Home Featured How the Formula 2 grid fizzled out of the F1 silly season

How the Formula 2 grid fizzled out of the F1 silly season

by Craig Woollard

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

There was huge excitement at the start of this year about the names that would be on the F2 grid. There still is, but halfway through the season it already looks like every one of those drivers will miss out on F1 in 2022

The quality of this year’s Formula 2 field is incredibly high. Between second-year drivers who impressed as rookies last year and a raft of newcomers with a lot of expectation behind them (and they have certainly delivered), the grid is full of strength.

It’s no wonder, in that case, that F2 is currently in the middle of a narrative-less title fight, with at least five drivers in realistic contention, and a few wildcards poised to spring a huge surprise if things go their way.

That is but one reason why there is a lack of F2 runners in the frame for a Formula 1 graduation. Because of the chaotic nature of F2, not least in 2021, it’s likely the title will not be decided until the Abu Dhabi season finale in mid-December. That’s long after next year’s line-ups would be decided, and it would be very difficult for any team to justify promoting an F2 driver who isn’t at least a title contender.

These factors have also made it notoriously difficult to follow the championship this year. The spacing out of the events compared to the rapid nature of the 2020 season, combined with the shaken up format, is making it a serious challenge to really grasp who is performing and who is not.

It all sounds a bit Formula E in a way, and perhaps that is one reason why 2019 F2 champion (and FE’s first world champion) Nyck de Vries is rumoured to move to F1. There simply is a lack of viable options from F2 right now, and those who left the championship last year without an F1 drive have not really been in the mix due to racing and eyeing up options elsewhere.

There is also the superlicence point factor. Some of the drivers listed below do not qualify for the required FIA superlicence yet, and it’s impossible to tell at this point whether they will be eligible at the conclusion of the season. Another reason why F1 teams can’t be signing F2 drivers right now.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

It’s a surprise in a way that more drivers are not being mentioned. The drastic overhaul in regulations should suit a driver coming in afresh more than in previous years, and their experience on the 18-inch Pirelli tyres in F2 will be invaluable to themselves and to a team. As it stands, only three drivers (the 2020 F2 graduates) have that luxury in race trim.

We are currently in crunch time for when these deals will be signed and sorted, and F2’s stop-start season still has hardly got going. We’re only halfway through the season, and there’s a heck of a lot of racing still to do.

At the time of writing, all but one seat has been secured for 2022, subject to confirmation from Aston Martin and Haas. Valtteri Bottas’s Alfa Romeo Racing team-mate is to be decided, with the big change there being that Sauber chooses who that is rather than Ferrari. Williams’ seats are now taken, as Alex Albon has been brought in alongside Nicholas Latifi.

Of course, many of the F2 drivers are already aligned to an F1 team in one way or another, and for most the only way on to the F1 grid would be to getting loaned to a rival. That, recent promotions and politicking among the teams are also factors at play, so bizarrely – compared to recent examples – having the support of the super-rich isn’t going to get you an F1 seat.

As such, only one driver has regularly been mentioned in F1’s silly season, and he’s not even the championship leader. Whether Alpine junior Guanyu Zhou steps up or not will define whether this will be the first crop of second-tier drivers since the 2016 GP2 field to not have a driver step up full-time the following year.

Listen to our podcast on the topic below, or find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Oscar Piastri AUSTRALIA 20y/o
Currently 1st in F2 (1 win, 1 pole, 3 fastest laps, 5 podiums)   Linked to: Alpine, Williams

By his own admission, what more can Oscar Piastri do? Three titles on the bounce from Formula Renault, Formula 3 and Formula 2 (should he go all the way in his rookie season) and Piastri is still set to totally miss out.

The Alpine junior is in the tough position of being with an outfit that only has no customer relationships on the F1 grid, and already has Esteban Ocon signed on for another three years.

Alpine’s planned commercial-led outlook to its junior drivers also leaves Piastri with no cards on the F1 table, as the Renault group is reducing its presence in his native Australia. However the brand is committed to keeping him on in F2 next year, that is if he doesn’t win the title now. If he does become the 2021 champion, then it will rule out a series return.

There was some very hopeful thinking that he could spring up at Williams, for the same reasons as stablemate Zhou, but in reality he’s been talked of little during the silly season. Whatever he does in ’22, many will argue he should be racing in F1.

Guanyu Zhou CHINA 22y/o
Currently 2nd in F2 (3 wins, 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 5 podiums)   Linked to: Alfa Romeo, Alpine, Williams

The one driver who seems to have a credible shot at an F1 seat. He’s backed by Alpine and SECA – China Media Capital ownership, believed to have put €30 million to the side under the consideration that it could finance an F1 move for its driver if not invested directly into a team such as Alfa Romeo. And so the Zhou to Alfa story gathered momentum.

At the same time, Formula Scout learned that there were internal conversations about Alpine loaning its juniors to rival teams.

Photo: Alpine Racing

There was some disagreement between the Enstone-based Alpine squad, its ownership and its engine supplier Renault, but Zhou’s future was mentioned in a conversation between Alpine and Williams. That’s not to suggest either team was interested this summer to put Zhou in a Williams seat, as many ran away with the idea of, but talking about its juniors with rivals made clear that Alpine was serious about considering all options to make a success of its graduate-less Academy.

Zhou is more experienced and better backed than his Alpine peers, even if his overall potential may be less, and of course there is huge appeal to make him first Chinese driver to reach F1. And with that in mind, the second Alfa Romeo seat once again looks like an appealing option for the third-year F2 driver.

Read more: Alpine working on finding F1 seats at other teams for its juniors

Robert Shwartzman RUSSIA 21y/o
Currently 3rd in F2 (2 wins, 2 fastest laps, 3 podiums)   Linked to: Alfa Romeo

Shwartzman has tested for Alfa Romeo before, and was believed to be in the frame for a 2021 seat after a brilliant rookie F2 season. However after a very up-and-down sophomore F2 season to date, there’s little connecting him to the same seat now. Even if his 2020 team-mate Mick Schumacher makes a surprise move from Haas to Alfa next year, Shwartzman would not be in contention to replace him at the Ferrari customer team, despite being a Ferrari junior, for political reasons.

Dan Ticktum ENGLAND 22y/o
Currently 4th in F2 (1 win, 1 fastest lap, 5 podiums)   Linked to: Williams

Ticktum started the year believing he was in contention for a Williams seat were he to perform in F2 this year. In late July he was told that dream was over, and he departed the team’s driver development programme.

Williams shared the news via the official F1 website, but has still not publicly given the exact reason why they parted ways mid-season. There is more to this story, but it’s been ruled out that the exit was related to Ticktum broadcasting himself calling Latifi “a poo”. Either way, Ticktum’s own comments that 2021 was his final shot at reaching F1 are being proven right.

Juri Vips ESTONIA 21y/o
Currently 5th in F2 (2 wins, 1 fastest lap, 4 podiums)   Linked to: Red Bull

Red Bull has retained all four of its F1 drivers for 2022, which locks out the highly regarded Juri Vips from a race seat. His rise was massively curtailed by the pandemic last year, and he ended up being jumped by Tsunoda in the pecking order. However Red Bull worked hard to make sure he could still get a superlicence, and the reserve driver role he’s held since last November is a serious position with the team that is set to continue in 2022.

Theo Pourchaire FRANCE 18y/o
Currently 6th in F2 (1 win, 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 1 podium)   Linked to: Alfa Romeo

The Sauber junior has been meteoric in his rise up the single-seater ladder, and had his first taste of F1 machinery recently (alongside Mahaveer Raghunathan of all people). Alfa Romeo team principal Frederic Vasseur, also the chief executive officer of Sauber, always planned to get his protege in an F1 car at some point, and his own contract extension with the team gave him some of the pulling power to do so.

Last month’s tryout at the Hungaroring in Alfa’s 2019 car was more of a late change in the plan though, aiding him and the team as a form of calibration given Pourchaire now has a simulator driver role. It also was, in part, a test that was deflecting the interest in the Zhou camp.

Photo: Alfa Romeo Racing

Vasseur doesn’t want to promote Pourchaire to F1 next year, but equally he doesn’t want to sign a second driver alongside Bottas who could remain beyond the time Pourchaire is ready – possibly for 2023.

And as the team is still looking for sponsorship for the 2022 season, convincing all of the stakeholders that it already has a plan for its driver and financial future without the need to bring in someone like Zhou is a well-thought move.

Liam Lawson NEW ZEALAND 19y/o
Currently 8th in F2 (1 win, 1 pole, 2 podiums) and 2nd in DTM (3 W, 1 P, 1 FL, 6 podiums)   Linked to: Red Bull, Alpha Tauri

Lawson could well be a copy-paste of much of the situation with Vips, but he has the added intrigue in that he has been absolutely brilliant in his DTM this year in a Red Bull-branded AF Corse-run Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo (confusingly).

The Kiwi has remarkably won on his Formula Regional, Toyota Racing Series, F3, F2 and sportscar debuts, and is currently second in the DTM points with three wins (while AlphaTauri-branded team-mate Albon is in sixth with one win). Without two unlucky punctures at the Nurburgring that left him pointless there, he would most likely be title favourite right now.

He has of course been one of the stars of the F2 season too, and like Vips has very strong Red Bull ties at the minute. Whether he’s racing in 2022, Red Bull will be financing it, so he could be in the mix for a 2023 AlphaTauri seat.

Christian Lundgaard DENMARK 20y/o
Currently 12th in F2 (2 podiums)   Linked to: Alpine, Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

After his remarkable debut in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Lundgaard certainly has to be in the mix for a full-time IndyCar seat in 2022. It would be a smart move, with F1 looking more and more unlikely with an underwhelming F2 season and no seats available at the Alpine team that supports him.

Photo: Joe Skibinski / IndyCar

He seemed to absolutely thrive in his IndyCar cameo, and could pave the way for more F2 talent to make the jump overseas like 2020 F2 runner-up Callum Ilott is doing this weekend and Ticktum is rumoured to as well.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the team he debuted with, and Andretti Autosport are Lundgarrd’s most likely IndyCar homes.

Marcus Armstrong NEW ZEALAND 21y/o
Currently 14th in F2 (1 podium)   Linked to: IndyCar

A driver with plenty of speed behind him but not the results to boot in F2. Armstrong is a driver who has not enjoyed the past 18 months, with grip issues in particular pegging him back. As such, the Ferrari junior has been leapfrogged by several of his peers and is now out of F1 contention. He’s believed to have begun looking for options in IndyCar, having visited the Nashville race recently. Like F1 though, there’s only so many seats going.

Further reading
Why the F2 format overhaul may be short-lived
Opinion: What would come next if Piastri does a junior series hat-trick?
The young drivers whose mid-season IndyCar debuts Lundgaard follows