Just one week after the FIA Formula 2 Championship’s first ever round at Le Castellet in France, the field moved to an altogether more familiar venue – the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria. Nestled in the Styrian mountains, the site of the former Osterreichring – thanks to its vistas and frequent exciting races – has become a modern classic and a favourite of the F2 calendar.
First to set the pace through the Austrian hills was George Russell, who topped practice with a 1:14.159 to lay down the gauntlet to the rest of field ahead of qualifying. After the thirty minute session, nobody was able to pick up Russell’s challenge, and the ART Grand Prix driver improved incrementally with each and every lap to bat away the Carlin duo of championship leader Lando Norris and Sergio Sette Camara. By the end of the session, the Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve had put pole out of reach with a 1:13.541 laptime, eclipsing Norris’ best by two-tenths of a second.
“It was a great session for us,” Russell mused. “It was clear after practice that we were very quick. We made a few changes to the car prior to Paul Ricard last week, and it’s really working well for us in a qualifying situation. I went up there onto the supersoft tyre, it was a bit of a challenge for all of us to make that step from practice where we were on the softs, but we were improving with every lap – so I think we were in control of the session.”
In a dramatic Feature Race, Russell immediately began to set the early pace, but Norris sought to improve upon his starting position and gave the leader a fright in the first lap – prompting Russell to pick up the pace and forge a buffer to cover any threats of DRS. Then, the dynamic of the race changed. On lap 6, Ralph Boschung pulled over onto the grass on the exit of the sixth corner with an engine problem, prompting the safety car as the marshals collected his stricken MP Motorsport car.
Russell, along with the other leaders, immediately came in to ditch the supersoft tyres and returned onto the track with softs, emerging behind alternate strategy-runners Arjun Maini, Sean Gelael and Artem Markelov. Initially trying to catch and pass the three, closing in on Markelov, Russell changed tack and decided to hang back and preserve the life in his second set of tyres. His plan had started to pay off by the midpoint of the race as Gelael fell away, and the strong lead that Maini had built was wiped out by another safety car as Jack Aitken came to a stop.
Maini and Markelov’s tyres were quite second-hand by the restart, and Russell wisely waited until their tyres dropped off – clearing Maini with relative ease and assuming the lead after Markelov stopped. With nobody left in front of him and having kept Norris five seconds behind, Russell crossed the line to collect his second consecutive victory – and his fourth of the season. Behind Norris, Antonio Fuoco claimed third despite stopping twice – surging through the field late on.
“It wasn’t an easy race at all,” said Russell. “The degradation of the supersoft tyres at the start was absolutely enormous and after about the first lap and a half I was sliding all over the place. The first half of the race was really tricky, and after the first safety car period we ended up coming out behind three drivers who had yet to pit, so that was a tricky scenario for us – whether to push to get past these guys, or stay back and save the tyres – so I think Lando opted to stay back at the start to preserve his tyres which gave me a little bit of comfort, really, because it meant I could drop back.
“From then on it was just a case of managing the tyres, managing the gap to the guys behind me because as we mentioned, in Formula 2 we get very limited testing at a race weekend, so it’s very difficult to know what the tyre degradation is going to be like. But we brought the car home – it wasn’t easy but we got the 25 points.”
After making his mandatory pitstop late on, Markelov made a number of stunning moves in the final laps of the Feature Race, overtaking three cars at turn 3 before dispatching Nirei Fukuzumi in the final corner to capture eighth – and with it, reverse-grid pole. Leading from teammate Tadasuke Makino in the Sprint Race, the Japanese driver put a little pressure on the leader before dropping back, leaving Markelov to enhance his early advantage.
Behind the Russian driver, Russell continued his excellent form at Spielberg, quickly dispatching Norris in the first lap before making light work of the cars ahead of him over the subsequent laps to climb as high as second. Considering another push to catch Markelov, Russell was unable to make any further inroads into the RUSSIAN TIME driver’s lead – entering the final five laps with a five second gap between them.
With a final flex of his muscles, Markelov opened the lead out by another six tenths to clinch his third win of the year with another recovery from a lowly qualifying effort, as Russell collected second to sweep to the top of the championship lead – displacing Norris from the top for the first time this season.
“Yesterday’s race was much harder than today,” Markelov told the press after the race, “because I was starting from P18, and I had to manage because we started on a harder tyre to the people around us. With two safety cars our strategy was nearly crushed, but we were pretty good in the whole race and in the last two laps we changed the tyres. And that was pretty good – I was able to push and trying to get closer to all the guys in front of us.”
“At the start of today’s race I was struggling a bit with the pace, trying to save the tyres at the start but my teammate was pushing me a bit. I was just trying to get the pace and when George overtook Makino, he was trying to get closer to me so all the race I was trying to push and create gap on the last few laps.”
With Russell and Norris split by just ten points going into next weekend’s round at Silverstone, their homecoming round will be a real test for both: can Russell extend his lead over Norris, or will the McLaren reserve hit back and return to the top? Oh, and can anyone else join the pair in the battle for the title?