Home Featured Analysing the start of F1’s support seasons in Austria

Analysing the start of F1’s support seasons in Austria

by Formula Scout
With the first four races of the FIA Formula 2 and Formula 3 championships all taking place at the Red Bull Ring, it’s easier to draw conclusions on the pecking order and main talking points in both series

The FIA’s Formula 2 and Formula 3 series produced another weekend of incredibly fascinating races on the Formula 1 support bill at the Red Bull Ring – a week on from doing the same thing to start the month. Any predictions of deja vu were quickly washed away, and the second weekend produced plenty more topics of discussion, rather than more of the same.

There was a change in both categories – with Pirelli providing harder compound tyres for F3 and a softer selection of the new 18-inch rubber for F2. The true effect of this was not particularly evident until the Sunday races – the fourth for each series around the Red Bull Ring in less than 10 days.

While Austria is a somewhat unusual circuit in comparison to some others that are upcoming, there was plenty to take away and plenty to talk about. Craig Woollard and Elliot Wood run through the details of the season so far.

You can also hear our thoughts on the first two rounds – as well as the Road to Indy and Formula Renault Eurocup season openers – in our latest podcast, available on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

It is safe to say that the weather on Saturday was totally grim. Formula 1’s qualifying was heavily delayed, between dramatic races in F3 and (much) later in F2. The rain was known about well in advance, and it became clear early on that the whole day of running was at risk. As it turned out, only a Porsche Supercup session was lost and moved to Sunday.

Conditions on Saturday started as such that some drivers toyed with starting the F3 race from slicks. That turned out to be totally the wrong decision, as the heavens began to open shortly afterwards. The race was called early, with Prema’s rookie star Frederik Vesti taking his first win. It was the right call according to the drivers – especially as conditions only got worse.

F1 was totally in the mind that dropping Sunday’s F2 sprint race would be the route to go to ensure its qualifying could take place if Saturday was fully washed out, and fortunately that did not happen.

F2 ran several formation laps behind the safety car prior to its feature race before the rain worsened and the grid returned to pitlane. That led to some unusual situations while drivers waited – DAMS’ Sean Gelael imagining playing golf, others stepping away from their cars, and enjoyable team radio exchanges between Callum Ilott and his Virtuosi engineer Geoff Spear.

As the light faded, a break in the weather was found, and the race was started despite all hope being seemingly lost a short while earlier. We were treated to a true wet-weather epic, which also had an intriguing strategy element, and the track even started to dry up towards the end. That was helped by the next talking point…

How drivers conduct themselves on the circuit has always been a contentious issue at these levels, and some driving in the past was, quite simply, not up to standard. This weekend, F2 and F3 did themselves very proud, especially in the way that they conducted themselves in the dismal conditions on Saturday.

Not one of the 30 cars pulled an over-zealous move in the rain in F3, and every one of the drivers behaved sensibly. It was aquaplaning for ART Grand Prix’s Sebastian Fernandez that eventually halted the race, rather than the driving itself.

Similar could be said of F2 in that weather. Despite the lengthy red flag, there was sensible driving up and down the field, and nobody taking unnecessary risks.

There were a few notable collisions in the dry on Sunday – not least a slightly bizarre one down a straight between ART’s Alexander Smolyar and Campos’s Sophia Floersch in F3. The most contentious one, however, was between Hitech GP’s Liam Lawson and HWA Racelab’s Jake Hughes as they fought over the race lead.

“I was just going to drive next to him but I got on the inside kerb and because it’s going downhill the car unloaded and snapped round,” Lawson explained post-race.

“When it did that the wheel slipped out of my hands, I couldn’t grab it in time and when I lost the wheel the car went left and straight into the side of him. I was trying really hard to catch it and if I had kept hold of the wheel I would have been fine but I didn’t and that was it.”

The innocuous error took both out of the race, and led onto a long-time record being narrowly beaten.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Inheriting the win from the pair was ART’s Theo Pourchaire, a Sauber junior and the reigning ADAC Formula 4 champion, who at 16 years, 10 months and 23 days became the youngest ever winner of a race in FIA F3 or its predecessor GP3. He claimed the record from current Formula E star Mitch Evans, winner of the 2011 GP3 Barcelona feature race, by four days.

Pourchaire wasn’t the only rookie who made the most of gaining experience on back-to-back rounds at the same circuit, as there were rookie winners in all of the races. Prema’s Robert Shwartzman overhauled Carlin’s Yuki Tsunoda in the wet F2 feature race, while ART’s Christian Lundgaard beat DAMS driver Dan Ticktum in the sprint.

Tsunoda and Vesti also took poles on just their second time of asking, and Guanyu Zhou was the only returnee to make F2’s podium.

F2’s softer choice of rubber did change the pecking order somewhat, but more noticeably led to races playing out in a different way to they had the week before. Much of the action was decided early on, with few drivers remaining in DRS range of each other, and then keeping tyres in their operating window proving very difficult for some late in the races.

It was unclear how things would have played out on F3’s harder tyres on Saturday due to the rain, but once the drivers were unleashed in race two it resulted in more aggressive racing from start to end, and the tyres lasted the duration of that.

Formula Scout was totally divided in its title predictions for both series, and some patterns have emerged. But round two also shook things up, and even more drivers have entered the frame as potential title contenders.

The half points awarded for Saturday’s F3 race brings skews the statistics, but the three Prema drivers sit at the top and are by 10 points. They’re not running away with it, but Prema does have more points than the two next best teams combined.

Trident’s David Beckmann is 12.5pts off the top, while Richard Verschoor (MP Motorsport), Lirim Zendeli (Trident), Lawson, Alex Peroni (Campos) and Pourchaire could all end the next race leading the points, on a track Prema struggled at in 2019.

In F2, the points table only really tells part of the picture. A Prema driver also leads there in Shwartzman, and the team does look fast, but the Russian and team-mate Mick Schumacher have already dropped a big number of points.

After two rounds, on four different compounds in total (plus wet tyres), there is a fairly solid pecking order, and an understanding of what each team has to do to improve.

Looking comfortably fastest on outright pace is Virtuosi, which has been on the front row twice with Zhou. At the Red Bull Ring it had a pace advantage of about four tenths of a second, with Carlin carrying over its strong testing form to be a clear second place.

Five teams are in contention to be third fastest, with MP’s Felipe Drugovich following up his rapid test times with a front row start on his debut. His reputation for putting a lap together is already well established, but MP hasn’t exactly lit up the times with its second car car driven by the very experienced Nobuharu Matsushita.

ART and Prema look more like Virtuosi and Carlin’s closest challengers, but if Hitech stops running into technical problems that are out of its hands and picks up comparable mileage to its rivals on race weekends, then it could soon be a de facto top 10 threat with both of its drivers in qualifying.

One team that doesn’t look like fighting for pole is 2019 title winner DAMS. As explained by Ticktum in round two, a more conservative set-up meant it struggled to put enough energy into its tyres to get them in the ideal operating window quickly.

The top times from Austria
Pos Team Qualifying pace Pos Team Race pace
1 Virtuosi Racing 1m14.417s 1 ART GP 1m17.305s
2 Carlin 1m14.803s 2 DAMS 1m17.418s
3 MP Motorsport 1m14.880s 3 Prema 1m17.583s
4 ART Grand Prix 1m14.922s 4 Virtuosi 1m17.636s
5 Prema 1m14.952s 5 MP 1m17.648s
6 Hitech GP 1m14.974s 6 Charouz 1m17.796s
7 Campos Racing 1m14.976s 7 Trident 1m17.826s
8 DAMS 1m15.128s 8 Campos 1m17.889s
9 Charouz Racing System 1m15.151s 9 Hitech 1m17.990s
10 Trident 1m15.230s 10 Carlin 1m17.993s
11 HWA Racelab 1m15.681s 11 HWA 1m18.251s

While on one hand this meant DAMS was losing tenths of a second in qualifying that put it way down a very close grid, and cost it further places when it needed to put heat into the tyres on demand off the line and on safety car restarts, it did mean it looked after its rubber better than anyone else.

Lundgaard and Ticktum are the only two drivers to have scored in every race, and practically been error-free in those races, and it’s not a surprise that their race pace in the dry was better than anyone else.

This is not just looking at fastest race laps, but by using all data besides laps pit in/out laps, safety car laps and anomalous results where a single error costs multiple seconds.

In the Styrian sprint race, Lundgaard’s average pace on the medium tyre was 1m17.305s, with Ticktum on 1m17.418s. Retiree Schumacher was next best on 1m17.583s, followed by the two Virtuosi cars.

Lundgaard’s team-mate Marcus Armstrong said that ART got the best out of its tyres earlier in the race, and his 1m17.657s average was also slower than Drugovich’s race-winning pace from the week before on the hards.

That view of the data can be narrowed or widened for very different images, but with ART, DAMS and Prema still on top.

By reducing the scope to a 10-lap stint, otherwise known as a rolling average, then it’s actually Trident’s Roy Nissany who is fastest. The Israeli pitted in the Styrian sprint race, meaning he had the freshest rubber when the cars were light on fuel and the track was at its most rubbered in. He didn’t just set one or two quick laps to bring his average down (having also set fastest lap in the wet feature race), as he was actually the only driver other than Lundgaard capable of lapping sub-1m17s.

Photo: Getty Images / FIA Formula 2

Lundgaard put in his two 1m16.9s efforts very early on, when the cars were at least a second per lap slower on fuel weight than they were at the finish, while Nissany was slow to get the tyre into its peak window (a struggle for the team in qualifying too), but once he found it was able to push it harder and harder, setting five sub-1m17s laps and taking fastest lap by 0.481s on 14-lap old rubber. Still, he didn’t need to make his tyres last the full 28 laps.

Armstrong was next-best on fastest laps in that race, set on lap five just like Lundgaard, while nearly everyone else had put 15 laps or more on their rubber before hitting their peak.

Behind Nissany on the rolling average was Lundgaard and Ticktum, with Ilott not far behind. While many saw team-mate Zhou’s round one pole and feature race performance as ominously fast, it was actually Ilott who was faster in all the races.

Ilott’s best continuous 10-lap average was set in the first feature race, and was the only driver to average sub-1m18s in that race, and by broadening the picture to make an average of that race and the two dry sprint encounters it paints potentially the most accurate picture of race pace so far – helped by driving standards meaning there are very few anomalies.

To some surprise, over the first two rounds the average dry race pace has been set by Ticktum.

The Briton’s 1m17.870s average is just 0.031s faster than Lundgaard, and makes them the only two who have sat sub-1m18s more frequently than not. Armstrong is third on 1m18.038s, lending credence that ART has the fastest race car and a potential management challenge if both are fighting for the title, and Shwartzman and Ilott are very, very close behind.

In a lonely ninth place is Jack Aitken, whose Campos team doesn’t look like it has the goods to pose a title threat, although it was a broken anti-roll (from a manufacturing defect) that caused him to drop back in the wet feature race.

Intriguingly, Gelael only completed one dry race (and therefore setting representative laps on low fuel), and that race taken on its own would put him ahead of Armstrong. In reality, he’s not a match to team-mate Ticktum but is definitely a driver who should end up consistently in the top 10 on race pace with his experience and a car that is clearly kind to tyres.

The wet Styrian feature race obviously can’t be ignored, and is how Shwartzman found his way to the top of the standings with victory. It’s also where Carlin showed it could turn its one-lap speed into race pace, but with laptimes in that race over 10 seconds slower than in the dry, it’s of limited use to include with the rest of the data.

There were similarities with the dry, with Ticktum once again near the front on pace in his charge from 15th to eighth place. The data for the wet race discounts the opening few green flag laps when times were improving for everyone, and some pitted too, and started from lap seven or eight where most drivers reached their actual race pace.

Shwartzman and Tsunoda controlled that race and it was reflected in the laptimes, while Matsushita was also one of the best by repeating previous heroics by making his starting set of wet tyres last a long time.

The Hungaroring is where the paddock reconvenes this coming weekend, and while the circuit is sometimes dubbed ‘Monaco with walls’, its demands are not too dissimilar from the Red Bull Ring. Overtaking will be even more difficult, which could become a major talking point in F2 and F3 over the weekend, and will punish the teams which struggle in qualifying.

Cooler temperatures will make the task of working the tyres even harder, although the heavy braking zones will alleviate that somewhat, and rain is once again predicted on Friday and Saturday. Round three could be the most exciting yet.

F2’s race pace average

Pos Driver Team Race pace Gap
1 Dan Ticktum DAMS 1m17.870s
2 Christian Lundgaard ART GP 1m17.901s +0.031s
3 Marcus Armstrong ART GP 1m18.038s +0.168s
4 Robert Shwartzman Prema 1m18.061s +0.191s
5 Callum Ilott Virtuosi 1m18.074s +0.204s
6 Mick Schumacher Prema 1m18.164s +0.294s
7 Felipe Drugovich MP 1m18.249s +0.379s
8 Guanyu Zhou Virtuosi 1m18.264s +0.394s
9 Jack Aitken Campos 1m18.382s +0.512s
10 Nikita Mazepin Hitech GP 1m18.469s +0.599s