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Formula 1

All you need to know about the most anticipated F2 debut ever

by Jack Benyon
9 min read

Imagine you are 17 years old - and all eyes are on you as perhaps the favourite to replace arguably the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time.

That’s the predicament Mercedes protege and heir apparent Andrea Kimi Antonelli is in - but to convert that possibility into reality he has to conquer a season of Formula 2 along the way.

As well as being new to the series, Antonelli - and the team that will field him, Prema Racing - will face the challenge of a new car, the Dallara F2 2024.

That’s not a bad omen, as the last time F2 introduced a new car - in 2018 - it sent rookie champion George Russell and nearest rivals Alex Albon and Lando Norris straight into F1 seats.

Lando Norris, Alex Albon and George Russell, F1

This 2024 F2 grid feels similarly poised to give F1 its next batch of young talent, which will be welcome after a year of unchanged driver line-ups at the top level.

However, none of those aforementioned drivers were 17. None of them got to F2 with only three and a half seasons in single-seaters under their belts.

None of them were being linked to replacing someone like Hamilton pre-season - or making a jump from something below the level of FIA F3, which is exactly what Antonelli is doing.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, F2

And in this month’s pre-season test where teams drove the car in anger for the first time, the usually unstoppable Prema was in the bottom half of the grid on one-lap and long-run pace, which is almost unchartered territory for this juggernaut of a team.

For all of these reasons, it’s easy to see why Antonelli is the driver causing the most intrigue from the F2 grid this year. There are just so many unanswered questions.

Antonelli F2 testing photos courtesy of Prema Racing // Joan Codina

He’s also Italy’s main hope of having a driver in F1, and not just having one there, but having one with the long-term potential to bag its first title since Alberto Ascari in 1953 and a first win since Giancarlo Fisichella (pictured below) in 2006. Gabriele Mini in F3 is the other driver carrying that torch.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault, F1

Antonelli’s team, Prema, has dealt with levels of interest around drivers like Charles Leclerc, Mick Schumacher, Oscar Piastri, Pierre Gasly and more in recent years. But Antonelli’s hype is new even for Prema team principal Rene Rosin.

Asked by The Race if he’s seen anything like this for a young driver before, he replies: “Not really, but of course from Italy it is important because he and Gabriele are the next call for Formula 1.

"And there is not anybody else at the moment. So there is quite a lot of vibe for that.”

He adds: “For sure the expectation [on Antonelli] is significant, but we must remember he is a 17, turning 18 years old kid in his first season of Formula 2. We need to maximise these results race by race and remember that, his head and the team's head should be on that and nothing else.”

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, F2

That race-by-race focus looks like it will be crucial, as after a shakedown at Barcelona (used mostly for system checks and learning the car rather than performance runs), and only two full days of proper testing after a freak Bahrain rain shower, Prema was regularly well down the order compared to where you would expect it to be.

“We had our schedule to follow and of course, I was not happy about the results on the times,” explains Rosin. “But we all know that it was important to get the maximum knowledge as possible on the new car, of the new combination of drivers with the team, so at the end this was the goal and this is how we worked.

“At the end, I'm pretty sure that it will be a great season again this year.

Rene Rosin, Prema

“For us we need to do better. We know, we are working for it.

"We did a lot of meetings after the test to understand what went wrong and what we understood from our tests, and I'm pretty sure that we will be there fighting for the position. Of course, all the teams are starting from scratch so the team has a chance to do a good job. So the competition will be quite high.”

Bahrain has been a bit of a struggle for Prema in recent seasons, so it’s possible its pace troubles in testing were exacerbated by that. None of Antonelli, team-mate Ollie Bearman or Rosin appear to be panicking, and the sheer amount of time it was off the pace by points to experimentation and learning rather than a genuine inability to set faster times.

Antonelli also had a technical issue with the car on day two, but the 307 laps clocked by Prema alone - that’s nearly five feature race distances per car - means any repeat of the poor reliability the last car came in with in 2018 looks unlikely. The drivers genuinely seem excited by the prospect of a car that is supposed to follow in the wake of others better, too.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, F2

We’ll talk more about competition shortly, but there’s one more thing to consider on Antonelli before we move on.

You might well think, ‘this is the perfect scenario, there’s a new car, it’s an even playing field and the drivers coming back for second and third years won’t have as much experience’.

That’s true, but because of the leap Antonelli is making from his championship-winning Formula Regional European car, he has not used carbon brakes before, and the new F2 car features F1-like ground effect aerodynamics that are brand new even to F2 and that you won't find further down the ladder.

There’s also the need to baby the notorious Pirelli tyres, and Bahrain is one of the worst tracks on the calendar for it, so that’s a baptism of fire as well.

At least Antonelli got to test the old F2 car at the end of last year before taking on the new machine, which will also be more physical and be driven for much longer races than he is used to as well.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Prema, F2

It’s too soon to write off Antonelli’s chances of fighting for a championship - or even the top five or top three that could be enough to secure an immediate promotion to F1 (whether it be with Mercedes or on loan with a customer team).

But equally, given the size of the jump he's making and the new car having the potential to unseat Prema as a frontrunning team if it doesn’t learn from the test and where it was weak, there are just too many unknowns.

That’s before we see how Antonelli is able to cope with the pressure the media is going to pile on him as silly season hots up in the second part of the year.

What are his goals and expectations for 2024, then?

“Well, I don't want to set any expectations,” he says.

“I know it's going to be tough, because the level is really high.

“I have to say, I'm lucky to have a strong team-mate, because I can learn a lot from him. So it's going to be really important to try to steal the knowledge from him during the season.

“I will try to do my best. Of course I want to win, but I know it's not gonna be easy. We'll see during the season where we are.”

A very sensible approach from a driver who those around him believe will be able to cope with this monstrous season in the spotlight - and all the adversity it will bring.

Part of that adversity might be trying to beat his aforementioned "strong team-mate" - Bearman, who in two F1 practice outings with Haas last year has already made himself look like a future grand prix driver.

Oliver Bearman, Haas, F1

Unlike Antonelli, Ferrari protege is happy to set public goals.

“My goal this year is to make the step into F1, so the short-term goal will of course be winning Formula 2,” he says, matter-of-factly! He’s also very clear and inward looking on his maiden F2 season last year, calling it “inconsistent” and “a lot of highs but too many lows”.

It’s easy to see why outgoing champion Theo Pourchaire has placed Bearman in his four drivers he thinks will have a chance at the title, alongside Dennis Hauger (MP Motorsport), Zane Maloney (Rodin Motorsport, formerly Carlin) and Victor Martins (ART Grand Prix). More on those contenders shortly.

But first, one last thought on Antonelli as the person of the moment.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, FRECA

As a 17-year-old, we shouldn’t expect him to be contending for a championship in his first year of F2. Bearman couldn’t win it - and he had the much more linear path of jumping from FIA F3 to F2 first, without needing all of that extra learning Antonelli will have to do on the brakes and aerodynamics.

However, if Antonelli does emerge from this season as a genuine contender, despite all of those pieces of adversity, it will be hard for anyone to argue against him getting a shot at F1 straight away. Even if the current plan is geared towards two years in the category.

A lot of that might depend on how long Mercedes is willing to wait to see how Antonelli is doing before pulling the trigger on a Hamilton replacement. The longer Mercedes waits, the higher the risk of missing out on a Sainz or an Alonso.

This weekend will be the first chance for many to see Antonelli in action and how he handles an F2 weekend. It may well be the birth of a star.

Beyond Prema

Valentin Khorounzhiy's overview

Formula 2 title hopefuls can often be divided into two categories - those who, if they win, will by doing so ensure they get into grand prix racing sooner or later, and those who need to win by a lot to make an F1 case.

Of the quartet named by Pourchaire as the likely title contenders, only Bearman seems to fit into the former category - and he'd probably need to really struggle to thwart a 2025 promotion that looks increasingly likely thanks to the momentum he'd built in those FP1 outings. It is telling that he'll get six more this year.

Hauger and Maloney - as well as another returnee/potential frontrunner in DAMS driver Jak Crawford - are all in the post-Red Bull phase of their careers, so will need to prove to other grand prix teams they've got something mega about them that the notoriously picky Red Bull junior scheme overlooked.

Yet if someone like Isack Hadjar - the Red Bull junior that did keep his RBJT spot and seems to have been earmarked as a future grand prix driver by the stable - wins the title, you'd imagine he's in for sure as far as F1 is concerned. Elsewhere on the grid, that also might apply to Williams protege Zak O'Sullivan, who's had a promising start in F2.

But what of the highest-placed 2023 driver staying on, Victor Martins?

Victor Martins, F2

The 22-year-old Frenchman is probably just about the favourite - as much of a favourite as you can be in a single-make series with a new car - based on the fact he was F2's best driver over a single lap in his rookie season last year.

But Alpine protege Martins, a deeply exciting but inescapable inconsistent performer, has been on the junior single-seater ladder for a good while now, and isn't even the first name in Alpine's junior ledger - that would be its reserve Jack Doohan.

So how much would he need to win by to force Alpine's hand - or convince someone else in F1? And is that kind of dominance even really possible with a grid like this?

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