“Let’s start from the beginning,” smiled Robert Shwartzman, as he sat centre focus, in the season’s first post-race press conference, at Barcelona. Back slightly hunched forward, arms crossed, the Russian addressed the media, in-between an understandably aggrieved Christian Lundgaard and his teammate Marcus Armstrong, following an unconventional first win of the campaign.
And, the beginning seems like a good place to start, following the aftermath of the 20-year-old’s FIA Formula 3 title win.
Shwartzman hadn’t actually finished the race in first place. He had gone quickest in Qualifying, but then lost P1 to Lundgaard at the start, when the Dane slipped past him on the second turn. It was only when they arrived in the Parc fermé that he was handed the win, as Lundgaard was served with a five-second penalty for a VSC infringement. Going off that first race, it looked as if it would only be a matter of time before the Dane got to enjoy a victory. Few would have expected that wait to go on until August, when he won in Budapest.
Instead, Shwartzman’s win gave him the impetus at the start of the campaign. “We still need to do a job to improve ourselves and hopefully we're going to win the next race properly,” he told reporters. He went on to claim that victory in the second race of Round 2, after he had already secured a podium in Race 2 at Le Castellet.
The Ferrari Academy driver had already shown his maturity in that first win. Sitting second during the safety car period, many would have been tempted to test the boundaries in the hope of gaining an advantage at the end. Instead, Shwartzman avoided the temptation and opted to play it safe. He explained: “I've never experienced that kind of Virtual Safety Car, but when I saw the light I just backed off. I didn't take any risks. I knew there was quite a big gap from me to Marcus so I was like 'if I lose a few tenths it's not going to change my life', so I took it safe.”
It’s been a theme for most of the season. He’s taken three victories, but very few risks. Focus has firmly been on scoring high points and avoiding DNFs. For Shwartzman, it seems as if he puts little worth in risking a pointless finish, for the sake of another number 1 Pirelli cap. It’s a quality that often separates the champions from the nearly men – certainly in Formula 3, where the competition is so fierce that new winners emerge each round.
Having been amongst the frontrunners in Round 1, ART Grand Prix struggled in Round 2, as Shwartzman’s teammate Jehan Daruvala arose as his greatest threat to the title. The Indian had won Race 2 in Barcelona and then followed this up with a Race 1 win in Le Castellet, which handed Daruvala the Championship lead.
However, his time at the top was short lived – Shwartzman returned to the summit the following day. “I can't say I was untouchable,” the 20-year-old assessed at the end of Race 2. It was arguably his best performance of the season and the fact there was a discussion to be had on whether he was “untouchable,” displays the dominance he showcased that Sunday morning.
Starting seventh on the grid, he unleashed the power of his PREMA to sift through the pack to first. This included a titanic three-man brawl down the straight, where he completed a remarkable double overtake for first, displaying nerves of steel.
On the ballsy manoeuvre, he explained: “I got past step-by-step and then I remember I was P3. Then there was Yuki Tsunoda and Alex Peroni and I was catching up with the tow. We went three wide and I got past Yuki.
“I was waiting, looking for Peroni, and then I saw him flying by and I was like 'woah!' I had to back off and I was lucky not to break my front wing off him. I went to the curb and slid a little bit but controlled the situation, and I was P1 basically from that moment.”
It was a move that marked out his irresistible capacity to race. The Russian is at his best when teasing his way through the field and in the midst of a fight. His overtaking ability is at times breath-taking.
This is proven by the amount of laps that he has led. Despite topping the Championship for the majority of the season, going into Sochi, he had actually only led the joint-third highest amount of laps. His teammate, Armstrong, who finished second overall, heads up those figures, with 63, followed by fourth placed Vips, who is on 60. Shwartzman is third, with 47. He has only had two pole positions – one came in Sochi - and his triumphs have often required overtakes. Those statistics also prove to further back up the previous point – his title win has been more about consistent high-points’ finishes, than wins.
What followed those two victories at the start of the season was a barren period for the Russian, who had to wait until the aforementioned race in Round 7 at Monza for his next taste of the top of the podium. PREMA had been the clear frontrunners for pace in the opening two rounds as the other teams got used to brand-new machinery, but they caught up in Spielberg and the field became a more even canvas.
Shwartzman continued to plug away and scored four further podiums to top up his lead in first place. Perhaps more pertinently though, he only finished outside of the points on one occasion, following retirement in Budapest when he damaged his front-wing in a battle with Felipe Drugovich for first. The collision was noted as a racing incident.
The only real blot on the Russian’s copybook was his coming together with teammate Armstrong in Spielberg Race 2. The two had exchanged first and second and in his attempts to reclaim P1, Shwartzman caught the back of the Kiwi and ended his teammate’s race. Shwartzman retained first, but was demoted to third with a five-second time penalty.
Speaking post-race, the Ferrari Junior said: “We had a fair fight. I didn't do anything particularly different. I was just fighting and defending like I should. It's just normal fighting like everyone else. If I was fighting with someone else it would be the same, I would try to defend, protect and try to gain positions if I have the chance.”
It revealed a ruthless edge to the 20-year-old, who was desperate to regain first position. And, while he was penalised for the collision, there was an element of bad luck to the tangle. Regardless, there were plenty of lessons to be learned from it.
It was during this same period when Vips emerged as a title contender. Two Race 1 wins gave him the grounding to mount a challenge and by Spa, the Estonian was a mere 12-points behind the PREMA driver in the Championship. At the time, Vips said of his title tilt: “The momentum is very good at the moment and we have been doing an amazing job, every session has gone perfectly since Red Bull Ring, so we would just like to continue that.”
It was at this point, that consistency became the focal point of the PREMA man’s charge - he had already seen how taking too many risks could derail a race. The Ferrari Junior was also aided by his experience of winning the Toyota Racing Series in 2018.
Over the course of the F3 season, Vips has endured five pointless finishes, to Shwartzman’s one. Importantly, the Russian reacted well to the DNF and ensured the gap between himself and Vips grew instead of shrank. He may not have won in Spa, but a brace of podium finishes allowed him to reclaim a larger lead. Meanwhile, Vips collected fifth place, and 21st. It was a similar story in the 20-year-old’s Toyota Racing Series triumph, where he collected just one win from 15, but nine podiums.
Following Round 6, Shwartzman said: “Generally, the summary of the weekend was quite good because we took both podiums, we had a lot of overtaking, good points, and I also extended the championship lead so that's a good thing.”
The lessons that the 20-year-old had learned from his collision with Armstrong in Spielberg were put to practice at Monza in the penultimate round. The sight of Shwartzman arrowing in on his teammate for P1 brought back memories of the previous incident with Armstrong, but there would be no repeat, as Shwartzman cleanly dispatched of the Kiwi for the race lead.
It felt like a defining moment. It was his first win since Round 2 and saw him become the first driver to win three races this year, with one round to spare. In second, Vips had been replaced in second by Daruvala once more, but realistically, the gap between the PREMA duo was too big to close. The Russian was set to win the Championship in his home country.
This was exactly how it played out. He may not have sealed it with a win, but he didn’t need to. Daruvala suffered a shocking start to the race, dropping from second to sixth. The Indian managed to fight back a place for fifth, but ultimately, this meant that the Russian wouldn’t require victory to lift the crown on Saturday.
The trio from the Italian squad had actually secured P1, 2 and 3 in Qualifying, and Armstrong pre-race comments had prompted a nervous look from the Championship leader.
“It's a long run down to Turn 2, and I have got nothing to lose. Jehan's got more or less nothing to lose and then Robert has everything to lose,” exclaimed the Kiwi, with a cheeky grin and devilish glint in his eye.
Shwartzman knew it too, so when Armstrong took a tow and dashed passed him off the line, there was no immediate fight back. “After Turn 2 I was behind him in second place and my target was just to take it easy and not make any stupid mistakes,” he explained “Because of the title fight, and generally there is no point of killing the tyres or doing something crazy. I was just taking it easy at the beginning.”
It was another sign of the growing maturity that he has shown since their collision in Spielberg. Further assaults on him would occur and he soon saw Niko Kari pass him from third, but again, he didn’t panic, he didn’t take any stupid risks, he played it cool and let the race play out in-front of him, knowing the Championship title was still assured.
His patience nearly paid off in more ways than one: Kari sent it past Armstrong and when the Ferrari F1 junior attempted to reclaim the place on the following lap, he missed the turn and allowed the Russian through. Back in P2, with the Trident ahead of him, he knew he had the pace advantage, and that with the aid of DRS, a clean overtake was possible. Shortly after, he regained the lead.
It wouldn’t last though. Armstrong needed the points to stand a chance of stealing second and for him, it was a risk worth taking. As he’d already said, he had nothing to lose – Shwartzman did. Knowing this, he made a daring lunge around Turn 2 on the final lap and left the Russian with no time to reply.
“Marcus tried to launch a move for the win on the last lap which is normal. I knew that it was stupid to risk it in the situation I was in, so I didn't do anything stupid,” Shwartzman explained, before praising his teammate. “He was really fast, did a really good lap, and good job to him for a nice move.”
It didn’t matter, first or second, Robert Shwartzman was the first ever Formula 3 Champion. “Sounds great,” he exclaimed. “I mean, I still can’t believe we’ve achieved this.”
As much as anything though, he could relax. The strains of a season-long title fight on a 20-year-old had taken their toll.
He revealed: “Here’s a story: before this race today, I had quite a lot of pressure, and the last couple of nights, I only slept like two and half hours. It was tough laughs. Even though I didn’t want to think too much about the pressure, it was still on my mind. Now, I can sort of like relax and it feels great.”
The final question on the agenda for Shwartzman regarded his future, “What’s next for the newly crowned F3 Champion?” Racing wise, he expects to be in Formula 2, but, that’s a story for another day. For now, he will celebrate with the people who have helped to make this happen.