on the racetrack

Russian-Israeli race car driver makes F1 debut

The 23-year-old team Ferrari rookie drove under an Israeli license during a Texas practice session

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Robert Shwartzman of Israel and Ferrari looks on from the garage during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of USA at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas.

Robert Shwartzman has been fascinated by speed since the first time he jumped behind the wheel of a kart at age 4. Born in Israel but raised in Russia, Shwartzman has excelled through the ranks of Formula racing, collecting wins and earning titles as he raced his way toward the big leagues of Formula One.

That dream became reality on Oct. 21, when  the 23-year-old made his F1 debut during the first practice session of the 2022 United States Grand Prix at Texas’ Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

A test driver for team Ferrari, Shwartzman beat out three other debuting rookies — Alex Palou for McLaren, Theo Pourchaire for Alfa Romeo and Logan Sargeant, who is an American, for Williams — finishing 16th out of 20, ahead of Palou’s 17th, Pourchaire’s 18th, and Sargeant’s 19th.

“It was awesome to be honest,” Shwartzman said in a post-race interview, “it was awesome and hard. Obviously, I haven’t driven the car in a while. This year, most of my work was on the sim [simulator], which, obviously, you know, your body forgets all the feelings [of real racing], so driving the real car, getting the real bumps, the G-forces, was something very, very new.”

While practice sessions don’t count within the weekend’s scoring, they’re an integral part of typical F1 grand prix, giving drivers and their teams a chance to familiarize themselves with each circuit’s terrain, test out their cars’ abilities and new modifications and get a preview of what the standings may look like during an actual race, according to Bleacher Report

Each F1 team is allowed two competing drivers on their rosters, though they may also keep additional reserve and test drivers like Shwartzman. New 2022 regulations require each team to swap in a rookie for two FP1 sessions throughout the season, according to the official Formula One website — in order to qualify, the drivers must not have completed two grand prix.

“It’s just generally good experience. Unfortunately, it was very short, I only had six push laps, but still every lap counts, and it’s very important for me to get the experience,” Shwartzman added.

The race also marked a change in Shwartzman’s operating status. The dual citizen, who had been competing under a Russian racing license until this year, switched to an Israeli license, which he will use from now on. The change was due to a new rule issued by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile — the governing body of F1 racing — in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stating that Russian drivers must “run under a neutral flag” in order to compete. 

F1 cars can reach speeds of over 220 mph, way faster than the Fords and Chevys in NASCAR. To compete, F1 racers need a special “superlicence” issued by the FIA , which they can only get by satisfying  a series of requirements and paying a hefty fee. 

Shwartzman’s career started out like many others, with years of karting competitions   — the younger cousin of Formula racing, where many F1 drivers get their start — throughout his childhood until 2014, when he switched to single-seater Formula racing in F4.

Just as many professional athletes in the United States start out in the minor leagues, the European-dominated sport has its own feeder series. Drivers graduate from a number of junior series, each growing in its level of intensity, before reaching F1 — also like with American sports, drivers can be tapped for the big leagues at any point or stay their whole career in a lower tier.

Some of Shwartzman’s pre-F1 accolades include: the FIA Formula 3 Championship title in 2019, fourth place at the 2020 FIA Formula 2 Championship and second place at the F2 championship in 2021. He’s also been a part of the Ferrari Driver Academy since 2017.

Despite not adding another first-place finish to his collection, Shwartzman already has hope for his next race. 

“We have another [practice session] coming in Abu Dhabi where I feel more confident because I already know the track, and I think also by having a few laps on the car, I would really, really know what to expect,” Shwartzman said. “I’m really looking forward for that FP, and let’s see what’s gonna happen.”

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