OK, so it’s not quite ‘back to the future’, but…I think we’ve been here once before, haven’t we? When it comes to motorsport, the world of open-wheel single seaters is often seen as the most spectacular form of racing, but, while the majority are well aware of Formula One as being the top level and the ultimate ambition for any aspiring young driver, there’s never been much consistency in the junior categories as to the best way to get there, but, at long last…it looks like that might all be about to change. Yes, it’s not exactly a massive alteration – in fact, you’d find it difficult to pick out anything different apart from a new logo and a new name – but, in the long run, it could be a hugely important development, and, if the action on track remains even half as good, I don’t think there’ll be many people complaining. It might have a new identity, but, in almost every other way, the 2017 FIA Formula Two Championship is pretty much the same…and it’d be a brave man to try and predict how it’s going to turn out.
After a couple of years of almost unbroken dominance from eventual champions Jolyon Palmer in 2014 and Stoffel Vandoorne in 2015 – both now trying to make their mark in Formula One with Renault and McLaren respectively – there was a very different feel to what turned out to be the final year of what was previously known as GP2, but, when you take into account the record of the eventual champions in other series, it wasn’t really much of a surprise. Having enjoyed so much success in the increasingly prestigious FIA European Formula 3 Championship in the past, the arrival of Italian team PREMA Racing ahead of the 2016 campaign was regarded as a real coup for the series, and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before the talented pairing of second year driver Pierre Gasly and series newcomer Antonio Giovinazzi began to put the established names and faces to the sword, but, despite the often sensational pace of the latter, it was the experience and consistency of the young Frenchman that eventually prevailed as he secured the title by just 8 points with victory in the feature race at the final round in Abu Dhabi.
However, the biggest change of all over the course of the close-season was the complete rebranding of the championship to try and bring it even more in line with F1 as part of the FIA’s so-called Global Pathway initiative, which was designed to provide a clear structure and route for young drivers to go from regional Formula 4 series right to the very top. Personally, I don’t think this is such a bad thing, not least because it makes it a hell of a lot easier to understand, but, to be honest, there wasn’t much wrong with the way things were when it was GP2 – after all, the technology was generally similar to that seen in F1 (albeit a couple of years out of sync) and, by and large, drivers were always able to step up if they were good enough- and, while some will inevitably continue to graduate into Formula One in the meantime, the real acid test of just how good a proving ground F2 might become in the near future is going to come in a couple of years time, when an all-new chassis and engine package is due to be introduced as part of an established three-year development cycle.
The opening round of the new season saw the championship arrive in the Middle East for one of the few events scheduled to take place outside of its traditional European heartland in 2017, with the desert setting of the Bahrain International Circuit providing the backdrop to the series’ curtain-raiser for the second time in just three seasons. Originally built as a venue for the country’s Formula One Grand Prix back in 2004, the track first played host to what was GP2 as a one-off in 2007 before being included on the expanded global calendar five years later after a spell as part of the series’ short-lived Asia Series between 2008 and 2011, and, in fact, hosted two separate race weekend in both 2012 and 2015 (the latter arising after the races in Germany were cancelled on cost grounds at the 11th hour) before being replaced on the schedule ahead of last season.
A typical lap of the 5.4km (3.3 miles) layout begins with a reasonably long run down the pit straight to the tight right hand hairpin at Turn 1 which feeds almost immediately into a slightly more open left at Turn 2, with the fast kink of Turn 3 leading onto the first long straight before another major braking zone at the 90 degree right-hander of Turn 4. From there, it’s on to the more technical middle sector, with the high-speed, left-right-left sweepers between Turns 5 and 7 that drop sharply downhill on exit to the left-hand hairpin at Turn 8, before another short straight pops the cars over a slight rise and into the two tricky blind left-handers of Turns 9 and 10, where the challenge of turning and braking almost simultaneously can catch out the unwary. The final sector, however, is much more fast and flowing, with only a slight lift into the left-hander at Turn 11 before climbing back up the hill through the flat-out right of Turn 12 and up to the sharp, 90-degree right of Turn 13, with another long, undulating straight leading back downhill to the tight final corner of Turn 14 that brings the cars back onto the pit straight.
With so many long straights and heavy braking zones, there are plenty of overtaking opportunities around the lap, with the best tending to be with at the end of the pit straight into Turn 1 or along the back straight out of Turn 10, where the added benefit of DRS makes it even more difficult for the car in front to defend, although any move at the latter is more difficult because of the relatively minimal amount of braking into Turn 11. Elsewhere, despite being preceded by a reasonably long straight, the tightening apex of Turn 4 requires a certain degree of co-operation from the car in order for a move to succeed, while, although it is possible to get down the inside at the final corner, taking the tight inside line can often result in cars running wide on the exit.
When the series last arrived in the Middle East for the curtain-raiser back in 2015, it was apparent from the outset that there was only ever one man to catch, with Vandoorne laying down the gauntlet by notching up a fifth successive pole position by more than 0.3s in qualifying before pulling off a remarkable tyre strategy in the feature race to snatch victory ahead of ex-Manor F1 driver Rio Haryanto for Campos Racing, with American Alexander Rossi (who turned out to be the Belgian bullet’s nearest rival over the course of the season) forced to settle for third in his Racing Engineering car despite leading in the closing stages. The top two, however, weren’t finished there as they charged their way through the field in an equally frantic sprint race, but, this time, they were the other way round at the flag as Haryanto held off a late charge from Vandoorne to secure his maiden victory in the series (although the Belgian’s second saw him assume the early championship lead), with Frenchman Nathanael Berthon recovering from a slow getaway to take a surprise podium for the Italian Lazarus team in third.
So, at the start of a brand-new era for the main feeder series to Formula One, and with nobody really knowing what to expect, would it be more of the same at the front of the field as PREMA looked to build on their stunning debut campaign of last season, or could one of their many rivals be able to step up and give them something to fight for from the get-go, and just who would be able to mark themselves out as a likely championship contender right from the off – would it be the familiar faces with their experience of both the car and the series (albeit in a different guise), or could one of the numerous fresh faces on show immediately ruffle a few feathers and throw their name into the mix? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the opening race weekend of the 2017 FIA Formula Two Championship, Rounds 1 and 2 from Bahrain…
The opening qualifying session of the year provided the teams and drivers with a first opportunity to see exactly where they stood in the pecking order, but, while it seemed to be business as usual for champions PREMA as they locked out the front row, there was an unfamiliar look to the front of the grid when the chequered flag fell, with 2016 GP3 Series champion Charles Leclerc marking his debut in stunning fashion to take pole by an incredible margin of nearly 0.7s over fellow rookie and new team-mate Antonio Fuoco, but a post-session grid penalty for the Italian for blocking meant Dutchman Nyck De Vries was promoted to start alongside his former GP3 stable-mate on the front row for Rapax. On his return to Arden after a year’s absence, Frenchman Norman Nato was the highest placed returning driver on the grid in third ahead of the leading Russian Time car in the hands of ever-rapid Italian Luca Ghiotto in fourth, while Fuoco’s penalty dropped him back to what was still an impressive fifth for his series debut alongside Japanese hotshot Nobuharu Matsushita in the quicker of the two ART Grand Prix machines in sixth.
Behind, Artem Markelov – one of the most experienced drivers on the grid with three seasons already under his belt – was a solid seventh for Russian Time ahead of the leading DAMS car of Brit Oliver Rowland in eighth, with the top 10 being rounded out by 2016 GP3 Series runner-up Alexander Albon in ninth – the British-Thai driver lining up in the second of the ART cars – and European Formula 3 graduate Sergio Sette Camara for MP Motorsport in tenth. However, it turned out to be a difficult start to the campaign for some of the more fancied runners, with British driver Jordan King – a former multiple race-winner in GP2 over the past two years – forced to make do with a disappointing 11th on his return to MP Motorsport for the first time since his days in Formula Renault back in 2012, with veteran Jonny Cecotto Jr. only 12th in his Rapax and Canadian Nicolas Latifi 13th for DAMS, while a penalty for Racing Engineering’s Gustav Malja for causing a collision saw the Swede demoted to 17th ahead of last-minute addition Stefano Coletti, who completed the 20-car field for Campos Racing on his first appearance in the championship in more than two years.
QUALIFYING RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Leclerc, 2nd – Fuoco, 3rd – De Vries, 4th – Nato, 5th – Ghiotto, 6th – Matsushita, 7th – Markelov, 8th – Rowland, 9th – Albon and 10th – Sette Camara
Artem Markelov (RUS) – #6 Russian Time
Round 1 (Feature Race):
When the lights went out for the start of the season-opening feature race, pole-man Leclerc made a near-perfect start to comfortably lead the field down towards Turn 1 for the first time, with Nato able to capitalise on a poor start from De Vries – the Dutchman getting far too much wheelspin from the outside of the front row – to move straight into second and briefly go side-by-side with the Monegasque driver on the brakes before eventually giving up on the move, while behind, the ever-aggressive Markelov wasted no time in muscling his way past De Vries’ Rapax on the apex of Turn 2 to grab third. Further back, some typically hard racing in the mid-pack saw debutant Fuoco shuffled down the order first by a charging King at Turn 6 and then a robust pass from the returning Cecotto at the final corner of the opening lap, with Rowland also following through as the Italian was relegated back to tenth early on, but the battle was immediately on at the front as Nato refused to let Leclerc make a break, and, after a couple of laps spent staring at the rear wing of the PREMA, the Frenchman made his move for the lead heading onto lap 3 of 32 by using the slipstream down the pit straight before completing the pass on the brakes into Turn 1, with Markelov also able to close in in third as a result.
However, despite losing the lead early on, with the added benefit of DRS helping him down the straights, it wasn’t long at all before Leclerc repaid the favour against Nato as he slid up the inside of the Arden at Turn 1 on lap 8 to retake the initiative, with Markelov – who had appeared content to keep a watching brief during the opening laps – soon latching on to the rear of the Frenchman as he looked to move into second, while behind, Ghiotto managed to find a way past Matsushita into the first corner on lap 9 to move the second Russian Time car up into the top five, with the opportunist King then diving through at Turn 4 to relegate the Japanese driver back to seventh. The man on the charge, though, was proving to be Rowland, who, after also dispatching of the fading Matsushita, pulled off a good move against King into Turn 1 to move up to sixth at the expense of his fellow Brit, but it wasn’t such good news for his DAMS team-mate as Latifi, in trying to cut underneath Albon on the exit of Turn 4, ran into the back of the second ART machine and damaged his front wing to such an extent that he was forced to pit, while, up ahead, after several laps tucked up behind, Markelov finally got the job done against Nato to take second with the benefit of DRS down the pit straight.
Before long, though, the mandatory pit stop phase began to have a say in the pattern of the race as Nato – who was clearly struggling on his medium compound Pirelli tyres even before being passed by Markelov – was first of the leading contenders to blink and come in at the end of lap 14 for a set of softs before race leader Leclerc did likewise on the following tour, but, despite re-emerging marginally in front, the lack of tyre temperature and grip for the PREMA allowed Nato to drive all the way around the outside of Turn 4 and just squeeze ahead to regain track position. Behind, the chasing pack all came in virtually together, with Rowland immediately able to make use of his fresher rubber as he dived up the inside of Ghiotto at Turn 4 on their out lap to grab fifth before Markelov – who elected to stay out for an extra lap compared to those around him – finally came in for a fresh set of tyres at the end of lap 17, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Russian out in the lead as he rejoined behind both Nato and Leclerc in third, with the Frenchman then able to put the hammer down and establish a more comfortable margin as the race wore on.
The drama, however, wasn’t over by any means as, despite being the best part of 10 seconds adrift when he rejoined, Markelov soon began to slash the gap to the pair ahead at a rate of knots on his fresher tyres, and, after despatching of Leclerc on the exit of the final corner on lap 28, the Russian sensationally got the better of Nato as well into Turn 4 on the penultimate lap before pulling away to take a stunning victory by more than 8 seconds at the chequered flag, with the Arden driver forced to settle for second and Leclerc rounding out the podium on his series debut in third. Behind, the impressive King snatched fourth on the final lap after an enthralling battle with compatriot Rowland, leaving the DAMS driver to finish fifth ahead of a rapidly-closing Albon in sixth, while, despite fading in the later stages, seventh place for Ghiotto secured the Italian a spot on the front row for the sprint race alongside Matsushita as the ART driver finished eighth to inherit the reverse grid pole, with GP3 graduates Fuoco and De Vries – the Dutchman dropping back rapidly over the closing stages as his tyres fell off the cliff – taking the final points in ninth and tenth respectively.
Round 2 (Sprint Race):
There was major drama prior to the start of the sprint race, however, as a problem for pole-man Matsushita prevented the Japanese driver from getting out of the pit lane in time to take up his position on the grid, leaving Ghiotto on his own on the front row, but, when the lights went out, a poor start by the Russian Time driver allowed the fast-starting Albon to briefly shoot into the lead in the second ART machine, but the Italian held his nerve to brake later on the inside and hold onto the position. Behind, Leclerc was immediately in the thick of the action as he muscled through into third on the apex of Turn 2, but it wasn’t long before the typical first-lap congestion in the mid-pack ended in tears as Rowland, in trying to get up the inside of compatriot King (the MP Motorsport driver having initially challenged for the lead into the first corner before falling victim to the charging PREMA and dropping back as a result) made contact with Nato on the exit of Turn 4 as the Frenchman tried to squeeze his way back into line, with the Arden driver immediately sustaining damage that saw him lose control and spin out of the race at the very next corner, meaning the safety car had to be called for before the end of the opening lap.
On the resumption, Albon immediately tried to attack Ghiotto for the lead into Turn 1, but locked up on the brakes and opened the door for an opportunist Leclerc to get alongside, and, despite the best efforts of the ART driver to close the door (even squeezing his former GP3 stable-mate off the road as they ran side-by-side), the Monegasque youngster braved it out and held the outside line through Turn 4 before sweeping across in front to grab second. Behind, Rowland – despite being placed under investigation for his opening lap contact with Nato – began to come under pressure from a charging Markelov for third after the Russian (the only leading driver to start on the soft compound tyres) rejected calls from his team to make an early pit stop to switch to the more durable mediums, and it wasn’t long before the feature race victor made his move into Turn 4 before quickly closing up on the leading duo as team-mate Ghiotto was forced to defend ever more vigorously from a racy-looking Leclerc, with the lead changing hands in relatively predictable fashion into Turn 1 on lap 9 of 23 as the PREMA driver picked up the tow down the pit straight to blast by.
The race then took on an intriguing turn as several drivers – despite not having to make a pit stop – opted to come in and change tyres, with Markelov first to do so at the end of lap 9 to get rid of his soft tyres, but on track, nobody was able to live with the pace of Leclerc as the rookie began to put the hammer down and escape from the chasing pack, with PREMA team-mate Fuoco also on the charge behind as he snatched fourth away from King before Rowland eventually made his move against Ghiotto for second as the Italian started to suffer with his tyres into Turn 1 on lap 13. However, the major talking point came at the end of lap 14 when, despite being comfortably the fastest man on track as he established a margin of almost 10 seconds, Leclerc – who had been discussing with his engineer over the radio potentially switching to a ‘Plan B’ in the laps beforehand – suddenly dived into the pits to switch to the softer, faster rubber, leaving the quartet that had been chasing him to battle it out for the lead, with Rowland holding a narrow advantage over Ghiotto, Fuoco and King, who continued to keep a watching brief at the back of the group.
What followed, though, was perhaps one of the most remarkable drives in the history of the championship, as, having rejoined just ahead of Markelov in 14th place, Leclerc began to scythe through the field on his fresher tyres as he set fastest time after fastest time – at some points, more than 4 seconds per lap quicker than anyone else – and, after capitalising on a bold move from Ghiotto to retake the lead from a struggling Rowland on the penultimate lap, the Monegasque driver despatched of the pair of them on the final tour on his way to a sensational first F2 victory, with Ghiotto having to settle for second and Rowland completing a solid opening weekend in third. Behind, Latifi came from nowhere in the second DAMS to snatch fourth away from King, leaving the MP Motorsport driver to settle for fifth ahead of De Vries – the Dutchman taking his first points finish in the category in sixth – and Albon, who held on to seventh after dropping back in the early part of the race following his fantastic start, while Markelov also managed to make his alternate tyre strategy work to grab the final point in eighth ahead of Cecotto in the second Rapax and a disappointed Fuoco, who faded badly in the closing stages after running as high as second at one point.
Charles Leclerc (MNC) – #1 PREMA Racing
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10
Round 1 (Feature Race): 1st – Markelov, 2nd – Nato, 3rd – Leclerc, 4th – King, 5th – Rowland, 6th – Albon, 7th – Ghiotto, 8th – Matsushita (Reverse Pole), 9th – Fuoco and 10th – De Vries
Round 2 (Sprint Race): 1st – Leclerc, 2nd – Ghiotto, 3rd – Rowland, 4th – Latifi, 5th – King, 6th – De Vries, 7th – Albon, 8th – Markelov, 9th – Cecotto and 10th – Fuoco
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Leclerc (PREMA Racing) – 36pts
2. Markelov (Russian Time) – 28pts
3. Rowland (DAMS) – 20pts
4. Ghiotto (Russian Time) – 18pts
5. Nato (Arden International) – 18pts
6. King (MP Motorsport) – 18pts
7. Albon (ART Grand Prix) – 10pts
8. Latifi (DAMS) – 8pts
9. De Vries (Rapax) – 5pts
10. Matsushita (ART Grand Prix) – 4pts
1. Russian Time – 46pts
2. PREMA Racing – 38pts
3. DAMS – 24pts
4. Arden International – 18pts
5. MP Motorsport – 18pts
6. ART Grand Prix – 14pts
7. Rapax – 5pts