Losing a championship is, surprisingly, more difficult than winning one. All that hard work and hours of graft only to come out as first loser. Some drivers take defeat and become all the better because of it, such as runaway Euroformula Open champion Felipe Drugovich. In 2017 he came agonisingly close to the ADAC Formula 4 title, with engine issues in the penultimate race of the season ultimately losing him the title.
Rather than dwell on it, Drugovich set about a plan to ensure he would be a champion in 2018.
Over the winter, Drugovich competed in the Asia-based MRF Challenge, in which he had finished fourth the season previous. He dominated, winning 10 of the 16 races, but the trophies were just a bonus as Drugovich had one thing on his mind: preparation.
?The weekends were pretty long, four races per weekend, 16 races in the championship. It maintains you in the rhythm of races. For a driver it is not like any sport you can do every day, so if you can do it more often it’s quite a good thing,? Drugovich tells Formula Scout.
?I did the Italian F4 races [in 2017] just to keep the rhythm, as we did in MRF. ADAC F4 had big gaps between rounds so we just filled it up with Italian races. For sure it helped. I could?ve won the title [had I done a full season].?
Since April 2016, there have only been three months where Drugovich hasn’t raced. This year he had a race-free January, offering him a crucial break to be physically ready for the 2018 season. Knowing the value of experience in 2017 and applying it in 2018 seems to be doing Drugovich well.?Having lost the ADAC F4 title, being able to head into his main programme for 2018 with a championship under his belt gave him a crucial mental boost.
?As much as you win, you get more confidence, and at least in that position more confidence means like you can do more. So for sure I work harder [because of winning the title] and it gave me a boost.?
Winning leads to more winning, and Drugovich describes being able to access more performance simply from the confidence carried from success. Some of his growing ability is down to driver coach Roberto Streit, who also supports Enaam Ahmed and is highly rated by both.
?Roberto helps the team and now he is with me at every race. He has raced quite a lot in Japan but he is Brazilian [like Drugovich]. And yep, he?s doing pretty well.?
You only have to look at Drugovich?s set of results from this year to see that that remark is likely an understatement.
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICES
Formula 3 in Europe has been exceptionally competitive this year, and the high level of competition has brought with it some controversy. Although there were 11 winners in the F3 European Championship this year, only two of the top six in the standings didn’t drive for Prema, and 2017 championship-winning team Carlin could manage no better than 10th in the standings.
Not that Drugovich knew how the 2018 European F3 season would play out, but he almost certainly made the right decision in picking EF Open for this year. The reasoning for his choice is as sound as any.
?First of all, FIA F3 is in its last year this year. And probably all the teams I could have had a chance to win the title with were already full. I did the last 2017 EF Open races in Barcelona with RP Motorsport, and I won that. So we thought it was a good option to keep going with them and try to win the championship this year.
?And then everything changed in the Formula 3 category. So instead of doing one year this year in FIA F3 that possibly I would not win, we preferred to be more sure to be at the top in EF Open, with this team.?
Drugovich built up a successful relationship with Van Amersfoort Racing in F4, and actually made a European F3 cameo with the team. A combination of filling seats and a lack of recent race-winning form meant as that avenue closed, it made the decision to follow up his other 2017 F3 cameo even easier.
But what might have been had Drugovich chosen the alternative route? His ADAC F4 rivals Juri Vips and Marcus Armstrong finished fourth and fifth this year, and for a long time it looked like a rookie would win the title.
?I could?ve beaten Armstrong and Vips. I think it?s the only comparison I can do [to the European F3 field] – compare to them. And yes, if they are at the front then I probably would be there with them.?
F3 cars are famed for their capabilities as learning tools for drivers moving up the single-seater ladder. Their complexities, especially on the engineering side, rival that of bigger championships, and when driven on track they require a great amount of skill to get working efficiently.
After five races in 2017 and a number of tests, Drugovich went into the first round of the 2018 EF Open season with a thorough understanding of the car.
?I know what to do, it?s just trying to do it perfectly. Just like changing it. Especially qualifying, where you have to be really perfect with this car. You just have two laps. From the beginning of the year I?ve known how to drive the car, it?s just getting all the corners perfect is the most difficult thing.?
Drugovich inherited the car and crew of Harrison Scott, who broke records on the way to the 2017 title. One year on and they’d already been surpassed. The second races at Estoril and Silverstone have been the low points of Drugovich?s season – he finished second in both. Since his title-losing Hockenheim retirement in 2017, he has been on the podium 31 out of a possible 39 times.
Like Sebastian Vettel was famed for doing, and as Scott did last year, Drugovich has worked to a format of taking pole, building a lead at the beginning of the race, then maintaining pace and sometimes going for fastest lap. Often this can result in a victory that doesn?t look too dominant, but on other occasions Drugovich has gone all out and finished races at least 10 seconds up on his rivals. Only twice has this failed…
THE WOULD-BE WINNERS
It only took two races for Drugovich to relinquish a win, but the GP3-experienced Marcos Siebert didn?t keep that kind of threat going for Campos Racing.
Changing weather conditions at Estoril denied Drugovich pole, with EF Open returnee Petru Florescu heading Siebert by 0.001 seconds. Florescu led until a mistake of his own making, and it became a straight fight between Siebert and Drugovich. The Argentine defended aggressively on the last lap, and just held on for victory. He was off the pace at Paul Ricard, and was in a winning position once again at Spa-Francorchamps until a collision with Cameron Das.
After that he only visited the podium four times, but Campos has a strong belief in Siebert, and he rated it as a “really good” season for himself.
Bent Viscaal was the next to beat Drugovich, with a perfectly judged drive at Silverstone. Viscaal had taken pole, and having kept the lead through lap one, it meant Drugovich was left understeering in the turbulent air of the lead car for the rest of the race. Despite a tyre dropoff for Viscaal, Drugovich lacked the grip himself to make a move.?Unlike Siebert, Viscaal was consistently on the podium, and became Teo Martin Motorsport?s first winner since 2015.
Behind them in the standings was fifth-year F3 driver Matheus Iorio. The 2016 Brazilian champion was consistent, but never quick enough for wins.?Das, team-mate to Iorio at Carlin, had much of the same story, but looked remarkably more confident at the circuits he had prior experience of.
The other full season entries failed to make an impact, either through underperformance or inexperience, while talented drivers such as Florescu, Leonardo Lorandi and David Schumacher raced too infrequently to fight for wins.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Although the final-round retirement was the obvious cause for Drugovich?s failure to win the ADAC F4 title, he sees it in a different way.
?Too many retirements. Armstrong got the second most wins in the championship [three to Drugovich?s seven]. It was a shame that in many races – in first races of the weekend I got some problem. And then it’s from that position that you have to start for the third race. Automatically I just fucked up this race but also the last race of the weekend. It happened like two or three times, so was not good. That cost me the title.?
2019 AND BEYOND
Midway through the season Drugovich substituted for the injured Scott at RP Motorsport in a Pro Mazda round at Mid-Ohio. He left with a seventh and a fifth from his first races in America; a disappointment for the Brazilian.
?It was pretty bad. The team doesn?t have much experience there, and we had gearbox issues on our test day so I couldn?t really feel the car and learn how to drive it. So after that it was just not enough time to get used to the car. The second race was my best result, which means I could have improved more.
?I just did that because Harrison had the big crash so they needed a replacement. If they call me again, maybe. America is another thing, and Formula E is good too, but I?m focusing on my goal, which is Formula 1.”
Drugovich looks likely to spend 2019 in the new International F3, and for once has no planned races for the winter. Were he to win another title, there would rightly be pressure on him to become Brazil?s next F1 driver.
?At the moment I don?t feel it, but if there is, it?s good because people think I can go to F1.?
F3?S OTHER BIG WINNER
Having finished second in 2017 with nine wins, ahead of Alex Palou, and third the year before, Sho Tsuboi only had one aim in Japanese F3 this season.?It?s a surprise it took so long for Tsuboi to become so dominant, having driven for top team TOM?S his whole F3 career. He was also beaten just twice over the season, by team-mate and two-time Japanese F4 champion Ritomo Miyata, and it will be interesting to see how he fares at the Macau Grand Prix.
Like Drugovich he has also kept his racing schedule busy by competing in Super GT, diversifying his skillset and setting himself up for a lengthy career in his home country were his single-seater ambitions to falter. Tsuboi?s 17 wins out of 19 races is a national record, and his run of 12 wins in a row is the longest winning streak in top level F3 history.