Winding towards the end of the mid-season triple-header, the FIA Formula 2 Championship left the hills of Austria and rallied north, crossing the sea to reach the famous Silverstone circuit in Great Britain. Put aside the stereotypes about British weather for a moment – the conditions were absolutely perfect, with the sun beating down on the Northamptonshire venue throughout the weekend to delight the packed grandstands.
Quickly, the sun also shone on home driver George Russell – F2’s new championship leader – in Free Practice. The ART Grand Prix driver scorched his way to the top of the pile in the opening session, delivering a lap that was 0.7 seconds over the next best effort from DAMS’ Alexander Albon. The die already looked cast, and Russell showed no signs of abating after collecting his third consecutive pole position – clocking in a 1:39.989 to head Albon once more and match his Thai rival’s hattrick of poles.
“The car was a bit tricky at the start of this season in the qualifying sessions,” Russell admitted. “We worked hard to understand our issues and made changes from Paul Ricard onwards – and it’s really paid dividends, we’re looking very strong at the moment. After practice I had huge confidence, we went out and were ahead of everyone by seven tenths, which is a huge margin. It was a tricky session, even though it may have looked easy – going from hard compound to the softs, it just has different characteristics, but nevertheless we came home with pole position.”
As the start of the Feature Race rolled around, Russell capably retained his position from Albon and worked on opening up an early gap to exert his control over the rest of the field. Hammering in a few quick laps in the nascent stages of the race, the British driver clambered out of DRS range and extracted all he could from the soft tyres – before leading the front-runners into the pits at the end of lap 6 to exchange their worn rubber for the hard compound tyres.
This is where one could argue Russell lost the race. Enduring a slow pitstop, in which a stuck wheelgun left the championship leader waiting in his box for a painful few extra seconds, Albon crept out of the pits ahead of Russell. Once the other drivers’ strategies had shaken out, the lead was now Albon’s, while Russell suffered further misfortune as he was handed a five-second time penalty for speeding in the pitlane.
Prevailing through a pair of virtual safety car periods, Albon was able to open the gap to almost five seconds over Russell at the chequered flag, clinching his second victory of the season. Meanwhile, despite the application of his time penalty, Russell remained second thanks to his near-15 second gap to third-placed Antonio Fuoco – who took his fourth podium of the year.
“I’d say the pits, to be honest, decided the race,” explained Albon. “It was quite clear for me on lap 2 that it’s a track where it’s very difficult to follow and it’s easy to overheat your tyres. We did go into the pits banking on that if we were to make a move, it would be there as the soft tyres were actually quite good. But then, we were very fortunate – George had an issue and my guys did a very good job, we were really fast and it’s been something we’ve been working on through the year. It was a race where my team made me win.
“At the end, I saw that George was very quick, and he had the luxury that he could back off, cool the tyres down and go for fastest lap. I wanted to, but it was better to get the win than try to risk anything silly!”
Collecting reverse-grid pole for the Sprint Race thanks to his eighth place on the Saturday, Maximilian Günther immediately set to work on covering off the threat of PERTAMINA PREMA Theodore Racing’s Nyck de Vries behind him. Although the German ace couldn’t quite shake off de Vries from DRS range in the opening stages, the Dutchman had to be circumspect thanks to the looming presence of Artem Markelov in his mirrors.
As the race approached its second half, Günther unlocked a little extra performance and began to open up a comfortable gap to de Vries, who started to go backwards. Meanwhile, Russell – seeking retribution for Saturday’s issues – powered through the field from eighth on the grid, dispatching the front runners to get within half a second of Günther at the end of the race. Holding on to the lead at the flag, the BWT Arden driver secured his team’s first win of 2018.
“Obviously it was a good race for me,” said Günther. “We had a good start and directly got out of the DRS range from Nyck. We were controlling pace, keeping him behind me and then as the race progressed I was able to open up the gap, especially in the last third of the race. I built a nice gap to the cars behind me, and the guys sitting next to me, they were really quick so I needed to keep pushing, keeping the pace consistent. At the end it was quite tight, but we made it and I’m very happy for this victory.
“Of course it’s special, the team’s factory is just 30 minutes away from here, and I’m spending a lot of time with the guys here and yeah, it’s good to have something like this for the whole team, for the sponsors and everyone supporting us – it’s nice to give all of them such a big result.”
Russell, having been content with his drive to second place, extended his championship lead over rival Lando Norris – who completed the Sprint in third place having produced a similarly-battling drive, impressively dispatching both de Vries and Markelov at Club in one move.
For now, the drivers will have a chance to recuperate and refocus after the trio of back-to-back races. With just five rounds left, and still everything to play for, the next round at Budapest will be the real litmus test of who’s able to retain their momentum going into the business end of the season. It’s going to be fascinating, we can tell you that much.