After a month’s break, Formula 2 travelled from one street circuit to another with the first ever Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the second year at this circuit. Expectations were high for an action-packed couple of races, and Formula 2 proved itself to be as unpredictable as ever.
Qualifying on Friday saw Charles Leclerc continue his clean sweep of pole positions with his fourth of the season, topping the session half a second quicker than the rest of the field. Not only was it a formidable showing of pace, but also an incredible display of mental strength after the passing of his father earlier in the week.
Following the Monegasque were Nobuharu Matsushita, Nicholas Latifi and Nyck de Vries, who all posted impressive lap times to complete the first two rows of the grid. Leclerc’s Prema teammate, Antonio Fuoco also looked like he might be experiencing an upturn in form, qualifying in sixth position, an improvement he desperately needed after only scoring points in one race so far this season.
The feature race on Saturday morning didn’t fail to deliver the thrills everyone expected. Leclerc managed to maintain his lead off the line, but Matsushita alongside him could not get away cleanly and fell down the field, Latifi and De Vries being promoted into the podium positions by the first corner.
Fuoco also managed to work his way up to fourth place and looked set to score some well-earned—and desperately needed—points. There was one staller on the grid: Rapax’s Johnny Cecotto, who was into the pits immediately. But almost as soon as he exited, his cold tyres and brakes sent him into the barriers at turn two, and the safety car was deployed on only the third lap of the race.
The field followed the safety car for only a single lap, and Leclerc managed to keep his lead after a cagey restart. De Vries made up for the misfortunes of his teammate by sweeping around Latifi to take second place. As Leclerc continued to set new fastest laps, drawing out his advantage, the two Russian drivers in the field, Artem Markelov and ART’s Sergey Sirotkin, were on the charge, pulling off some aggressive overtakes.
Lap seven saw Antonio Fuoco’s race brought to a swift end after getting caught out by Canamasas, clobbering into the back of him and sending him off the track with terminal damage. It was unfortunate for the young Italian, who seemed to be having a much-improved weekend, but it was a clear driver error. A self-inflicted injury to continue his underwhelming season.
The first round of pit stops began on lap eight, with most of the leaders pitting together, with the exception of Markelov and Sirotkin. Leclerc managed to maintain the net lead of the race, but narrowly avoided both a collision in the pit lane and being overtaken by de Vries. After the two Russians pitted Ghiotto inherited the lead of the race, his medium tyres enabling him to race for much longer.
A second safety car made an appearance on lap thirteen as the marshals tried to recover Louis Deletraz’s car. At the restart on lap fifteen de Vries managed to make his way up to third place, and Markelov lost a position to Matsushita, who was still recovering from his poor start.
When Ghiotto finally stopped on lap nineteen, the battle for the lead turned into one between Leclerc and de Vries—but clear air for the Prema driver meant he could start to pull away from the Dutchman behind him.
By lap twenty-one Oliver Rowland—who had overcome brake issues earlier in the race—had made his way up to fourth place, with only his teammate Nicholas Latifi standing between him and a podium. It was a superb display of damage limitation, and showed that the Brit has tenacity and grit as well as talent behind the wheel.
With five laps left to run the race was disrupted by a spectacular crash at turn eight, right at the narrowest section of the track. Sean Gelael clipped the curb, hit the barrier and ended up parked sideways across the track. His shunt also collected Sirotkin and Gustav Malja, creating a three-car pile-up that blocked the entire track.
Race control initially sent out the safety car, but with it impossible to pass the scene of the incident, a red flag was brought out and the session was aborted with four laps to go, meaning Charles Leclerc earned his third victory of the season in the pit lane.
Nyck de Vries and Nicholas Latifi completed the podium with Rowland getting hit by a post-race penalty, demoting him from fourth to seventh. That meant Markelov took fourth place, followed by Nato in fifth, King in sixth, Boschung taking reverse grid pole in eighth, and Canamasas and Sirotkin finishing the top ten.
Whilst it did not have the dramatic ending of the feature race, Sunday’s sprint race did not fail to deliver a few surprises. Rowland, who started from second on the grid after his penalty, took the lead of the race almost immediately, determined to make up for the points he had lost the previous day.
The opening laps saw Markelov overtaking cars with an impressive speed, and Arden’s Norman Nato pulled off an aggressive move on Boschung to take second place, but not without losing a sizeable piece of his front wing. Fortunately for the Frenchman the damage did not seem to impede the drivability of his car. His move also allowed Latifi to follow him around Boschung, so that the Canadian now seemed to stand a good chance of scoring a double podium, which would be his first in Formula 2 or GP2.
Meanwhile, Leclerc found himself stuck behind a train of cars in the lower points-scoring positions, struggling to find a way past, while his rival Rowland was keeping a cool head out in front. Once Nato had passed Boschung, the Arden driver didn’t find it difficult to begin to to eat into Rowland’s lead. But in the end, he didn’t need to catch the Brit, who was struck by a suspected gearbox problem on lap eight which sent him down the order and ultimately forced him to retire from the race, destroying his chances of clawing back some of Leclerc’s championship lead.
Seemingly spurred on by the knowledge that his main rival was out of contention, Leclerc began to dispatch the cars in front of him, narrowly avoiding Artem Markelov, who defended hard, not willing to give up his position without a fight. His job was made a little easier when Nyck de Vries—who had been running in second place and also looked set to score a double podium—ran wide, picking up damage and putting him out of the race.
Nato began to extend his lead out in front as both Leclerc and Sirotkin made progress, the two of them performing a synchronised move on Ralph Boschung on lap ten, but with the Russian ultimately losing a place to the Monegasque driver. The Russian was clearly growing in confidence with each lap, flashes of his form from 2016 returning.
Lap thirteen saw Leclerc dispatch Latifi and begin chasing Nato, who by this point had a sizeable lead over the rest of the podium places. Now racing in clean air, the Prema driver was lapping about a second quicker than anyone else, including the man he was hunting down. He looked certain to emulate the double victory of Antonio Giovinazzi, who had driven for the Italian team in 2016.
But on lap seventeen the news came in that Leclerc had received a ten second time penalty, along with Sergio Canamasas, for failing to slow for yellow flags – a punishment very similar to the one Rowland had received in the feature race. Despite his superior speed, victory was near impossible, and though he was the first driver to take the chequered flag, second place was the best he could manage. DAMS’ Nicholas Latifi finished the sprint race in third, his second of the weekend.
There was a post-race penalty for MP Motorsport’s Jordan King for illegal tyre pressures, a disappointment for the Dutch team who could have used the decent haul of points his fourth place would have got them. That meant Sirotkin was promoted to fourth, followed by Markelov, Matsushita, Ghiotto and Boschung who collected the final points up for grabs.
Without the retirements of Rowland and de Vries the result of the race would have been very different. But it was a richly deserved win for Norman Nato who has failed to score points since his second place in Bahrain, and is a far more capable driver than his results suggest. It was an even bigger victory for the Arden team, who scored their first win at this level since 2012, and gave them a much needed boost in a season where they have been struggling so far. The recently revamped team were very much the winners of the weekend, even with two no-points finishes for Sean Gelael.
Charles Leclerc overcame his difficult circumstances outside of the car to deliver another outstanding weekend, increasing his championship lead to forty-two points. Russian Time also maintained their lead at the top of the team standings, and Markelov moves to within two points of Rowland in the driver standings. Credit has to go also to Luca Ghiotto who recovered from a difficult qualifying and feature race to finish seventh on Sunday.
It was a mixed weekend for Nyck de Vries, who can take positives from the fact that he succeeded in converting his qualifying pace into feature race results. Though it has taken the Formula 2 rookie a few rounds to find his feet, the McLaren junior driver is improving round by round.
DAMS have continued their recent resurgence, now a strong second in the team standings, with Nicholas Latifi having his best season in single seaters by a fair way. But there is no disguising the missed opportunity for Oliver Rowland, who was in with a real chance of going top of the drivers’ standings going into the weekend. Though much of it was down to factors beyond his control, he now leaves Baku with a substantial margin between him and Leclerc and at risk of losing his second place to Markelov.
Formula 2 has only a two week break before the next round at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, a track which even some of the rookies should be familiar with, on account of the GP3 championship also running there. The rain soaked races of 2016 threw up more than a few surprises, but even in normal weather conditions, it should be an entertaining weekend to see if Rowland, Markelov or any other driver can stop Charles Leclerc from running away with the championship.
Georgia Beith, F2 Correspondent