As the 2018 FIA Formula 2 Championship’s opening round closed for business after a free practice session, qualifying and two races at Sakhir, Bahrain, most would be forgiven for taking a moment to catch their collective breaths. Hot, sun-kissed and breezy, the Bahrain International Circuit served up a thrilling Feature Race, with an eventful Sprint Race acting as the icing on the cake.
Of course, all eyes were on the performance of the new F2 2018 car and the seven rookie drivers joining the field, with one of them drawing first blood – Arjun Maini hurled his car to the top of the timesheets in free practice, posting a session-best 1:44.459 to head Lando Norris and his Carlin teammate Sérgio Sette Câmara.
As Friday evening drew, qualifying took place under the glare of the lights, and the cooler conditions along with the promise of option-tyre running meant that the weekend’s pace was about to drop significantly. Mercedes protégé George Russell set the early benchmark in the session, later hacking further chunks out of his time for provisional pole. Cue Norris, who then put his countryman in the shade by 0.062s late on in the session to take his maiden F2 pole with a 1:41.761, despite having gone wide at the final corner.
“It wasn’t the easiest of qualifying sessions, I must say!” said Lando. “To start pole for the first race is a big confidence booster, not just for me but also for the team, it’s the best way to start. But there’s still a long way to go.
“I knew my lap time but I didn’t know how well George did. As I went over the line, I apologised to the team because I thought I messed up badly, but then my engineer told me I was P1 so I was pretty surprised! Sectors one and two were good, but then I got a bit eager in the final corner…”
Norris couldn’t be accused of being overeager in the Feature Race and, after an aborted start which resulted in Artem Markelov and Roberto Merhi stalling on the grid, the McLaren reserve driver held his nerve to capture a perfect run off the line, with Sette Câmara following his teammate out of the opening corners as Russell got bogged down. The fast starting Nyck de Vries also put himself into early contention, grabbing second place from Sette Câmara which allowed Norris to scamper off into the distance at an alarming rate.
Creating a colossal buffer which proved completely unassailable, Norris completed his rout of the field and clinched his first F2 victory, with it the points for pole and fastest lap. Sette Câmara completed Carlin’s dream start to F2 life with second place, but it was Markelov who enraptured the crowd with a series of dazzling moves to grab first. Restarting in the pitlane after his early stall, the Russian had clawed his way up to 12th place by the end of the fourth lap, and continued to expertly carve his way through the field.
Then he came up to Sette Câmara. Wise to Markelov’s repertoire of overtaking manoeuvres, the Brazilian driver was unflappable in his defence of second, and on the final lap allowed the RUSSIAN TIME driver to charge down the inside of turn 1 before cutting underneath to secure a Carlin 1-2.
“I think we’ve proved the hard work that we’ve put in has paid off,” Lando added after the race. “But it’s just race one, obviously Artem showed great pace in that race, so we still have to analyse everything. There’s still a long way to go, we just have to keep working and keep on improving like we have done at the start of the season.
“Hopefully we can gain more advantage from the qualifying to the races, and we’re learning all the time. We’re learning a lot about the race already, so the more we can improve the easier it makes mine and Sérgio’s life!”
Markelov’s sprint race efforts were undoubtedly more measured, and the Renault development driver spent the 23-lap race managing his medium-compound tyres to make his return to the top step of the podium. After Sean Gelael stalled from second place, his PREMA teammate de Vries charged into the open space at the start and cleared reverse-grid polesitter Maximilian Günther, running in the lead before having come to the end of his tyre life and pitting.
Having been more circumspect in his clearance of the German compared to the previous day, Markelov assumed the lead and controlled the pace, willing his tyres to last the distance – and they did. He crossed the line 2.1s ahead of rookie Günther, who took his first podium finish, while Sette Câmara survived a late onslaught from Norris to secure a second Top 3 finish of the weekend. Reflecting on his efforts, Markelov felt that the sprint race had taken more out of him than his heroics on Saturday.
“It was actually more difficult than yesterday, because today I had to survive with the tyres. The start was much better than yesterday as well, so the race was completely different. We had to save the tyres to the end, and survive for the last four or five laps.
“I saw a [quick] car at the end of the race, I thought it was Nyck [on the alternative strategy], but it was Norris. So, that strategy was not working at the end of the second race, unlike last year. So, I’m pretty happy to sit here, actually.”
If the first round is anything to go by, then the next race at Baku, Azerbaijan from April 27-29 should be equally as captivating. It’s at least guaranteed to be interesting.