Home Formula 2 Which drivers are really in contention to become Formula 2 champion?

Which drivers are really in contention to become Formula 2 champion?

by Craig Woollard

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

It has taken until December, but the 2021 F2 season enters its penultimate weekend with a true narrative having finally started to take shape. Craig Woollard considers who’s still in with a shot at the title.

In a way, it is a little bit of a surprise that it hasn’t taken all the way until we were several days into our advent calendars before figuring out just who exactly was in the mix for Formula 2 title success this year, such was the way this season was laid out.

It’s been nearly 10 weeks since Sochi – where we unexpectedly had a trial run of the 2022 weekend format with one sprint race followed by one feature race – and anybody could be forgiven for not quite understanding the state of play in this highly stop-start season.

Pre-season, Guanyu Zhou predicted a 10-way scrap for the title, which honestly felt pretty accurate at the time. Realistically, we instead find ourselves down to a final five with two rounds to go on entirely new layouts – the fearsomely fast street circuit at Jeddah and the revised Yas Marina season finale set to decide the championship.

Sure, 130 points are on the table, meaning everyone down to Richard Verschoor in 10th (who’s actually lost his seat for Jeddah) is mathematically in the frame with six races to go. So Zhou is correct in a way, but even securing a double podium in what will be a one-season wonder for a much-maligned format has proven to be a challenge, nevermind a perfect weekend.

We also have two new layouts that will throw in a massive curveball. Nobody has ever been to Jeddah’s Corniche circuit before, which features three DRS zones and some mind-bogglingly fast sections of racetrack. In addition, Abu Dhabi’s finale (and likely title decider), will take place on a heavily-revised layout. Out have gone two of the twiddly, slow chicanes, and in are banked sweepers, more open sections and a faster corner before the first very long straight.

Forty points is considered to be a very good weekend for a driver. But even if Juri Vips in sixth can manage two very good weekends, he’s already confessed that he’s out of this race due to sustained reliability issues. Sitting 76 points behind Piastri, frankly, the Red Bull junior is realistically out of it now.

That leaves us with the top five: Championship leader Oscar Piastri, who owned a weekend for the third event running at Sochi; future Alfa Romeo Formula 1 driver Zhou, who had a miserable Sochi; Robert Shwartzman, who is metronomically picking up points but must get on top of his qualifying struggles; Dan Ticktum, who has had a podium at every round in what could be the strongest race package; and Theo Pourchaire, the teenage sensation bouncing back from injury in fine fashion.

Pourchaire’s 58 points behind Piastri, but he reiterated twice over the Sochi weekend – once while sheltering from the rain on Saturday, and once after tasting champagne on the podium – that he is still in this fight.

“Yeah, for sure I’m competitor,” he said before the sole sprint race of the weekend. “It’s not finished, it’s not finished. It’s far from the end. We still have two races in Sochi and then two complete rounds to go, but for sure Oscar is in a better place than me.

“I’m quite far from him, but there is I think 65 points per race weekend to take, so it can change really fast. I just keep focused on myself, I try to do a good job, to be more consistent. I’m really close to P3, that’s my first goal. I think the top three is not so far and a realistic goal. And then I don’t know, a lot of things can happen and if I can win the championship, I will do it, it’s not finished until Abu Dhabi.”

When asked about his strong form over recent rounds after his second place to Piastri in the feature race, he felt that he has been strong all year.

“I’ve been in shape since the beginning of the year. I just had mechanical failures in Bahrain, the broken wrist in Baku. Silverstone was really bad because of that and the start. Then I just found a bit of consistency, a bit of calm in my year. Just to have no more problems with the car. I drive a bit better. Yeah, I feel more confident in the car and the injury I had at Baku was not easy to manage.

“So, for sure, now it looks like I’m doing a better job but I’m doing the same job as at the beginning of the year. It’s still very, very long for me. It’s still two complete weekends. Two times 65 points to take, so it’s far from the end. For sure Oscar is in a good position, but it’s far from the end. I keep pushing.”

Honest as ever, Ticktum meanwhile isn’t quite as optimistic as the driver he currently sits ahead of in the points.

“Realistic? No, not really,” he admitted despite winning the sprint in Sochi. “I’d have to have a flawless rest of the season basically if I was going to have the title. Luck would have to constantly be in my favour, and I’d have to have another couple of wins. Oscar would have to struggle a bit, which of course is a possibility, but I’m not thinking about it too much anymore really. I’m a bit of a way behind, there’s still a chance but realistically it’s a small one.”

Even if he is playing down his chances, Ticktum absolutely is a factor in this title battle with the package he has and with the form he is in.

Moments later, Shwartzman said that “I’ll be a bit more optimistic and maybe naive: I still believe we have a pretty decent chance to win.

“I don’t know how many points now I’m behind, and obviously Oscar is going to be starting from pole tomorrow, but anything can happen. I’m still looking focused and looking forward to do a good start and good race tomorrow and get some good points. Then do a really good last two rounds, and I think it’s doable. I think if actually everything goes well, we can bring that challenge to the final race in Abu Dhabi, and we can see if we can manage it.”

For Zhou, it was a very difficult weekend. Spinning on cold tyres on the formation lap for the sprint race and stalling was a huge mistake to make on a rare day that Piastri failed to score. He didn’t have much of a role to play in the feature race either – he sat hovering around the net fifth-seventh range throughout and ended up in the middle of that in sixth.

The damage was that Piastri extended his points lead to 36, which can really be considered a comfortable margin now, but by no means has he got it secured yet. Regardless, he will enter the Jeddah feature race as the championship leader.

The Alpine junior is the one now with the target on his back. He wouldn’t admit it when asked by Formula Scout after taking his second feature race win in succession, but he must at least acknowledge within himself that he is the one being chased now, especially as he is so emphatically getting the job done.

“I’m not going to call myself the favourite, but my lead is the biggest it’s been,” he said, when asked directly whether he is the favourite. “I feel like I’m driving well, and the team’s been doing a great job with the car as well. We’ve been strong since round one, and I think we’ve been on the podium at every feature race except for Bahrain. That’s testament to the whole package, but I’m certainly glad I’m in the position I’m in and not having to try and chase up.”

Piastri is the sort of character to admit when he feels he does well but also has a tendency to calm expectations. It’s doubly impressive when there is a lot of hype surrounding him – especially on social media – naturally as the F2 championship leader. It’s a different approach to that of Callum Ilott, who did not hold back last year in admitting he was the favourite mid-season.

These are the in-form drivers, those finishing regularly in the top five across the races and those picking up big points across a weekend. Crucially, they’ve also largely had the most fortune of all the frontrunners, and have been able to sustain a consistent run of relatively strong weekends in most cases. If not, such as in Zhou’s case in Sochi, he had plenty of points as it was, so stayed in contention with that weekend’s inadequate score.

It’s been an agonising wait before the penultimate instalment of this very stop-start F2 season. All of the drivers will have had a chance to regroup ahead of the crucial doubleheader to close the season. For Zhou, Piastri and Ticktum, they all can relax to a degree knowing their futures are secured in some way in world championship-level competition next year.

They’ve also had a chance to relax a bit. After such an eventful weekend at Sochi, not least with FIA Formula 3’s title decider on the bill too, it felt like the whole F1 support paddock could have done with a breather. We’ve had that now, but the intensity of the final two weekends will showcase the best out of the F2 elite.