Home Featured The five drivers fighting for the inaugural FIA F3 Championship title

The five drivers fighting for the inaugural FIA F3 Championship title

by Elliot Wood

Given the rather disruptive circumstances in which the FIA Formula 3 Championship came into existence, its half-season of racing has more than proved its worth in the world of junior single-seaters.

The capacity 30-car grid seen at four of the five rounds is something single-seaters has rarely been treated to outside of the Ford Ford classics and Japanese Formula 4, and the sleek way the championship runs on weekends despite essentially having to operate from a small corner of the Formula 1 paddock is worthy of praise.

At least a third of the grid could realistically be F1 drivers in the future, and in a field so packed with talent it’s a shame that performance seems to have mostly been distinguished by the competitiveness of the teams they’ve been driving for.

Formula Scout has therefore, rather than attempt ranking all 32 drivers to have raced this year, picked out the five most likely to be heading into the season finale in the Russian resort of Sochi still in title contention.

Key?Average finishing position (RA), Average qualifying position (QA),?Percentage of team?s points scored (TP)

Robert Shwartzman?RUSSIA?Prema Racing
1st in standings, 124 points (2 wins, 1 pole, 1 fastest lap) -?RA?3.1,?QA?4.8,?TP 38.0%

Shwartzman

One of the Ferrari Driver Academy’s most inspired calls over the last few years has been signing Robert Shwartzman, whose performances have gone up another level since receiving the patronage of the Scuderia.

The ultra-competitive state of the championship, and the difficulty of overtaking in the Dallara F3 2019 means Shwartzman’s tally of three podiums out of five in the reversed-grid races is impressive, with one of those coming despite colliding with Prema team-mate Marcus Armstrong on the last lap while fighting for the lead at the Red Bull Ring.

He’d finished in the top five in every race too until the latest race at the Hungaroring, where a podium battle with Carlin’s Felipe Drugovich ended in a collision and then retirement.

The consistency is what has brought Shwartzman to the top of the standings, having only being the top scorer at the Barcelona season opener where he inherited victory in the first ever race after rival Christian Lundgaard was penalised, then finished fourth in race two.

What Shwartzman has to do, if he wants to seize control of the championship, is nail qualifying. The Russian has never looked lacking in race pace, but since taking pole at Barcelona he hasn’t been on the front row. It’s enabled him to show off overtaking ability, but how many more points could have been scored from higher grid spots?

Juri Vips?ESTONIA Hitech GP
2nd in standings, 112 points (2 wins, 1 pole, 1 fastest lap) – RA?6.0,?QA 4.8,?TP 67.9%

Vips

Photo: Colin McMaster/FIA F3

The fact Juri Vips is named as a potential F1 driver in 2020 is testament to how much he is shining on track this year.

Like Shwartzman, this is his second year at F3 level and the outstanding ability shown as a rookie in FIA European F3 has been blended with a natural ability to manage tyres that has been as effective in qualifying as well as races.

Vips and his Hitech GP team started the season struggling to get the most out of the Pirelli rubber over one lap, which held back their opening two weekends. Once that problem was navigated, Vips was at the front in qualifying and took race one wins at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone.

He arguably had the pace to win twice at Silverstone, but got into trouble immediately on the first lap of race two, and further contact with rivals meant he finished 15th. Given his usually superb racecraft, it was an unusual race for the Estonian.

It wasn’t actually the first time Vips had experienced a race which unravelled to his own accord though, having followed up a poor start in race two at Paul Ricard by clashing with ART Grand Prix’s David Beckmann, earning a penalty and finishing 17th.

Jehan Daruvala?INDIA?Prema Racing
3rd in standings, 104 points (2 wins, 1 fastest lap) -?RA?6.6,?QA?6.0,?TP 31.9%

Daruvala

After two years in European F3 with just two wins, former Force India junior Jehan Daruvala needed to up his game for this year.

Part of his up-turn in form is inevitably down to being with the crack Prema outfit, but also in his experience at this level.

Daruvala led much of the opening qualifying session of the season at Barcelona before being toppled by his team-mates, but then got shuffled down to seventh in the season opening race. From the front row in race two he was unstoppable though, taking a controlling victory despite multiple safety car interventions.

This fed into an even stronger weekend at Paul Ricard, where with a victory and third place he took the biggest points haul from a single round so far. There were two high-pressure moments where he was noticeably not at his best though.

In qualifying he was once again set for pole, but failed to improve on his all-important last lap and was pipped by Jake Hughes. He then fluffed the start to race one, but tracked down the leaders and took a comfortable win. A long battle with Trident’s Pedro Piquet then prevented him from challenging Shwartzman for race two victory.

He took the points lead after hassling winner Vips to the chequered flag in race one at Silverstone, but his season has unravelled since. He didn’t finish the second race in Britain, then qualified an unprecedented 17th at the Hungaroring.

Such a lowly starting position put him in the midfield madness, and he was careful to avoid more crashes on his recovery to 11th. Further progress to seventh in race two only handed him two points, and explains his drop in the standings.

Marcus Armstrong?NEW ZEALAND?Prema Racing
4th in standings, 98 points (1 win, 1 pole, 2 fastest laps) -?RA?5.8,?QA?4.8,?TP 30.1%

Armstrong

Photo: Joe Portlock / FIA F3 Championship

Marcus Armstrong could finish the next FIA F3 race as championship leader, but the Prema driver needs to ensure he is the top driver within his team more often.

His most impressive weekend so far was at the Red Bull Ring, where he was the fastest driver over a single lap but was denied race one victory by Vips and Max Fewtrell. He looked more confident in race two, but that was also a victory lost thanks to his last lap crash with team-mate Shwartzman which dropped him to 19th – his only pointless race.

At Silverstone he wasted a front row start in a race he could’ve challenged Vips in, ending up being beaten by Daruvala instead, and qualified 13th at the Hungaroring in a weekend of struggles for Prema.

With all three of its drivers on the backfoot though, Armstrong shone to take eighth and pole for the reversed grid race two, converting it into victory by a dominant 12.670 seconds.

Christian Lundgaard?DENMARK?ART Grand Prix
5th in standings, 73 points (1 win, 1 pole, 3 fastest laps) -?RA?9.3,?QA?4.8,?TP?49.7%

Photo: FIA Formula 3

Unlucky not to win the Formula Renault Eurocup title as a rookie last year, Christian Lundgaard could be ruing the win lost to a controversial Virtual Safety Car penalty in the opening race of the FIA F3 season.

After bettering poleman Shwartzman on the opening lap, Lundgaard controlled the pace of the race and took what appeared to be an easy win in his first ever race at F3 level. It appeared his pace was too quick though, and a five-second penalty dropped him to second.

Lundgaard’s Barcelona disappointment was followed by four pointless races with an almost comedic variety of problems: a lack of qualifying pace, a unexpected suspension failure, exclusion from qualifying after a physio was caught working on his car, and being hit off by fellow Renault junior Yifei Ye.

By this point he’d dropped to eighth in the standings, with 24 points to Shwartzman’s 90, and although he did score at Silverstone he was too messy to capitalise on the pace of his ART Grand Prix car.

Thankfully for Lundgaard, ART was the form team at the Hungaroring and he took a dominant long-awaited first win from pole. That was followed by a trouble-free run to fifth, and with confidence fully restored.

Lundgaard and ART’s brilliance combined could be unbeatable, but he’ll need his team-mates’ help to deny Prema the title.

THE WILDCARD

Hughes

Photo: Joe Portlock / FIA F3 Championship

Title-winning DTM outfit HWA is new to single-seaters for 2019, but its engineering nous meant it only took two qualifying sessions for Jake Hughes to place the team on pole.

The Briton – in his fourth year at this level – is exceedingly happy with the German team and his single win at the Red Bull Ring that was gained after the intra-team crash at Prema is unlikely to remain his only success of the year.

HWA Racelab has been on an upward trajectory all season, with Hughes and his team-mates also benefiting from the German’s squad recent venture into Formula E.

Last time out, Hughes was on the podium in both races and looked one of the most comfortable in race-spec. Only Shwartzman and Daruvala have also made the podium twice in one weekend, and it’s only the Prema trio that have more podium appearances in total than Hughes.

Having less than half of the points of Shwartzman is mostly down to Hughes’ frequent nack of getting in battles for position that end up in spins or going off-track. Even with a conservative estimate, the points lost to such incidents would leave him close to Armstrong if they were regained.

Further reading
Scout Report: Yuki Tsunoda
Could Juri Vips be Red Bull?s next shock F1 promotion?
Why Ferrari shouldn?t censure its F3 duo for their last-lap disaster
Max Fewtrell: Renault?s champion heading into F3?s great unknown