F2 Jerez: Leclerc crowned champion in a dramatic pair of races

Running as the main event this weekend in Jerez, Formula 2 seemed determined to offer up drama and madness to the very last lap of the very last race. And if the on track action was not enough, Jerez provided us with the crowning of the series’ first champion, as Charles Leclerc secured the title on Saturday bagging himself back to back GP3 and Formula 2 championships in his bid to earn himself a seat on the 2018 Formula 1 grid.

His qualifying performance on Friday saw him take his eighth pole position of the season, officially equalling Stoffel Vandoorne’s record for the most poles in a season of GP2/F2. Lining up beside him was Russian Time’s Luca Ghiotto, who was looking for a late season surge to seal the Vice-Champion title. And behind them was MP Motorsport’s Sergio Sette Camara, the youngest driver in the field who has hit his form since his win in Belgium. Likely to Leclerc’s relief, his nearest rival Oliver Rowland only managed fourth in qualifying. Knowing that he needed to outscore Leclerc to stay in contention, Rowland had made his job a little harder than it needed to be.

The start of Saturday’s feature race went exactly to plan for Leclerc, who pulled away and began building a gap between himself and the rest of the field almost immediately. With perhaps a hint of desperation, but all the guts and determination worthy of a championship contender, Rowland overtook Sette Camara in the opening laps in an aggressive move that was entirely necessary to keep his title hopes alive. He set about trying to find away past Ghiotto, but while he battled away with the Italian, Leclerc was storming away in front. Eventually he found a way past on lap eleven, with a stunning move coming into turn one, but by this point, Leclerc was several seconds up the road.

Photo: Andrew Ferraro/FIA Formula 2

The first round of pit stops began on lap seven, but the leader did not pit until lap twelve, followed closely by Rowland. While Leclerc was able to inherit the net lead of the race, with only the drivers running the alternate strategy ahead of him, Rowland found himself stuck behind Camara and Albon, both of whom had successfully undercut him. It was around this time, when everyone was completing their first pit stops, that it became apparent that the DRS system was not working correctly after it became disabled for seemingly no reason. Whilst not detrimental to the race, it would turn out to be the first in a sizeable list of malfunctions that would occur over the weekend.

After cutting his way through the field, Leclerc retook the lead of the race on lap twenty-one, with Rowland trying to follow, but struggling due to the greater number of drivers he had to overtake. And despite the Brit setting several blistering lap times in his pursuit of the Ferrari junior driver, he couldn’t quite find the pace to close up the gap fully.

The race almost looked like it would run its course to an untroubled end, with Leclerc taking the title comfortably. That was until there was contact between Santino Ferrucci and Nobuharu Matsushita on lap thirty-two which, after a lap’s delay in which not even a single yellow flag was waved (despite debris on track and Ferrucci’s car beached in the gravel at turn one), the safety car was deployed.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

As the field bunched together and Leclerc lost the advantage he had worked so hard to gain, it became apparent that some of the late stoppers might be able to use their fresher tyres to make a last minute dash for the podium positions, and possibly even the win. But the real headache for the front runners was the fact that the lapped cars of Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz either would not or could not, unlap themselves and found themselves caught in the middle of the battle between Leclerc and Rowland with the championship at stake.

To make matters worse when racing resumed neither car was shown blue flags and began to battle with the frontrunners, making it so much harder for Rowland to catch Leclerc, who had bolted at the restart. Rowland even came under pressure from Leclerc’s teammate Antonio Fuoco who had made a stunning recovery drive from fifteenth on the grid and benefitted massively from the late safety car to eventually finish third.

In the end Charles Leclerc was only 0.2 seconds ahead of Rowland when he crossed the line. But it was enough to take the title with three races to spare, an achievement he duly dedicated to his late father after clinching victory in a tribute helmet modelled after one of his father’s own.

Photo: Andrew Ferraro/FIA Formula 2

Formula 2 debutante Alex Palou, racing for Campos in place of Robert Visoiu, took reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race after completing the impressive feat of scoring points on debut. After a delayed start due to a broken down safety car, the race got underway about fifteen minutes later than planned, with Palou making a perfect start and managing to pull away as the rest of the field formed a train behind him.

The feature race on Saturday had proved that while some teams suited the medium tyres (the compound all drivers start on in sprint races), others, including Prema, found it incredibly difficult to maintain any consistent speed with them, and struggled badly for grip. That led to a series of pit stops, which are ordinarily only taken if unavoidable due to the low number of laps in a sprint race.

Amongst the stoppers were the Prema teammates, who, after making their way up to fourth and fifth, found themselves slipping down the order, and crucially behind the DAMS and Russian Times drivers, who they are now fighting with for the team’s championship. And the switch to the soft tyre proved to be the right one. Both Leclerc and Fuoco were posting lap times that were around three seconds quicker than the cars in front of them.

While the Prema pair tried to work their way back through the field Nicholas Latifi and Markelov had closed the gap to Palou who was also beginning to struggle with his tyres. The ensuing battle between the three of them allowed Rowland, who was running in fourth place, to join the fray.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

Though Palou coped well under the enormous pressure being applied by the more experienced drivers he was finally passed by Markelov, who had used his uncanny ability to manage his tyres to kick his pace up a gear with just a handful of laps to go. Palou would eventually fall from the podium places with the DAMS drivers Latifi and Rowland able to score a double podium for their team, and the Spaniard would ultimately finish in eighth place.

Markelov would be able to pull away and win by a stunning margin of eleven seconds earned through pitch perfect strategy and timing. Though both Fuoco and Leclerc did make it back into the points, the overtaking and fighting took it out of their softer tyres, and the best the new champion could do was seventh place, which his teammate leading him home in fifth, with Nyck de Vries sandwiched between them. Despite being run off the track on the first lap and having the fight his way from plumb last, Luca Ghiotto made a single stop strategy work for him as well to make an excellent recovery to finish in fourth place.

Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

It will come as a surprise to few to see Charles Leclerc wrap up the championship so emphatically with a round to spare, but that does not mean there is nothing left to play for when Formula 2 returns in Abu Dhabi for its final two races of 2017. The question of who will take home the title of vice-champion still remains unanswered, and while it may seem like something of a consolation, second and third place in the championship each come with forty super license points – the number required to be eligible for a FIA super license and to be able to compete in Formula 1.

The battle to win the F2 team’s title is also incredibly close, with Prema, DAMS and Russian Time all within six points of each other. It’s anyone’s guess as to who will take home that prize when the chequered flag falls on the sprint race in Abu Dhabi.

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.