Robert Shwartzman is inching his way closer to a Formula One spot

The Russian-Israeli race car driver became Ferrari’s newest reserve driver for the 2023 season

The Fiorano Circuit was wet, so much so that Robert Shwartzman, Scuderia Ferrari’s newly promoted reserve driver, had to start the morning late in order to give the ground some extra time to dry. It didn’t help much, but Shwartzman was just happy to get behind the wheel of his Formula One race car. Decked out in Ferrari’s signature red, he sped around the course in a blur of scarlet, the only color contrasts coming from a handful of sponsorship logos, his golden-hued helmet and the small Israeli flag stitched on his waist.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, the Russian-Israeli racer ended the afternoon last Tuesday having completed 87 laps equalling a total of nearly 161 miles. Shwartzman’s ride marked the first of three season-opening test days for Ferrari, which took place last week at the team’s private development track in Fiorano Modenese, Italy, in preparation for the first official race of 2023 in early March.

“It was a bit more challenging because of the wet conditions of the track…but still just a good experience, because I’ve never experienced driving an F1 car in the rain,” Shwartzman, 23, told Jewish Insider of his first drive since his promotion. “Overall, I think it was a very positive test for me to learn new stuff, new things.”

Since the instant he jumped into the driver’s seat at age 4, Robert Shwartzman loved to race, a passion he’d inherited from his father, Mikhail, who died in April 2020 after contracting COVID-19. Only a few months later, Shwartzman would debut in Formula Two, where he would go on to end the season in second place.  

“Basically, from the moment I [was] born I got that passion too, and [then] it was just me and him,” Shwartzman recalled. “We were fully dedicated and fully obsessed [with racing], me and my dad, no one else from the family.” 

Three years later, Shwartzman has kept pushing in his pursuit of their shared dream — to become a competitive Formula One driver. He took one step closer to that goal on Jan. 19, when Scuderia Ferrari, the luxury brand’s F1 team, announced that Shwartzman had been promoted to reserve driver, a role he shares with Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi. 

“I’m very happy and honored that this year I became a reserve driver for Ferrari,” Shwartzman said of his promotion. “I’m very thankful for Ferrari, and also for the part of [the Ferrari Driver Academy] for pushing and giving their experience and everything they could to me to develop and to grow…It’s a very important role I have for this year, so my target is just to do my best and to deliver the best job as possible.”

(Picture: Scuderia Ferrari)

Shwartzman’s history with Ferrari goes back to 2017, when he joined the FDA ahead of his rookie Formula Three season driving for Prema Racing — he was released from the academy last month after attaining reserve driver status. Most recently, Shwartzman was a test driver for the team throughout the 2022 season, during which he made his official F1 debut in two rookie free practice sessions in Austin, Texas, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Shwartzman’s advancement to F1 was a welcome move for the young hopeful; however, as a test driver and not a starter, it also means his days of competition are over for the time being. Shwartzman spent most of 2022 at Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello, Italy, working mainly in the simulator, or testing new cars and features to help perfect them for the team’s competing drivers.

“In the regulations, the [competing] drivers on the teams can’t test the real car,” Shwartzman said. “There is a very short, limited amount of testing that they [are able to do within the rules], so therefore, all the teams [have] simulators where they’re doing, sort of, homework to prepare the car in the best shape as possible.”

On any given day, Shwartzman could log up to six hours of simulation work at a time. While not an exact replica of true racing conditions, he maintained that as a tool to gauge improvements, the simulator is a pretty accurate comparison.

Despite the similarities, no machine compares to real tires on asphalt or the feel of accelerating to over 200 mph while battling G-forces of up to 6 Gs, and the mental toll Shwartzman faced after nearly a year away from the racetrack, was significant.

“It’s very challenging,” Shwartzman told JI at the end of last season. “You really miss this atmosphere: being in the paddock, working with the team, traveling, driving the car, enjoying this feeling of driving, pushing it to the limit, racing itself, you know, having this adrenaline that you’re receiving from racing. It’s basically a big part of any racing driver, so whenever you’re giving that up…at the beginning you don’t really feel it…but then after some time, you start to miss it quite a lot.”

(Picture: Scuderia Ferrari)

Now, with Shwartzman’s new position as a reserve driver, comes the promise of more track time. In addition to racing in two more rookie free practices in 2023, as a reserve driver, Shwartzman will need to be on site at most Grand Prix races in case one of Ferrari’s current starters, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, can’t compete. He will also join team Ferrari for this year’s GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup, his first competition since 2021 and his sportscar-racing debut — unlike formula racing, GT racing utilizes two-seater cars with enclosed wheels.

In order to meet new regulations set last year by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile — the governing body of F1 racing — Shwartzman, who holds Russian and Israeli citizenships, began operating under an Israeli racing license ahead of the 2022 season. He had previously been driving under a Russian license, but in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the FIA began requiring all competitors to “run under a neutral flag.”

The change felt natural to Shwartzman, who was born in Tel Aviv and spent the first three years of his life in Israel, before moving to Russia for six years. He moved to Italy when he was 9, where he has spent most of the last decade.

“I knew, always, that I was born in Israel and that I have Jewish blood inside me… I never said I’m only this or only that,” Shwartzman said. “[Switching to an Israeli license] just gave me a good feeling… It felt comfortable, like it was always there.”

For now, Shwartzman has no intention of switching back to a Russian license, even if FIA changes the mandate in the future.

As for his own future, Shwartzman tries not to look too far ahead — both Leclerc’s and Sainz’s contracts are up for renewal in 2024. He’s staying focused on improving his technique and doing what it takes to turn his childhood dream into reality.

“The goal is still the same: to arrive to Formula One [as a starter]. Obviously, I have a bit more job to do and a bit more learning, which is always good,” Shwartzman said. “I just try to learn as quickly as possible, and improve everything I have to improve as quickly and as better as possible to be fully prepared for hopefully future next steps.”

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