Marcus Armstrong recalls a younger version of himself storming into his team awning after his first ever go-kart race. Red-faced and filled with anger and disappointment in himself, he shouted: “Jean Todt and Ron Dennis are never going to be watching me!” The young Kiwi had just finished in sixth: it was clear from the start he was never going to settle for less than his best.
Formula 1 bosses may not have been watching then, but they must be watching now. The DAMS driver is speaking ahead of his second Formula 2 season, dressed head-to-toe in the official kit of Todt’s former team, Ferrari. He’s been a member of their academy for over four years.
Armed with a years’ experience of the second tier, and two of racing on a Grand Prix weekend, he believes he’s well-equipped to tackle what is arguably the most important season of his career to date.
HIS LOVE OF FERRARI
Armstrong and Ferrari go way back.
It was the glistening red of the famous Scuderia which first got him hooked on the sport. His father Rick Armstrong - who dabbled in various New Zealand motorsport Championships himself – was a Michael Schumacher fan and used to let his son stay up late to watch the F1 races.
The younger Armstrong was more interested in Schumacher’s Ferrari teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, and even to this day, his helmet has shades of Raikkonen to it. Looking back, he laughs and concedes that his decision was partly based on his love of going against the crowd: “It was a case of, if you're going for Schumacher, then I’m going for Raikkonen.
“We’d get up at 1am to watch the races and I used to get really wound up when Kimi didn't do well. I’d always joke ‘well, if he can't do it, then I will have to step up and do it.”
It was that mentality that convinced the now 20-year-old to boldly walk up to Massimo Rivola and introduce himself at a test in Italy at the end of 2016. Rivola was the head of Ferrari’s driver academy at the time, and if Armstrong was ever going to fill Raikkonen’s boots, this felt like a good place to start. Rivola then invited Armstrong to a Formula 4 test at the team’s Fiorano circuit in Italy.
“I think he expected me to be a full-on rookie or something,” Armstrong explains. “I was quite well-prepared at the time though, and that night after the test he said that I had a good chance. A couple of days later we got the confirmation that I was in.”
BEING SURROUNDED BY TALENT
Armstrong was put straight into the hands of Ferrari linked outfit PREMA Racing. Headed up by Rene Rosin, the Italian side are proven Championship winners, and this was a clear sign of faith from the academy in their newest prodigy.
Their trust was rewarded with the Italian F4 title in his first season, while he also took second in ADAC F4 that same year as part of a dual campaign. Stepping up to European F3, Armstrong managed fifth with 10 podiums and one win in his rookie campaign.
European F3 merged with GP3 at the end of 2018 to form the Formula 1 supporting FIA F3. Armstrong joined fellow Ferrari junior Robert Shwarztman at PREMA, with both of them eying up the title.
The standard is incredibly high. Charles Leclerc dominated GP3 and F2 and that has become the expectation for everybody.
PREMA had just taken fellow Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc to the title in F2. After a season with Sauber in F1, the Monegasque made the step up to Ferrari. He’s become the poster boy for the Scuderia’s driver programme and has set the bar for anyone who wishes to follow.
“In a way, yes I was happy with my season in F3,” he continues. “I finished second in the Championship and that gives me the right platform to step in F1, but it isn’t grabbing headlines like I want. It was okay in the grand scheme of things, but I set very high targets for myself.
“The standard is incredibly high. Charles Leclerc dominated GP3 and F2 and that has become the expectation for everybody. I don't know if it is a blessing or a curse to be surrounded by so many influential people, but if you want to get to F1, you have to do something special. That’s what Charles did and its set the bar extremely high.”
CUTTING TIES WITH PREMA
When it comes down to the big decisions in motorsport, there’s very little room for emotion. Despite enjoying a relationship that spanned three years and included 11 wins and 41 podiums, Armstrong and PREMA parted ways at the end of their campaign in F3.
Fellow Ferrari junior Schumacher had already agreed to extend his F2 deal with PREMA into 2020, leaving just one seat available which went to Armstrong’s teammate Shwartzman who had narrowly pipped him to the title.
Having pushed the Russian all the way, Armstrong wasn’t short of offers in F2 and he opted for ART who had just led Nyck de Vries to the Championship. PREMA had actually endured a pretty poor campaign, slumping to ninth in the Teams’ Championship. On paper, Armstrong appeared to have gotten the better deal.
“ART have a huge history behind them, and things started off really well,” he continues. “We were extremely quick in testing and we started the season really strongly. ART are an extremely great team with great personalities. I was very pleased that I was able to step straight into a top team.”
Armstrong started the season in sterling form, taking two podiums from the opening two rounds. Neither he nor ART Could have predicted what followed as the Kiwi went six rounds without another points’ finish.
He finished the campaign with a further four top ten finishes from the final four rounds but couldn’t quite manage a third podium.
“I think I was actually performing better at the end of the season than I was at the start. Callum (Ilott) won the first Feature Race in Spielberg and I finished second, but I knew what I needed to do to improve.
“I was sure that in the next few rounds things would be on the rise, but for whatever reason that didn’t work out. There were days when I felt like I had given everything, but I was nowhere.
“On the flip side, there were days when I don’t think I did a particularly great job, but for whatever reason I got a result. It was a strange one and I don't think that the results necessarily correlated to my own performances.”
MOVING ON FROM 2020
A season like 2020 can put a driver through the ringer. The year was certainly tough on Armstrong and he’s the first to admit he questioned himself a times, but he’s also mature enough to know that this is motorsport. It doesn’t always make sense.
“It is all perspective,” says Armstrong. “I think that the things I learned in 2020 will be absolutely vital for the future. It has been tough mentally, yes, but so is every season. Fighting for a title and knowing that you need as many points as possible, knowing that you can’t afford to crash – that is far more stressful.
Fighting for a title and knowing that you need as many points as possible, knowing that you can’t afford to crash – that is far more stressful.
“At the end of the day, we all know how unpredictable F2 is. For example, Felipe (Drugovich) dominated the Feature Race in Round 11 last season, but then struggled in Race 2 and he didn’t really know why.
“Composure is a big thing in F2. Composure and adaptability. You need to make the most out of each situation, and that’s an area that I know I need to improve on. I have the pace, that isn’t a problem, but to win a Championship at this level, or to even be in the top three, you need to make the most of bad situations and be at a seriously high level.”
He doesn’t have to look far for proof of how quickly things can turn around on the Road to F1. Armstrong shares a flat with Callum Ilott in Maranello. Ilott was named as Ferrari’s Test Driver in December on the back of finishing second in F2 last season.
It was a very different situation 12 months prior.
“Me and Callum have discussed a lot,” Armstrong continued. “It makes me laugh because we have spent quite a lot of time together in the past couple of years and I would say that 12 months ago he was feeling pretty s*** about himself, but fast forward a few months and he is on top of the world, competing for a seat in F1.
“It is crazy how quickly things change in this sport. The memory of everybody in the paddock extends to about the last race weekend, so I think that anything is possible. Callum is a fantastic example of that.”
A CONSTANT DESIRE TO IMPROVE
It’s now been two months since the end of the season, but Armstrong is not one for shutting off. He feels like he did all the resetting he needed during the near two-month break between rounds 10 and 11 last year.
Swapping one French outfit for another, Armstrong has begun his work with DAMS ahead of the new season, excited by the prospect of a fresh start and the potential of their partnership. Together, they have just one goal in mind.
"DAMS have a massive history, especially in GP2 and F2 - it’s one of, if not the, best to be with,” elates Armstrong. “We’re aiming for the title. It’s not in my interest to finish second and they firmly agree because they have the exact same targets.
“By no means is it going to be easy with such fierce competition, but I feel that when I’m in the right environment with a great team I can really do special things.”
Unable to return to his family in New Zealand due to Covid-19 restrictions, his off-time was spent training in Maranello. His housemate Ilott is able to split his time between there and London, but Armstrong’s presence is pretty much a constant. He’s built a life for himself in Northern Italy.
It is crazy how quickly things change in this sport. The memory of everybody in the paddock extends to about the last race weekend, so I think that anything is possible.
It’s a lifestyle which suits Armstrong perfectly. The competitor inside of him rarely shuts off. If he’s awake he needs to be competing or learning. He has the time and the space in Italy to do both. Whether that is out in the mountains punishing himself on the bike, in the garage with Ferrari or tucked away in the flat watching on-boards.
“I actually think of Maranello as home now,” he explained. “It’s in a good location, I’m surrounded by mountains and places to bike, 50 metres away from the Ferrari gym.
“I am constantly working with the team and constantly in the motorsport life. I’m always around clever people, always picking up new information and I am so grateful for that. I see it as a huge advantage”
It all stems from his relentless desire to improve. The same self-criticism that burned in his belly after his first race in New Zealand more than a decade ago burns just as hot today. It’s why the 20-year-old is so eager to go again.
“I am just massively passionate about the sport and extremely hungry to improve,” he continues. “I think that is something that separates me from others, the improvement never stops, every single day I wake up and want to be better than the previous day.
“I don’t ever do things half-arsed, if I need to be fit, I need to be the fittest guy on the grid. I am all or nothing and I think that separates me from others.”