Home Featured The momentum shift leaving Schumacher sitting pretty going to Bahrain

The momentum shift leaving Schumacher sitting pretty going to Bahrain

by Elliot Wood

Photo: Formula Motorsport Limited

Two feature race wins, and one Silverstone free practice session – the only occasions Mick Schumacher has been the first name on a results sheet in 2020. But recent form makes him title leader with good reason

A driver is only as good as their most recent races, and for Mick Schumacher that’s a good sign as he is in the form of his life. In his sophomore Formula 2 season he has built the Prema team around him, shaken off doubters with two well-earned wins, and rocketed into a points lead that may well him carry him to a second junior single-seater title in three years.

Will he be continuing that form into the final two rounds of the season, both held in Bahrain?

“I feel like I’m still very much in the right mindset and very much in the right rhythm that I left Sochi in,” is Schumacher’s take. “Obviously the answer I will only have once I arrive in Bahrain and do the first free practice.”

Schumacher highlights Sochi not only because it was the most recent round, but because it was there that he really stamped his title authority with a feature race performance that drew comparisons with Formula 1 wins taken by his illustrious father.

Yet in the first third of the season, it was Prema team-mate and rookie Robert Shwartzman who very much had the upper hand after claiming back-to-back feature race wins and the points lead. In fact, he had practically double the points (81 to 41) that Schumacher had at the time, and he became only the 11th driver since the inception of F1’s primary feeder series in 1967 to win two of their first five races.

Not in any session had Schumacher appeared in the top two, only doing so for the first time when he topped free practice for round five at Silverstone.

And honestly, practice pace means nothing in F2. The track is in such a different condition to qualifying and the races that reading into the form from the earliest of the Friday morning sessions is a pointless job.

But that weekend was unique, because the teams were running on the same track as the week before, and without any mid-week rain to wash the rubber away as had occurred at the season-opening Red Bull Ring rounds. Free practice for once was relevant.

Schumacher’s pace didn’t translate into qualifying, therefore already making the chance of a strong feature race result an uphill task. But his race pace in Sunday’s sprint encounter was unmatched, although he didn’t come to be at his fastest when the track was at its best – nor take a win that was his for the taking – after colliding late in the race with Shwartzman.

He still finished second, and that performance opened the floodgates. At Barcelona he started a run of five consecutive podiums, an achievement only bettered six times in the 54-year history of European F2/International Formula 3000/GP2/F2.

During that run, Schumacher was second fastest on race pace at Spa-Francorchamps and claimed his first feature race win at Monza, over a year after the Hungaoring sprint race win as a rookie that many thought would mark an upturn in form.

As Schumacher has been upping his game, the momentum has been going away from Shwartzman, who fell from the points lead at Monza and has not scored since then.

“We’ve had an up-and-down year. The beginning was good, and the first part of the season,” Shwartzman confirmed.

“Unfortunately the last three rounds were not as good as it was at the beginning of the season for various reasons. Like the reason in Mugello, just unfortunately the car broke, and this time you can’t really say whose fault it is because it was no one’s fault. It’s just a thing that happened,” he added with a sigh.

Longest podium streaks in F1’s primary feeder series

Mike Thackwell – 9 podiums – 1983-’84 European F2 (Enna, Zolder, Mugello, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Thruxton, Vallelunga, Mugello, Pau)
Jonathan Palmer – 8 podiums – 1983 European F2 (Vallelunga, Pau, Jarama, Donington, Misano, Enna, Zolder, Mugello)
Juan Pablo Montoya – 7 podiums – 1998 Int. F3000 (Pau, Red Bull Ring, Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Spa, Enna, Nurburgring)
Justin Wilson – 6 podiums – 2001 Int. F3000 (Magny-Cours, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Spa, Monza)
Vitantonio Liuzzi – 6 podiums – 2004 Int. F3000 (Magny-Cours, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Spa, Monza)
Romain Grosjean – 6 podiums – 2011 GP2 (Silverstone, Nurburgring, Nurburgring, Hungaroring, Hungaroring, Spa)
Mick Schumacher – 5 podiums – 2020 F2 (Barcelona, Spa, Spa, Monza, Monza)
Stoffel Vandoorne – 5 podiums – 2015 GP2 (Bahrain, Bahrain, Barcelona, Barcelona, Monaco)
Jolyon Palmer – 5 podiums – 2014 GP2 (Bahrain, Bahrain, Spain, Spain, Monaco)
Kazuki Nakajima – 5 podiums – 2007 GP2 (Silverstone, Silverstone, Nurburgring, Nurburgring, Hungaroring)
Timo Glock – 5 podiums – 2007 GP2 (Bahrain, Bahrain, Barcelona, Barcelona, Monaco)
Lewis Hamilton  – 5 podiums – 2006 GP2 (Hungaroring, Istanbul, Istanbul, Monza, Monza)
Bjorn Wirdheim – 5 podiums – 2003 Int. F3000 (Magny-Cours, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Monza)
Giorgio Pantano – 5 podiums – 2002 Int. F3000 (Magny-Cours, Hockenheim, Hungaroring, Spa, Monza)
Erik Comas – 5 podiums – 1989-’90 Int. F3000 (Spa, Le Mans, Dijon, Donington, Silverstone)
Christian Danner – 5 podiums – 1985 Int. F3000 (Vallelunga, Pau, Spa, Dijon, Enna)
Brian Henton – 5 podiums – 1980 European F2 (Thruxton, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, Vallelunga, Pau)

After retiring from the Mugello feature race with a technical problem, Shwartzman then had opening-lap contact in the sprint and finished ninth, then got truly outplayed by a move from the Schumacher strategy textbook in Sochi.

Schumacher was jostling for the feature race lead with Carlin’s Yuki Tsunoda when both opted to pit on the same lap, despite Schumacher telling Prema he would do so a lap later. The late call by the German put Prema in a frenzy, but it got his stop done successfully. Unfortunately Shwartzman was also scheduled to pit that lap, and his stop moments later wasn’t as clean.

Shwartzman sank down the order, and Schumacher’s choice of timing set up a lead-extending win. Prema was fined for its handling of the pitstop, in a bizarre ruling which very much touched a grey area of the rulebook, while Schumacher escaped disqualification for an illegal rear wing component.

The start prowess of Schumacher, one of the only drivers in the field to really master F2’s tricky clutch system, meant he gained two spots (and a further three from a crash) to make the podium again in the sprint race and pull even further away.

On average he’s gained 1.2 spots from his starting position on opening laps, and that average starting position is the joint second highest in the field. Which is odd, because Schumacher is yet to break the top two in qualifying in F2.

In Sochi he qualified a career-matching best third place, while 10 of the drivers behind him in the standings have frequented the front row. It’s an odd statistic, but take away the integer limitations of a grid and use qualifying pace instead, and it actually tells a similar story.

Four-time 2020 poleman Callum Ilott is unsurprisingly the top qualifier, with the Virtuosi Racing driver’s average pace a very impressive 100.206% of the fastest lap on any given weekend. Three-time polesitter Tsunoda is next best, on 100.356%, then Ilott’s team-mate Guanyu Zhou on 100.385% and boosted by dominating qualifying for the season opener.

Then it’s Schumacher on 100.469%, which puts him ahead of two of the season’s other polesitters. As Formula Scout has already explored in the case of DAMS’ Dan Ticktum, it’s qualifying form that essentially makes or breaks a title campaign.

Schumacher doesn’t have a stand-out qualifying session that even brought his average up, but it is only he and Ilott who have qualified in the top 10 nine times from the 10 rounds held so far. Ilott’s anomalous result was 12th at Spa, Schumacher’s was 15th at Mugello, and the only other driver with a worst qualifying result that is good as that is HWA Racelab’s Jake Hughes – although his 15th place on the grid came in his only season appearance in Sochi.

The numbers haven’t been making headlines, but they’re showing Schumacher is doing the job better than the rest.

What about race pace though? At the mid-season mark after Barcelona, Ilott was by far the fastest, ahead of Shwartzman, Ticktum and then a closely matched trio of Schumacher, Christian Lundgaard (ART Grand Prix) and Tsunoda.

Schumacher’s recent run of form has brought him closer to Ilott on average, but he’s actually dropped to being fifth best behind Lundgaard. Even more noticeable is that despite Shwartzman’s opposite fortunes to his team-mate, he’s still second best on average and has been faster than Schumacher in two of the four races since the paddock left Spain.

Where the smooth Ticktum is superb at keeping his tyres alive in the races but can’t turn them on in qualifying, and where in the opposite direction the likes of MP Motorsport’s Felipe Drugovich can better anyone over one lap but struggles to get anywhere near doing the same over the distance of a feature race, Prema has found the sweet middle ground. While its drivers may never get the bonus points for pole or fastest laps, it’s actually in a position to get a strong result and a large points haul out of every single race it goes into.

Is there a secret behind this success, after a 2019 season dotted with remarks from Schumacher where he went from having “more confidence” than everyone at some races to then having none at others?

Drivers to have won twice in their first five races in F1’s primary feeder series

Jochen Rindt – 1967 European F2 (Snetterton, Silverstone, Nurburgring, Tulln-Langenlebarn)
Tino Brambilla – 1968 European F2 (Hockenheim, Vallelunga)
Stefan Bellof – 1982 European F2 (Silverstone, Hockenheim)
Alex Zanardi – 1991 Int. F3000 (Vallelunga, Mugello)
Luca Badoer – 1992 Int. F3000 (Enna, Hockenheim)
Ricardo Rosset – 1995 Int. F3000 (Silverstone, Enna)
Adam Carroll – 2005 GP2 (Imola, Monaco)
Charles Leclerc – 2017 F2 (Bahrain, Barcelona)
George Russell – 2018 F2 (Baku, Barcelona)
Robert Shwartzman – 2020 F2 (Red Bull Ring, Hungaroring)

The size of the wheel rims went from 13 to 18 inches for this year, and was the biggest unknown heading into pre-season testing. Many weren’t particularly pleased that the preparation time with the new Pirelli rubber that went with the increased wheel size was limited to just three days at Bahrain, and a week of testing that was punctuated with reliability problems that were not publicised at the time but came very much to light once problems inflicted drivers in the season opener.

The team that made the most of that limited testing schedule was Prema, with Shwartzman setting 199 laps and Schumacher just one less. That collectively put them 25 laps clear of Virtuosi and 38 clear of Carlin, which is where Schumacher’s sternest title challenges are coming from. With this weekend’s feature race at the circuit running to 32 laps, that extra experience of the hard and medium compounds in the Prema camp could prove crucial.

The soft replaces the medium for the season finale the weekend after that, which will run on Bahrain’s little-used Outer layout. That may wipe the slate clean on who’s best prepared, but when three of the remaining title contenders haven’t raced at Bahrain before at all in their careers, it’s looking more likely to be a two-horse race between Schumacher and Ilott.

Strip away the additional points drivers get for poles and fastest laps – the kind of statistics Schumacher hopes to rack up in F1 when he makes it there to claim back his family’s records from Lewis Hamilton – and the gap between the top two in the points grows from 22 to 36.

Outright speed or consistently being thereabouts? Having four extra points for pole or on average scoring almost four more per race (after Sochi’s half-points sprint encounter)? He may not be leading it in the way you’d expect F1’s most anticipated future talent to be, especially so for a driver with such a strong winning mentality, but it’s definitely advantage Schumacher as F2 heads into the desert.

Further reading
Why the Dan Ticktum conundrum isn’t what you expect
Assessing the Ferrari juniors’ chances of a 2021 F1 seat
How Nikita Mazepin made a turn in his career development
Crunching the numbers at Formula 2’s mid-season mark

Photo: Prema