Barcelona ushered in the second round of the 2017 Formula 2 championship, and it brought with it a few changes to the series. A single change to the track, which affected all races taking place at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona, was the extension of the DRS activation zone by one hundred metres, increasing the opportunities for overtaking on the main straight.
The second was the replacement of Stefano Coletti with Robert Merhi at the Campos Racing team. Ex-F1 driver Merhi tested for Campos before the season began, but the call to race came very late for the Spaniard, who drove wearing his old Manor Marussia racing overalls.
The race weekend also brought with it a first win this season for Honda junior driver Nobuharu Matsushita in the sprint race, and an increased championship lead for rookie Charles Leclerc who now leads the standings by twenty-six points.
In qualifying it was Prema who reigned triumphant once again, taking pole position for the second weekend running. But while Leclerc started the feature race at the front of the grid, his teammate and fellow Ferrari junior driver, Antonio Fuoco, sat in eighth position, his time half a second slower.
Qualifying did not pan out so well for the other race winner from Bahrain, Artem Markelov, who found himself all the way back in thirteenth. As far as one lap performances went for the other rookies, Rapax’s Nyck de Vries put in another good performance for third, and GP3 race winner Alexander Albon managed to slot himself into fifth, ahead of his more experienced teammate Matsushita.
Before Saturday’s feature race had even begun the field was divided in terms of strategy, with most opting to start on the soft tyres and switching onto the hard after the first round of pit stops, while others went for the alternate strategy, earning them a longer first stint on the harder compound.
It was a decent start for the pole sitter Leclerc, but second-placed Luca Ghiotto pulled away more cleanly, prompting aggressive defending from Leclerc who managed to hold his lead by the end of the first lap. De Vries’ trend of being unable to convert his promising performances in qualifying to the race continued when he struggled at the start, sending himself backwards before he had even reached the first corner.
It was a disappointing first lap for Louis Deletraz too, who seemed to have brought his bad luck with him from Bahrain—he got hit by Cecotto and spun, sending him down the order. A clumsy first lap meant Fuoco’s weekend went from bad to worse, as damage sent him into the pits and he emerged at the back of the field.
Albon, who had promoted himself to third at the start, managed to overtake Ghiotto on lap 4, whose tyres were already starting to fade, triggering a fierce battle for the lead between himself and Leclerc.
Those who started on the softer tyres were soon into the pits, whilst those who begun the race on the hard tyres carried on, the comparative lack of degradation enabling them to push for longer. But any advantage this alternate strategy might have won these drivers was wiped out on lap 10 when Sergio Canamassas came to a stop in the middle of track, bringing out the safety care. The field was bunched together rapidly, closing the gap between the early stoppers and those who had yet to pit.
At the restart on lap 13 Albon got away well, but by this point Leclerc was making his way back through the field with Ghiotto following closely. Deletraz redeemed himself from his earlier bad luck with a stunning move round the outside of Norman Nato. Once DAMS driver Oliver Rowland finally managed to take the lead from Albon, he was churning out very competitive lap times, despite still using the same set of tyres that he started on. Unfortunately, the safety car effectively ended any chance he had of a race win. But a strong resurgence after a late stop meant he managed to finish the race on the third step of the podium. Albon also recovered well to finish in fifth place, but it must have been hard not to dwell on what might have been, had strategy gone his way.
There was no stopping Leclerc and Ghiotto from claiming first and second place respectively. But they certainly had the strategic advantage. Markelov once again showed his development as a mature driver, and a measured overtake on Jordan King won him eighth place and reverse grid pole for the sprint race.
The sprint race on Sunday morning was a dramatic affair. Markelov would have been hoping for a better result than he got on Saturday, and one that would help build his championship challenge after his win in Bahrain.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Russian got away very poorly, failing to capitalise on his starting advantage. Nicholas Latifi, on the other hand, got a fantastic start, immediately putting himself into the lead, and in a position to get his first win at this level after three previous seasons in GP2.
The safety car made a reappearance on lap 1 as Fuoco made an early exit from the race, bringing his miserable weekend to a close. He collided with Nyck de Vries at turn seven who also retired as a result of the shunt.
Latifi managed to command the race for the ensuing laps, and looked certain to cruise to victory. However, tragedy struck for the Canadian on lap 22, as he plunged his car incredibly deep into turn five, the gravel trap slowing him right down and allowing both Matsushita and Rowland to get past him, gifting the lead to the former.
In the closing stages of the race Leclerc finally managed to dispatch Albon and eventually worked his way up to fourth place, whilst the ART driver eventually finished down in seventh place as his tyres began to degrade badly. Despite starting the race on pole, Markelov could only do as well as ninth place, never managing to recover after his poor start. The win would have surely been Latifi’s had he not thrown it away before he could seal the deal. The only consolation is that DAMS managed to get both of their drivers on the podium, earning themselves some valuable points.
The stand out performer of the weekend was Oliver Rowland, who scored himself two podiums to promote himself to second in the championship standings. The Yorkshireman was positively dominant in the feature race, even with the misfortune of the safety car, and while he did benefit from the mistake of his teammate in the sprint race, he had the speed to bag himself that second podium regardless.
Another strong showing from Charles Leclerc extended his lead at the top of the driver standings, proving the speed and talent he showed in Bahrain was no beginner’s luck. Any doubts that he would not be a contender owing to his rookie status have been well and truly dismissed. His GP3 teammate Alexander Albon continued to perform well, and the two of them are demonstrating that experience is an optional component of a successful run in Formula 2.
Leclerc’s teammate Antonio Fuoco, by contrast, seems to still be struggling to get up to speed, and is hardly taking advantage of having one of the strongest cars on the grid. Time will tell if it is a lack of confidence and experience that is plaguing the young Italian, and whether he can challenge his teammate by the end of the season.
Barcelona was nightmarish for Frenchman Norman Nato as well, who was looking like a championship contender after the feature race in Bahrain. However, he leaves Spain empty handed, and sitting ninth in the championship standings.
Artem Markelov was overtaken by both Rowland and Ghiotto in the standings, but did manage to score some points. His performance was nowhere near as strong as in round one, but the races interrupted by safety cars prevented him from driving on his own terms. He can take positives from the fact that he has continued to look far more consistent and measured than in previous seasons. It would be too soon to discount both him and Nato from the championship fight already.
We head to Monaco for the third round of the F2 championship in just under two weeks’ time. It is a track that can always throw us a few surprises, so don’t count anyone out yet. Though we can expect Charles Leclerc to be a force to be reckoned with, as a man on a mission to win his home race.
Georgia Beith, F2 Correspondent