After almost a month away, the summer break came to an end and the FIA Formula 2 Championship reopened for business at Spa-Francorchamps, the classic 7.004km circuit winding through the evergreen Ardennes forest. As drivers compared tans from their travels away, the memories of sun-kissed holidays away were ended in Belgium thanks to the biting cold and intermittent downpours; frequently, the thermometer mercury struggled to bother the double-figures over the weekend’s proceedings.
Although overcast, every cloud over Spa had a tangerine lining. Every year, the Belgian grandstands are packed with seas of orange as the Dutch fans make the trip to their neighbouring nation. It would be remiss to say that the pressure was on their driver Nyck de Vries to put on a show, but their presence will surely have been an extra incentive for him to deliver a good result. He certainly got off to the best possible start. In the first quarter of an hour of the opening Free Practice session, de Vries hammered in a 1:58.125 to propel himself to the top of the timesheets, eclipsing Carlin’s Sérgio Sette Câmara by one hundredth of a second.
Qualifying was a less straight-forward affair, and a rapid initial effort was deleted by the stewards after the PERTAMINA PREMA Theodore Racing driver bundled over the white line at Raidillon. Championship leader George Russell held the advantage over the initial runs, but de Vries regrouped and re-emerged in the middle of the session to nail a 1:56.054 to the timing board, the highlight being a hugely quick middle sector that was half a second better than anyone else could muster. Sitting on the pitwall with five minutes to go, de Vries immediately celebrated his first pole of 2018 as impressive first sectors by Russell, Alexander Albon and Lando Norris ultimately fizzled out.
“I’m obviously very happy” beamed de Vries, “it’s very satisfying and we’ve been very strong all day, so I knew that we were in the battle for pole. Unfortunately our first lap was taken away, because that alone would have been good enough for pole and it’s frustrating, but I understand that I was slightly behind the white line so that was my mistake. That meant for the second run it was a bit more pressure because I didn’t have a lap time and that was my one shot.
“But we took it, and I’m very thankful that the team gave me a mega car today. I’m pleased we have our first pole together, and doing it at Spa and almost my home race – and the margin we had was very good today.”
A downpour before Saturday’s Feature Race gave the suggestion of a wet race, but it quickly dried up in time for the cars to take to the track on slicks. With a good start – while the cars behind him caught wheelspin on the low-grip surface – de Vries charged ahead off the line and held a healthy margin after the first corner, as Sette Câmara dispatched Russell off the line to clinch second. The Brazilian had no real answer for de Vries at the start of the race, and the McLaren junior driver continued to build up a lead ahead of his switch for the medium compound tyres.
On his re-emergence to the circuit, de Vries had the challenge of traffic to contend with as he fell behind a gaggle of cars all running the alternate strategy – his teammate Sean Gelael included. Sette Câmara used the opportunity to close up, but de Vries weathered the storm and managed the congestion to perfection. Building his advantage up once more, the Dutchman hit another snag as a safety car was brought out for Nirei Fukuzumi’s burning Arden, eliminating his carefully-manicured gap.
At the restart, Sette Câmara looked in with a chance of keeping de Vries in his sights, maintaining a relatively stagnant gap just outside the reaches of DRS. It was not to be, as de Vries stepped it up a gear to assert his dominance, ultimately crossing the line 3.1 seconds clear of the Carlin driver – claiming the maximum points on offer as he also secured the fastest lap.
“We’ve been very strong and competitive all weekend,” de Vries said after the race, “so I think we deserved it. We never gave up and kept pushing, and it was very well deserved for the team and for me. It was a tough race, because we were very strong on the option but lost a bit of the gap after the pitstop. I’m obviously extremely happy, especially to do it here at my kind-of home race in front of so many Dutch fans, and my friends and family were all able to watch so it’s nice to perform well in front of them.
“The safety car didn’t really help, but nevertheless we kept it all together and secured a second feature race win, so I’m very pleased with that. It’s never nice when you build up a gap for the safety car to destroy it, because you’ve consumed tyres for nothing and also you’re under pressure. But as I said, I’m just very pleased that we managed to keep it together and clearly we’ve been the strongest all weekend. I think we deserve it more than anyone.”
De Vries couldn’t quite scale the heights of Saturday’s performance in the Sprint Race, but he certainly made an effort. Starting from eighth from the reversed grid, he rocketed up to third after the first corner while polesitter Nicholas Latifi held off from Luca Ghiotto off the line. Latifi was completely untouchable throughout, flexing his muscles over Ghiotto in the early stages to clear DRS range, before dashing off into the distance. Ghiotto lost a position to de Vries, but there was to be no repeat of the previous day’s heroics as the Feature Race winner was unable to make an impression on the Canadian.
Tyre degradation started to set in, and de Vries soon watched Norris and Albon looming large in his mirrors by the final lap. With Russell down the order, this was a prime opportunity for the chasing pair to close down the championship gap, and both overtook de Vries into Les Combes – with Albon attempting to pass Norris as well. The Carlin driver had to absorb an excessive amount of pressure from Albon, but ultimately kept the Thai ace at bay to secure second – 10 seconds behind runaway winner Latifi.
“These races are never easy with the Pirelli tyres,” Latifi explained, “as much as it looked quite straight forward. The biggest challenge was the first laps as we know the DRS is quite powerful here. Once I’d managed to pull a bit of a gap, it was all about managing the tyres. The last five or six laps were pretty straightforward, it was just about cruising in case there was a safety car so I was looking after the tyres. But yeah, I’m really happy to get the win, especially after a lot of struggles this season.
“It’s the complete opposite of how it was last season, so to be back on the podium and on the top step feels pretty nice. I probably could have won the race by more of a margin if I’d pushed a bit more, but it’s just about the risk management so it wasn’t really necessary – it’s so easy to make a mistake if you have kind of lead and everything to lose.”
“I also just want to give a special mention for Robert Wickens, my fellow Canadian – it’s not something you want to see happen to a fellow driver, so best wishes to him and his family, and I’m hoping for a speedy recovery for him.”
Norris’ podium in the Sprint Race ensured that Russell’s championship lead was slashed to just five points, and de Vries’ Spa masterclass has put him firmly back in contention for the title. The F2 championship has four main contenders going into Monza – from the fantastic four, who will be the most fantastic of them all?