The Autodromo Nazionale Monza goes by many names. Known within racing circles as either the Temple of Speed or the Cathedral of Speed – whatever your denomination, everyone knows that a pilgrimage to Italy’s most famous circuit will be rewarded by getting to watch fields of racing cars going at biblical speeds down the long straights. The FIA Formula 2 Championship’s visit to the circuit for Round 10 of the calendar was no exception.
With heavy rain drowning the circuit on the Friday morning, the asphalt was still drying when the F2 drivers sailed around Monza for Free Practice. Sergio Sette Camara drew first blood, finding 1:33.810 at the end of the session. The Brazilian was firmly in the hunt for pole position, but he was half a tenth slower than George Russell’s effort – a 1:31.546 was enough to give the ART Grand Prix driver his fourth pole position of the year, extending his championship advantage by an extra four points.
“I was very pleased with my second lap,” Russell declared, “as I struggled a bit to get my confidence on the lap in free practice so I just went for it, and really nailed the lap I think. I had a great position behind the DAMS cars and everything just came together, so I was really pleased with that. I was surprised that Sergio was so close to me, although he’s had great pace all weekend, and three tenths ahead of P3 on a track like this, which has only got about 6 corners, is a great achievement I think.
“I think in Formula 2 anything can happen! I don’t think it’s going to be as easy to race on this circuit as people may expect, as we’re all running very low downforce so therefore the slipstream gained is much less than it would be on a circuit with high downforce. With the current situation at the starts, as we saw in a track such as Spa with such a short run to turn 1, De Vries managed to go from P8 to P3 in turn 1. I’m just happy to get the 4 points, and not so worried about tomorrow at the moment.”
Russell was off the boil at the start of the Feature Race, and was engulfed by Artem Markelov and Alexander Albon off the line, as Sette Camara retreated to the pits post-formation lap with an issue. Meanwhile, Markelov’s RUSSIAN TIME stablemate Tadasuke Makino had enjoyed a fantastic charge into the top eight from 14th on the grid, running the alternate strategy and putting his medium tyres to work. The Japanese ace then dispatched four cars within the space of a lap, ticking off Luca Ghiotto, Norris, Nicholas Latifi and Russell on lap 4 to join the top three.
By now, Albon had stolen the lead from Markelov, but the Russian hit back and cruised past the DAMS driver into turn 1, leaving him vulnerable to the rapid Makino. Soon, it was a RUSSIAN TIME one-two – Markelov leading Makino – until the two switched positions as the supersoft runners began to feel the bite of tyre degradation. Makino then began to forge ahead, gapping Markelov – who returned from the pits over 40s behind. The gap continued to increase, and the Honda development driver set a collection of brilliantly consistent laptimes to keep his advantage.
With three laps to go, Makino shrugged off his worn primes and slapped on the options, emerging from the pits just three seconds ahead of Markelov. He lost a second on the opening set of corners on cold tyres, but brought them up to temperature in time to keep his teammate at bay, clinching a surprise victory – his first in Formula 2.
“To be honest, I have no words!” grinned Makino in the press conference. “I started P14, a difficult position but my start was really nice, and the option tyres meant everyone else was struggling but my tyres were really nice! I think lap 3 or 4 I passed Artem, and then after that I just controlled the pace: my car felt really good, and the team did an awesome job. I just can’t believe it!
“I don’t know which was my best overtake, but it was a really fun time! My start was really nice, and this was a big point for this win, I think.”
The Sprint Race was a different story – rather than having the opportunity to deliver a strategic masterclass, the onus was on the drivers to make the difference on the track. Nicholas Latifi made the early moves, charging into the lead as polesitter Ralph Boschung trickled down the order at the start. Russell, starting from fifth, was challenging Latifi for the lead, but a botched overtake into turn 1 left Markelov to slip into second – subsequently usurping Latifi on the next lap.
Russell then resumed his attack on Latifi, barrelling past on the ninth lap as Sette Camara emerged in the battle for the lead. As soon as the Brazilian relegated Latifi to fourth place, Markelov locked up at turn 1 and snatched his way down the escape road, offering the lead on a silver platter to Russell. The Russian still had pace to challenge for the lead, but ultimately had to be content with a second-successive runner-up spot at Monza having been occupied by Sette Camara’s challenges – as Russell built enough of a lead to secure his fifth win of the year.
“To be honest I think [the weekend] could have been better. We potentially lost a victory, or P2, yesterday and so I wanted to put it right today, and I was pleased to regain the position today: obviously I inherited it a bit after a small mistake by Artem, but earlier when I went for the lead I made a mistake too, so it was a tricky race. Very low downforce, high fuel loads, cold and greasy conditions: it wasn’t easy for everyone today, but at the end of the day we’ve extended the championship lead and I’m happy with the win today.
“I was confident I’d won when I broke Artem’s DRS: it’s so difficult on this circuit where you pull a gap of almost 1 second but he’d just catch it and then the DRS come in, and we were just yo-yoing for seven laps or so. But I finally did one really good lap where I just broke the one second gap and I could start to pull away a bit, and then I knew I had it.”
The Mercedes reserve driver has also opened up the gap in the championship stakes once more, standing 22 points above Norris – who has just been confirmed as one of McLaren’s race drivers in F1 for next year. As much as the Carlin driver would love to bow out of F2 with a title, Russell’s in the perfect place to deny him a swansong ending. The excitement of the title battle will ramp up at the end of the month, when the field heads to Russia to race in Sochi.