Ferrari’s three leading academy drivers will be given Formula 1 race weekend debuts before the end of the 2020 season, but what bearing will it have on their respective futures?

On Tuesday, the Ferrari Driver Academy announced that Schumacher, son of seven-time F1 world champion Michael, and British driver Callum Ilott will both take part in practice at the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in October.

Schumacher and Ilott both occupy the top two positions in the 2020 Formula 2 championship and will drive for Alfa Romeo and Haas respectively in Germany.

Meanwhile, reigning Formula 3 champion Robert Shwartzman will also get an FP1 outing in Abu Dhabi, though the team he will drive for has not yet been decided.

In preparation for their respective F1 grand prix weekend debuts, all three drivers will have a test at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track on Wednesday in a 2018-spec F1 car.

"We wanted to organise this test session so that our three best youngsters would be as well prepared as possible to tackle an event that will always be a special moment for them,” said Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies, who is also in charge of the Ferrari driver academy.

"It will be a chance to get to grips with a Formula 1 car, which is much more complicated than the car they are currently used to driving.

“I would like to thank Haas and Alfa Romeo Racing for offering Callum, Mick and Robert this opportunity.”

All three drivers are also set to feature at the post-season young driver test following the Abu Dhabi finale, although Ferrari is yet to announce how that test will be organised in terms of driver line-ups.

“The young driver test is a great opportunity,” Mekies continued. “They will certainly be around at that test with us, or with our partner teams, so you will see them around there.

“It’s coming a bit late in the day, I guess, but on our side there is no real strong rush to take decisions. There is a plan that should lead them to be in the best possible positions at the young driver test.”

All three have been linked with possible graduation to F1 next year, and at least one of them – most likely the champion – is expected to make the step up from F2.

But just how likely is an F1 2021 drive for Schumacher, Ilott and Shwartzman?

The one making the strongest case

Schumacher’s F1 practice debut will be a particularly poignant moment for the German being on home soil at the Nurburgring.

A remarkable run of consistency has propelled Schumacher into the F2 championship lead, with the Prema driver claiming eight podium finishes in the last 11 races, including two decisive victories.

Despite the weight of expectation following a low-key rookie campaign, Schumacher has silenced his critics and is making a strong case for earning a promotion to the F1 grid next year.

Schumacher arrived at the last round in Sochi as the championship leader for the first time this season.

But that tag did not faze Schumacher in the slightest, as he recorded a double podium including a second win of the year to increase his advantage at the top of the standings.

With four races remaining, Schumacher now leads fellow Ferrari academy member Ilott by 22 points with speculation over his future only increasing as he continues to deliver the goods in F2.  

“When you carry the mantle of the name Schumacher, it’s not an easy gig,” F1 managing director of motorsport Ross Brawn wrote in his post-Russian Grand Prix column. 

“It can give you some benefits, but you’re the subject of scrutiny the whole time.

“Mick has handled it amazingly well and in the latter part of this season, his second season in Formula 2, we have started to see him mature and develop extremely well as a racing driver.

“Russia was an excellent weekend for him and I’m full of optimism for his future.”

According to some, Schumacher has already been given a guarantee of an F1 seat – most likely at Alfa Romeo – for next season providing he seals a top-three finish in the championship.

Schumacher will replace Antonio Giovinazzi for FP1 in Germany and may well end up taking his seat on a full-time basis next year, with the out-of-contract Italian’s future uncertain amid an underwhelming sophomore F1 season.

At present, Schumacher is making a case that is becoming increasingly hard to dismiss. 

The deserving dark horse  

After finishing a rather anonymous 11th in his rookie F2 campaign, the furiously fast and entertaining Ilott has come to the fore in the 2020 title fight.

Ilott won the season-opener in Austria to throw down the gauntlet of a championship challenge and has continued to go from strength-to-strength, picking up a further two wins at Silverstone and Monza.

The UNI-Virtuosi driver’s supreme feature race victory on home soil vaulted him into the lead of the championship, an advantage he would only relinquish to Schumacher after a tough weekend at Mugello.

Ilott has been a consistent front-runner this year, bagging more pole positions than any other driver (four), and has thrown Ferrari a curveball in the process.

“It’s a real privilege to get my first run in a free practice session, especially to do it with Haas F1 Team,” Ilott said.

“It’s amazing to have this chance at a track that is one of my favorites – it was where I scored the first podium of my career back in 2015. The Nürburgring means a lot to me and is a track with a real heritage, so it’s great that I’ll have my first outing at a Formula 1 race weekend there.

“Thanks to Haas F1 Team and to the Ferrari Driver Academy for giving me such a great opportunity. It should be really fun and exciting. I plan to make the most of it, I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

Ilott is fully-deserving of his F1 practice outing and a potential seat on the grid next year, though Schumacher is likely to land Ferrari’s preferred spot at Alfa Romeo if he prevails to the title.

Ferrari will be keen to try and shoehorn both drivers into F1 if possible next year, particularly after Ilott indicated in Russia that this is likely to be his last year in F2 due to budgetary reasons.

With Schumacher potentially getting one of the Alfa seats, Ilott’s best shot of landing an F1 drive would most likely come at Haas, with the US squad currently evaluating all options for its 2021 line-up, including a complete overhaul.

The exciting outsider  

Shwartzman burst onto the F2 scene in impressive style, leading the championship standings for much of the first half of the season having graduated to the series as the reigning F3 champion.

The Russian outperformed Prema teammate Schumacher out of the box this year, picking up two victories early on at the second Austrian round and again in Hungary.

Shwartzman produced a stunning drive at the Hungaroring to take his second successive F2 feature race win, charging through from 11th on the grid after a red flag had ruined his qualifying.

Following his strong weekend in Hungary, things went south for Shwartzman, who endured a tricky run of races in Britain and Spain, before bouncing back with his third win of the season at Spa.

But back-to-back rounds outside of the points at Mugello and Sochi have significantly dented Shwartzman’s title chances and seen him slip to fifth in the standings. He remains in mathematical contention but a realistic shot at the title appears unlikely after losing momentum right at the wrong time.

The timing of Shwartzman’s practice outing – at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – suggests that he is very much an outsider for an F1 drive next year.

It is perhaps more of an experience-gaining exercise given that unlike Schumacher and Ilott, he has never previously driven F1 machinery.

Assuming this hugely exciting prospect does not mount a dramatic challenge to sweep the title out of Schumacher’s grasp, a second season in F2 seems a more likely outcome for Shwartzman.

Post-season test won’t be a ‘shootout’

Whichever way Ferrari ultimately opts to go, Mekies has stressed that the end-of-season young drivers test will not be used as a defining ‘shootout’ between the three drivers, with their performances across the year as a whole very much being taken into account.

“It’s not a headache at all,” Mekies explained. “As far as the three top [FDA] guys for this year are concerned, we are very happy. It gives us a lot of stability and options for the future and that’s exactly why we have FDA.

“We are conscious that having three guys potentially getting to the right spot at nearly the same time is not always possible to do but I think we have the tools in what we can offer to them in order to make sure we give them the chance to express their potential as best they can.

“Maybe today in F2, maybe testing tomorrow or a bit more next year, or the year after that. That’s what our target is, how do we build the programme that will allow them to express themselves best?

“We are not in a shootout mood. It’s about developing and the developments certainly doesn’t stop when you are at the door of Formula 1.”

 

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