F2 Austria: Ilott takes maiden F2 win after trouble for Zhou

Callum Ilott took his first Formula 2 victory at the Red Bull Ring feature race, after his teammate Guanyu Zhou dropped out of the lead with technical problems.

Ilott and polesitter Zhou dominated the early stages of the race together with Prema’s Mick Schumacher, who leapt up into third place at the start after passing star of qualifying Felipe Drugovich.

The two UNI-Virtuosi drivers traded the lead throughout the first corners of the race, before Zhou managed to make a move stick and set about breaking the DRS range back to Ilott. But Zhou lost the position again after his pit stop, when Ilott and then Schumacher were able to perform the undercut and emerge in the net lead of the race.

Guanyu Zhou, UNI-Virtuosi (Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship)

With more heat in his tyres, Zhou managed to repass Ilott and Schumacher on their out laps, while Ilott overhauled Schumacher to resume net second behind Zhou.

But on lap 26 Zhou slowed with a sudden loss of power and dropped down the order. Ilott resumed the lead ahead of Schumacher, with ART’s Marcus Armstrong, who had climbed through the field on the alternate strategy, assuming third place.

While Zhou returned to the pits there were problems too for HWA’s Artem Markelov, who came to a halt on the circuit and brought out the safety car for two laps.

Marcus Armstrong, ART (Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship)

Ilott held the lead at the safety car restart, and was gifted a reprieve when Schumacher ran off the circuit and through the gravel trap, dropping down to P13.

With Schumacher out of contention as well, Ilott held several seconds in hand over second-placed Armstrong, with Robert Shwartzman promoted to third. This gap only increased as Armstrong and Shwartzman battled hard over the podium positions, allowing Ilott to go from 4.8s ahead on lap 36 to more than 8s by the chequered flag.

Despite having an apparent pace advantage, Shwartzman was unable to get past Armstrong and finished in third behind the ART. Armstrong’s teammate Christian Lundgaard finished fourth after seeing off a late challenge from Dan Ticktum, while Giuliano Alesi made the alternate strategy work to take sixth from 18th on the grid.

Louis Deletraz took seventh for Charouz and Drugovich held on to eighth place to take reverse grid pole for tomorrow on his F2 debut. Nobuharu Matsushita, another alternate strategy runner, finished in ninth and Roy Nissany took the final point in tenth.

Along with Markelov, Sean Gelael and Marino Sato also retired from the race, while Luca Ghiotto failed to start because of a technical problem. Schumacher eventually finished just outside the points in P11, while Zhou finished down in P17.

Robert Shwartzman, Prema (Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship)

F2 Austria preview: rise of the new guard

The 2020 Formula 2 season gets underway this weekend with the first of a double-header at Austria’s Red Bull Ring.

The F2 grid in Spielberg will be full of returning faces. Series stalwarts Artem Markelov, Sean Gelael, Jack Aitken, Louis Deletraz, Nobuharu Matsushita, Roy Nissany and Luca Ghiotto are all back, as are Guanyu Zhou, Callum Ilott, Giuliano Alesi, Mick Schumacher, Marino Sato and Nikita Mazepin, who made their debuts last year.

Alongside them are nine rookie drivers, six of whom come from Formula 1 junior programmes. These are: Renault’s Christian Lundgaard (ART), Williams’ Dan Ticktum (DAMS), Ferrari’s Marcus Armstrong (ART) and Robert Shwartzman (Prema), and Red Bull’s Yuki Tsunoda and Jehan Daruvala (both at Carlin).

The remaining three rookies are Guilherme Samaia (Campos), Pedro Piquet (Charouz) and Felipe Drugovich (MP Motorsport).

Jehan Daruvala and Yuki Tsunoda, Carlin (Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship)

In such an unusual season, it’s hard to predict the pecking order coming into the first round of the championship.

Of the returning drivers, Aitken, Markelov, Ghiotto, Matsushita and Schumacher all have race-winning pedigree at this level. Aitken is perhaps best-placed to fight at the front as he remains with Campos this year, although none of the others (Markelov least of all) should be discounted from pulling off a surprise charge to the top step.

Looking at the top teams is usually a safe bet coming into a new season. UNI-Virtuosi had a strong showing in Austria last year with podiums in both races, and have a talented lineup in Zhou and Ilott who are both gunning for their first F2 victory.

Callum Ilott, UNI-Virtuosi (Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship)

ART can always be relied on to run at the front. And although the French team has an all-rookie lineup, both Lundgaard and Armstrong were race-winners in Formula 3 last year and could both be credible threats to F2’s old guard.

And then there’s Prema. Schumacher is expected to make a big step forward after a sedate debut last year, so shouldn’t be ruled out of contention just because of his 2019 results. And of course he’s partnered by reigning F3 champion Shwartzman, who has plenty of speed and race craft to make an immediate impression on his F2 debut.

As ever, it’s going to be a fascinating opening round for F2 as we wait to see how the field shakes out for the season ahead.

Marcus Armstrong, ART (Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship)

F2 Abu Dhabi: Ghiotto wins final race of 2019

Luca Ghiotto won the Formula 2 sprint race at Yas Marina, the final race of the 2019 season and Ghiotto’s last race in the series.

Ghiotto started third on the reverse grid behind polesitter Giuliano Alesi and Nicholas Latifi, his rival for second in the standings, but jumped straight to second as Latifi was bogged down by wheelspin off the line.

In the opening laps Ghiotto held back from challenging Alesi in order to preserve his tyres. Although this allowed Alesi to build up a substantial early lead, Ghiotto’s strategy came to fruition when Alesi’s tyres ran out of grip shortly after and started costing him two seconds per lap.

On lap 8 Ghiotto took the lead with an easy move on the struggling Alesi, and quickly built up a lead over the rest of the field. Once Alesi lost the position he started falling back down the field, losing second to Latifi on lap 10 and third to Callum Ilott a lap later.

Ghiotto held a comfortable lead for the remaining laps, helped by a pair of virtual safety cars on laps 17 and 19 (the first brought out by Sean Gelael and the second by Nikita Mazepin and Matevos Isaakyan coming together). By the chequered flag Ghiotto won by 7.2 seconds over Latifi.

Jerry Andre, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

Yesterday’s feature race winner Sergio Sette Camara had another strong race at Yas Marina.

He was dropped out of the points at the start by Mick Schumacher, but repassed the Prema a few laps later and gained another position when Guanyu Zhou dropped down the field to P11.

Shortly after half distance, Sette Camara made his way past the two Carlins of Louis Deletraz and Nobuharu Matsushita, who were locked in a tight battle between themselves for sixth. On lap 16 he then picked off Alesi and moved into fourth place.

His charge was hampered by the two virtual safety cars, but when racing resumed for the penultimate lap Sette Camara immediately reeled in Ilott to take third.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

Ilott finished P4 and Alesi managed to hold onto P5. Deletraz won the intra-team battle at Carlin to take P6 from Matsushita, while Jack Aitken beat Schumacher to the final point in P8.

Artem Markelov was stopped by a gearbox problem on lap 11, joining Gelael, Mazepin and Isaakyan in retirement. 2019 F2 champion Nyck de Vries was P13, for only his third finish outside the points all year.

Latifi’s second place, bolstered by the two points for fastest lap, was enough for him to secure the vice-champion position over Ghiotto by seven points. Sette Camara came close to overhauling Ghiotto for third in the standings, but ultimately fell three points short.

Aitken finished the season P5, and Matsushita managed to keep P6 ahead of Zhou by five points. Deletraz was P8, Jordan King P9, and the late Anthoine Hubert remained in the top 10 by three points over Ilott.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

F2 Abu Dhabi: Sette Camara steals feature race win from Carlin

Sergio Sette Camara overhauled the Carlins of Nobuharu Matsushita and Louis Deletraz to claim his first Formula 2 feature race win in Abu Dhabi.

The DAMS driver took pole position in qualifying yesterday, but dropped to third off the line as Deletraz jumped into the lead ahead of Callum Ilott. Matsushita held his fourth place on the grid, ahead of Nyck de Vries, Guanyu Zhou, Jack Aitken, Nicholas Latifi, Mick Schumacher and Artem Markelov.

However, that order was reshuffled entirely over the course of the next few laps, as the supersoft tyres hit the cliff on lap 3 and its runners were forced to nurse them until the pit window opened at the end of lap 6.

This rapid loss of grip saw no fewer than 20 overtakes over those few laps, with the alternate strategy runners rising to the top of the field. When the supersoft runners pitted at the end of lap 6, Matsushita assumed the race lead ahead of Zhou, Giuliano Alesi, Luca Ghiotto, Nikita Mazepin, Christian Lundgaard, Marino Sato and Maheveer Raghunathan. Deletraz and Sette Camara rejoined the track in P9 and P10.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Media

With Matsushita at the front and Deletraz leading the drivers who had made their stops, Carlin looked to have the race in hand during the middle phase.

After a brief virtual safety car period on lap 10 when Raghunathan pulled over at Turn 16, Matsushita opened up a five-second lead over Zhou. Meanwhile, Deletraz worked his way up to P5 by lap 15 and reduced the gap to his teammate enough that he would inherit the lead again when Matsushita made his own pit stop in the final laps.

However, Sette Camara managed to follow Deletraz through the field and closed in on the Carlin driver as he found himself stuck behind Alesi’s Trident.

With Deletraz’s tyres suffering from the laps spent behind Alesi, Sette Camara then overtook him for the net lead of the race on lap 28.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Media

Deletraz then continued to lose out as his tyres ran out of grip in the closing laps. Although he still had enough time over Matsushita to remain ahead when his teammate pitted, the pace deficit was such that Matsushita and Zhou were both able to pass Deletraz on their fresh supersofts for second and third in the final two laps.

Deletraz took the chequered flag in fourth, three seconds down on Zhou. Ilott finished fourth ahead of Ghiotto and Latifi, who are now separated by just eight points in their fight to be 2019 vice-champion. Alesi took eighth to secure reverse grid pole for tomorrow, and Schumacher and Mazepin rounded out the top ten.

Sette Camara’s win elevates him to third in the standings with one race remaining, and also gave DAMS enough points to clinch the 2019 Teams’ Championship over UNI-Virtuosi.

F2 Russia: De Vries takes title with feature race victory

Nyck de Vries sealed the 2019 Formula 2 championship with victory in the Sochi feature race, despite a late threat from title rival Luca Ghiotto on the alternate strategy.

De Vries needed to win the feature race today to put the title beyond any of his rivals’ reach, and he got a good launch at the start from pole position to see off any challenge from second-place starter Nicholas Latifi.

But after just a few laps, De Vries and the other drivers starting on the supersoft tyres all started to lose grip compared to the alternate strategy runners. Ghiotto, the highest alternate runner starting in fourth, used his greater grip to pick off Callum Ilott and Latifi before taking the lead from De Vries on lap 5.

De Vries and Latifi then bailed into the pits when the pit window opened on lap 6, and were followed by every other supersoft starter behind them. They rejoined the track in 10th and 11th respectively.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

At the head of the field, Ghiotto held the lead while Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin filtered up behind him in heated contention over second and third.

On lap 8 Mazepin dove down the inside of Turn 2 to take second place, but Schumacher tucked in behind the ART around Turn 3 and retook the position on the inside. However, Mazepin repeated his Turn 2 move a lap later and this time got a better exit to see off another fightback from Schumacher.

The Prema driver then came under pressure from Nobuharu Matsushita, who took advantage of a mistake by Schumacher on lap 13 to demote him to fourth.

Schumacher kept close to Matsushita in the following laps and pressured the Japanese driver into running wide on lap 16, but on lap 18 smoke started pouring from Schumacher’s engine. The problem wasn’t enough to force an immediate stop and Schumacher continued running behind Matsushita for another two laps, despite Jordan King behind them protesting on the radio that Schumacher was dropping oil dangerously across the track.

However, Schumacher finally pulled into the pits at the end of lap 19 and retired. He became the second driver out of the race, after Artem Markelov, who joined BWT Arden this weekend, pulled over on the opening lap.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

On lap 21 and with seven laps remaining, King became the first of the alternate runners to pit for supersofts. By this stage De Vries had risen from tenth to sixth, with Latifi still trailing just behind him.

As the rest of the alternate strategy drivers followed King’s lead into the pits, Ghiotto remained out despite running out of grip and losing time to De Vries. He finally stopped at the end of lap 24, by which point De Vries had been promoted back to second by Giuliano Alesi, Matsushita and Mazepin pitting as well.

Ghiotto rejoined the track in fourth place behind De Vries, Latifi and Carlin’s Louis Deletraz, and looked to have the pace on his fresh supersofts to reel in the leaders in the closing laps.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

But after passing Deletraz for third and setting the fastest lap on lap 26, Ghiotto then got stuck behind Latifi and was unable to pass the DAMS before his supersofts lost their advantage and ran out of grip. On the final lap a lockup for Ghiotto into Turn 13 allowed Deletraz to brake late around the outside and retake third.

In front, De Vries finished with nearly five seconds in hand over Latifi, with Deletraz a further second behind and Ghiotto ending up 7.6s off the front in fourth.

Sergio Sette Camara’s strategy saw him take fifth ahead of Matsushita, Jack Aitken and Mazepin. Third-place starter Ilott, who was the first of the frontrunners to burn through their supersofts, ended up in ninth and Guanyu Zhou finished tenth after running off-track several times throughout the race.

F2 Russia preview: title in De Vries’ hands

The 2019 Formula 2 Championship could be decided at this weekend’s penultimate round in Sochi, Russia, as points leader Nyck de Vries has his first chance to wrap up the title.

De Vries has been the runaway title leader this year, having amassed three wins, seven further podiums and four pole positions, and finishing in the points in every race bar one. This has put the ART driver on 225 points going into the penultimate round at the Sochi Autodrom, 59 clear of nearest rival Nicholas Latifi.

Mathematically speaking, there are still four drivers that can take the title away from De Vries: Latifi, Luca Ghiotto, Jack Aitken and Sergio Sette Camara. But such is the gulf between De Vries and his challengers, that if those four fail to score even in the feature race, De Vries can wrap up the title by finishing anywhere in the top five—or as low as seventh, if he also secures the four points for pole position.

But while it’s unlikely that all four of De Vries’ rivals will finish outside the top ten in Saturday’s feature race, they can’t afford to squander any opportunities this weekend as at least one of them needs to outscore De Vries by 12 points or more to take the fight down to the wire in Abu Dhabi.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

With the top five focusing on the championship this weekend, those drivers sitting just behind them in the standings will be hoping that preoccupation will give them a chance to steal some major results before the end of the season.

Nobuharu Matsushita currently sits sixth in the championship, out of title contention on 116 points. The Honda junior driver said earlier in the year that his goal was to finish in the top four in the standings, to earn him the necessary superlicence points to graduate to F1 with Toro Rosso.

But although he has two feature race wins to his name this year, Matsushita is still 37 points adrift of fourth-placed Aitken—perfectly achievable with 96 points still up for grabs, but a tall order given Aitken’s form this year.

And as if Matsushita’s goal of fourth place wasn’t already far enough away, he may yet drop another place in the standings this weekend with Renault junior driver Guanyu Zhou only one point behind him in eighth.

Zhou, who recently tested Renault’s 2017-spec F1 car, has been F2’s standout rookie this year, accumulating four third-place finishes and a pole position at Silverstone. However his maiden win at this level still eludes him, and he will be hungrier than ever to claim it this weekend and tee himself up as a 2020 title contender.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

BWT Arden and the Sauber Junior Team by Charouz will once again field full entries this weekend, after both entered just one car each at Monza following the tragic loss of Anthoine Hubert and injury of Juan Manuel Correa at Spa last month.

GP2 and F2 veteran Artem Markelov has been brought in to take over Arden’s second car alongside Tatiana Calderon. He will carry the number 22, as Hubert’s number 19 has been officially retired for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Sauber have signed Matevos Isaakyan to fill Correa’s place for the final two rounds. The 21-year-old drove for SMP in the World Endurance Championship last year, and finished runner-up in the 2017 Formula V8 3.5 series. Together with Markelov and ART’s Nikita Mazepin, Isaakyan will make it three Russians on the grid for their home event.

Last week, Correa’s family issued an update on his condition that said he had been removed from his induced coma and no longer needed an ECMO machine to assist his breathing. However, he remains in a serious condition in intensive care and is awaiting major surgery to his right leg, which is being delayed until his lungs are capable of withstanding the operation.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

Where will F1’s juniors be in 2019?

The 2018 driver market has been both kind and cruel to F1’s young drivers. On the one hand, Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris have all secured dream promotions to Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren respectively.

But on the other hand, Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne have both found their F1 careers on the rocks thanks to silly season developments, while rising stars like George Russell struggle to find any space on the grid.

As the final 2019 deals begin to fall into place, we look at which young drivers might yet find seats for Melbourne next year.

Antonio Giovinazzi

Ferrari Media

Despite becoming Italy’s first F1 driver in six years when he deputised for Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber last year, Antonio Giovinazzi has been unable to add to his two starts since being leapfrogged in Ferrari’s junior scheme by Charles Leclerc.

But with Leclerc moving from Sauber to Ferrari, Giovinazzi might finally get his shot at a full-time race seat. If Ferrari’s right to nominate one of Sauber’s drivers is to be believed, then Giovinazzi could be just an executive decision at Maranello away from joining the Swiss team’s lineup for next year.

Stoffel Vandoorne

Glenn Dunbar / McLaren Media

If Ferrari does insist on Sauber taking Giovinazzi, that will put pay to one of Stoffel Vandoorne’s best post-McLaren options.

Should Sauber be off the table, Vandoorne’s only real hope for 2019 is Toro Rosso. Honda is reportedly keen to bring Vandoorne into Toro Rosso having valued his feedback during their partnership with McLaren.

But even with Honda behind him, Vandoorne will have his work cut out convincing Helmut Marko that he has more potential than was shown in his two years with McLaren.

Pascal Wehrlein

Sauber F1 Team

Another potential obstacle in Vandoorne’s route to Toro Rosso is Pascal Wehrlein. The former Manor and Sauber driver is leaving the Mercedes family at the end of the year in a bid to open up more opportunities on the F1 grid, and is said to have a big fan in Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost.

It’s not the first time Wehrlein has been linked with Toro Rosso—he was touted as a potential mid-season replacement for Brendon Hartley earlier in the year. Those rumours may have come to nothing, but Wehrlein’s sudden appearance as a free agent in the driver market will surely give Red Bull and Toro Rosso something to consider.

Esteban Ocon

Racing Point Force India F1 Team

The details of Esteban Ocon’s plight to remain in F1 next year hardly need repeating by now. Currently his best chance of a 2019 race seat involves either Mercedes pressing customer team Williams to pick him over a more well-funded alternative, or breaking free from the Mercedes camp as Wehrlein has done and hoping that leads to a shot with Haas or Toro Rosso.

If neither avenue comes to fruition, then we’ll likely see Ocon take up a third driver role with the works Mercedes team—possibly dovetailing that with outings for the marque’s HWA-run Formula E team—before aiming to replace Valtteri Bottas in 2020.

Outside F1

Renault Sport F1 Team

If current drivers like Ocon and Vandoorne are struggling to stay in F1 next year, it’s doubtful anyone from the junior formulae will find space on the 2019 grid.

As the Formula 2 championship leader, Mercedes junior George Russell should be the best placed young driver to make the step up to F1. However, his position behind Ocon in the Mercedes hierarchy means that it’s unlikely he’ll be allowed to overtake the Frenchman and take an F1 drive at his expense.

On the other hand, F2 stalwart Artem Markelov may yet get his F1 break after five years in the feeder series. His Russian Time backing has seen him linked to Williams in recent weeks, and an FP1 run with Renault in Sochi will be the perfect chance to make his case when it counts.

Formula 3 title leader Dan Ticktum was being queued up to join Toro Rosso for next year, until the FIA pointed out that he was ineligible for a Super License. Ticktum will likely move to F2 for next year to complete his Super License, before stepping up to Toro Rosso in 2020.

David Pastanella / Red Bull Content Pool

F2 Bahrain: Norris takes an early championship lead while Markelov steals the show

The 2018 Formula 2 championship kicked off in Bahrain this weekend, with a typically dramatic pair of races, giving us an insight into the brand new car and engine introduced this season, and our first chance to see how the 2018 grid stacks up against one another.

In a turn of events that was unsurprising to some, but impressive nonetheless, F3 champion Lando Norris bagged pole position in only his second round of F2. He narrowly beat fellow Brit and reigning GP3 champion George Russell, who edged out DAMS driver Alexander Albon who lined up third on the grid. Albon was only confirmed for the single round in Bahrain in a seemingly last minute deal, but his impressive performance out-qualifying his more experienced teammate by over half a second surely warrants another chance. Albon’s teammate Canadian Nicholas Latifi was not the only experienced driver who had failed to put together a complete lap in Friday qualifying, title favourite and last year’s runner-up Artem Markelov could only do as well as seventeenth.

Markelov’s weekend would only go from bad to worse when he lined up on the grid for the feature race on Saturday only to stall and be forced to start from the pit lane. He wasn’t the only one, with ex-Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi also stalling, the first of several cases which prove that these new F2 cars are not the easiest machinery to get off the line.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

It was a dream start for Lando Norris with some lightning quick reactions to get himself off the line, something which he will take a lot of confidence in given the starts were one of his few weaknesses during his 2017 F3 campaign. By contrast, Russell was slow to get moving and even impeded Prema driver Nyck de Vries who was starting behind him. It was not the start he needed if he wanted to get one back against Norris. Albon also found trouble in getting his car moving, and the two of them lost several places in the opening seconds of the race.

For Norris, from there it was a maturely handled race. His only hitch was a slow pit stop, but he had built himself a comfortable lead, so was able to retain this despite the hiccup. When the inevitable tyre degradation kicked in, as it always does around this track in the searing desert heat, he had enough of a cushion to be able to ease off slightly and bring his Carlin home safely. The dominant fashion in which he controlled the race was very reminiscent of some of current champion Charles Leclerc’s victories from last year.

Behind him was a much more chaotic story. While it was Norris’ race to control, it was Markelov’s show to steal. Despite starting from the very back of the field he used his uncanny ability to manage his tyres to pull off a whole host of his usual opportunistic overtakes. The rest of the grid wouldn’t let him make it look easy however, and some of the newer arrivals proved that they could fight just as hard. There was a thrilling moment when the Russian driver, Maximilian Günther and Jack Aitken attempted to go three wide into turn 1. But it was Markelov who bested them all in the end, fighting through almost the whole field to finish a fantastic third place.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

After his poor start George Russell and ART attempted an undercut to gain some time back, and he did manage to finish in fifth in the end, but the tyre degradation was too great for him to gain any significant time back. This was the drawback of the Mercedes junior driver attempting to stop so early. The Pirelli tyres run in Formula 2 are notoriously high degradation, especially on a track like Bahrain, and therefore usually difficult for rookie drivers to adapt to. It will not have been the result Russell was hoping for, especially after making his championship ambitions abundantly clear.

Carlin, a team returning after a year out in 2017, had one of the best results of the race. Alongside Norris’ win, Sergio Sette Câmara brought home a second place finish for the British team, giving them an impressive one-two on their return to the sport. The Brazilian driver was initially overtaken by de Vries in the early stages of the race, but ultimately managed to gain second place back. Where he really proved his worth was in his end of race scrap with Markelov as he fought to defend his second place from the charging Russian. They fought until the very last lap, but clever and aggressive defending was enough to for Câmara to maintain his position.

Albon managed to recover after his poor start and intermittent DRS problems to a respectable fourth place, followed by Russell, and de Vries in sixth who could not find a way to manage his degrading tyres. Sean Gelael, a much criticised and controversial driver, proved his stock by making a very impressive recovery from only qualifying nineteenth to finish seventh. It was rookie Maximilian Günther who finished in eighth to claim reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race, while Jack Aitken and Ralph Boschung took the last points paying positions.

In Sunday’s sprint race, there was yet more drama at the very beginning of the race. Gelael, with the potential for a solid result from his starting position of P2 stalled on the formation lap and was forced to start from the pit lane. There was just more trouble to come. Upon the race start three cars stalled again, failing to get off the grid entirely and they were pushed to the pit lane where they could join the race, albeit a way behind the pack. Two of the stallers were ART pair George Russell and Jack Aitken, with Haas junior driver Santino Ferrucci also failing to get away. Impressively, the other cars managed to avoid the stationary vehicles and everyone got away unscathed.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

The best start in this race was bagged by Nyck de Vries who was starting from third. He overtook pole sitter Günther to claim the lead of the race, while the young German was also overtaken by Markelov who had a storming start from sixth on the grid, the Carlin pair following him to slot into fourth and fifth.

Everyone’s eyes were on tyre degradation throughout the 23 lap race. All drivers had started on the medium tyres, which in theory have long lasting wear. But ever year Formula 2 comes to Bahrain even the most experienced drivers find it difficult to make them last well. Many had speculated whether any of the drivers would attempt to do what Charles Leclerc did last year in the sprint race but taking an unprecedented pit stop and using his fresher tyres to fight back to claim victory. A pit stop is not mandatory in a sprint race, and at almost any circuit other than Bahrain it would not even be considered during a sprint race. But Leclerc had proven last year that it could have its advantages.

In the end it was Prema who attempted to repeat their exploits of the previous year when they pitted de Vries from the lead on lap nine. He had a sizeable lead of around three seconds, but it was very early in the race to expect him to make his new tyres last until the end. It could be argued that it was not a gamble for the win, but an attempt at damage control, as de Vries is not famed for strong tyre management.

His stop meant that Markelov inherited the lead of the race, Günther moved up into second and Câmara took third. Câmara was under pressure from his teammate Norris for some time, but an engine misfire midway through the race sent the Mclaren reserve driver tumbling back a handful of places, and most likely cost him a potential podium. The best the youngest driver on the grid could do was fourth place.

De Vries was rapid after his switch onto softer tyres, and for a while it looked as though he might be able to recover to the podium. But as the laps wore on, his tyres began to degrade again. He still managed to finish in fifth, which is arguably better than he would have done had he not pitted.

Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

Ahead of him Markelov once again deployed his tyre management skills to hold a lead over Günther who was being put under pressure from the Carlin pair. The Arden driver was struggling to work out how to best manage his tyres, expected perhaps after he made the switch from Formula 3 where drivers are able to push their tyres a lot harder with a lot less degradation. But he showed great composure in holding off both Câmara and Norris, and by the end of the race he was even able to close the gap to Markelov in front.

Behind the Carlin pair and de Vries in fifth, Luca Ghiotto made a quiet recovery from twelfth to finish sixth, while Ralph Boschung rounded off a solid double points scoring weekend by finishing seventh. Rookie and Honda junior driver Nirei Fukuzumi claimed the last point in eighth place.

Norris leaves Bahrain as championship leader, and it was undoubtedly a dream start for the young Brit, as he certainly seemed to have the edge over many of the other rookies. At the moment it seems as though Markelov, who provided most of the thrills of the weekend, is his closest competitor. This should be expected from a driver entering his fifth season at this level, but that is not to take away from the skill and speed he displayed this weekend. Günther is perhaps a surprise as the second rookie in the standings at the moment, taking the points over higher rated drivers like Russell, Aitken and Haas junior driver Arjun Maini. But his rivals would do well to remember that he was more than capable of taking the fight to Norris on his day during Formula 3 last year.

Bahrain is a difficult track to open the season on, especially for those unused to the Pirelli tyres. And it is clear that teams are still trying to work out how to optimise the performance in these new cars, particularly in terms of start procedure. But after a calendar reshuffle this year, the next challenge Formula 2 faces are the streets of the Baku City Circuit, no mean feat given the utter madness it usually delivers.

Refined RS18 headlines Renault season launch

Renault has revealed its plans for the forthcoming Formula 1 season at a launch event focused on unveiling the team’s 2018 challenger.

The RS18—besides the mandatory addition of the Halo—features several small aerodynamic evolutions from its predecessor, including a slimmer nose section and much tighter packaging around the rear of the engine.

The team’s livery has also been tweaked for 2018, with Renault’s traditional yellow featuring more sparingly along the leading edges of the car.

Renault Sport Formula One Team

Speaking about Renault’s 2018 goals, technical chief Bob Bell highlighted improved reliability as one of the marque’s key targets:

“We need a strong reliability record,” Bell said. “That’s something we need to focus on. We need the car as reliable as we can make it.

“To improve reliability, we have to accept nothing less than perfection. Anything that ends up on the car needs to be designed and built to the highest standard; checked and rechecked as fit for purpose.

“All the issues that blighted us last year need to be eradicated by a fresh approach. That’s a huge challenge…and it’s the toughest task we face.”

Renault engine chief Remi Taffin echoed Bell, stating that having a reliable car will be the team’s “first priority”, especially with teams limited to just three power units per car in 2018.

Renault Sport Formula One Team

As well as revealing its new car, Renault also announced as part of its season launch an updated Renault Sport Academy driver lineup.

With the team’s previous third driver Sergey Sirotkin moving on to a race seat at Williams, Renault has promoted British-Korean junior Jack Aitken to the vacant reserve driver role. The 22-year-old, who has been part of the RSA since 2016, will combine his expanded Renault role this year with a maiden F2 campaign with ART GP.

Aitken will be joined in Renault’s F1 stable by fellow F2 driver Artem Markelov. The 23-year-old Russian, who finished runner-up to Charles Leclerc in last year’s F2 championship, has been named Renault’s 2018 test and development driver.

F2 Jerez Preview: Time for Leclerc to take home the title?

While Formula 1 heads to the Far East this weekend, its main feeder series, the FIA Formula 2 Championship, breaks away to run its first and only standalone event of the season at the Circuito de Jerez for its penultimate event of the season. After a chaotic and confusing round in Monza, this weekend’s round at Jerez presents championship leader Charles Leclerc with his first real opportunity to wrap up the Formula 2 title. Such a feat which would make him the first rookie champion of a feeder series at this level since 2009 when Nico Hülkenberg won the GP2 series.

Leclerc’s outing in Monza saw him fail to score any points, after being taken out from the leading pack on the last lap of the feature race and failing to work his way back into the points on Sunday. Luckily for the Monegasque driver, his nearest rivals, Oliver Rowland and Artem Markelov, also failed to score big. This leaves him firmly at the top of the drivers’ standings with a healthy lead of fifty-nine points. Realistically, it would take a series of disasters to snatch the title away from the Ferrari junior driver, who looks poised to make the jump to Formula 1 next year, most likely with Sauber.

Photo: Sam Bloxham/FIA Formula 2.

Whilst Rowland and Markelov have been busy fighting with Leclerc, Markelov’s Russian Time teammate Luca Ghiotto has been slowly racking up the points. After a fourth place and a win in his home race in Monza, he is now only two points behind his teammate and only nine behind the second placed Rowland. The Italian is in with a real chance of snatching away the runners up title in these last couple of rounds. Even a fourth place finish in the standings would mark his best result in single seater racing of this level.

After Antonio Fuoco’s win and third placed podium in Monza, the battle in the teams’ standings has closed up, with DAMS, Prema and Russian Time all in with a chance of taking home the big prize. Prema will be hoping that Monza turns out to be something of a turning point for Fuoco, who had previously failed to quite live up to expectations. But with a double podium performance under his belt, many will be hoping that Fuoco can now help Prema defend their team championship. And possibly even aid his teammate Leclerc in bringing home the driver’s title, provided that he can get in between the DAMS and Russian Time drivers.

The ever-changing line-up of the Formula 2 grid mixes things up again this weekend. Spanish driver Alex Palou, currently competing in Formula V8 3.5, joins Campos in place of Robert Visoiu for the rest of the season, who has left the team for personal reasons. Meanwhile, Rene Binder will become Rapax’s fifth driver of the season, replacing ex-F1 driver Robert Merhi for the round in Jerez this weekend. Rapax are yet to confirm whether Binder will remain in the team for the final round in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Binder will race alongside Louis Deletraz, who had his best weekend of the year in Monza, scoring points in both races, after switching seats with Nyck de Vries just before the round in Italy. The Swiss driver has been vocal about how he feels that Rapax is a better fit for him than Racing Engineering and the flashes of form we saw from him in Italy seems to confirm this, especially compared to his early season struggles. Though following up on that improved performance will be important in order to finish his year on a high and set himself up for what will hopefully be a second season in Formula 2 next year.

This weekend in Jerez also marks the second home race of the season for both Campos Racing and Racing Engineering. While Racing Engineering have found themselves able to compete at the front of the field in previous seasons, this year has marked something of a step backwards for the Spanish team. They will be hopeful that after a lengthy break between rounds, giving them time to properly adjust to their new line-up of de Vries and Gustav Malja, will help them recover to their full potential.

ART had a mixed weekend last time out, but there were clearly signs of lightning fast speed from the team who are currently dominating the GP3 championship. Whilst British-Thai driver Alexander Albon has struggled to retain his early season form since his injury prior to the Baku round, Honda junior Nobuharu Matsushita put on a positive performance for the French team in Monza. Matsushita even succeeded in becoming the first driver, with the obvious exception of Charles Leclerc, to claim an on track pole position this season. The Japanese driver is being touted as a contender for a possible drive at Toro Rosso next season, but it would take a stunning string of results to secure the necessary super license points. However, with such a potential reward waiting for him if he does manage to do this, he has nothing to lose this weekend.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.

All eyes will be on Charles Leclerc in Jerez to see if he can bring home the title, and his competitors Markelov and Rowland will know that this is one of their last chances to stop him. Although Leclerc has not scored a race win since the feature race in Silverstone, despite misfortune he is yet to show that he has any intention of slowing down or slipping up. But it would be premature to consider the Formula 2 title a done deal. As the last round in Monza proved, anything can happen in motorsport, and it usually does.