Schumacher? Ilott? Shwartzman? Who Is Next In Line At Alfa Romeo?
In a hotly-contested Formula 2 Championship one of these 3 names looks set for a drive at Alfa Romeo next season. But who is the best man for the job?
The 2020 Formula 2 Championship has been nothing short of incredible! With constant wheel-to-wheel action, and the number of victors this season into double figures already, the series has us on the edge of our seats every weekend.
And on top of all this, we have a battle for the title which is still wide open, of which three of the contenders are part of the Ferrari Driver Academy. Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman are all trying to showcase their talents to this young driver programme and win the Formula 2 title, as they realise that an Alfa Romeo drive for the 2021 season may also be one of the prizes on offer. And it looks as though the bosses at Ferrari will narrow their choices down to one.
In theory, Ferrari have two customer teams in which they can place drivers from their junior programme; those teams being Alfa Romeo and Haas. But Alfa’s affiliation with Ferrari is much stronger than Haas’. Additionally, the American outfit are keen to have a driver from the US in their car, making Haas an unlikely place for Ferrari to plant one of their young drivers. Alfa on the other hand would be willing to let a Ferrari junior gain experience in a smaller team before making the step up to the main Ferrari team.
However, Alfa would also want an experienced driver in one of their cars in order to provide useful feedback and car development. This leaves one of the Alfa Romeo seats available for one of these drivers in the F2 field, all of whom have their strengths and weaknesses.
Mick Schumacher is, by far, the current favourite for the drive. The Schumacher name is one of the most illustrious names in sport which, in itself, carries a lot of weight. But Mick has well and truly earned his way to where he is now. And he looks set to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a contender for a Formula 1 seat in his own right. An excellent weekend at Mugello gave Schumacher the championship lead. Throughout the season he has been Mr Consistent, scoring multiple podiums and points finishes as others have made mistakes or lost pace. His starts have also been one of his key strengths, helping him to win the Feature Race at Monza.
Historically however, it has taken Schumacher time to get into his stride. When battling Dan Ticktum for the European Formula 3 title back in 2018, he was the eventual champion. But it took until Round 5 of the championship at Spa before Schumacher claimed pole position and won a race. His time in Formula 2 has been a similar story. He had a strong, but unspectacular debut season in 2019 against team-mate Sean Gelael. He was also outperformed in the first part of the 2020 season by his rookie team-mate Robert Shwartzman, and his victory at Monza remains his only win this season. When he gets into his stride then, Schumacher is a force to be reckoned with. But F1 is a cut-throat business, and he needs to hit the ground running if he’s signed by Alfa Romeo.
Callum Ilott has had a very strong 2020 season, and has led much of the championship. It’s strange and slightly unfair then, that he seemingly isn’t even under consideration for a Formula 1 drive. Much like Schumacher, Ilott has been very consistent this year, frequently fighting for wins and podiums. He has also been an ace qualifier this season with 4 pole positions to his name, and has comprehensively outperformed his UNI-Virtuosi team-mate (and highly rated Renault junior driver) Guanyu Zhou.
In recent races, Ilott has lost points to Schumacher and Shwartzman in the championship. Part of this is down to being involved in unfortunate mid-pack incidents like at Spa when he was eliminated by Yuki Tsunoda, and at the restart of the Feature Race at Mugello, when he had to replace a damaged front wing.
One of Ilott’s only weaknesses is handling the pressure when in a high position. At Siverstone he fought valiantly back up into 2nd place when he spun off and stalled the car, and in Spain he was so concerned about maintaining his championship lead that he was unable to pass Yuki Tsunoda on worn tyres and came open to attack from behind. Despite this, I still believe that Callum Ilott should be under consideration for a drive in Formula 1 next year given his current form. Winning the F2 Championship is the best way to give him the edge over the others.
Robert Shwartzman has had an outstanding rookie campaign in Formula 2 this year, even leading the championship going into the weekend at Monza. The outgoing Formula 3 Champion was hugely impressive in the opening part of the season, with two Feature Race wins in two consecutive weekends, showing form that was at least as good, if not better than his Prema team-mate Schumacher. His race pace and tyre management is excellent, especially considering that he doesn’t have the experience of the car or the tyres that Schumacher or Ilott do. And this ability to adapt to new equipment quickly could put him in good stead in a Formula 1 car.
However, Shwartzman has not been consistent throughout the year, particularly in qualifying where he still only has one front-row start to his name. This made for difficult weekends at both Monza and Mugello, where a bad qualifying meant he had his work cut out during the two races. After these two difficult rounds, Shwartzman has gone from the championship lead down to 4th, even slipping behind fellow rookie Christian Lundgaard.
Robert Shwartzman would be an exciting addition to the 2021 F1 grid, but I believe that Prema and Ferrari will give him another season of Formula 2 next year (providing of course he doesn’t win this year’s title). But he’ll have strong competition in the form of Oscar Piastri, Theo Pourchaire and Logan Sargeant, who will all likely join this series from Formula 3.
As I referred to earlier, Alfa Romeo would likely partner one of these F2 graduates with an experienced driver in order to develop the car. For a sense of continuity, Alfa could retain one of their current drivers for the 2021 season.
Kimi Raikkonen is about to surpass Rubens Barrichello’s record of most race starts in Formula 1 history, and has a world championship to his name. But it’s fair to say Kimi’s best days are behind him, and it seems that he is indifferent to the prospect of carrying on for another season. Antonio Giovinazzi seems more likely to stay in the team. With 2 years of Formula 1 experience under his belt, Giovinazzi has quietly gotten on with the job and has outperformed Raikkonen at most races since midway through the 2019 season. Whether he has room to grow and lead the team however, is another matter.
Outside of their current line-up, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg are the other candidates for the drive. Both of them have similar levels of experience in F1 (almost a decade each), and both are consistently fast in both qualifying and race trim. Both drivers also have experience in leading a team and have driven for Alfa Romeo in their previous guise as Sauber, so are familiar with the team personnel. Hulkenberg seems like the more likely choice, as the rumours of Perez joining McLaren’s Indycar team continue to grow. However, it’s worth remembering that both of these drivers are seemingly ahead of Pierre Gasly in the queue for a Red Bull seat if Alex Albon can’t regain his form.
With 2 races in Russia followed by 4 races in Bahrain, the championship is still all to play for. All of the drivers still have plenty to prove to the big bosses of F1 in the hope of stepping onto the big stage for 2021, and the spotlight of the Ferrari Driver Academy shines brightest of all. For the drivers in the Ferrari Academy, there’s so much more on the line than the Formula 2 title. They know that if they can land the Alfa Romeo drive and perform, Maranello will be next.