JUST GETTING STARTED

By The1nsider 1 month ago

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For all that 2017 seems in retrospect to have been all one-way traffic, the pre-season tests suggested the FIA Formula 2 Championship was completely open ahead of the first round in Sakhir, Bahrain: no one stood out from the crowd, with the top times shared between a number of drivers before they were due to hit the track in anger.

But that soon changed: Charles Leclerc claimed the fastest time in free practice and qualifying, albeit that he was fortunate to claim his first pole of the season when red flags drew the session to an early end just as his rivals were gearing up for a hot lap.

Artem Markelov had had a more difficult time of it, being impeded on his quick lap to line up in P7 on the grid, but a storming start saw the Russian up to 3rd at the start behind Leclerc and Norman Nato before outlasting them both on his first set of tyres and strolling away on his second for the first win of the season by 8 seconds over Nato and Leclerc.

“My engineer was always saying to me that I had to be patient and it will come to me at the end,” Markelov smiled afterwards, “and it was a really nice strategy to win the race!”

Unknown to his rivals, Leclerc was still struggling with tyre management, which prompted the surprising call in the sprint race: the Monegasque driver destroyed his tyres to claim the lead around the middle of the race before pitting for fresher rubber, coming back out and doing it all over again to claim a memorable first win at the lead in the championship, from Luca Ghiotto and Oliver Rowland.

“To be honest until the last 4 laps I didn’t believe we could catch up,” Leclerc later admitted, “until Luca and Oliver started to fight: I have to thank my engineer for a great car, and a great strategy!”

Barcelona was the next cab off the rank, and between rounds Leclerc had learnt all he needed to know about tyre management to dominate the weekend: the Ferrari Academy driver topped free practice and qualifying (the latter just stolen from Ghiotto following another late red flag) before dominating the feature despite a safety car throwing everyone’s plans out the window, winning from Ghiotto (on the same strategy) and Rowland (on the alternative).

It was tough to negotiate from the race winner’s seat: “To be honest without the radio it was really hard to know what the others were doing! I first thought Oliver was going to win easily, and when he made the pitstop he was in the back!”

The sprint race was another intriguing battle: poleman Markelov bogged down as the lights went out, handing a line through to a fast starting Nicholas Latifi from P3 on the grid, with Nobuharu Matsushita and Rowland fighting their way up to the remaining podium positions as the race rolled on. The Canadian looked like he had done enough to claim his first win, but a small mistake was all it took for the podium to be reversed with Matsushita claiming the glory, ahead of Rowland and Latifi.

“I’m just very disappointed,” a downcast Latifi ruefully admitted, “I know it was my race to win. There’s a lot of frustration but I can’t do anything about it, it’s done and I can’t take it back: it was my race but I got distracted, that’s all.”

Leclerc was full of confidence by the time everyone arrived in his home town of Monaco for the 3rd round, with the local hero kitted out in a special helmet and race suit for the occasion. Despite never racing on the streets on which he had so recently caught the bus to school, Leclerc topped free practice and qualifying (the latter by topping Group A and besting Group B’s Alexander Albon by just a hundredth of a second) and looked set for a memorable home victory.

But life wasn’t to be so kind: the front 2 tore away from the rest of the field, headed by Rowland, until a safety car handed the advantage to the supersoft shod drivers, headed by Ghiotto, with the rest having to gamble on an early stop and hope that their tyres would last (chosen by Albon) or stay out and try to rebuild a gap (as Leclerc chose). A later safety car gave them some respite, but just after Leclerc had stopped: the Monegasque was dropped behind Rowland, Markelov and Matsushita as they rolled slowly around the principality, with worse to come when a mechanical gremlin forced Leclerc back into the pits, and retirement.

“To win here is mega special,” laughed Rowland. “Every year I’ve been here I’ve been slightly unlucky, whether it was last year in GP2, or even in karting when I seized here with 2 laps to go when I was leading! It’s never been that kind but I think today repaid me: right now I can’t explain how good it feels to win this…”

If the feature race was complicated and dramatic, then the sprint race was blissfully simple, at least for race winner Nyck De Vries: the Dutchman blew past teammate Johnny Cecotto at Ste Devote from P2 for a processional, if momentous, 1-2 for Rapax ahead of the Venezuelan and Gustav Malja, who pushed all race long for more but was denied by the tight nature of the circuit.

De Vries was smiling even more than usual afterwards: “It’s been an unbelievable weekend! We had some difficulties after qualifying, with two grid penalties: I was back to P14 which was tough to take, but you never know in Monaco, and we kept fighting. Everything went our way yesterday to get back in the top eight, which was crucial to have a shot today.”

Rowland had closed Leclerc’s lead down to just 3 points, but none of that meant much to the Monegasque when his father passed away following a long illness a week before the next round in Baku, Azerbaijan. A busy free practice, with 3 VSCs (including one for Rowland, who found the barriers at turn 1) and a red flag, was topped by De Vries, with Leclerc a second off the pace, but in qualifying it was back to regular service: Leclerc dominated a red flag affected session.

From there it looked like Leclerc had the whip hand, and so it proved: the Ferrari Academy ace controlled the race from lights to flag for his third win of the season, ahead of De Vries and Latifi, despite 2 safety cars (the 2nd of which saw off Ghiotto’s challenge on the alternate strategy) and a VSC to deal with.

“I’m very, very, very happy,” Leclerc allowed in the press conference, “it’s good points for the championship, and I’ve said it many times before but I’ll never stop saying it, thanks to my father for everything he did for me: I dedicate this win to him.”

A penalty in the feature saw Rowland start from P2, which he soon turned to his advantage, streaking away into the lead at the start which Leclerc fluffed, dropping to P10. The Monegasque was already fighting back up the order when Rowland and De Vries stopped separately from the podium positions, handing Leclerc the opportunity of bringing home a perfect weekend (pole, 2 wins, 2 fastest laps). He hunted down and overtook race leader Nato, but a 10s penalty for insufficiently slowing under yellows handed victory back to the Frenchman, from Leclerc and Latifi.

“It was amazing!” Leclerc laughed after the race. “Our pace was very fast, I felt good in the car, and I was doing the quickest laptimes. I’m still very happy about the second place, and we had the fastest lap which gives us two extra points. I also had a lucky star for the second race with the technical issue for Oliver, which happened to me in Monaco. We caught back what we lost in Monaco: that is important.”

For Round 5 in Spielberg, Austria it was clear that the rest of the field was going to have to find a way to close down Leclerc’s points lead, fast. Free practice didn’t help, with the Monegasque on top of a VSC affected free practice, and he continued his phenomenal run of pole positions after topping a slightly damp session from Sergio Sette Camara (who missed the top spot when he found the gravel on his last lap) and Antonio Fuoco.

And the feature race was no more difficult for the Monegasque man, leading Fuoco into turn 1 and not looking back, building a solid lead and controlling the pace while managing his tyres ahead of his rivals on the same strategy, with Latifi leading the way on the alternate one but just missing out on what could have been the turning point for his season, slotting in ahead of Fuoco but unable to close Leclerc down in the end.

“It wasn’t easy, definitely!” the PREMA ace laughed afterwards. “At the end Nicholas was coming very, very quickly! We had a good start and I managed the tyres as much as I could, because I knew I had to do a lot of laps to the pitstop, and the last part of the race was really hard to manage because the soft tyres degrade a lot quicker than we thought, and Nicholas was just very quick!”

Markelov was looking for Sunday to get his title fight back on track, and it worked well for the Russian: a strong start (and restart) saw him easily control his tyres, and the race. Behind him Albon (back from breaking his collar bone) had his mirrors filled by Rowland’s DAMS, but when the latter stuttered Fuoco pounced, getting squeezed onto the kerbs and back into the path of Leclerc, who spun into retirement. Another VSC was controlled by Markelov, who led Albon and Rowland all the way to the flag.

“Today we had a great start, a great restart after the safety car, and I’m pretty happy,” the Russian smiled afterwards. “This was actually a good boost for me for the next race, but I need to improve my qualifying compared to this race because it was a bit of a disaster! If I get a good qualifying I think I can fight again for the top 3 in Silverstone.”

That chance came a few days later, with the British circuit the 2nd race in the first of 2 back to back weekends, leaving the teams to rush across Europe to set up for an early start in Silverstone, so their drivers could try to break down the 49 point lead Leclerc now held in the championship. The usual rain greeted them as they filed onto the circuit on Thursday afternoon from the old pitlane complex, with Leclerc leading the way once more in free practice and qualifying, the latter by half a second from Rowland.

A slightly damp track was the venue for Leclerc’s fifth win of the season, who led all the way apart from the pit window between strategies for victory by 9 seconds from Nato and Rowland, despite an oil leak causing smoke to billow from the Monegasque’s car, prompting a brief period of hope for his rivals before it sorted itself out.

“I was a little bit scared,” Leclerc later admitted. “I was looking at the screens on the straight and I saw my car with smoke behind it, I looked in the mirrors and I thought the engine would blow up – but nothing happened.  After that, on the prime tyres, we were quite fast: I knew Norman was behind me, and when he reduced the gap to me I pushed again and the car was very good until the chequered flag.”

A cold, dreary Sunday morning brought the sprint race, the end to a long back to back couple of rounds and a chance for Leclerc’s rivals to finally reclaim some momentum, with the Monegasque starting from P8: Latifi tore off into the distance from pole position in exactly the same way Leclerc had the day before, while his rivals squabbled among themselves behind him. The Canadian controlled a late restart, Ghiotto limped home behind him on tired tyres, and Markelov slid past Rowland to claim P3.

“I’m just really happy,” Latifi smiled later. “I was on the podium in Barcelona and could show we were able to challenge for wins: that one unfortunately got away from me, but we managed to get this one back!”

Budapest was next, as hot as ever ahead of the summer break, and Leclerc was determined to ensure he left with his championship lead intact. The Monegasque was quickest in free practice, a tenth ahead of Rowland, and dominant in qualifying for pole by half a second over the Briton, but a few hours later the rest of the grid was given a boost: Leclerc had be disqualified for using a non-standard part, pushing him to the back of the grid for the feature race and Rowland up to pole.

But it was Markelov who made the better start to lead Rowland through turn 1 when the lights went out, building a small but secure lead over his rival all the way to the stops, when Rowland pitted early and got the undercut for the provisional lead. Ahead of them on track Albon and Leclerc renewed battle on the alternate strategy: the pair were unable to maintain a sufficient gap to stop Rowland taking the lead after their stop, albeit that Leclerc picked up a number of positions from a well-timed safety car period on fresh rubber.

After the restart Markelov was clearly faster and looked to blast inside Rowland on the front straight: unfortunately for the Russian his rival closed the gap, leaving him the option of braking and getting swamped or keep going and hope for the best, with Markelov going up the inside but finding a kerb, pitching him across the circuit into retirement at turn 1 as Rowland grabbed the win ahead of teammate Latifi, De Vries and, ominously, Leclerc in P4 from the back of the grid.

Rowland thought he might have turned a corner in the championship fight: “I think the qualifying recently has been extremely positive: we came second here, only Charles was better than me, so I’m quite happy. I’m second in the championship, and I’ve closed the gap a little bit to Charles: as a team and a car the result of the 1-2 shows we’ve come a long way, and done a good job.”

Sunday saw a masterclass from Matsushita, who blew into the lead from P4 at the start and stayed there until the flag, controlling a couple of VSC restarts in the process, with Rowland using his better tyres to edge past De Vries for P2 on the penultimate lap for a strong weekend result, albeit with Leclerc trailing them in P4 once again.

“I always have confidence with the start,” Matsushita noted afterwards, “and today I knew it would be good because of the grip. Spa and Monza are our favourite tracks, we were quite quick there last year, and I hope it will be another podium and we can continue like that. I want to be in the top 3 this year, so I will push!”

And for Rowland it was a weekend of hope: “it was starting to get to the stage where Charles was gone and that I was fighting for 2nd, and I didn’t want to believe that. Obviously anything can happen, and after this weekend we’re right back in there: we’re not quite with him but we’re closing, and if we keep this pace we can challenge him to the end of the year.”

All eyes were on the sky in Spa-Francorchamps, the 1st weekend of the 2nd back to back of the season, but the expected rain held off in free practice, with Leclerc laying down another marker to his rivals despite his extinguisher engaging on track, limiting the number of laps he could run. But it arrived ahead of qualifying for the first wet session of the year, including tests, and Leclerc was on top once again, this time with a measure of good fortune as Markelov was alone on a flyer in the closing minutes until a red flag for a Sette Camara spin halted his progress.

A hole opened next to Leclerc on the grid when Latifi’s engine gave up on the way there, with Rowland more than filling it as he and Leclerc came together at La Source and Jordan King running over the debris to prompt a VSC for his disintegrated tyre. Leclerc left them all at the restart, pitted on lap 15 and emerged behind Markelov on the alternate strategy, with the pair running similar times until the Russian had to pit too, coming out with fresh tyres and mugging Rowland at the Bus Stop for P2, albeit 26.6s behind Leclerc.

“On the prime tyres I think we were very, very good,” Leclerc noted, redundantly. “When we left the pits they were telling me ‘you’re two seconds faster than everybody’ and I said ‘can you repeat please?’ because I thought maybe I had misheard them! The car was amazing all the race, and I need to thank PREMA for it.”

But later that evening Leclerc and Rowland were found to have too much wear on their skid planks, with disqualification the only possible answer: Markelov was now classified as the winner, leading home a RUSSIAN TIME 1-2 ahead of Ghiotto, with Fuoco promoted to the podium.

The wet qualifying meant the teams all had fresh tyres for the sprint race, and Sette Camara put them to great use: the Brazilian made a perfect start from P3 for the lead, as did De Vries for P2, with Ghiotto ahead of his teammate when Markelov retired before pushing up to the rear wing of the Dutchman, until a heavy crash at the top of Eau Rouge for Matsushita brought out the safety car to the flag, handing Sette Camara his first win.

“It’s a great moment, a great feeling,” Sette Camara noted afterwards. “We didn’t have the best of luck in the beginning of the season, things just weren’t going our way no matter what, but the team kept supporting me and things finally came around in Spa. It’s a good track for me, I had my first podium in a formula car here in 2015, so I’m very happy.”

Battle recommenced a few days later in Monza, Italy, with an inevitably dramatic weekend in store for all of the protagonists. Markelov led the way in free practice ahead of teammate Ghiotto, while further surprises were in store in qualifying, where Matsushita took the top spot from De Vries and Louis Deletraz, the first time all season the Monegasque hadn’t finished the session on top.

More surprises were in store: Saturday was greeted by huge storms across Lombardia, washing out the GP3 qualifying session and most of the F1 running, with the senior category’s qualifying delayed for hours as they waited for a gap in the clouds to appear: the F2 race was pushed back to the GP3 slot, and the junior category was relegated to Sunday morning.

Rain was still falling when the F2 grid formed, requiring a string of formation laps behind the safety car until it was clear enough to make a standing start, dropping the lap total to 23 for the race. Matsushita was slow off the line, Markelov clattered into De Vries at turn 1, with the Russian pitting and the Dutchman holding on as Leclerc attacked Matsushita on the back straight for P2. De Vries had a great stop to maintain his lead from Leclerc, with Rowland just behind the pair for half a lap before his left rear detached, bringing out the safety car.

Ghiotto got into the battle at the restart, jumping the pair for the lead before running deep and cutting the chicane on the final lap: Leclerc and De Vries came together behind him, with Leclerc running wide and De Vries picking up a puncture, as Ghiotto pulled away from Fuoco for the win by 2 seconds, with Matsushita just behind them in P3.

The Italian could scarcely contain his joy at the home win: “It feels amazing! We’ve been working hard all through the season, we’ve been through difficult moments in the second half, and we definitely needed it. It was a pretty crazy race, but wet races are famous for this!” Unfortunately for Ghiotto the stewards were less happy, handing him a 5 second penalty later than evening for gaining an advantage, dropping him to P4 and handing the win to countryman Fuoco.

Ghiotto was livid, seething for revenge the following morning after a diet of coffee and little sleep left him in a determined frame of mind: he blitzed past a number of rivals at the start when the lights went out. The Italian inevitably claimed the lead on lap 11 and didn’t look back, grabbing the win well ahead of Sette Camara and Fuoco.

“I think I slept three hours last night,” Ghiotto smiled afterwards. “We were at the stewards’ until almost midnight, then I found it hard to remain calm, and it took a while to fall asleep… This morning I was not 100% ready, because when you don’t sleep enough you don’t feel ready for the race, but my emotions were in check once I jumped in the car: the rest just disappeared, and I was ready for the race. After that, everything went my way, and I’m really happy.”

If Monza was a relative disaster for Leclerc by his usual high standards, it could have been worse: his main rival had failed to score too, leaving the others to sweep up the points in their absence. The championship leader was back on top in free practice at the sole standalone race in Jerez, Spain, once again from Rowland, but in qualifying it didn’t all go his way: Ghiotto was judged to be too close on the timesheets, with Leclerc making the call to strap on a 3rd set of tyres to claim pole from the Italian and Sette Camara, potentially causing problems later in the weekend for himself.

The risk was taken to ensure pole at the tight circuit, for track advantage as much as the points, and it seemed to have worked out: Leclerc easily contained Ghiotto at the start of the feature race, with a small mistake before the stops allowing Rowland through for P2. The trio were soon slicing through their rivals on fresh rubber, but a late safety car threw the advantage back to the alternate runners, now with a tyre advantage and a few laps to make it pay.

Fuoco led the alternates, and was soon by countryman Ghiotto for a podium position: on the final lap Leclerc’s tyres were also gone, slowing dramatically and getting caught up in a backmarker squabble as Rowland and Fuoco almost tripped over him at the final corner, with Leclerc somehow tumbling over the line first for his 6th victory, and claiming with it the 2017 title.

“After the restart the tyres seemed to cool a little bit,” Leclerc deadpanned, “and the team told me ‘last lap’ so perfect, only 1 lap to do so I will push like crazy, and then they said ‘no, 1 lap more’ and I thought another lap, okay, I can push again. But there was 2 laps more and I had absolutely no tyres left! That made things very, very hard! But I’m very, very happy overall, and we just need to work for tomorrow on the prime tyres…”

With the championship decided it felt as though the pressure was off everyone: Alex Palou led the field early on from pole in front of his home fans but he was soon falling back, his tyres spent, as Markelov came to the fore, using his renowned tyre management skills to blow past everyone for the win, some 12s ahead of DAMS pair Latifi and Rowland, while behind them Leclerc dropped out of the points on the last lap, his tyres spent.

Asked how he’d done it, Markelov was in entertainment mode: “It’s a secret! I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a feeling I have with them: I know some lessons on how to save the tyres for the whole race. Actually yesterday was a bad race for me, but we chose this as Plan A. I was just trying to chill for the whole race, and get some game later in the laps…”

As a result, Abu Dhabi was all about the fight for 2nd, and for teams’ championship. Leclerc had the easiest job in the paddock, to just enjoy his final few runs and to help PREMA claim the double, and free practice suggested he was doing just that, with Albon leading the way in the session. The Thai driver took a gamble in qualifying, staying out for 2 laps when his rivals pitted for their 2nd sets and grabbing P2, but when he ran out of fuel on the way back it was all undone: Markelov, who was fastest on his first set, went even faster on his second for his maiden pole ahead of De Vries and Fuoco.

The Russian was expected to use his superior tyre management to the task of winning once again, but that’s not how the feature shook out: Markelov made a storming start on the supersofts to lead De Vries on softs until his stop on lap 7, with Rowland on his tail. The Briton knew he had one chance and he took it, attacking at turn 8 while the Russian was worried about damaging his tyres, and the lead was gone. Leclerc used the alternate strategy to push up to P3, but the advantage for 2nd in the championship was leaning towards Rowland.

He was already thinking bigger thoughts: “the title is obviously important for the team, and you get the status of 1 and 2 on the car next year, which is good bragging rights! Basically for me I wouldn’t be here without DAMS, and I feel I owe them quite a lot: to give them the Teams’ championship would be great, especially with Nicky as well being a good teammate.”

And then the news came through: Rowland and Fuoco were disqualified, the Briton for a skid block which was too thin, the Italian for low tyre pressures. It meant that Markelov, with more wins, was the vice-champion, and RUSSIAN TIME were in the pound seats for the teams’ title.

Albon was determined to make the most of his last opportunity to impress, storming into the lead from P2 in the sprint race and building a strong gap back to his rivals: Leclerc was looking to finish on a high, slicing up towards his old sparring partner, with Markelov and Ghiotto keeping in touch but staying out of trouble to ensure the team’s silverware. The Monegasque was quicker but couldn’t use the second DRS zone because of yellows, launched up the inside at turn 7 on the final lap and clattering into Albon, who couldn’t contain his rival on the long straight and had to follow Leclerc across the line half a lap later, ahead of Latifi for the final podium of the season.

“It feels great to win the race and finish the season on a high,” Leclerc laughed in the press conference afterwards, “and I think it’s been one of the most positive races I’ve had during the year: on tyre management we’ve been very good today, and I feel even happier when I look back to Friday and we were struggling: we were one of the most competitive today.”

And, as it turned out, on most other days too.

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  Issue 12 F2 Feature
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