When it comes to teams synonymous with winning in the junior ranks, Prema is one of the names that should spring to mind instantly. Save for a Lando Norris triumph in 2017, it obliterated the opposition in the hotly-contested Formula 3 European Championship in the last decade and backed that fearsome reputation up by taking to GP2 and winning convincingly at the first attempt, and likewise in the new FIA Formula 3 Championship that replaced GP3.
But, in the second tier, Prema’s form has dipped somewhat in recent years. It took the teams’ and drivers’ title (with current AlphaTauri F1 driver Pierre Gasly) at the first attempt in 2016 (as GP2), before taking Charles Leclerc to a stunning title a year later while narrowly missing out on the teams’ title.
With the introduction of the new F2 car, 2018 proved to be challenging, as Nyck de Vries couldn’t overhaul that year’s excellent rookie crop to get in the mix. With Sean Gelael alongside, the team slipped to fifth in the teams’ standings. Last year was worse still, with a sprint race win for Ferrari Driver Academy member Mick Schumacher at the Hungaroring being the only podium finish for the team. It finished a lowly ninth in the points, ahead only of the struggling Trident.
But the team seems to have regained its form in 2020. Schumacher, who has made a couple of mistakes this year, has shown excellent speed already in his second year at this level. He is partnered by one of the hottest properties around – fellow Ferrari junior Robert Shwartzman.
Shwartzman is rated highly and for good reason. Formula Scout didn’t emphatically award him its driver of 2019 without good justification – he took a very controlled title in a totally stacked field last year. Both drivers continue an affiliation with Prema that dates back to 2018 in Shwartzman’s case, and 2016 in that of Schumacher.
So, it should be of surprise to few that Shwartzman has already climbed to the top step of the podium in F2 – even in feature races. He did so brilliantly in the wet at the Red Bull Ring a week ago and added to that at the Hungaroring with a crushing display utilising the alternate strategy after a so-so qualifying.
Both already know what it is like to be champion with the Italian outfit – with Shwartzman’s FIA F3 crown coming in 2019, and Schumacher’s European F3 title coming in 2018.
Formula Scout writers have often been divided over Schumacher and the hype that comes with him based off the surname he has. The son of the seven-time F1 champion has often shown great speed and good work ethic, but has had a habit of throwing away good results or being a bit unlucky, as last year showed. Evaluating drivers who come with this added pressure is not particularly easy. That much is agreed on.
But, while the Red Bull Ring and the Hungaroring proved to be Prema’s two strongest circuits last year in terms of race results, the changes made for F2 in 2020 have re-established the order and Prema has been one of the outfits to get things right – especially in race trim. Pirelli’s 18-inch tyres have caught out even some of the most successful teams, with DAMS’ struggles clear to see on full display at the Hungaroring, for example.
Shwartzman’s brace of feature race wins makes Prema the most successful team so far in 2020, while Schumacher’s pace at the Hungaroring – where he became the first driver this year to secure two podiums in a single weekend – vindicates that it was on top regardless of which strategy it was on, as Schumacher himself explains.
“We showed potential, that we have the speed of being first, taking only the people who have been on the normal strategy – option to prime – and leading them with quite a margin,” he explained in the press conference after Saturday’s race.
“So that’s something that I take as very positive. Obviously being on the podium gives us a good amount of points and having Robert with me on the podium gives the team a lot of points. So, I think in general we know the potential we have, we know how we could have improved, but the risk of taking that alternative strategy is very big.
“After lap six if we have a safety car and whatever, that gap can also get down, or later on once we have also changed the tyres, we can get a safety car and that strategy doesn’t work anymore.
“We took a gamble on Robert’s side, and it paid off, and we took the safer version [for me] but nevertheless I’m happy about the speed we had, I’m happy about the points we got and in all, I was very happy to be in the car and have fun driving the car so that’s something which was very good for me.
“It shows the pace we have; it shows the potential we have, being first on the normal strategy obviously is like a win for us, even though it is not on paper but from feeling it is. I can just say thank you to everybody who supported me, we had a few difficult races in Austria.”
For Shwartzman, he used his own team-mate as a reference to judge the gap he needed in the race, showcasing his awareness of what is going on around him.
“It’s kind of funny because when I was on my own driving, I didn’t have any reference in front and also at the back,” he explained. “But I managed to find a reference. When I saw Mick, exiting from Turn 1, going into Turn 2, you can see the people who are coming from the penultimate corner, so Turn 13 to Turn 14. I was looking and there was Mick in the white and red car.
“So, he was my reference. I was looking and every time I was there, he was more or less in the same position as well. I knew he had the fresher tyres, with my older tyres I was thinking ‘that’s not bad pace’ and I was trying to push as well. So my reference basically was Mick.”
So where has this turn in form come from for Prema? For Schumacher, he believes that a lot of work done during the off-season and – perhaps more importantly – during the lockdown is where the difference was made.
“I think obviously over the winter, from 2019 to 2020 there has been a lot of hours of work put in to developing the car,” he says, with emphasis on the hours put in. “Obviously with both of us being quite close to that, working working closely with the team on that subject is something that we had the focus on. Obviously, it shows that we improved quite a lot and coming to Bahrain, which was the first test, there we kept going on the improvements and the work on the car and I think it all paid off coming to the season now.
“Also, the time, three months, four months, where we haven’t been in the car at all, the work never stopped. Even though everyone was in their separate places, the communication was always very intense. It was always very open for us drivers to interact with them, so I think that’s something that brought the team to the next level.
“With the new tyres, when there are new features coming in, Prema is the one to be at the top because they always work the hardest. That’s something which me personally as a driver I want to learn from, and I want to do the same.
“So I want to spend the most time I can with the team, to learn the most from them and take the most with me onto the track so that when I need it in a critical situation as today with the tyre management, I can use it.”
Shwartzman concurred with his team-mate and rival, while also explaining the team ethos as well as work done in the simulator over winter.
“Mick went fully on the details. In my opinion, we just found that sort of feeling in the team – put a target, work hard, arrive at the target, that’s it,” he said.
“So, all the working processes in the winter as Mick said were big. We did just a lot of work in the sim and outside of the sim, and also the team spirit – that helps a lot. Just having people who believe you can do it and that’s the main thing. The team spirit is the key where people work really hard and they like it and they believe we can win and when we win, they are super happy and pushing to continue to work hard.”
Schumacher continued to go into details specifically about how the speed was always there, even if the timesheets didn’t always imply it. In qualifying so far this season, Schumacher has taken fifth, ninth and fifth again, while Shwarzman has ended up 11th, sixth and 11th again.
“Taking it back to Red Bull Ring, we always had the speed,” he explained. “It was a matter of delivering which was a bit of an issue for us and for me. The mistake that happened after the safety car was mine, it was my blame to take.
“We bounced back quite big time and also considering both times we didn’t have any free practice running at all shows the potential we have, especially in qualifying, and then coming to wet races in any conditions we have been the top guys. Maybe it didn’t always show on paper but it’s always been the case so I’m very happy, but it’s early in the season. There’s a lot that can happen, a lot of races to come.
“So, I’m looking forward to taking one race weekend by one race weekend and enjoying the time I have. Enjoying the time I have in the car and enjoying the time I have with the team besides having dinners together, having those late nights together where we work together on the car. It’s something I really appreciate, and something I really like. To learn what they’re doing, to learn the philosophy they have and to dig into that.
“For example, also with Robert, we have a competition going on but that’s obviously pushing us to improve, coming back to say working with the team,” he explained after Shwarzman quipped about the pair’s recent steak dinner they shared. “I like to understand the basics, I like to understand the details as well, so always having that communication open will be better than just doing races and having that communication behind the scenes.
“The team is like my second family, and so enjoying every moment with them, enjoying those late nights, early mornings, for me it was really good. Obviously staying with the team over in Austria and then coming here to Budapest, obviously travelling together, dealing with stuff together and also analysing things together after the weekend was always one of the key points from those three weeks. And enjoying the time with them.”
Prema’s pace in an unconventional sprint race – where pitstops were made by the vast majority of the runners – was also clear to see. Schumacher finished third, while Shwartzman elevated himself to fourth.
“I think a lot of it is due to making the right call at the right time, making the decision to pit for the alternative strategy in the sprint race,” Schumacher said. “Obviously, that’s not an easy decision to take because usually, that’s a slower technique, usually the slower strategy.
“But in this race, it paid off for us because I am sure I would have never got those tyres to last the whole race. But even when I started pushing on them to create a gap to prepare myself for the pitstop, the tyre still held on for quite a few laps so that was quite interesting. Luca [Ghiotto] said everything we learned last year is quite different this year so it’s hard to use what we know from last year.
“For me personally it’s just to know the car. You know the championship and that helps, but everything else is quite new. That’s why also obviously we have a strong field this year, it’s quite a bit easier for a rookie to come in and understand the tyre because everybody has to start from zero.”
Shwartzman concludes that the team is providing both drivers with equal treatment, which is beneficial to the team and to the drivers.
“First of all, we’re working for the team, we’re working all together for the team, there’s not such a thing as just me. So, in case we need to help each other, me and Mick, we’re going to do that because that’s a benefit for the team. And we need to collect as many points as we can.
“Today we had a really good day, as Mick said, collecting the points. Both cars on the podium that was really good. The team generally is supporting both of us, they give everything the same which is fair and good, and at the end of the day hopefully me and Mick will do a good job and at the end of the year our team is going to be the first one.”
This F2 season is one of the tightest and one of the most intriguing with F1 juniors in many spots, all capable of taking the championship and hopefully a seat in the big time, and with plenty of wildcards in the mix too.
The dynamic between the Prema pair as the season progresses – given both were team-mates in 2018, both are in Ferrari’s stable and are perhaps best-placed to secure one or maybe both Alfa Romeo seats for 2021 – was always going to be one of the most fascinating talking points. That they’ve helped thrust the team back where it feels natural for it to be will only raise the profile of that rivalry. Perhaps it will be with the coveted F2 title on the line.
You can hear our thoughts on the Prema battle, and who else was on the up at the Hungaroring, in our latest podcast. Listen on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.