Following the opening flyaway rounds in Bahrain and Baku, the FIA Formula 2 Championship circus enjoyed a less extensive journey to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain, which has become a traditional opener for the European leg of the calendar in recent years.
Although a familiar venue to the majority of the field’s drivers, a new track surface promised an altogether different challenge, with just 45 minutes to get acquainted with its nuances ahead of qualifying. With the added breeze providing a difficult challenge – both Santino Ferrucci and Ralph Boschung were caught out by the strong tailwinds to twice red-flag the session – Baku polesitter Alexander Albon soared to the fastest time, setting a benchmark of 1:29.327 despite having been caught in an array of final sector traffic.
The DAMS driver had a much clearer track on offer during qualifying as he went for glory; after a red flag was brought out mid-session – Ferrucci hitting the wall at turn 9 – Albon and teammate Latifi had the circuit to themselves to set the benchmarks, taking full advantage to wind their times down further with a flurry of hot sectors. The Thai driver ended his runs with a 1:28.142, before stepping out of the car with five minutes to spare to watch the rest of the field try to beat his time. It was squeaky-bum time on the DAMS pit wall, but nerves soon switched to elation as Albon’s time withstood the late siege.
“I hate it, I hate it with a passion!” recalled Albon on the final minutes of the session. “Obviously when you’re in the car you’re not really paying attention to what the other drivers do, but when you’re just stuck there with the engineers just looking at the timing screens – looking at the greens and the purples – it wears you out, it makes you older!
“It made me think “why do the engineers enjoy this?” because it just wasn’t fun – it’s horrible! I think my heart rate was higher in those five minutes than it was for the rest of the session. I’m just really happy it was all okay.”
Albon perhaps enjoyed his start in the feature race even less, dropping back behind a fast-starting Nyck de Vries who surged into an early lead ahead of George Russell and Luca Ghiotto. After an early virtual safety car period, de Vries found himself under heavy fire from Russell, who proceeded to barrel down the inside of the PERTAMINA PREMA Theodore Racing driver at the beginning of the sixth lap to swoop into the lead of the race.
Russell held firm, battling through two more VSC periods, before de Vries started to close up once more – sufficiently eroding at the British driver’s lead to sit on his gearbox as the pair entered the pits on lap 25. Two laps later, de Vries attempted launch his car down the inside of Russell at turn 1, but his efforts were parried by the ART Grand Prix driver and was left to plot his next move. It came on lap 32, following the restart after the fourth occurrence of the virtual safety car, and de Vries set himself up with a great run from turn 4, diving down the inside of Russell in the next corner. Russell managed to hold on after the Dutchman braked too deep.
With Lando Norris looming large in the pair’s mirrors, the battle for the lead fizzled out as they sought to preserve their positions.
“It wasn’t an easy win at all,” said Russell. “With this new surface at Barcelona nobody really knew what the tyre degradation was going to be like. On top of that, at the start of the race, it was spitting with rain which was making it very difficult for us at the front. There were a number of VSCs and we’ve never really tested or used the system much before, so going in blind made it tricky for all of us. But yeah, it was action-packed, and after the final VSC Nyck and I were pushing – maximum attack, really – and that was great fun to push these cars to the limit. There was huge pressure, especially get out of the DRS zone, because with the headwind today the DRS had a huge effect. All in all, it was a great race.”
If the intermittent drizzle at the start of the Feature Race was enough of a challenge, then the damp track at the start of the Sprint was a further hurdle for the grid’s 20 drivers to navigate. Still, all felt sufficiently confident to start on the medium compound slicks, with Artem Markelov leading the field away from pole. Although the Russian’s initial getaway was strong, he soon bogged down and was swarmed by Jack Aitken, Sergio Sette Camara and Luca Ghiotto at the start of the race.
The pendulum had firmly swung in Aitken’s favour at the beginning, and the British ace had executed a perfect opening lap to stand 3.3s clear of Sette Camara at the beginning, a lead which opened up as far as 12 seconds thanks to a perfectly-managed VSC restart as de Vries spun and stopped at turn 10. Sette Camara went wide at the same corner to let Albon and Norris filter through, and both began to put pressure on Aitken after the safety car nullified the Renault Sport F1 reserve’s lead. As Albon and Norris fought, and nailing another post-VSC green flag, Aitken scampered off into enough of a lead to grasp his first victory in F2.
“Winning both races is a great achievement for the team,” Aitken noted. “I think that we’ve proven that we can have really good race pace over the last couple of rounds; we were probably the quickest team in Baku as well. Even though we were a little bit behind yesterday, we made some really good changes – and today we were faultless.
“It’s not a pleasant sight [to lose the advantage under the safety car] and there was still an element of tyre management today which we knew would be quite on the edge, even under a wet start. So when we had the safety car, I wasn’t pleased, it was definitely difficult and then you have to judge where your tyres are afterwards, which was tricky because I didn’t know how much I had in the bank. We didn’t have any problems, which was quite lucky.”
With Russell and Aitken performing a clean sweep of the victories, Barcelona was truly an ART exhibition of their increasing pace as they look to cut the deficit to the championship-leading Carlin team. Monaco’s next up, and the notoriously unforgiving walls of the tight Monte Carlo streets will add another new challenge to this thrilling F2 season so far.