PREVIEW: 2020 Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix – Sochi Autodrom

On the back end of yet another exhilarating Formula One Grand Prix in Italy, we head to Sochi and round 10 of the 2020 F1 season in Russia. Mugello provided the fans with a gripping watch which saw Red Flags up to the third in the space of two races. Alex Albon achieved his first podium for the Red Bull Racing team and Racing Point left wondering if they will be able to get the upgrades on the car in time for Sochi after Lance Strolls off at Arrabiata corner, leaving the car with heavy terminal damage.

Being announced alongside Mugello on the 10th of July for this unprecedented season, Sochi will allow the teams to have a more familiar approach to the race with the knowledge that is shared from the past 6 races here. Mercedes’ dominance has earned them a win in every one of them and the team certainly look set to do the same this year. Valtteri Bottas also took his first win at the Autodrom in 2017 for the Silver Arrows and will want to turn the tides on his championship fight and take it to Lewis Hamilton in the hopes of reducing the gap of 55 points.

Bottas took his first win for Mercedes in Russia three years ago – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

Knowing how the season has panned out so far, it is safe to say that we could be in for another treat of a Grand Prix. The Renaults have proven their pace with near podium finishes and they now lie 5th in the championship, honing in on both the Racing Points and McLarens who sit fourth and third. Daniel Riccardo is still in high hopes of sealing a bet with Cyril Abiteboul which amusingly details that if he was to gain a podium before the end of the season, the Renaults chief principle will be getting a Tattoo of Riccardo’s choice.

The Streaming superstars of Lando Norris, Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc and George Russell have all surprised us this season in regards to performance and results. The remarkable efforts of Russell have gotten the Williams into Q2 five times this season and the famous ‘Last Lap Lando’ attacks have provided plenty of late drama. Will we see these drivers taking the headlines if any of them at the Autodrome this weekend?

George Russell has impressed again in 2020 for Williams – Courtesy of Williams media

After Lance Strolls suspected puncture incident at Mugello and the car hitting the wall causing excessive damage, Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer suggested the upgrade that was on the car had a couple to three-tenths improvement. Due to the damage of Lance Stroll’s car, by the race weekend, Lance may still only be the one with the upgrade. And with Russia being a tight circuit that is difficult for overtaking, the overall pace of a car is vital for the higher positions and to optimise strategy.

With the news of reshuffling and the potential of F2 drivers making the jump to Formula One next year, this could cause worry for some of the drivers. Which makes this race an important statement to keep them in the team. Pierre Gasly – following the frustration of ending his Tuscan Grand Prix no more than two corners in after winning previous – will want to return to his exceptional ways that may prow the eyes of Red Bull for a potential step-up or other teams. However, with the current situation at Red Bull Albon may have found the confidence back that he was looking for after his P3 finish last time out.

Alex Albon’s podium in Mugello was his first in F1 – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

The set tyre choices for the 2020 season being predominantly soft tyres may see teams opt for a more aggressive strategy for the 5.8 km circuit, and maybe even a two-stop strategy with the evident tyre degradation in the new Pirelli tyres. And with the weather set to be clear it should be a straight forward strategy come race day for the teams.

A healthy gap to the rest of the field sees Mercedes lead by an enormous 152 points in the constructors’ standings, which will be difficult to close for Red Bull especially with the trend of this season let alone the track itself. Taking a look down the field there is a close battle with Ferrari just 17 points shy of Renault and the Alpha Tauri a further 13 behind.

Hamilton is aiming to equal Michael Schumacher’s tally of 91 wins this weekend – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

The Crew from Netflix will be on Mercedes for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix with the hopes to capture a moment in history no one would have called, as the reigning Champion Lewis Hamilton is tipped to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 wins.

 

Feature Image Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Opinion: Lando Norris is an important figure for F1’s future

We have been blessed over the last couple of years with a flurry of young and exciting talented drivers, including Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Alex Albon. Fast and aggressive, they make up a new era and a changing of the guard, waiting to pick up where Lewis Hamilton leaves off after he retires.

However, there’s one driver in particular who I think is going to pick up the baton that Hamilton drops – that driver is Lando Norris.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, Verstappen and Leclerc have the race wins and in a straight fight between the three 2019 F1 rookies, Norris lost out to Russell in the F2 championship but there’s more to it than that.

McLaren Media Centre

I first started taking note of Norris in the first round of the 2017 FIA F3 European championship, where won his first race. The name Lando Norris was not one you were likely to forget, and I tried to remember where I knew it from. After a quick internet search, I realised I knew him from his Ginetta Juniors days. I also realised I was there at Croft when he took his first win in the championship, on his way to third overall.

I then saw he was racking up junior formulae championships like it was kills in Call of Duty. 2015 MSA Formula champion, three separate titles in 2016 in the Toyota Racing Series and two separate Formula Renault championships, as well as being the youngest ever world karting champion. It’s safe to say I was in utter awe and also bewilderment, because how did I let this guy slip right under my nose?

I followed his progress throughout 2017 in European F3, a series almost completely dominated through its entire existence by Prema. Between 2012 and 2018, every team’s championship was won by the Italian outfit, and all but one of those driver’s titles was won by a Prema driver. That, is apart from one. Lando Norris.

Moving into F2, I wanted to see Norris perform a full clean sweep with Carlin, having won the F4 and F3 championships with them but unfortunately he couldn’t quite match George Russell. No matter, because Norris got the call up by McLaren to race for them in F1 the following year.

In his first season, Norris quite rightfully got the reputation for being a joker. His antics with team-mate Carlos Sainz and many other drivers earned him a legion of adoring fans. He seemed to be so uncompromised by the ever heavily monitored world of F1.

But he wasn’t just a joker, putting in some pretty remarkable performances. In only his second race at Bahrain he performed a hugely audacious move around the outside of Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly to finish sixth. He beat his vastly more experienced teammate in the qualifying head-to-head and was very unlucky not to score more than 49 points throughout the season.

Of course, we all know how this season began for Lando. He earned a podium in the delayed season opening Austrian Grand Prix. I was absolutely elated when it was confirmed he was on the right side of five seconds to the penalised Hamilton. However it was long before that when Lando really sealed his reputation as the future of F1.

Back when the Australian Grand Prix was called off, Norris and Max Verstappen committed very early to the replacement sim racing events. Both have been a strong presence in the virtual racing world and it was here where Norris really shone.

Streaming to his extremely popular Twitch channel, it really added a whole new layer to his character and so many of his fellow drivers have followed in his footsteps. During the lockdown, Norris took part in the likes of Veloce’s Not The GP series, the F1 Virtual Grand Prix events, IndyCar and Aussie Supercars iRacing races and the Le Mans 24 Virtual. He may not have been winning everything; certainly after Leclerc, Russell and Albon joined him in the F1 Virtual Grand Prix events, Lando quickly took a back seat to the trio whilst he fought hardware issues.

McLaren Media Centre

But had it not been for Norris, none of them would have had the opportunity to showcase a new side to themselves. Yes, they’re just playing video games but if anything, that makes it all the more important.

Darren Cox – the former head of Nismo and GT Academy – referenced a recent survey that found 72% of people who play video games got into motorsport as a result of racing games, and that the average age of racing fans is declining. He has a point. It’s how I got my foot into the door of motorsport, so F1 needs engaging personalities like Lando and the Esports world to help attract the next generation of racing fans.

Norris is important because of how active he is in the world of sim racing and interacting with his fans. When Lando was invited by IndyCar to compete in the iRacing Challenge round on the Circuit of the Americas he worked with his old performance engineer Andrew ‘Jarv’ Jarvis, who had taken a job in McLaren’s new IndyCar effort.

There are videos of Lando and Jarv from Twitch talking in such excessive and exquisite detail about the setup of the car which, considering how little access we have to racing teams and the process they go through to get the right setup, was extremely fascinating.

In the end, what else is it about Lando? Well, he’s just a very likeable, charismatic, unproblematic chap who is very unassuming, enthusiastic, personable, and has the raw ability to match that. He reminds me so much of Jenson Button, in that he seems so unafraid and easy-going. It takes a lot of effort to dislike him.

At the moment, Lewis Hamilton continues to bring new audiences to F1 and leads the charge for F1 to attract a more diverse, multicultural audience that will appeal to new markets. Once Lewis does hang up his helmet, not only will Lando along with the likes of Russell and Albon fill the grandstands at Silverstone, but Lando along with all these new young stars will be the leading lights, spearheading motorsport into the new age.

Oh, and one more thing. Lando Norris is just incredibly relatable. Everyone hears his jokey and enthusiastic radio calls and his infectious giggle, and we are reminded that he’s just like the rest of us. Whilst we would revere other-worldly figures like Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, we relate to Lando and a lot of these younger drivers. We are reminded that they aren’t mighty men who we could never have a hope in hell of being like. Instead, we can be like them no matter what we set our minds to, that we are bound by nothing and we have no anchors holding us back.

 

[Featured image – McLaren Media Centre]

2020 Styrian Grand Prix preview: second chance in Spielberg

Another week, another visit to Austria’s Red Bull Ring—this time for the Formula 1 Styrian Grand Prix.

Last week’s Austrian Grand Prix was a terrific opening round to the 2020 season. Valtteri Bottas landed an early blow in the title fight with Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris earned his maiden podium with a last-gasp effort, and there was plenty of close-quarters racing throughout.

Last week’s result was also largely unexpected, thanks to incidents and reliability issues almost halving the field by the chequered flag. That means we could get a very different result again this weekend, if the teams and drivers don’t have half as much trouble keeping their cars on track.

One of the teams that’s sure to factor more in the Styrian Grand Prix is Red Bull. It was clear last time out in Austria that they were Mercedes’ closest challengers, but technical problems for both Max Verstappen and Alex Albon led to a double DNF instead. Both drivers will be going into this weekend pushing hard to make up for that, with Albon especially motivated after coming so close to his first F1 podium.

Racing Point F1 Team

Racing Point will also be hoping for a much better result this time out. The RP20 showed more evidence of its considerable pace in practice and qualifying, but a technical DNF for Lance Stroll and a penalty dropping Sergio Perez behind both McLarens in P6 left a lot still on the table for the team. Provided everything goes to plan for them this weekend, Racing Point should be able to finish ahead of their midfield rivals and take away a decent haul of points.

However, there will be several teams hoping for a repeat of last Sunday’s attrition. Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo both managed to score points last time out, with Pierre Gasly in P7 and Antonio Giovinazzi in P9, but on pace alone neither team looked that close to the top ten throughout the weekend.

And then there’s Ferrari. Although Charles Leclerc finished second in the opening race, that was very much a great result salvaged from a terrible outing. The SF1000 looked sluggish all weekend, never troubling Mercedes or Red Bull and qualifying behind McLaren and Racing Point. Add to that Sebastian Vettel’s spin after colliding with Carlos Sainz, and the result was a very sobering start to the season.

One glimmer of hope for the Scuderia was that the car looked much more responsive later in the race on the harder tyres, and the team will have hopefully learned something from last weekend’s pain that can be used to improve this weekend. If not, Leclerc and Vettel will likely find themselves scrapping away with the upper midfield rather than challenging for the podium.

The 2020 Styrian Grand Prix gets underway with free practice this Friday, with full coverage on our Twitter feed.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

McLaren unveils MCL35 ahead of 2020 season

McLaren has become the latest F1 team to unveil their 2020 design, in a launch held at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking on Thursday.

The MCL35 – the team’s second design to be powered by Renault – features a livery akin to the 2019 car, with a blue front wing, blue stripes along the airbox and sidepods, and a matte orange main body and halo.

Visible changes include tighter sidepods and a narrower nose, a philosophy that no doubt continues under the bodywork.

McLaren Media Centre

Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris will drive for the team once again, hoping to build upon their 2019 successes which saw them finish sixth and eleventh in the drivers’ standings respectively.

The highlight of their year undoubtedly came at the Brazilian Grand Prix, which saw Sainz finish third behind Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly and claim McLaren’s first podium since 2014.

McLaren finished a relatively comfortable fourth in the constructors’ championship, 54 points ahead of fifth-place Renault. It was their best result since 2012, and one they will be hoping to build on in 2020.

In a statement, Chief Executive Officer Zak Brown said, “I’m immensely proud of the entire team today. Last season we delivered what we set out to do – secure a hard-fought fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.

“Our positive on-track momentum and the renewed energy in the team has seen us grow our valued partner family and global fan base and we look forward to a hugely competitive season.

“While we are enjoying going racing again, we remain measured and focused, and all of us at McLaren keep pushing fearlessly forward.”

Mercedes and AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso) are next on the list, set to launch their cars on Friday 14th.

It Came Home: The British Grand Prix Race Review

Ask every driver in Formula 1, the home race is guaranteed to be their favourite. This was no exception for current World Champion Lewis Hamilton going in to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend, aiming to build on his lead over rivals Sebastian Vettel and team-mate Valterri Bottas.

It wasn’t an ideal start for Hamilton though, having qualified in P2 on Saturday afternoon after being pipped to the top spot by fellow Mercedes driver Bottas, with only 0.006s between the two laps. This time Hamilton didn’t simply have the luxury of building a lead from the start, he’d have to earn his keep and get past the fiery Finn before getting to the golden trophy.

Behind the two Mercedes’ drivers sat Charles Leclerc in P3, eager for another opportunity to be on the podium following a dramatic Austrian Grand Prix which saw him lose out on 1stplace to the ballsy Dutchman, Max Verstappen and Red Bull who coincidentally sat in P4, providing fans with a great deal of entertainment throughout the race.

It was a relatively clean start all round, however Haas’s week of drama continued as Kevin Magnussen and Roman Grosjean made contact in the first lap, which unfortunately forced both drivers to retire from the race. This unlucky accident resulted in Grosjean’s 5thretirement of the season, and no doubt, 2 pairs of thoroughly boxed ears from an extremely angry Gunter Steiner in the post-race briefing.

At the front of the grid, both Mercedes’ drivers had a good start, with Bottas’ managing to hold his team-mate at bay with some excellent defending. Bottas’ looked to be building a lead on Hamilton. This was all in vain as Antonio Giovannazi beached his Alfa Romeo in the gravel giving Hamilton the opportunity for a free pit stop.  Unfortunately, Bottas wasn’t able to catch up with the Brit, who had been rewarded by opportunistic strategy from Mercedes engineers. This lead was held for the duration of the race, much to the joy of the hordes of Hamilton fans in the stands that day.

But we expected that.

Meanwhile, a little bit further down the track, some exciting racing was finally taking place.

Charles Leclerc ahead of Max Verstappen at the 2019 F1 British GP. Image courtesy of Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Verstappen was keen to rub yet more salt in Leclerc’s wounds for another podium finish, providing fans with some clean, excellent racing for 13 laps, after which came an overtake that had fans (aka me) screaming at their TV’s in amazement. Both Leclerc and Verstappen came into the pits at the same time, putting enormous pressure on both Ferrari and Red Bull mechanics to get the tyres changed flawlessly and quicker than the other team.

Red Bull won the battle, but as soon as the mechanics had stopped cheering on Verstappen taking 3rdplace from Leclerc in the pitlane, the young Ferrari driver had re-gained the position emerging back on track. New tyres on a newly re-surfaced track caused Verstappen to run wide at turn four, leaving the door wide open for Leclerc to take back 3rdplace.

To pit or not to pit, that was the question once again for Leclerc’s strategists at Ferrari who were slow to bring their number two driver in to change his boots during the safety car. This cost the young Monégasque track position, coming out ahead of Verstappen who had also pitted and emerged in 6th.

The re-start was promising for Verstappen who managed to overtake Leclerc for a second time (on track this time), and push on towards his team-mate Pierre Gasly for 4thposition. Gasly honourably moved aside to allow Verstappen to charge after the other prancing horse, which he quickly met and began the battle for 3rdplace once again.

Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel before Vettel’s late braking incident at the 2019 F! British GP. Image courtesy of Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Verstappen overtaking Vettel going into Stowe could have been one of those moments that go down in fondly remembered Formula 1 history, unfortunately, the gods of racing weren’t happy to leave well enough alone. Almost immediately after Verstappen had gained the position, he had lost it once again after Vettel misjudged his braking and shunted the back of the Red Bull which caused them both to run off the track.

By some miracle, the only thing that was damaged was the two drivers’ egos, and the pair somehow managed to work their way out of the notoriously tricky gravel trap and back onto the track to continue with the race. Vettel was slapped with a 10-second time penalty for this incident, which adds to what has been a gut-wrenching season for the 4-time World Champion.

This weekend was not simply an opportunity for fans to bask in Hamilton’s never-ending glory, British fans were also able to say thank you to a F1 icon, Sir Frank Williams who was celebrating an astonishing 50 Years in Formula 1. Although Vettel’s mistake cost Ferrari important championship points, it also gave the Williams’ drivers the opportunity to not finish last for the first time this season. British driver George Russel finished 14thahead of his team-mate Robert Kubica in 15th, although it doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, it was a welcome change for the struggling team.

The racing wasn’t simply reserved for Ferrari and Red Bull, McLaren and Renault were also able to get stuck in. McLaren golden-boy Lando Norris made his intentions quite clear from the beginning, as payback for Ricciardo’s cheekiness in the driver’s conference at the start of the weekend.

The two battled it out wheel-to-wheel, quite literally from the start of the race, through Copse, Maggots and Becketts until Ricciardo eventually lost out to the youngster in the hair-raising battle. Norris’ spectacular driving ability was over-shadowed by McLaren’s poor strategy choice which eventually kept Norris out of the points, finishing in 11th; Ricciardo managed to score his first few points since Canada, finishing in 7thplace.

Following his win at Silverstone, Lewis Hamilton is able to go into the German Grand Prix with a 39-point lead on his main rivals, Valterri Bottas and Max Verstappen. That said, after this weekend, there’s quite clearly something special about a home race, and with Hockenheim just around the corner, perhaps this is where Vettel will start to make his comeback.

Featured Photo by Gareth Harford / LAT Images via Pirelli

 

Lando Norris: “I’m not going to get carried away” with Q3 performance

McLaren rookie Lando Norris says he isn’t ‘going to get carried away’ with himself and with the performance of the car, despite a Q3 appearance on his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix.

Norris qualified P8 with a time of 1:22.304, putting him ahead of the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg and home-favourite Daniel Ricciardo. It is McLaren’s first Q3 appearance since the Monaco Grand Prix of last year.

Speaking of his performance, Norris said, “I loved it but I’m not going to get carried away! I was very nervous at the start of the session with it being my first-ever F1 quali and never having been here before. But I managed to put the laps together today – the team were fantastic.

“Our aim was to get into Q2 but it turned out to be even better, and it’s a great confidence boost for everyone. It’s going to be a long, tough race and that’s what I must concentrate on now.”

Norris’ team-mate Carlos Sainz, by comparison, will start from P18, having been forced to back off when he encountered a puncture-riddled Robert Kubica in Q1.

 

[Featured image – Steven Tee/McLaren]

Lando Norris to replace Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren for 2019

McLaren have signed up-and-coming British star Lando Norris as their second driver for 2019, alongside in-bound Carlos Sainz.

The 18-year old from Somerset will be replacing Stoffel Vandoorne, who was announced this morning to be leaving the team at the end of the season after two difficult years with them.

Norris won the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award in 2016, and the year after that claimed the FIA Formula 3 European Championship and joined the McLaren Young Driver Programme, before graduating to F2 for 2018, where he is currently embroiled in a battle for the title with fellow Brit George Russell.

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium.
Thursday 23 August 2018.
Lando Norris, McLaren, lowers himself into his seat.
Photo: Sam Bloxham/McLaren
ref: Digital Image _J6I9762

His first taste of F1 came when he participated in the end of season test in Abu Dhabi in 2017. Since then, he has taken part in 2018 pre-season testing, the mid-season test in Hungary, and also in FP1 at both Spa and Monza.

“To be announced as a race driver for McLaren is a dream come true,” said Norris. “Although I’ve been part of the team for a while now, this is a special moment, one I could only hope would become reality.

“I’d like to thank the whole team for this amazing opportunity and for believing in me. I’m also extremely grateful for the commitment McLaren has already shown in my development, allowing me to build my experience in a Formula 1 car in both testing and on Fridays during the past two race weekends.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown added, “We believe Lando is an exciting talent, full of potential, who we’ve very deliberately kept within the McLaren fold for exactly that reason.

“We already know he’s fast, he learns quickly, and has a mature head on his young shoulders. We see much potential for our future together. The investment we have made in his budding career with simulator development and seat-time in the car has been well-deserved, as he has continued to prove his abilities both behind the wheel and in his work with the engineering team.”

Monza, Italy.
Friday 31 August 2018.
Lando Norris, McLaren, with Tom Stallard, Engineer, McLaren, and Zak Brown, Executive Director, McLaren Technology Group.
Photo: Steven Tee/McLaren
ref: Digital Image _2ST6519

Norris to make McLaren FP1 debut in Belgium

McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris will make his F1 race weekend debut at the Belgian Grand Prix, taking over Fernando Alonso’s car for Friday practice.

The running will mark Norris’ third time driving McLaren’s MCL33, following appearances at the in-season tests in Barcelona and Hungary, and could be followed by another FP1 drive next weekend at Monza.

McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran called the Friday practice role “part of [Norris’] ongoing development”. He added that the team would “take a strategic view race-by-race” whether to give Norris any more outings in future Grands Prix.

Zak Mauger, LAT Images / FIA F2 Media

Coming after Alonso’s decision to leave F1 at the end of 2018, it’s understood that McLaren will use Norris’ Friday performances to judge whether he is ready for a promotion to F1 for next year in place of Stoffel Vandoorne.

Norris had been tipped to join McLaren in 2019 after storming to an early lead in this year’s Formula 2 championship. But a run of varying results in the mid-season triple header, which led to George Russell taking the title lead in Austria, have raised questions about whether next year is too soon for the 18-year-old to make his F1 debut.

Norris is currently 12 points behind Russell in the standings, and has one win to Russell’s four.

Joe Portlock / McLaren

F1 driver market: Who will twist after Mercedes sticks?

Last weekend’s German Grand Prix opened with the unsurprising news that Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas would be remaining with Mercedes for the next year and beyond.

Coming just before the summer break, Mercedes’ announcement is set to kick-start what has so far been a slow-building driver market for 2019. Daniel Ricciardo is expected to remain with Red Bull, while the current paddock word is that Ferrari will hand Kimi Räikkönen another year’s extension.

But with the top teams entering a holding pattern, what does that mean for any potential moves elsewhere on the grid?

Sahara Force India F1 Team

Force India, Renault now key to the midfield

With the grid’s top six seats filling up, all eyes are turning now to Force India, Renault and Esteban Ocon.

Despite Force India holding an option on Ocon’s services, Mercedes has been trying to place their young Frenchman at Renault next year to safeguard his career against the financial and legal troubles plaguing Force India. It’s unclear whether this switch will still go ahead now that Force India is no longer facing a winding up order, but the consensus is that it’s still on the cards at least.

If Ocon does make the move it will be at the expense of Carlos Sainz, even though the Spaniard will be free to commit to Renault long-term once Ricciardo blocks off the final Red Bull seat.

Force India could have another vacancy to fill, with Sergio Pérez on the shopping list for Haas. If there is a seat free at the Silverstone-based team, Lance Stroll will be at the front of the queue to take it with help from his father’s backing. Stroll is also said to be keen on bringing Robert Kubica with him from Williams, to act as his benchmark and mentor, should both Force India seats open up.

Andrew Hone / Williams F1

Williams and McLaren fall into place

With Stroll almost certain to switch to Force India, that leaves an opening at Williams. And despite that seat being arguably the least attractive on the 2019 grid, Williams does still have a few options to fill it.

The first is Kubica (if there’s no room for him at Force India), who would provide Williams with a relatively consistent lineup as they try to escape their downward spiral. Mercedes junior George Russell is also in the frame, and would bring with him a discount on the team’s power units to offset the loss of Williams’ Stroll and Martini funding. (Russell also has the added perk of being Williams’ first full-time British driver since Jenson Button in 2000.)

McLaren will also be keeping an interested eye on the Force India/ Renault situation as they look to finalise their 2019 lineup over the summer break. Fernando Alonso looks likely to stay with the team for another year at least now that their IndyCar talk has cooled, although Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren future is far less certain.

Early season reports had Lando Norris as sure to replace Vandoorne for next year, but a midseason F2 slump has put Norris’ F1 promotion into doubt for now. Sainz’s contractual limbo has moved him into play for the second McLaren seat, arguably the most competitive option open to him if he is forced out of Renault. Kubica has also been touted as an outside contender.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Few options for Red Bull and Ferrari juniors

The deadlock at the top of the grid means that there isn’t much upward movement available for the likes of Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc. The latter has been linked to Grosjean’s Haas seat lately, but there seems little sense in Ferrari switching Leclerc from one midfield team to another for the sake of it—given his trajectory, it would be better to see how Leclerc develops in a sophomore year at Sauber.

Leclerc staying put rules out a Ferrari-backed Sauber placement for Antonio Giovinazzi—with one of the Scuderia’s juniors already in the team, Sauber is more likely to either keep Marcus Ericsson for a fifth season or pick up Vandoorne from McLaren.

As for Red Bull’s academy team, the likelihood of seeing a brand new face replacing Brendon Hartley is slim. Red Bull may want F3 protege Dan Ticktum in the car, but his lack of superlicence points is an obstacle the FIA won’t be willing to overlook—so too is the case for Honda juniors Nirei Fukuzumi and Tadasuke Makino.

Featured image by Steve Etherington, courtesy of Mercedes AMG

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.

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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.

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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.