A little-known Russian racer could be the roadblock who prevents Michael Schumacher’s son graduating to Formula One in 2021.
It has long been expected that Mick Schumacher would be promoted into Formula 1 next year to replace either Kimi Raikkonen or Antonio Giovinazzi at Alfa Romeo Racing as part of Ferrari’s driver development programme.
But, in order for that to happen, Schumacher must deliver the goods and thus far in the first three Formula 2 race meetings – with six races – the German has not figured strongly, with just two third places.
In sharp contrast, his Prema Racing team-mate Robert Shwartzman has won two of the three feature races and leads the championship by 18 points.
The 20-year-old Russian is a Formula 2 rookie, while Schumacher has had a year of experience in the series and that has led many to conclude that he is a much better bet than Schumacher, although the name is obviously worth a great deal in terms of marketing.
Shwartzman’s achievement is all the more impressive because he lost his father Mikhail three months ago to COVID-19, at the age of only 52.
A successful businessman who ran a chain of flower shops, a wholesale flower business and an online shop, Shwartzman funded his son’s early career in karts before securing backing from SMP Racing to compete in Formula 4 from 2015 onwards.
Since then Robert has been a revelation, winning the 2018 Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, finishing third in the Formula 3 European Championship later that year and going on to win the new FIA Formula 3 Championship last year.
His progress in Formula 2 has been impressive, although it is also worth pointing out that rookies have been at less of a disadvantage this year because of the new tyres that have been introduced in the formula.
Nonetheless, a competitive Russian would be great news for Formula 1 in general after the mediocre performances by Dani Kyvat, Vitaly Petrov and Sergey Sirotkin.
Much depends of what happens with Alfa Romeo Racing as the use of the Italian brand was agreed back at the start of 2018, when Sergio Marchionne was the head of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), Alfa Romeo’s parent company. Marchionne died that summer but the deal continued in 2019 with the team changing from being the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team to become Alfa Romeo Racing, although Sauber still exists and is still owned by Longbow Finance SA, a company which is controlled by Swedish billionaire Finn Rausing (64).
Rausing became involved in F1 as a supporter of Marcus Ericsson and took control of the team in mid-2016, buying the shares that had been owned by Peter Sauber and Monisha Kaltenborn.
Rausing is estimated to be worth about $10 billion, having inherited a share in the food packaging empire Tetra Laval, which was established by his grandfather. He is not short of cash but, inevitably, does not want to spend it.
He decided to put Frederic Vasseur in charge in 2017 and rather than pursue a deal with Honda, thought it would be better to remain as a Ferrari customer team.
That hasn’t been a great success as the team finished eighth in 2018 and 2019 and is unlikely to do any better in 2020. The Alfa Romeo deal was for three years and probably lasts until the end of 2021, but the brand itself is not doing well with the model range being scaled back in order to save money in the face of poor sales.
Everything is slightly in limbo at the moment because FCA is in the process of a merger with France’s PSA car making group. Once this is completed early next year (if all goes to plan) a new company called Stellantis will be formed which will be the fourth-largest car manufacturer in the world with sales of eight million cars a year and 13 different brands.
The company will be headed by current PSA CEO Carlos Tavares, who is a big racing fan and who recognises the value of the sport and the Alfa Romeo brand.
But does the company’s performance warrant an F1 programme? And will Tavares take a risk and continue the sponsorship, knowing that it will be used against him if it is not a success? It’s doubtful.
Other teams are already beginning to take note of Shwartzman and so Ferrari will have to have something on offer to prevent someone else swooping in to grab him.
It is possible that Ferrari could place him at Haas if there is no room at Alfa Romeo, but that would involve the US team dumping one of its existing drivers. The man in danger in that case would be Romain Grosjean, who has the speed but seems to be unable to convert that into solid results.
Whatever the case, things are going to be complicated for Schumacher unless he starts turning in big results.