When a driver who doesn’t make the top five on pace wins the most prestigious junior single-seater title in the world, it must leave the opposition scratching their heads. Can the data explain what happened?
The 2020 Formula 2 season will always be remembered for not only its unique place in history by occurring in the middle of a global pandemic, but also in how its title fight played out and that it added another title to the Schumacher family legacy.
It may have been a statistically unimpressive season for the eventual champion, but speak to drivers and engineers and you’ll know that this year F2 has been more complex than ever, and therefore more work than ever has been required to get on top of the demands of the Dallara F2 2018, its Mechachrome-tuned engine, the new 18-inch wheels and the tyres fitted to them.
In some ways this is the most professional the series has ever been, especially since the standard of the paying drivers at the bottom of the grid was bounced back from 2019’s nadir.
But for the champion to be only the second in the 54-year history of Formula 1’s primary feeder series to not even qualify on the front row, and then only being the seventh best on average in qualifying and a fortunate fourth on race pace, does beg the question of what they did to win the title.
In the case of Mick Schumacher, it was a combination of lightning-fast starts, strong tyre management and often not being quite fast enough to challenge for feature race wins. That put him a few places higher up the grid for the sprint races, where he hoovered up more points than anyone else. The drivers that were faster than him simply weren’t picking up the points.
Prema never had the fastest car in qualifying trim, meaning Schumacher wouldn’t have been considered a pole threat anyway at most circuits, but on a few occassions he also didn’t put the key lap together as he should have. Were those errors costly? Not really.
Of the drivers Schumacher was regularly qualifying behind, not many of them had the pace to stay at the front in the feature races. Schuacher would pass at least one of those on the first lap (his opening lap gains averaged out at 1.375 places per race), underpinned first by his brilliant clutch control and then by great spatial awareness that always kept him out of trouble.
He then often had more freedom to choose when to pit if he was stuck in traffic, as Prema tended to be kinder to its tyres in races than some of its rival teams.
But this wasn’t always the case; in Sochi a grip miscalculation from Schumacher meant he pitted on the same lap as team-mate Shwartzman. That compromised the Russian’s pitstop and pretty much ended his title ambitions too.
Sochi was the most convincing display of Schumacher’s on-track ability though, with his best qualifying result of third being earned before a second win in five races in the feature race. That set him up as the title favourite ahead of the back-to-back Bahrain rounds that would end the season.
Both he and main title rival Callum Ilott succumbed to the pressure at times in Bahrain, and it was the title outsiders who excelled to keep themselves in contention far longer than had been expected. Despite qualifying last for the Bahrain round after spinning on his first flying lap, Carlin’s Yuki Tsunoda brought himself up to second place in the season’s qualifying pace averages with pole in the finale, and with a win and a second place he then came just one point short of beating Ilott to the title runner-up spot.
Ilott had been the benchmark in qualifying, with five poles to Tsunoda’s four, and was usually one of the fastest in race conditions too. Over the season, Ilott was on average 0.218% off the absolute qualifying pace. Schumacher only even got that close to pole once.
The same went in the races, with Ilott’s average being the benchmark at 100.489%. For two third of the season Schumacher couldn’t even get match that in individual performances. But the inconsistency of their rivals meant Schumacher’s race pace was fourth fastest on average behind rookies Tsunoda and Shwartzman. And even that position comes with an asterisk.
Schumacher began the title-deciding race on Bahrain’s Outer layout with a storming start as per usual, moving up a spot to take second place through the first corner. He then locked his front and rear brakes heavily on the entry to Turn 4, almost crashing into DAMS’ race leader Dan Ticktum, dropping back to third and immediately torturing his tyres.
Rather than conserve his rubber from then on, Schumacher instead pushed to reclaim second from Carlin’s Jehan Daruvala. The Indian’s frontrunning pace had come after early-season issues where he was down on power was resolved by convincing F2 he needed a new engine for the second half of the season. His improved results proved a point in more way than one.
On lap eight of 34 of the Bahrain race those positions swapped again, with Schumacher’s car squirming as soon as he returned to the throttle out of corners. Futher lock-ups meant he dropped another three spots as the race entered its second half, and he dived into the pits before his tyres got to the point where spinning off would have been an inevitability.
After that pitstop he had the freshest rubber of anyone, and on a track that was grippier than at any other point in the preceding week-and-a-half. His recovery drive to a lowly 18th earned him the title, and his pace during that final stint of the season was over 1% faster than the best of the drivers who didn’t need to pit. That equated to a huge 0.672s advantage over the short, usually 1m05s lap, and massively skewed his season average given all of his rivals were able to make their tyres last the full race distance without too much of a pace drop-off.
Take his pre-pitstop pace, which was among the fastest anyway as he pushed his tyres to the limit, and a more accurate picture emerges. Even more so if we take into account an anonymous result for Ticktum in Sochi, as explored here.
Benchmark driver Ilott’s average race pace would now be at 100.436%, a number unimpacted by the various startline and pitstop stalls that cost him lots of points and ultimately the title this year.
In second place on race pace would be Ticktum on 100.609%, whose score sheet only shows one win and 45 feature race points, a tally bettered by half of the grid, and had the opposite startline form to Schumacher as he struggled to feed temperature into his tyres and lost ground at the start of most races – usually from low qualifying positions too.
Then it’s Shwartzman on 100.662%, with a season almost the opposite to Schumacher’s as it started strongly with two impressive feature race wins but then got progressively worse until a bounceback to frontrunning form in Bahrain. His four wins was the most anyone got in 2020 (team-mate Schumacher only got two), and his early successes left a mark on history.
AlphaTauri-bound Tsunoda got faster and faster the longer he was in an F2 car, and his average of 100.676% was simply remarkable given he was racing in Japanese Formula 4 two years ago.
Series veteran Luca Ghiotto didn’t show new team Hitech GP’s pace straight away – there were literal cobwebs to deal with between the squad’s first running of its cars at the Bahrain pre-season test in March and then July’s Red Bull Ring season opener – and after scoring its first point in its fourth F2 race it then took back-to-back wins at the Hungaroring and Silverstone.
Like DAMS it didn’t often do well in qualifying. That sacrifice came in return for a set-up that allowed Ghiotto and Nikita Mazepin to test the limits of the tyres in the races. Ghiotto ended up fifth fastest on average, at 100.724%.
Behind him in sixth was Schumacher, on 100.772%. Now that did include his race-topping performance in Sochi, and several other races where he was bang on the pace, but leaves more questions than answers. Was Schumacher sometimes racing at 95%, knowing he didn’t need to go full attack? Not even once according to the man himself, nor his Prema team boss.
Ferrari Driver Academy head Marco Matassa said differently though, claiming Schumacher “worked out in which races he should attack and take risks and in which it was better to settle for fewer points and drive more cautiously”. He also said the season reminded him of the “cautious start” Schumacher made to his 2018 FIA European Formula 3 title triumph, which had an average finishing position of 7.4 in its first half that turned around to 2.7 in its second half after five consecutive wins.
The rolling race pace average
|Pos||Driver||Team||Race pace||Pos||Driver||Team||Race pace|
Compare Schumacher’s season average to that of Juri Vips. He spent two days in DAMS’ simulator before being thrown into the car for the first time in Spa-Francorchamps free practice. That session was a total unknown for Vips after team-mate Ticktum was ruled out by an inconclusive COVID-19 test result, then he didn’t even set a lap in qualifying as the result of a mechanical problem. From the back row he finished his first race in 11th, and across the four rounds he competed in (Spa, Monza, Mugello and Sochi) he picked up one podium and the seventh highest race pace average. Just 0.010% off Schumacher.
The gap between Ilott and the driver he lost out on the title to was the same as the gap between Schumacher in sixth and Charouz Racing System’s Pedro Piquet in 15th. So the picture very much looks like a title Ilott managed to lose after being the fastest, which is a familiar line from his time in European F3 and GP3.
So what did Schumacher do to win the title? First of all, he followed the most fundamental rule of points mean prizes. He scored in 20 of the 24 races, Ilott in 18, Mazepin and Zhou in 17, Shwartzman in 15 and Tsunoda only in 13.
More of those points finishes were podiums too. He took 10 over the year, Tsunoda claimed seven, and all other title rivals only made it onto the rostrum six times each. His five consecutive podiums in the middle of the season is a feat only bettered by six drivers through the whole history of European F2, International Formula 3000, GP2 and then the F2 of today.
Podiums are one way of gaining points, how about losing them?
Nikita Mazepin picked up six in-race penalties over the season for driving offences, Tsunoda was handed two, and Ilott, Lundgaard, Ghiotto and Zhou all got one. Ghiotto even got a grid penalty too.
Schumacher’s record was kind of squeaky clean, as his Sochi win came under steward scrutiny for not only the pitstrop drama with Shwartzman but also an illegal Drag Reduction System activation crank. Ultimately neither were offences that could be put on him by the rulebook, and he escaped penalty-free while Prema paid a €10,000 fine.
Even when there weren’t penalties being issued, his rivals were more often getting in scrapes with one another anyway. By the end of the year there was a narrative of a on-track rivalry between Mazepin and Tsunoda based on how hard they had fought each other for victory at Spa, a success that went to Mazepin before being penalised, and Ilott ended up being punished for one of Schumacher’s own errors in Bahrain when the German locked up and Ilott behind clattered into Daruvala as he tried to avoid hitting his title rival. A drive-through penalty for that incident consigned Ilott to a distant 16th place finish, while Schumacher finished seventh and once again unintentionally engineered a situation to his favour.
Schumacher was the cleverest driver on the grid, but in racing terms that can’t be measured by statistics unless you look at the results of its application as a skill. In the end, he finished the season with 14 more points than anyone else.
Compare this to Ilott, who on average finished 1.8 places lower than he qualified, and you can see where Schumacher’s race brain came into play. Given Ilott’s average starting spot was 3.4, a drop of two positions every feature race would come to 60 points lost over the season; although with 20 points earned through pole positions that’s a net loss of 40.
In those same races, Schumacher gained on average 2.5 places, and gained more points from those improvements than Ilott lost through dropping positions. Being in the top 10 more frequently meant Schumacher also had more opportunities to score bonus points than his rivals. The driver with the fastest lap in the top 10 of each race gets two points, and Schumacher benefitted from that twice on occassions where he didn’t set the outright fastest lap. His final-race charge on fresh tyres meant he also had a result where another driver took the fastest lap points from him, but it still meant Ilott didn’t outscore him in that capacity.
The final nail in the coffin for Schumacher’s rivals was his defending. A quality clearly shared with his seven-time F1 world championship-winning father Michael, it was praised by his rivals and Mazepin – known as being one of the hardest racers in junior single-seaters – even said it was “on a bit of a different level” to everyone else.
Given there was no romping off into the distance for dominant wins, it makes sense that Schumacher’s racecraft in the pack is what’s won him the F2 title and what should prove more beneficial for his rookie F1 season with Haas next year.
More analysis of the 2020 F2 field
Why Yuki Tsunoda’s remarkable rise to F1 cannot be stopped
What Schumacher’s junior career tells Haas about what it’s getting
Why an F1 debut is Aitken’s just reward after a tricky 2020 in F2
The timeline of Juri Vips’ F1 superlicence quest
Why the Dan Ticktum conundrum isn’t what you expect
The champions with poor qualifying records that Schumacher joins
The F2 winners who started further back than Matsushita