After a thrilling start to the 2018 FIA Formula 2 Championship in Bahrain, the field caught their collective breaths before traversing the Caucasus to reach Baku, Azerbaijan. The streets of Baku have emerged as something of a modern classic on the F2 calendar and, thanks to an incredibly close grid, it promised to deliver more scintillating action.
Strong winds rolled across the Caspian Sea onto the Baku City Circuit, the foliage in the paddock fluttering in the breeze ahead of the weekend’s first running. Sérgio Sette Câmara tamed the conditions first, the Carlin driver plonking his car at the top of the timesheets with a 1:57.136 to continue his presence in the front-running pack. His teammate Lando Norris entered the round as the championship leader, and Sette Câmara’s off-season pursuit of consistency appeared to put him within touching distance of the British driver.
Qualifying was an altogether different affair, and the entire field were pushing their cars to the limit in a thrilling battle to claim pole position. Luca Ghiotto, who had been within a tenth of Sette Câmara in the previous session, set the early pace in qualifying, but was immediately under fire from Norris and George Russell. Although the pair bested the Italian’s benchmark time, Alexander Albon immediately put them in the shade with a 1:54.480 lap to grab pole position late on. Laughing on the radio, the Thai driver admitted that he’d even forgotten to open DRS at the start of the lap.
“It was a silly mistake and I was beating myself up for it during the first two corners,” confessed Albon. “I knew that the car was really good and after the first run I felt quite confident with it. There were a couple of things that I needed to change with my driving, but I knew that if I just got a bit of clean air I could do a pretty good lap.
“I got lucky with my position, there was no-one behind me and no-one in front of me so I could just focus on the driving, and then yeah, it was a really surprising pole to be honest! I’m really happy, happy for the team as well, they trusted me at the start of the year – so this is for them.”
After second-placed Norris stalled on the formation lap, Albon needed only to focus on his own start, but a fast-starting Russell immediately filled the void alongside the DAMS driver at the green light, harrying his rival from the very start. Although the ART Grand Prix rookie led the field after turn 1, Albon returned to the front moments later. Then Baku bit hard, chewing up Ghiotto and spitting the Campos driver into the wall at turn 16 to prompt a safety car. Albon kept the lead at the restart, but was undercut in the pits by Russell and Nyck de Vries having elected to stay out for an extra lap.
Having fallen some way behind the new leading pair, Albon was brought back into the mix after rookie Roy Nissany gave Campos more work to do by hitting the barrier on the exit of the fourth corner. The front three were determined to be latest on the brakes at the restart, but all went too far, with Russell and de Vries going wide and almost colliding into turn 1. Albon also went wide, leaving Fuoco to snatch the lead before Albon later caught and passed the Charouz Racing System driver to secure his first ever F2 win. Fuoco then dropped behind a hard-charging Jack Aitken, who’d converted an early-race stall into a stunning second place.
“It was a really, really eventful race, Baku never fails us in that sense,” said Albon. “As I said before, the main thing was to get off the line, and then from there I knew I could race. Race pace itself wasn’t as good as we wanted, we didn’t have the pace of George and Nyck. It felt like, at one point, I was just doing qualifying laps lap-after-lap; I was skimming the walls everywhere.
“But on the restart, I think all three of us knew that whoever got the restart done right would be the guy who wins the race. It’s not as easy to follow as you think on this track, so we all wanted to outbrake each other! In the end, it worked out well…”
Albon benefitted from less luck on the Sunday, stalling on the grid to end any hopes of back-to-back victories. Instead, another first-time winner was to be crowned in Baku as George Russell sought redemption for the Feature Race, where he felt he’d lost a certain victory. Starting from 12th on the grid, Russell tiptoed through a brace of slow-starting cars and charged through the field, passing front-row starter Ralph Boschung to put himself in a three-wide battle with Nicholas Latifi and Norris.
The latter went wide, giving Russell free reign to pick off the Canadian driver as Sette Câmara streaked ahead of the field with a four second lead. Losing time with a lock-up, the Brazilian driver’s advantage was quickly eroded away by Russell, leaving the pair to battle hard for victory. Sette Câmara – armed with a reputation for being a skilled defensive driver – gave Russell a hard time, but had to eventually concede defeat as the Brit squeaked clear in the latter stages. Sette Câmara held on for second, but was disqualified after running out of fuel on the parade lap, handing the final podium placings to de Vries and Latifi.
“I knew I had incredible pace over the course of this weekend,” explained Russell, “but obviously we saw what happened yesterday and I was extremely gutted to lose out on the win. I had the worst night’s sleep of the year last night just thinking about what happened, and if there was anything I could have done differently. I was really disappointed that we threw away a win.
“I was easily fastest yesterday, so I knew that today – even starting from P12 – we could win the race and that’s exactly what we did. I’m incredibly happy, delighted to get that win and have something to show for it rather than ifs and buts. We’ve been comfortably the fastest in three out of the four races this season, so we’ve got to capitalise on that.”