True to form, Formula 2’s weekend in Monaco contradicted almost every expectation we had prior to the first practice.
Thursday’s qualifying dismissed any notions that experience would be a deciding factor in determining the running order when rookie Charles Leclerc made it three poles in three rounds despite running in the first group when track conditions were not at their optimum.
He was closely followed by fellow GP3 graduate, ART’s Alexander Albon, and the more experienced Oliver Rowland rounded off the top three. In the press conference after qualifying, Rowland lamented the speed at which the rookies had grown accustomed to F2, a testament to how unexpected Leclerc’s and Albon’s performances were.
As it is with any race at Monte Carlo, track position and strategy were going to be key. As long as Prema could nail their strategy in the feature race, Leclerc, whose home sits just above turn one, looked all set for a home victory.
At the race start the order was largely maintained. Though Leclerc did come under initial pressure from Albon, he held his lead and in the opening laps managed to pull away from his former GP3 teammate. Drama struck when Nicholas Latifi broke down at the entrance of the tunnel, in a difficult place for the marshals to recover his car, and brought out at the first safety car. The sudden change of circumstances seemed to play straight into the hands of Albon, who had already pitted, was now able to close the gap to the front runners, which included Leclerc, Rowland and Nobuharu Matsushita. His attempt at an alternate strategy by pitting early suddenly became a serious opportunity for victory.
At the restart on lap 11, Leclerc pulled away at a blistering speed, sprinting away in an attempt to build a gap over Albon. Rowland, who was sitting in second place, kept a far steadier pace, DAMS clearly opting to delay their pit stop as long as possible rather than trying to match Leclerc’s speed.
Lap 21 saw a tidy move by Nyck de Vries on Louis Deletraz to put him into tenth place and into the points. This was swiftly followed by Deletraz coming together with Robert Visoiu, putting them both out of the race, and earning the Campos driver a DNF on debut. The second safety car of the race was deployed.
This triggered a wave of stops from the front runners who had yet to pit, with Leclerc being the first to dive into the pit lane. The unforeseen turn of events undid ART’s gamble with Albon’s early pit, and Prema’s impatience to get Leclerc in meant he ended up losing track position to both Rowland and Artem Markelov. But things were about to get a lot worse for the local boy and championship leader.
As the cars paraded around after the safety car it became apparent that Leclerc’s front left tyre was loose, and initially the assumption was that it had not been fastened properly during the hasty pit stop. After a second stop however, the problem persisted, indicating that it was a more serious suspension breakage, and the Monegasque had no choice but to retire. It was a heart-breaking way to end the race for the driver who was so desperate to win at his home track.
Lap 26 saw the race get back underway, and it was a great restart for Rowland who looked certain to score his first win. In the end it was the man from Sheffield who stood on the top step of the podium, followed by Markelov in second, and Matsushita in third, who managed to secure two back-to-back podiums.
It was an impressive fourth place for Albon, who displayed some impressive tyre management after a long stint of the super soft tyres. Luca Ghiotto took fifth ahead of Gustav Malja, and the Rapax duo of de Vries and Cecotto crossed the line in formation in seventh and eighth, with Jordan King finishing ninth behind them. Trident also managed to finally score their first points of the season when Sergio Canamasas finished in tenth place.
The sprint race saw seasoned veteran Johnny Cecotto Jr of Rapax starting on reverse grid pole, followed by his teammate Nyck de Vries and Racing Engineering’s Gustav Malja.
The start hammered home the point that had been made abundantly clear all weekend: that experience was playing only a minimal role around the streets of Monte Carlo. Rookie de Vries got a fantastic start, pulling ahead of Cecotto almost immediately, and built a commanding lead. Malja almost lost third place to Russian Time’s Luca Ghiotto, but just managed to stay ahead, while this weekend’s feature race winner Rowland was swiftly overtaken by his countrymen Jordan King who demoted him from the points.
As de Vries extended his lead, proving that his tyre management troubles of the early races were long gone, most of the action was occurring towards the back end of the field. A lap 4 incident between an overly optimistic Leclerc and Norman Nato at La Rascasse saw the Frenchmen retiring from the race and the Prema driver handed a ten second time penalty. The horrible weekend for the two of them just continued.
The middle stint of the race saw most of the drivers in the top eight attempting to earn themselves the extra two points for the fastest lap—that honour ultimately went to Artem Markelov. As the race reached around two thirds distance the soft tyres everyone was running began to degrade far more than was expected, particularly for the second placed Cecotto, which bunched up the field all the way back to sixth place.
Despite enormous pressure being heaped on those involved in these battles, only Albon lost out to Markelov, who executed a magnificent piece of late braking to complete the move for fifth. Towards the back of the field it became clear that Leclerc was struggling with the damage he sustained from his early contact with Nato, and for the second time that weekend he was forced to retire.
De Vries led a commanding race, and the McLaren junior driver handled the pressure immensely well, hardly putting a foot wrong as he drove his way to his first victory in Formula 2. Despite the close proximity of the rest of the front runners, Cecotto and Malja managed to hold onto their podium places. The points earned for King, Albon and Ghiotto meant that the three of them continued their streak of scoring points in all races of the 2017 season so far. The sprint race also saw the tally for different drivers on the podium reach ten for this season, highlighting the ultra competitive nature of the series.
Oliver Rowland’s championship campaign certainly benefitted from his first race win on Friday, and despite not scoring any points on Saturday, he is now only three points shy of Charles Leclerc, who still leads the drivers’ standings. The ordinarily relaxed driver kept an exceptionally cool head to avoid making any mistakes on this tricky track. He clearly has the long game in mind, being mindful to not take any risks in the sprint race that could turn into a grid penalty for Baku, and knowing that Leclerc was unlikely to score points, this was obviously the most sensible course of action.
It was also a positive weekend for GP3 graduates Alexander Albon and Nyck de Vries. The former pulled off a blistering qualifying performance, and held his own against more experienced drivers in the race. Although he ultimately lost out in the sprint race to Markelov—who recovered well from his underwhelming weekend in Barcelona—he was able to defend well for a considerable time. De Vries seems to be progressing beyond the troubles he faced in earlier rounds, and is clearly becoming more comfortable with his machinery and Formula 2 as a whole. If he can find the qualifying pace he had in Bahrain, then it is too soon to discount him from making his mark on the championship this year.
Zak Mauger / FIA Formula 2
The weekend was very much one of two halves for Charles Leclerc. His performance in free practice and qualifying put him way ahead of the rest of the field. But his races were struck by some terrible luck, and no doubt left him wishing that it had happened at any other circuit. Discounting his clumsy shunt with Nato in the sprint race, he is hardly at fault, but a weekend with only four points (for his pole position) has damaged his championship challenge considerably.
Norman Nato comes a close second to Leclerc regarding this weekend’s fortunes. His retirement on Saturday marked his third race in a row without scoring any points, and what is perhaps most frustrating of all is that the whole paddock knows these results do not reflect his potential. The Frenchmen needs to find some consistency to resurrect his own chances of winning the championship this year.
Formula 2 travels to the street circuit at Baku in around a month’s time. The circuit was the site of the most dramatic and chaotic race of last season, and with the order shaken up this weekend, it is hard to say who will leave Azerbaijan as leader in the standings.
Georgia Beith, F2 Correspondent