GLORY DAYS

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As the 2018 FIA Formula 2 Championship’s second season closed for business after a dozen scintillating rounds, the championship enjoyed one of its most competitive fields yet; as far back as pre-season testing, five different drivers ended at least one of the six days on top of the timesheets. And so it proved.

The opening round at Sakhir, Bahrain was electrifying, and most would be forgiven for taking a moment to catch their collective breaths. Hot, sun-kissed and breezy, the Bahrain International Circuit served up a thrilling Feature Race, with an eventful Sprint Race acting as the icing on the cake. All eyes were on the performance of the new F2 2018 car and the seven rookie drivers joining the field, where two of its most high-profile debutants laid down an early gauntlet in the championship stakes.

Under the glare of the Friday evening lights, Mercedes protégé George Russell set the early benchmark in the Qualifying session, later hacking further chunks out of his time for provisional pole. Cue Lando Norris, who then put his countryman in the shade by 0.062s late on in the session to take his maiden F2 pole with a 1:41.761, despite having gone wide at the final corner.

The Carlin driver won at a canter; creating a colossal buffer which proved completely unassailable, Norris completed his rout of the field and clinched his first F2 victory, with it the points for pole and fastest lap. Sergio Sette Camara completed Carlin’s dream start to F2 life with second place, while Artem Markelov who enraptured the crowd with a series of dazzling moves to grab first. Restarting in the pitlane after his early stall, the Russian had clawed his way up to 12th place by the end of the fourth lap, and continued to expertly carve his way through the field.

Markelov’s sprint race efforts were undoubtedly more measured, and the Renault development driver spent the 23-lap race managing his medium-compound tyres to make his return to the top step of the podium. Having been more circumspect in his clearance of reverse-grid polesitter Maximilian Günther, compared to the previous day, Markelov assumed the lead and controlled the pace, willing his tyres to last the distance – and they did. He crossed the line 2.1s ahead of rookie Günther, who took his first podium finish in his first F2 weekend.

After a thrilling start in Bahrain, the field regrouped before traversing the Caucasus to reach Baku, Azerbaijan. The streets of Baku have emerged as something of a modern classic on the F2 calendar and, thanks to an incredibly close grid, it promised to deliver more brilliant action as strong winds rolled across the Caspian Sea onto the Baku City Circuit; the foliage in the paddock fluttering in the breeze ahead of the weekend’s first running.

Sergio Sette Camara tamed the conditions first, the Carlin driver plonking his car at the top of the timesheets in Free Practice, before Alexander Albon put the field in the shade with a 1:54.480 lap to grab pole position. After second-placed Norris stalled on the formation lap, Albon needed only to focus on his own start, but a fast-starting Russell immediately filled the void alongside the DAMS driver at the green light. Then Baku bit hard, chewing up Ghiotto and spitting the Campos driver into the wall at turn 16 to prompt a safety car. Albon kept the lead at the restart, but was undercut in the pits by Russell and Nyck de Vries having elected to stay out for an extra lap.

Having fallen some way behind the new leading pair, Albon was brought back into the mix after rookie Roy Nissany gave Campos more work to do by hitting the barrier on the exit of the fourth corner. The front three were determined to be latest on the brakes at the restart, but all went too far, with Russell and de Vries going wide and almost colliding into turn 1 – leading Albon to his first F2 win.

Another first-time winner was to be crowned in Baku as Russell sought redemption for the Feature Race, where he felt he’d lost a certain victory. Starting from 12th on the grid, Russell tiptoed through a brace of slow-starting cars and charged through the field, catching leader Sette Camara and leaving the pair to battle hard for victory. Sette Camara – armed with a reputation for being a skilled defensive driver – gave Russell a hard time, but had to eventually concede defeat as the Brit squeaked clear in the latter stages.

The F2 circus enjoyed a less extensive journey to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain, where Baku polesitter Albon underlined his intentions with the quickest time in practice ahead of an inspired tilt to capture pole – he and DAMS teammate Latifi took full advantage of a red flag to wind their times down further on clear track in the middle portion of the session. The Thai driver ended his runs on top before stepping out of the car with five minutes to spare to watch the rest of the field try to beat his time – ultimately Albon’s time withstood the late siege.

Unable to capture his Baku form, Albon dropped behind de Vries and Russell, and the latter duo proceeded to duke it out for the lead. The British ace passed de Vries after the first of three VSC periods, and held firm to battle through two more VSC periods. De Vries started to close up once more – sufficiently eroding at the British driver’s lead to sit on his gearbox. Attempting a number of assaults on the lead, de Vries’ efforts were parried by the ART Grand Prix driver who was able to hold on for his second successive win.

A damp track at the start of the Sprint was a new hurdle for the grid’s 20 drivers to navigate, but all felt sufficiently confident to start on the medium compound slicks. Polesitter Markelov’s initial getaway was strong, but he soon bogged down and lost ground as ART’s Jack Aitken took the lead. Aitken’s lead opened up as far as 12 seconds thanks to a perfectly-managed VSC restart, but later on Albon and Norris both began to put pressure on Aitken after the safety car nullified his lead. As the chasing pair fought among themselves, Aitken scampered off into enough of a lead to grasp his first victory in F2.

Among the glittering Mediterranean and the chiselled mountainscapes that surround the Principality of Monaco, the Monte-Carlo circuit hosted the fourth round of the year, where de Vries sought to assert himself in the battle for the title. Heading practice, the Dutchman was unable to put the lap together when it counted in qualifying, allowing Albon to sweep to a hat-trick of pole positions. Holding the PREMA driver at bay off the line – and in the subsequent restart as Luca Ghiotto and Antonio Fuoco came to blows before turn 1 – the two came together under a second safety car at the pit entry.

This left Markelov to shuffle to the front and, with plenty of pace at his disposal, his gameplan was different at the next restart. Electing to stick with his soft-compound tyres for the time being, the Russian set about building as much of a gap as possible over Sean Gelael, who had bet the house on an alternate strategy run – starting on the supersofts, the Indonesian pitted early in anticipation of a safety car. Regardless, Markelov was imperious, and continued to hurl his RUSSIAN TIME-run car through the streets to clear Gelael after his own stop, crossing the line with a 10s advantage.

Having received a drive-through for his incident with Ghiotto in the first race, Fuoco recovered to grab the reverse-grid pole for Saturday’s Sprint Race. The Italian preserved his lead off of the line, absorbing a flurry of challenges from Norris – who had charged past a slow-starting Aitken – as another first-lap safety car entered the stage. With two safety cars in a dramatic final four laps, the race was brought to a comparatively tame end – Fuoco keeping his lead to secure a first ever victory for the Charouz Racing System team.

Heading to France, the Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet was already well known to most of the drivers in the FIA Formula 2 Championship; the opening pre-season test took place at the sprawling 5.842km circuit, giving the drivers three days to acclimatise to the layout. Norris streaked to the fastest time in Free Practice, and the then-championship leader seemed set to challenge for pole, but could only manage third as Russell blitzed his way to the front of the grid.

Russell’s start in the Feature Race was immaculate, and the ART Grand Prix driver waltzed into a strong early lead as Sergio Sette Camara blasted his way from fourth to second. Starting under overcast conditions, with the threat of rain looming over the formation lap, a sudden deluge appeared as the race got underway. Yet, Russell continued to delicately make his way around the circuit at speed to build a gap to Sette Camara, but the Carlin driver kept the life in his medium compound tyres to home in on Russell – closing in on DRS range. On the final lap, Sette Camara attempted a lunge into the last corner, but was ultimately unsuccessful as the Mercedes F1 reserve driver claimed his third victory of 2018.

De Vries, who was aggrieved after qualifying – having felt he was on for pole prior to a mechanical problem – sought retribution, and charged up into third at the start before finding his way past Latifi and race leader Delétraz; hHaving managed his tyres in the early stages, de Vries was able to pick up the pace and eventually stuffed his car down the inside of the Swiss at turn 8, emerging from the Mistral chicane with the lead.

Wanting to put the race to bed as soon as possible, the PERTAMINA PREMA Theodore Racing driver continued to set a series of quick times – earning consecutive fastest lap points – to cross the finish line 9.6s clear.

Nestled in the Styrian mountains – the site of the former Osterreichring – the Red Bull Ring played host to the sixth round of the calendar, ahead of the midway point of the season. First to set the pace through the Austrian hills was George Russell, who topped practice 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 had put pole out of reach with a 1:13.541 laptime, eclipsing Norris’ best by two-tenths of a second.

In a dramatic Feature Race, Russell immediately began to set the early pace, before the dynamic of the race changed with a safety 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, Gelael and Markelov. Initially trying to catch and pass the three, closing in on Markelov, Russell changed tack and decided to hang back, wisely waiting until their tyres dropped off – clearing them with relative ease to cross the line to collect his second consecutive victory.

After making his mandatory pitstop in the Feature Race 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. Opening the lead out, Markelov clinched his third win of the year as Russell collected second to sweep to the top of the championship lead – displacing Norris from the top.

Winding towards the end of the mid-season triple-header, the famous Silverstone circuit in Great Britain was next up. Putting aside the stereotypes about British weather for a moment – the conditions were absolutely perfect, and the sun also shone on home driver Russell; the ART driver scorched his way to the top of the pile in the opening session before collecting his third consecutive pole position.

Russell capably retained his position from Albon at the start of the race 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.

The championship leader then endured a slow pitstop, in which a stuck wheelgun left him 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, and the DAMS driver prevailed through a pair of virtual safety car periods to open the gap to almost five seconds over Russell at the chequered flag, clinching his second victory of the season.

Collecting reverse-grid pole for the Sprint Race thanks to his eighth place on the Saturday, Günther immediately set to work on covering off the threat de Vries behind him. Although the German ace couldn’t quite shake off de Vries from DRS range in the opening stages, 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 as the BWT Arden driver secured his team’s first win of 2018.

After a break to recover from the triple-header, the field moved to the Hungaroring, a tight, technical circuit located north-east of the city of Budapest, and were greeted with hot and sunny conditions. Russell picked up from where he left off and topped the opening Free Practice session, but all didn’t go his way in qualifying – Sergio Sette Camara clinched his first Formula 2 pole position right at the death.

Saturday’s race was greeted by a pre-session downpour, prompting the teams to thrust the wet compound tyres on their cars to cut through the standing water. After a trio of formation laps, Sette Camara was able to preserve his lead at the start of the race, although the first half was dominated by Norris, who scampered past de Vries before dispatching his Carlin teammate to power into a seemingly-unassailable lead. With the downpour pausing early on, the Hungaroring circuit quickly began to dry – Norris eventually pitting with a 14-second lead over second-placed de Vries.

From there, the pendulum swung. Norris began to lose his edge in the drying conditions, while de Vries was enjoying a new lease of life – carving away at Norris’ lead at a vast rate of knots to reel the Brit in. In less than ten laps, de Vries had caught up to the back of Norris, stalking him to the top of the circuit before cutting inside at the chicane, showcasing the superior grip in his corner to surge into first place. From there, he cruised into a colossal lead, crossing the line with a 16.8s advantage over Norris.

The Hungaroring was bone-dry as the Sprint Race rolled around on the Sunday morning, with temperatures over 30°c hinting at a race of tyre management. Luca Ghiotto and Alexander Albon swarmed the top two positions from the second row. Ghiotto looked to exert his control over the race in his bid to take his first victory of 2018. Feeling that he had the legs over Albon, the Campos driver soon hit the cliff in his tyres and began to drop back, thrusting Albon back into contention. The DAMS ace burst past with five laps to go into turn 1 and scurried off into the distance – winning with a 9.5s advantage over the long-time leader.

After almost a month away, the summer break came to an end and the championship reopened for business at Spa-Francorchamps, the classic 7.004km circuit winding through the evergreen Ardennes forest. Shrugging off his holiday blues, de Vries sent the travelling Dutch fans into raptures with pole position after topping practice, despite losing his initial fastest lap by going off at Raidillon. 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 Camara dispatched Russell off the line to clinch second.

After a late safety car restart, Sette Camara 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.

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.

Known within racing circles as the Temple of Speed, the Autodromo Nazionale Monza in Italy hosted Round 10, and after heavy rain drowned the circuit on the Friday morning, the asphalt was still drying when the F2 drivers sailed around Monza for Free Practice- Sette Camara drew first blood, but was half a tenth slower than Russell’s pole time in qualifying. Russell was off the boil at the start of the Feature Race, and was engulfed by Artem Markelov and Alexander Albon off the line.

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 Ghiotto, Norris, Latifi and Russell on lap 4 to join the top three. Makino then began to forge ahead, gapping Markelov – who returned from the pits over 40s behind. 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 to win his first F2 race.

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 as Russell, starting from fifth, challenged him 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 barrelled past the Canadian on the ninth lap. Markelov then locked up at turn 1 and snatched his way down the escape road, offering the lead on a silver platter to Russell, who built enough of a lead to secure his fifth win of the year.

Heading into the penultimate round of 2018 at the Sochi Autodrom, nestled in the Olympic Park, one driver skated into a strong lead by the end of the round, while another’s title challenge hurtled downhill with alarming pace. Norris, having recently sewn up an F1 drive with the McLaren team, topped practice, but was beaten to the punch in qualifying by fellow McLaren young driver de Vries in qualifying.

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. 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. Albon held on to clinch the win from teammate Latifi for a DAMS 1-2.

Latifi seemed primed to help DAMS to back-to-back wins, 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 polesitter Nirei 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 Sette Camara before the rain came.

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 as Norris endured a scoreless round as a result of a pair of retirements; a pitstop error in the first race ended his chances, before a puncture in the sprint left him stranded in the run-off.

If there was always going to be a lot of focus on George Russell coming into the final round of the season in Abu Dhabi as the championship leader, the small matter of his announcement as a 2019 Williams F1 driver meant that even more people would be tuning in to see if he could finish off the year as the FIA Formula 2 champion. No pressure, then.

George had a handy 37 point lead in the title race over rival and long-time friend Alex Albon with just 48 points up for grabs: if the maths pointed to the near certainty of success, Russell has never been a man to make assumptions. In other words, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

The 4 points on over in qualifying were a huge psychological advantage to whoever could claim them. When the track ran green Russell was the 2nd man on track, clearly looking to stamp his authority on the session from the start. And on the second set of tyres, Russell emerged and cut four tenths off an already good time for a lap of 1:49.251 set by Nyck De Vries, to grab pole position.

The teams prepared themselves on Saturday night under the bright lights of the Yas Marina Circuit, the serious faces at ART and DAMS an external display of the pressure they were putting themselves under for the final fight for the title. And when the red lights went down there was disaster: Albon and Latifi both stalled on the grid, along with Sette Câmara, leaving Arjun Maini nowhere to go and causing a huge accident with Latifi, taking out both drivers and Nirei Fukuzumi on the spot.

Back at the front Russell had done what he needed to do, making a decent start and knowing better than to challenge the storming getaway of Nyck de Vries into turn 1. Albon had a mountain to climb ahead of him, while Russell was already planning to finish his title fight in style, having just one little problem to solve: Nyck de Vries.

Both started on the supersoft tyres, and would need to come in soon: Russell gambled and came in on lap 9, leaving a bit of performance behind as he risked everything on a one lap flyer on cold softs, and re-emerged to put in the out lap of his life in clear air as de Vries used up everything left in the softer compound. The Dutchman came in a lap later, emerging just in front of Russell but unable to stop him blasting past at turn 2 for the provisional lead behind Ghiotto on the alternate strategy.

Russell wasted no time in building a gap back to de Vries to break the DRS window, snuffing out the threat of a challenge from behind, and then concentrated on managing his tyres to last to the end of the race while further back Albon, who had switched strategies, was stuck in a throng of drivers.

Almost unnoticed up front, Ghiotto was slowly but surely eking out a big lead back to Russell, and people started to wonder if the supposedly impossible could happen: was it possible to win from P15 on the grid and on the wrong strategy? The clear air was certainly helping him, but a slightly wayward trip across the marina chicane was judged to have gained him an advantage, with the stewards handing the Italian a 5s time penalty for his sins.

Albon stopped from P10 on lap 23, dropping out of the points to 14th as his title run was extinguished: 3 laps later Ghiotto came in and sat fuming for those unending seconds before getting fresh rubber and being released, emerging 5th and looking for payback. Norris fell at the first hurdle as the Italian set the fastest lap of the race, blasting past de Vries soon after but running out of laps (and tyres) to regain his former position: Ghiotto rounded out the podium wondering what could have been behind a fast charging Artem Markelov in P2, but all eyes were on winner and new champion Russell.

For the final race of the season Russell still felt that he had unfinished business: overtaking is clearly possible on this circuit, but racing in the heat of the day instead of the (relative) cool of the evening means the machinery at his disposal is under extraordinary stress.

When the lights went out Fuoco blew past a slow starting Roberto Merhi on pole, towing Norris, de Vries and Russell in their slipstream as they headed up the hill to the top of the circuit: Norris snuck past de Vries on the run down to the marina.

By the time Russell was on Norris’ tail he had less useable rubber at his disposal, and a few laps in his wake killed off what was left in his fronts: Russell was soon unable to keep pace with his countryman, and his last ambition was denied.

Out front Fuoco cruised to a 2nd victory of the season, while Merhi dropped back into the clutches of Norris, having spent his tyres in the same manner of Russell: the inevitable happened on the final lap, with Norris outdragging Merhi on the end of the back straight for P2, with a huge lock up for the Spaniard rendering the move final as the chequered flag dropped on the season.

Inevitably the attention at the end of year party was on champion Russell and vice-champion Norris, with the podium in the final race allowing the latter to push Albon back to 3rd in the final standings: the pressure was off both, and they were able to relax and enjoy themselves with their respective teams.

Category:
  Issue 25 F2 Feature
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