Formula 1, Junior

The opening salvo in F1’s most curious 2021 seat battle

Jul 9 2020
By Valentin Khorounzhiy

From Sebastian Vettel’s public confirmation that he was never offered a new deal for 2021 and Ferrari’s humbling performance in qualifying, to Charles Leclerc’s unlikely rise to a face-saving podium in the race, the Austrian Grand Prix weekend was probably too much of a rollercoaster weekend for the Scuderia for its bosses to fixate much on what went on in the feeder series.

But the Saturday Formula 2 race will have painted a picture that was unlikely to escape the higher-ups’ attention. In first place? A Ferrari junior. In second place? A Ferrari junior. In third place? A Ferrari junior. In sixth place? A Ferrari junior. And the one Ferrari junior who everyone wants and expects to be on the F1 grid in 2021 not among them, having gone off-track in an unforced error while battling for the win.

Of course, none of these drivers will lay a claim to a Ferrari F1 seat any time soon, with Leclerc tied down for another four years and Carlos Sainz Jr for two commencing in 2021, and the fact that Ferrari will never slot a grand prix racing rookie straight into its main team. Sainz and Leclerc thus have little need to look over their shoulders. The same cannot be said for Antonio Giovinazzi.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Spielberg, Austria

Giovinazzi occupies the Alfa Romeo seat that Ferrari has dibs on, and already last season there were suggestions that the Italian manufacturer may sideline him to make room for Mick Schumacher as early as 2020. This never materalised but it is clear his position is more precarious than that of most on the F1 grid.

When asked about pressure from Ferrari juniors in the lead-up to the weekend, Giovinazzi largely battled it off.

“Every year, you have some pressure,” he said. “It will be similar to last year, and of course I know that in F2 there will be a lot of young drivers, especially from the Ferrari Academy but I need to just focus on my job to be honest, do the best that I can. And then we’ll see.”

Then again, he’d never say that he’s shaking with fear and religiously watching his potential replacements in F2, would he? And even if he is relatively chill about it, Giovinazzi probably won’t have loved seeing an all-Ferrari F2 podium on Saturday – even if it did come about when Renault junior Guanyu Zhou was robbed of a certain win with a gearbox issue after having dominated.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

The good news for Giovinazzi is that he himself did his case for staying on the grid in 2021 no harm in Austria. Alfa was not competitive at the venue, ending up as the outright slowest car in qualifying, but Giovinazzi stacked up well against experienced hand Kimi Raikkonen on the other side of the garage.

He led the Finn in all three practice sessions – by a few thousandths, a tenth and six tenths – and went 0.049s in qualifying despite botching his final push lap.

A superb opening lap in the race then yielded three overtakes, but the pace in the initial stint was lacking, with Giovinazzi giving up those positions and falling into the clutches of Raikkonen, who was even briefly ordered ahead. But safety car timing would put him back in front, and he kept his nose clean after that, even passing the Williams of Nicholas Latifi and Vettel’s badly out-of-sorts Ferrari to bag two points.

Giovinazzi has had better finishes than this ninth place, but if the Alfa C39 – saddled with a Ferrari power unit that’s suddenly no help whatsoever – is indeed where Austria suggested it is in the competitive order, those points could prove a blessing once the grid collectively sorts out reliability.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

This alone won’t be enough to ensure him a 2021 F1 drive, but consistently getting the better of Raikkonen probably would be. Even if Ferrari decides to slot in a different driver into its Alfa seat (presuming that arrangement is still in place), Giovinazzi could then shift into the other – if he proves superior to Raikkonen, Alfa will not have a massive number of alternatives, unless Nico Hulkenberg proves seriously keen or someone like Valtteri Bottas loses their current drive (and also proves seriously keen).

Even if Giovinazzi does not overwhelmingly outperform Raikkonen, simply putting up decent numbers against him could in theory be enough to take over as ‘team leader’. It is at the very least a plausible scenario that the ultra-condensed 2020 schedule will tire out Raikkonen and nudge him towards the conclusion of his career.

At the same time, Raikkonen himself has said that the peculiarities of 2020 “don’t really dictate what happens in the future” in regards to him continuing in F1, and neither does the delay of the new rules package.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Austrian Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, Austria

By most accounts his contributions are regarded as very valuable at Alfa and he doesn’t appear to be in the least unsettled by the team’s shaky form in 2019 and coming into 2020, which means you can’t rule out him continuing as long as he’s enjoying the driving and well-remunerated.

But what of the other Alfa seat? The perception is that this should end up with the younger Schumacher, potentially irrespective of actual on-track achievements in 2020, given his superlicense points for winning the European F3 title are about to expire and marketing-wise it’s an opportunity too good to pass up.

None of that is to say Schumacher is incapable of proving he belongs on merit. He was hardly poor in Austria – to qualify fifth after his practice was compromised by mechanical issues that warranted a subsequent engine change was a considerable achievement, and he clearly had good pace in the race.

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Saturday Spielberg, Austria

A mistake at Turn 7 was regrettable but penalised him extra-harshly due to F2’s format, in which a compromised first race virtually robs you of any chance to score significant points in the second, even if the pace is there.

Still, the off is hard to ignore, especially as the other Ferrari juniors all kept it on the road, and two of them marked their respective F2 debuts with a podium finish each.

Robert Shwartzman and Marcus Armstrong have been Ferrari’s two most exciting prospects for a couple of years now, and their F3 season last year – in which Shwartzman was comfortably crowned champion and Armstrong narrowly snatched second place despite some rough edges – marked them out as genuine F1-level talent.

Or it did so with a caveat, anyway. The pair both drove for the ultra-dominant Prema outfit, and this created the understandable question of just how much credit they deserve for their results last year. A strong F2 debut season would go a long way to silencing any such doubt, and both started off on the right foot.

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Friday Spielberg, Austria

Armstrong, now at ART alongside promising Renault junior (and fellow rookie) Christian Lundgaard, qualified poorly but undercut much of the field with an early stop and drove a superb defensive race, hanging on to what eventually would end up being second place. He then would’ve been on the podium in the reverse-grid race too if not for a car problem.

Shwartzman, meanwhile, was not far off Prema team-mate Schumacher in qualifying and – already approaching the season opener with the championship-oriented mindset that served him so well in F3 – brought home an impressive points haul.

And as earmarked as that Alfa seat seems for Schumacher, what if Shwartzman or Armstrong win the F2 title at the first time of asking? It would certainly be a weird look to deny them an F1 promotion in that case.

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Saturday Spielberg, Austria

It would also be a weird look to deny Callum Ilott if he uses his win in the opener as a springboard for a run to a comfortable championship win. F2 points leader Ilott’s had a topsy-turvy junior career, but was arguably more impressive a rookie than Schumacher – at a less-fancied team, too – in F1’s main feeder series last year, which had marked his second season as a Ferrari protege.

Finally, Jean Alesi’s son Giuliano is probably the odd man out among Ferrari’s F2 contingent in terms of title aspiration – despite his dad selling his prized F40 once awarded to him as a gift by Ferrari to fund the season’s racing with HWA. But even Giuliano turned a perplexing run-off shunt in qualifying into what was ultimately a bigger points haul than Schumacher’s.

Schumacher could yet rid Ferrari of any 2021 promotion headaches by handily outscoring his Ferrari Driver Academy peers over the rest of the campaign. But if he doesn’t, could Ferrari actually overlook him for an Alfa seat, or could it look to slot in whoever its top-performing F2 driver is elsewhere?

Jean Alesi Giuliano Alesi F1 Ferrari F2 2020

The answer to the first question is ‘probably not’, but the second doesn’t look too far-fetched. Alfa, granted, won’t want two rookies in its line-up, but Haas – even though it’s been historically reluctant to take on rookies of any sort – will probably be more amenable to it than ever, what with current year’s cars being carried over to 2021.

This would no doubt require a financial sweetener from Ferrari. Maybe that’ll be a step too far. But in that case, surely its junior academy will lose much of its lustre, and become ripe for picking for other F1 teams looking to shore up their own programmes.

Either way, the dynamic within Ferrari’s F2 roster is bound to prove a particularly interesting part of the 2020 motorsport season – perhaps no less so than anything to do with the drivers it already has in F1.

Motor Racing Fia Formula 2 Championship Friday Spielberg, Austria

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