Ferrari junior Marcus Armstrong makes his Formula 2 debut this year with ART Grand Prix. The Kiwi spoke to Elliot Wood about the challenges he expects from this season, and how racing in FIA F3 has prepared him
Among the five Ferrari-backed youngsters racing in Formula 2 this year, the one with the greatest chance to mount a title challenge may be rookie Marcus Amstrong. The 19-year-old is with the team that has ran the last two series champions (Nyck de Vries and George Russell), and he has built up an impressive amount of success on his way up the motorsport ladder.
His first full season in single-seaters came just three years ago, and started with a race-winning run to fourth in the Toyota Racing Series. He then convincingly won the Italian Formula 4 title and just missed out on the ADAC F4 one, driving for Prema in both campaigns. He stuck with the Italian team for the next two years, finishing fifth in FIA European Formula 3 in 2018 and runner-up in FIA F3 Championship in 2019. Along the way, he added two TRS title challenges.
It’s remarkable that Armstrong only has one title to his name, and while he won’t be emulating Russell in joining ART as the champion of the series immediately below, he could replicate his 2018 F2 title success as a rookie.
“Looking back at last year’s FIA F3 Championship, second is obviously not a disaster at all,” Armstrong admits.
“But it does hurt because I know that I could have done so much better, and had a few things gone differently. We always had mega pace, and the team was fantastic throughout the whole season. A few mistakes here and there and lost opportunities for points, it makes a big difference. Especially when it started at the beginning of the season.
“Already at Paul Ricard [round two] a few things went wrong for us when they shouldn’t have, and we were already on the back foot there. With only two races per weekend, in comparison to European F3 where we had three races per weekend, you could sort of catch up over time [there].
“But I just started off on the back foot [in FIA F3], and although we had the performance it was just difficult to get those points back on Robert Shwartzman.
“A lot of positives did come out of the year though. I felt like I improved massively as a driver, especially in qualifying.
“I felt like I was usually doing a really good job, which is something that I’ve always been really focused on. And then obviously rounding out the season in Sochi.”
After a pointless penultimate round at Monza, Armstrong struck back in Sochi with the series’ biggest single-weekend points haul.
“It was satisfying to get that Saturday race win, and almost got the reversed grid win as well. That would have been the icing on the cake, but generally I like to think of last year’s F3 as sort of the semi-final, and then coming into F2 is the final.
“As we always say in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup: you never want to play your final in the semi-final.”
There’s no doubt Armstrong would have been on the pace had he moved up to F2 last year, as shown by the form his European F3 team-mates Guanyu Zhou and Mick Schumacher demonstrated there. But the additional year in FIA F3, which has a very different car, helped the New Zealander learn lessons that will help him hit the ground running in (the rather unusual) 2020.
“Absolutely doing a season in the new FIA F3 car prepared me well for F2. I think going [straight] from the old European F3, it was never going to be easy. It’s not only the car that’s different. The entire weekend is massively difficult to maximise because obviously there’s less track time, you’re on the Formula 1 scene, a lot of fans and a lot of attention that you don’t usually get in the European F3 paddock.
“So doing a season in F3, just sort of getting to grips with the whole procedure of the weekend, I think that also makes a big difference. Also the track evolution is massive, and people often don’t realise how much the difference is from free practice to qualifying, and throughout the rest of the weekend. So little things like that, I think it’s helped me a lot going into this year.”
What may also help Armstrong is moving to ART, while his Ferrari stablemates Schumacher and Shwartzman team up at Prema.
“Making the change to ART GP, I feel massively privileged to only have the experience of two great teams. ART is one of those teams that I’ve been watching since I was very young. GP2 was televised in New Zealand when I was growing up.
“For me it’s something special to work with all these guys who have massive massive amounts of experience, especially in GP2/F2, or GP3. I think that it’s a great place to be, and from the short time that we’ve been together I feel really confident. A great bunch of guys. I do have experience working with the French; quite a lot of the people in Prema are actually French now. So, apart from the language, everything’s coming together quite well.
“In terms of the performance of the team, last year was a great year for them with de Vries, although I do think that Nyck was generally a step higher than everyone else out there in terms of his own performance. But I believe ART has got what it takes to really do the job this year and it makes me feel really safe in that I can just focus on my job and maximise what I have.”
Armstrong’s first experience of working with the team, and driving a F2 car, came in last year’s post-season Abu Dhabi test. He went second fastest on his first day of running, topped the times the next morning, and ended the test third overall.
“From the first laps in Abu Dhabi, I felt quite comfortable in the car. It doesn’t seem massively different to F3,” declares Armstrong. “Obviously there’s more power, and the carbon brakes are quite different in terms of warm-up procedures and general performance, but I think that having the tyre temperature inside the right window is really quite difficult compared to F3.
“Certainly in Abu Dhabi that was the case. And to do that one mega lap in qualifying, I think that’s definitely going to be where I can improve the most. Having the right temperatures in the brakes and the tyres, and then laying it all out when everything at it’s best. That’s a point that I can improve, and ultimately will make or break the qualifying positions this year.”
The pre-season Bahrain this March was a different experience, with the F2 cars modelling the new 18-inch wheels and tyres.
“Comparing from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain, obviously the circuits are quite different, and in Abu Dhabi there was an incredible amount of grip on the track. There had been an entire race weekend there, plus two days of F1 testing and three days of our testing. From that perspective, it’s difficult to give a good judgement on the tyres, but I think in general the new 18-inch rims are a bit more snappy. Whenever there is some oversteer or something like that, it seems accelerated.
“Also, the weight of the tyres and the rims seems a bit more. On corner entries and slow-speed corners it doesn’t feel quite as nimble as before. But it’s difficult to judge. It will be easier when we go to the European circuits and places where we have more experience, especially [for] me. That was the first time I’d been to Bahrain, so I didn’t have really much of a reference.”
Bahrain was originally scheduled as the season opener, but racing will now begin with two rounds behind closed doors at the Red Bull Ring in July. The eight-corner circuit has a surface that is low on tyre degradation, reducing the variability in performance during races and putting a greater emphasis on the all-important fast lap in qualifying.
A low starting spot can’t easily be negated, despite a significant portion of the lap being open for DRS usage in races. Armstrong expected the FIA F3 action to be “similar to the Indy 500” last year due to the DRS overtaking aid, but in reality there were trains of cars all using it at the same time. The pressure will be on for the first two qualifying sessions of 2020.
“Luckily, I have quite a lot of experience there and no doubt everybody does really,” says the 19-year-old. “So it’s nothing that we’re not used to. But as I mentioned, the warm-up procedure is going to be massively important, especially as the first race weekend is going to be on quite a hard compound of tyre. Getting everything up to temperature’s not going to be the easiest.
“Then again, it’s a short lap and low deg, it’s good so we can do a lot of laps and get back into the rhythm. It’s been a long break, so I think going into the Red Bull Ring is almost ideal just to hack away, do a lot of laps and get back into the groove.”
During the long coronavirus-caused break, Armstrong returned to his home country, and had even more time on his hands than usual as he didn’t take a fourth crack at the TRS title and his nation’s grand prix race.
“Lockdown has been quite good for me. Going back to New Zealand for a change, spending time at home. I hadn’t really spent that much time at home since I was 14 years old [while debuting in single-seaters in NZ Formula Ford].
“In that regard it’s been really good. Focusing on my fitness and things that normally I don’t have enough time to do.
“I do feel like I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, and I sort of said to myself at the beginning of the lockdown: if you don’t find time to train and do this or that during this period, then you’re never going to.
“Apart from that, spending time with the family and friends, was a really good time off. But to be brutally honest, I was ready to come back and get back to work because I’ve been preparing so much. And even over the winter it was a long off-season already without the coronavirus, so there’s been enough talking and it’s time to go out there and do the job now.”
Armstrong is currently located in Europe, and his pre-season preparations have included joining Ferrari stablemate Schumacher in Formula Regional European Championship testing as well as rigorous fitness work in Italy and France.
To put himself in prime contention for an Alfa Romeo Racing F1 seat in 2021, it’s not just Schumacher and Shwartzman that Armstrong has to beat within the Ferrari ranks. Virtuosi Racing – which arguably had the fastest car in 2019 – is running Callum Ilott, and debuting team HWA Racelab has signed Giuliano Alesi.
“Yeah, Ferrari has a lot of juniors in F2 this year. To be honest there’s no extra pressure from it,” Armstrong calmly says.
“Throughout my entire career, even though it hasn’t been the longest, I’ve always been put up against the best guys out there. So no extra pressure at all. We’re all good friends, and racing together, it’s not really something new. I haven’t raced against Callum or Giuliano before, which will be interesting, but it’s great that Ferrari are supporting so many of us.”
Ferrari isn’t the only F1 team that has a vested interest in F2. Jehan Daruvala set the pace in pre-season testing and is part of an all-Red Bull line-up at Carlin alongside Honda junior Yuki Tsunoda, Renault has FIA F3 graduate Christian Lundgaard at ART and Zhou at Virtuosi, and Williams juniors Jack Aitken (Campos Racing), Roy Nissany (Trident) and Dan Ticktum (DAMS) are all eyeing a place on the 2021 F1 grid with the struggling team.
There’s only two weeks until we find out whether Armstrong and ART has what it takes to become 2020 champions.