Former F1 drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Brendon Hartley have been named as Ferrari’s new simulator drivers alongside Davide Rigon and Antonio Fuoco.
Brendon Hartley raced for Toro Rosso in the last four races of 2017 and for the whole of 2018 before being unceremoniously dropped from their line-up. In 2019, alongside his role in the Ferrari simulator, he will once again make up part of Porsche’s factory driver program, with a potential return to the World Endurance Championship – where he won the LMP1 title in 2015 and 2017 – on the cards.
Wehrlein last competed in F1 in 2017 for the Sauber team, and now races for Mahindra in Formula E. Rumours had linked him with Ferrari ever since it was announced that the ties between himself and Mercedes had been cut in September of last year.
As mentioned, the pair will join Davide Rigon and Antonio Fuoco at the Scuderia. Rigon has worked in the Ferrari simulator since 2014, whilst Fuoco has long been a part of the Ferrari Driver Academy and took part in F2 last year.
Speaking of the signings, team principal Mattia Binotto said, “Our team has taken on four undoubtedly talented drivers, who possess innate feeling, with a strong understanding of race cars and tracks. These are exactly the qualities required in the skillful role of driving in a simulator, one of the vital pieces of equipment in the Formula 1 of today.”
Formula 2’s visit to Italy threw up more than a few surprises over the course of the weekend, with a frenetic set of races that saw us leave Monza with the gap between first and second in the championship somehow still at fifty-nine points.
Charles Leclerc’s on track pole position streak finally came to an end when ART’s Nobuharu Matsushita posted the fastest time in a disrupted session on Friday afternoon, while the championship leader sat all the way down in seventh place. It was a mighty recovery for the Japanese driver, who crashed out of the last race in Spa in spectacular style. It also meant that it was something of a shaken up grid that started Saturday’s feature race, with none of the championship front runners even on the front row.
On Saturday it wasn’t even a simple case of the drivers turning up and racing. Thanks to the torrential downpour that led to the cancellation of the GP3 race and the long delay in Formula 1 qualifying, the Formula 2 feature race started around two hours late. The wet conditions also led to the field circulating behind the safety car for six laps, with an extra formation lap added when Santino Ferrucci stalled just as the race was finally about to get underway.
As expected, given the conditions, it was a messy start with contact between the leading cars at the first corner, but Racing Engineering’s Nyck de Vries managed to take the lead from Matsushita. After his disappointing qualifying, Leclerc improved almost immediately to third and into the podium places, which much of the field scrapping behind him as the cars battled through the wet tarmac, a fight saw ART’s Alexander Albon spin and end up at the back of the field.
Poor visibility from the fountains of spray being kicked up by the cars didn’t stop Leclerc taking second from Matsushita around the final corner of the track. But it was his fellow championship contender, Oliver Rowland, who made up the most amount of places in the opening laps, improving to fifth from thirteenth on the grid by the end of lap 3.
Quickly, Leclerc was gaining on de Vries, circulating comfortably quicker than the McLaren junior as all the drivers learnt how to navigate the difficult conditions. Rowland looked imperiously quick as he moved off the racing line to overtake the experienced Roberto Merhi, moving past Matsuhita barely a lap later. This was a tactic many of the other drivers began to emulate in a bid to find more grip and speed.
De Vries managed to keep a cool head under the pressure being mounted on him by Leclerc, showing that his new stint at Racing Engineering is a far more better fit for him. The majority of the top ten waited until a few laps from the end to pit, with Leclerc making his stop on lap 18 of 23, with de Vries and Rowland coming in a lap later and both of them managing to maintain position.
But the race was by no means decided then, Leclerc wasn’t giving up the chase and disaster struck Rowland on lap 19 when one of his tyres came loose, ending what would have been a truly storming race for the British driver. His abandoned DAMS brought out the safety car with just a handful of laps remaining.
Racing resumed on lap 21 with a lightning fast restart from the leader de Vries and Leclerc, who pulled away from the now third placed Luca Ghiotto. A mistake by Leclerc at the first corner forced him to cut the chicane and subsequently give the position he gained, which opened the door for Ghiotto who flew into the lead of his home race with only a lap and a half to go. De Vries fought back aggressively with the two cars running side by side down the start/finish straight as they started the final lap of the race. An error under breaking from Ghiotto saw him cut the first chicane but crucially maintain the lead – a mistake that would come back to haunt him later.
Meanwhile Leclerc tried to make the pass on de Vries, narrowly avoiding a collision with Matsushita, only to be forced wide and off the track by the Dutchman. The clumsy move saw Leclerc finish last and de Vries retire with a puncture from the contact. De Vries would later be penalised for the move but the time penalty made little difference to Leclerc and Prema, who were understandably furious about the incident.
It wasn’t all disappointment for Prema however, as their other driver Antonio Fuoco fought his way through to second, making it an Italian 1-2 at Monza, and securing his third podium of the season. ART’s Nobuharu Matsushita finished in third, making up for his poor start from pole, with Nicholas Latifi coming in an impressive fourth place after starting fourteenth. Alexander Albon, who was running dead last on the first lap was another driver who made a strong recovery to finish fifth, followed by Sean Gelael, Sergio Sette Camara and Louis Deletraz in eighth with his best finish of the season so far. Gustav Malja and Artem Markelov picked up the final points of the race.
But it wasn’t all over yet. In a déjà vu moment similar to the events of Spa one week ago, late into Saturday night it was announced that race winner and home hero Luca Ghiotto had been handed a five second time penalty, stripping him of his victory, and pushing him off the podium entirely, making his final finishing position fourth place. It meant his countryman and Prema driver, Antonio Fuoco collected his first race win of the season, and whose performance proved that his early bad run was not indicative of his talents. Nobuharu Matsushita, therefore, received second place, whilst Nicholas Latifi moved onto the podium to take third.
Alexander Albon, who had finished fifth on track was also given a ten second time penalty for his collision with Norman Nato, which demoted him from the points and into fourteenth place.
The last lap drama of Saturday’s race saw the grid for the sprint race look a little different than we might expect. Without the treacherous conditions of Saturday, Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz were able to get flying starts, overtaking the reverse grid pole sitter Gustav Malja. The Indonesian driver managed to fight his way into the lead; unfamiliar territory for the Arden driver who is yet to finish higher than fifth place this season.
The sprint race was all about recovery for Rowland and Leclerc, who started near the back of the field and set about trying to cut their way through the field. But they weren’t the only drivers who had a point to prove. Ghiotto was vocal about how disappointed he was to lose his first race win of the season, and was clearly determined to make amends on Sunday.
Most of the field were bunched together, with the drivers in the podium positions constantly swapping and changing in the first few laps, as Gelael lost his lead to Deletraz and began to slip down the order. Within just seven laps, Ghiotto was back in the podium positions with an uncompromising couple of moves on Gelael and Sette Camara.
Monza is a track renowned for generating massive slipstreams, which, while aiding overtaking, leaves advancing drivers vulnerable to attack from behind. Rapax’s Louis Deletraz learnt this the hard way as he fought to keep the lead from the charging Luca Ghiotto, which he eventually lost on lap 11. Ghiotto was being followed by Sette Camara, but it would be hard to deny the Italian driver the race win which had been taken away from him the day before. The young Brazilian was driving well to prove that his sprint race win in Belgium was not just a case of good fortune, but raw speed and ability.
The close running made a collision seem inevitable, and many of the drivers did pick up damage over the course of the race, including Leclerc, who had worked his way up to ninth but struggled to make it much further with a broken front wing.
Antonio Fuoco was on a mission to secure his first double podium of the season, his speed showing just how confident he is around Monza, especially as he overtook Deletraz with ease for third place.
Luca Ghiotto’s dominant race win was never in doubt this time, and the Italian could feel vindicated that he had driven out of his skin to secure a victory he believed he deserved. It was a mature drive from Sette Camara to take second place, and a strong showing from Fuoco to take third, pleasing the crowd of fans who were cheering on the Ferrari junior driver at Monza. Louis Deletraz’s fourth place was his best finish of the season, and rounded off a much stronger weekend for the Swiss driver, who had floundered a little up until this point. Roberto Merhi, Sean Gelael, Matsushita and Alexander Albon – who made a good recovery from fourteenth on the grid – occupied the final points paying positions, while the championship leaders Leclerc, Rowland and Markelov all finished empty handed.
The Italians were undoubtedly the stars of the weekend, and whether it was a case of home turf advantage, both Ghiotto and Fuoco proved that they shouldn’t be overlooked in favour of their teammates. Ghiotto’s performance, including a much needed first race win, has placed him in the picture of the championship fight, as he is now only two points behind his teammate Markelov, and just nine behind Rowland.
The main fight in the driver standings remains unchanged, with Leclerc and Rowland feeling the brunt of bad luck once again and failing to score at all. With his fifty-nine-point lead, if Leclerc can steer clear of trouble in Jerez in a month’s time, then it is possible that he could wrap up the championship in Spain. But the drama and unpredictability of the season so far means that as likely as this might seem, it is far from guaranteed.
It could be very easy to write off the 2017 Formula 2 season as something of a one horse race. But with twelve different podium finishers, and every team scoring points, it has been anything but. While Charles Leclerc may be grabbing all the headlines, it would be unfair to overlook some of the other drivers and teams who have been performing well this season. However, for every driver exceeding expectations, there have been those who have failed to deliver.
Perhaps an unexpected stand out star has been DAMS driver, Nicholas Latifi, who recently tested for Renault at the mid-season Formula 1 test at the Hungaroring. For the majority of his single seater career the Canadian has flown under the radar, performing well enough to pick up a few points here and there, but never delivering any results that made him stand out. This season has been something of a breakthrough for Latifi, picking up a win and five podium finishes on his way to a fourth place in the driver standings. What is perhaps most impressive about Latifi’s season so far is that prior to the 2017 season, few had him pegged as a race winner, and expected his teammate Oliver Rowland to comfortably out perform him.
Whilst they may have been somewhat eclipsed by star of the season Charles Leclerc, his fellow GP3 graduates have certainly than measured up to their more experienced competitors. ART’s Alexander Albon has acclimatised to the series well, showing consistency by scoring points in every round but Silverstone – with the exception of Baku, which he missed due to injury. The Thai driver needs to score more podiums to get on terms with his teammate, but considering it is his first season, he has surpassed expectations. Similarly, Nyck de Vries – who partnered Albon and Leclerc last year – started his season looking a little shaky, tyre management in particular being an issue, but has worked his way into his stride too, even earning himself a sprint race victory. If their respective teams can continue their form in 2018, and provided that both drivers stay in Formula 2, then it would not be surprising to see them as contenders for the championship next year.
In terms of team performances, DAMS and Russian Time have been far above the rest of the field in terms of consistent results and good performances from both of their drivers. They probably have the two strongest line-ups, but it looks set to be a two horse fight for the team title this year. Despite Leclerc’s best efforts, Prema will struggle to stay on terms with their two rivals. Though the Italian team currently sits ahead of Russian Time in the standings, that is more to do with the below-average outing the Russian team had in Hungary. It is a particular impressive resurgence for DAMS who have struggled in GP2 since they won both the driver and the team title in 2014.
While not as consistent as their more successful counterparts, some credit has to be given to Pertamina Arden, who scored their first race win at this level since 2012, courtesy of Norman Nato. It is encouraging stuff for a team who have struggled badly in recent years. The team benefitted from an overhaul at the start of the season, and they will be pleased to see their hard work yielding the results they desire.
While he currently trails both Rowland and Leclerc, what is most impressive about Artem Markelov this season is how much he has improved since just 2016. The Russian used to be a driver synonymous with inconsistency, quick but always hampered by his overly aggressive driving style and tendency to lose his head. But this year he has been vocal about his focus on working to calm himself down and think about the long game, and it shows. Save for his failed overtake on Oliver Rowland in Hungary, his previous flashes of brilliance have turned into a fully fledged championship campaign, and has put him at the front of the field at this level for the first time in his career.
Above all, however, 2017 has been a story of one man; Charles Leclerc. The nineteen-year-old Monegasque driver as dominated qualifying and the feature races, and leads the championship standings by a very healthy margin of fifty points, displaying immense speed and mental strength along the way. With only four rounds and eight races left to run, you would be hard pressed to find someone willing to bet against him taking home the title in November – though he is on track to seal the deal well before the final round in Abu Dhabi.
It may be a little harsh to consider Oliver Rowland‘s performance in Formula 2 underwhelming, but by the standards he set himself at the beginning of the season, it is just that. While none would claim he doesn’t have the talent or the speed to claim the title, the twenty-four-year-old has been outshone by Leclerc – though his performance was somewhat unexpected. As someone who stressed the importance of bringing home the F2 title in order to progress up the single seater ladder, to be trailing by fifty points at this stage in the season makes his task very difficult indeed.
Since their entry into GP2 in 2005, Racing Engineering had developed a reputation of a team guaranteed to give their drivers the tools necessary to perform at the top end of the field. But last year’s runners up currently sit in eighth in the team standings, with only twenty-nine points to their name. The Spanish team, and their drivers – Gustav Malja and Louis Deletraz – have been vocal about their struggles with set up and pace. While it is too late to rescue their form from previous seasons, the team can hope to use the summer break to finish their season in a better place than they are currently.
If Antonio Fuoco’s teammate was anyone other than Charles Leclerc, then maybe his struggles this season would not be so glaringly obvious. Despite pulling out some promising qualifying performances, and scoring one podium in Austria, he has floundered while his fellow Ferrari Academy Driver has dominated the field. Regardless of how well his teammate is performing, he has not been as impressive as his fellow GP3 graduates – who, while struggling at first, have started to replicate their form from previous years. Just last year, Fuoco was involved in the GP3 title fight, driving for a team not as strong as his rivals’, but a mistake-ridden run and lack of pace has seen him nearer the back of the grid.
The summer break offers a chance for recuperation and can provide a blank slate for some drivers and teams, and there is every chance for them to put to bed the demons of the first half of the season, and turn things around. Equally, there is nothing to say that those who are on top right now will necessarily remain so.