Heading into the penultimate round of 2018, the FIA Formula 2 Championship headed east to the Sochi Autodrom, nestled in the Olympic Park which hosted the 2014 edition of the Winter Olympics. The weather on the Black Sea coast bore no resemblance to the colder climes experienced back then, but spirit of competition was still thick in the air; one driver skated into a strong lead by the end of the round, while another’s title challenge hurtled downhill with alarming pace.
Having sewn up a drive in Formula 1 with the McLaren team, Lando Norris entered the round at Sochi with presumably little pressure on his shoulders. Initially, it looked to be a bonus; Norris topped Free Practice and looked set to challenge for his first pole since the opening round at Bahrain. While Norris impressed in qualifying, it was his fellow McLaren development driver who took pole; Nyck de Vries scorched to his second pole position of the season with a 1:46.476 – beating the British driver by 0.220 seconds.
“We’ve been competitive since Free Practice,” explained de Vries, “so I think that was important to build our weekend. We had a decent first run, George [Russell] did a very strong second one but we managed to optimise everything, the car felt great and I did a good lap. I missed out a bit in sector 2, but I think it was still a good lap, a very good third sector, and thanks to the team for giving me a very good car.
“I actually improved my first sector on the next lap, but we weren’t sure if we crossed the line in time or not. We were then told we had to abort it, so we did, but we later found out that we’d actually made it in time. I’m not saying that we’d have improved, but it was a good lap anyway.”
De Vries began the Feature Race strongly, slinking off into a strong early lead while leaving the rest of the field to fight amongst themselves in the opening corners; Norris dropped back to fifth while title rival Russell assumed second – with Alexander Albon challenging him in the opening laps. With tyre degradation surprisingly high, the Thai driver had more life in his supersoft rubber by lap five and cleared Russell for second. The front pack then gave way to those on the prime-option strategy – letting the likes of Antonio Fuoco and Artem Markelov leak into the lead.
At the first round of pitstops, quick work from the DAMS team thrust Albon back into the pitlane immediately, leaving de Vries to fall behind. The onus was then on Markelov – who had sent his home supporters into raptures after passing Fuoco for the lead – to push and extend his lead over Albon, who briefly came under fire from de Vries before the Dutchman’s advances were snuffed out. Meanwhile, Norris suffered a catastrophic pitstop – first entering Trident’s box, before leaving his Carlin mechanics with a loose wheel, leaving him to retire scoreless.
Albon then made short work of the gap to those who had started on the harder tyre, and began to pick through the traffic, while de Vries found them tougher to break down before they eventually pitted for fresh tyres – putting Albon into first. This brought Albon’s DAMS teammate Nicholas Latifi into play; the Canadian had managed to pass Russell for third, and caught the PREMA driver with a handful of laps remaining. Prior to the penultimate lap, Latifi wrested control of second from de Vries to secure a DAMS one-two as Albon collected his fourth win of the year.
“It was another race where it was won on pitstops,” Albon reflected, “a little bit like Silverstone, even in Monza to some degree. There seemed to be quite a lot of deg on the supersofts, so everyone went into the pits on the same lap. At that point, normally, with our position in the pitstop being the first cars to come into the pits, it normally hinders us a bit. But there was a gap for me to escape, and the guys did a really good job. I got out ahead of Nyck, and after that it was more or less just about saving – because I could see Nyck came quickly and thought “oh here we go”, but then he backed off and it gave me breathing room.
“I knew as long as I just had him behind, I’d be okay. I saw Markelov on the alternate strategy, but I knew I could do the same laps, even managing the tyres. It was a bit of a surprise to be honest, because qualifying wasn’t even that strong for me, and we made a couple of changes which really helped me and gave me confidence in the car. It was apparent straight away on the first lap, and it gave me confidence to win the race.”
Latifi seemed primed to help DAMS to back-to-back wins, charging from seventh on the grid to catch right up to polesitter Nirei Fukuzumi in the Sprint Race’s opening lap – but the Force India reserve driver was punted out at turn 5 by a late-braking Alessio Lorandi. The safety car emerged to clear up, and at the restart Fukuzumi found himself under heavy pressure from Russell. The Brit made light work of the Arden driver once DRS was activated, leaving him free to charge ahead and build a gap to second-placed Sergio Sette Camara.
Then the rain came. An initial trickle intensified, and a pair of spins for Jack Aitken and rookie Niko Kari, both resulting in retirement, were all the rest of the field needed to come in and pit for wets – barring the Charouz team, who gambled on staying out. Fuoco assumed first place, leading from teammate Louis Deletraz, but the two began to plummet down the order as the wet track showed no signs of drying; Russell, Sette Camara and Albon making short work of them.
Although Sette Camara – still looking for his first win of 2018 – wanted to challenge Russell, the Brazilian couldn’t muster the pace to reel the ART Grand Prix driver in, and soon came under heavy pressure from Albon in the final laps. Russell crossed the line for his sixth win of 2018, beating Sette Camara by almost eight seconds – leaving Sochi with one hand on the title.
“It was incredibly difficult to be honest!” said Russell. “It always seems that the races I’ve been in the lead of this year, there’s always seems to be something going on – in Barcelona, it was spitting, and in Paul Ricard it was the same again. It’s not been easy! It’s incredibly difficult when the rain starts coming down, it’s very tricky, because if the rain stopped and the sun came out, it would have been better to keep it on the track and stay on the slicks.
It’s such a difficult decision, and also when the VSC came out I didn’t know if I could pit or not, I was extremely fortunate that nobody behind me did because they could have gained a huge amount of laptime. Nevertheless, extremely pleased to get the win today, really proud of my team after a difficult day yesterday, and we worked late last night to try and understand our issues and how to improve it. We really did that, and the pace in the dry was incredible.
Meanwhile, a scoreless round in Russia was enough to dump early-season leader Norris out of the title hunt. Now, 37 points separate Russell from Albon, and the two become the only contenders for the 2018 F2 crown heading into Abu Dhabi. On the face of it, Russell seems odds-on to secure the title – but anything can happen in Formula 2.
And it usually does.