-point lead in the drivers’ championship over Lundgaard and Ilott, who are level on 43 points. Ticktum is fourth and Armstrong fifth.

In the teams’ standings, ART maintain their lead with 77 points, seven ahead of UNI-Virtuosi and 15 ahead of Prema.

Formula 2 returns next weekend in support of the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Marcus Armstrong, ART (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

F2 Styria: Shwartzman wins feature race after pit stop problem for Tsunoda

Prema’s Robert Shwartzman took his first Formula 2 win in the Styria feature race, taking advantage of a team radio problem for longtime race leader Yuki Tsunoda.

With the track drenched the race began after a lengthy delay with four laps behind the safety car. When the safety car pulled into the pits and the race began in earnest, polesitter Tsunoda got away from the pack cleanly and commanded the race in its early phase, building a gap over Guanyu Zhou with each lap. After two laps of racing the Carlin driver was 1.6s ahead, which increased to 5.5s by lap 21 as Zhou’s wet tyres started to overheat.

Zhou pitted on lap 21 along with Shwartzman. But when Carlin called Tsunoda in to cover the UNI-Virtuosi, he was unable to hear the message over team radio and stayed out for another three laps. All the while, Tsunoda’s pace compared to Zhou on the fresher tyres continued to drop off.

Tsunoda eventually came in on lap 26 after seeing the team’s pit board, but lost so much time on his older tyres that he lost the lead to Zhou and rejoined the track in a net third position.

Yuki Tsunoda, Carlin (Bryn Lennon / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Shwartzman had been making progress through the field after initially losing a position to Christian Lundgaard on the second racing lap. On lap 14 he passed Luca Ghiotto for sixth, then took fifth from Jack Aitken on the following lap. When Lundgaard had a slow pit stop on lap 21, Shwartzman moved into fourth behind Tsunoda, Zhou and Callum Ilott.

Shwartzman demoted Ilott off the podium after both drivers had made their respective stops, and on fresher tyres he started reeling in Zhou with a series of fastest laps. On lap 27 Shwartzman passed Zhou for the lead of the race and began building up a gap as Tsunoda rejoined them after his own stop.

In the closing laps Zhou began to struggle with overheating tyres again and Tsunoda passed him for second on lap 30. With much younger tyres, Tsunoda then started eating into Shwartzman’s gap out front, reducing it by over two seconds across the next three laps.

Guanyu Zhou, UNI-Virtuosi (Clive Mason / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

But although he closed in to within half a second of Shwartzman, Tsunoda’s pace wasn’t enough to complete a move on the Prema in the final laps and Shwartzman held on to the victory. However, Tsunoda was able to earn another two points for setting the fastest lap.

Zhou continued to struggle and dropped back from the two leaders. He came under threat from Mick Schumacher in the closing laps, who had taken fourth from Ilott after starting ninth on the grid, but managed to defend his place on the podium and finish third.

Schumacher and Ilott finished fourth and fifth respectively, with Lundgaard and Marcus Armstrong behind them. Dan Ticktum finished eighth and took pole for Sunday’s reverse grid, and Aitken and Sean Gelael closed out the top ten.

F3 Styria preview: pressure on for Prema

When Formula 3 returns to the Red Bull Ring in support of the Styrian Grand Prix this weekend, all the pressure will be on Prema to maintain their dominant start to the season.

The Italian team started last weekend with Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant taking a 1–2 in the feature race, and Frederik Vesti scoring solid points in both races. As such, Piastri leads the championship with 30 points, with Sargeant in third and Vesti fifth.

Liam Lawson’s win in the Austria sprint race has him second in the standings behind Piastri and makes the Red Bull junior one to watch again this weekend. Alex Peroni also shone at the last round, taking third place behind the Premas in the feature race, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue this forward momentum in his second F3 season.

Trident also had a decent start to the season with Lirim Zendelli and David Beckmann scoring in both races, putting the team second in the championship. To capitalise on this start they’ll need Beckmann and Zendelli to push on towards the podium this weekend, as well as for new signing Olli Caldwell to join them in the points.

David Beckmann, Trident (Clive Mason / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

One driver who will be hoping for better fortunes in Spielberg this weekend is Sebastian Fernandez. The ART driver claimed a surprise maiden pole for last weekend’s feature race but lost his shot at victory when he was spun by Piastri at Turn 1. But if Fernandez can hook it up in qualifying again this Saturday, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to take the fight to Prema and challenge for his maiden win.

Jake Hughes will also be eager to move on from a disappointing season opener. He was all but out of the feature race before it even began with technical problems meaning he couldn’t start from his qualifying position inside the top 10. But in the sprint race he climbed 16 places from the back row of the grid to P12, showing he has the pace and experience needed to fight at the front, provided his car doesn’t let him down.

Finally, Charouz and Jenzer are the teams most in need of an improvement this weekend as they are the only two outfits still yet to score points with any of their drivers. Charouz came closest last time out, with a best of P15 for David Schumacher in the sprint race, but neither team really came close to worrying the top 10. In such an unusual season, both Charouz and Jenzer will have to find improvements fast if they’re to avoid being stuck to the bottom of the standings.

Sebastian
Fernandez, ART (Dan Istitene / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

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]