For Charles Leclerc, Monza was a bit of a disaster: if it didn’t quite have the emotional resonance of Monaco, he was telling everyone who would listen in Jerez that Monza was a weekend to learn from and put behind him while he worked on getting back to business. That his main rival also failed to score points there didn’t enter into the equation for the Monegasque driver: he was determined to make up for the problematic weekend in the only way he knew, by getting back to winning ways.
Going unsaid, but very much at the front of his and everyone’s mind was the championship. With both he and Oliver Rowland failing to score in Monza it was basically a dead rubber, one less chance for his rivals to close the gap in the title race (although Luca Ghiotto did what he could to shrink the gap), and everyone was aware that if Leclerc re-continued his pole run, the title was up for grabs in the feature race.
Free practice opened to gloriously sunny conditions which held all weekend long, the first indication of what to expect from a Jerez circuit which had been recently resurfaced, smoothing out the old bumps and creating a less abrasive surface than the old tyre chewing track of old, with Rowland setting the first fast lap before Nobuharu Matsushita took over on the top of the timesheets just as Ralph Boschung got caught out behind traffic, getting beached on the kerbs and ruining the Swiss driver’s weekend at a circuit on which he had never previously driven, prompting a red flag period to remove him.
The track was green 9 minutes later, and Leclerc wasted no time stamping his authority on the session, claiming the top spot before getting to work on his race simulations and holding P1 all the way to the flag, ahead of Rowland and Nyck De Vries. It was a suggestion that usual service was being reinstated, one confirmed by the results of qualifying, if not by the manner in which it was achieved.
Leclerc grabbed the top spot early in qualifying before returning to the pits as Ghiotto and Sergio Sette Camara squabbled over P2, with the Monegasque re-emerging to improve on his best time at the halfway mark. But Leclerc thought Ghiotto was too close: he strapped on a third set of tyres before heading out again, with Ghiotto improving once more but Leclerc raising the bar again to claim pole by two tenths from the Italian and Sette Camara.
It potentially left him a bit exposed, but it was a risk Leclerc was willing to take: “We went for a bit of a strange strategy for this qualifying, because we went for 3 sets of new tyres: we went on prime first, and we were quite impressed with the laptime because we were the fastest at that time, and then we went for softs, which went very good. After the 2nd set Luca was very close, so we decided to go for a last set of softs, and it all went very well.
“We worked a little bit on the car and I am very happy with my lap, but I definitely think it helped to use 3 sets and to be sure of the references I took for the last lap. We did this strategy because here in Jerez it’s quite difficult to overtake, and we want to win the championship this weekend, so we have maximised our chances by doing a good qualifying to be well placed in Race 1.
“Now we have to work on the start to make sure we keep it tomorrow.”
Whatever he did, it worked: Leclerc easily contained Ghiotto at the start before heading off into the distance, while Rowland fought past Sette Camara and Alex Albon on the first lap but was unable to do anything about Ghiotto until just before the stop, where an uncharacteristic error gave the Briton a line through for P2.
Sette Camara came in early to get the undercut, making himself the target for the majority of the field on the soft/medium strategy: Ghiotto emerged just ahead but couldn’t stop the Brazilian coming through, as did Rowland (who soon made amended by re-passing), while Leclerc had a big enough lead to stay ahead after his stop, re-emerging in P5 and soon moving forward.
Leclerc, Rowland and Ghiotto were soon putting the commonly held view that it’s impossible to overtake at Jerez to the sword, overtaking at will (albeit with a tyre advantage) as they moved back up the field: Latifi was the last man to cede, handing the lead back to the Ferrari Academy driver on lap 19 before pitting himself to see what he could salvage from the remainder of the race, leading Antonio Fuoco on the alternate strategy.
But a safety car for a collision between Santino Ferrucci and Matsushita threw the race strategy into the air: packing the field back together again and giving a huge advantage to the drivers on fresh softs as the race ran live again, including a few who decided to chance a second stop to see what they could do.
Leclerc and Rowland pushed hard to break from the rest of the field when the race went live but Ghiotto’s tyre disadvantage was soon working against him, with Fuoco running past Sette Camara and the Italian, as well as Latifi on the same strategy, to put himself in a podium position as the laps ran down.
On the final lap Leclerc tyres were spent: he slowed dramatically, bunching up his pursuers just as they found a battle between Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz on fresh tyres and unable to run at their pace, which led to an ungainly squabble in the final sector before the five drivers fell over the line at the flag with Leclerc tumbling over first, having just enough left to lead the group for his 6th victory of the season, claiming with it the 2017 title.
Leclerc was delighted, naturally, but as a gamble it was very, very close to falling flat, and he knew it. “On the option tyres we were very, very quick, but then we were struggling more than Oli on the prime tyres: I don’t really know why for now. I pushed a lot, and when he was doing quite quick lap times I told myself he maybe just wanted to catch up a little bit and he might not be keeping the tyres, but actually he stayed on this pace until the safety car!
“Just before the safety car I started to pick up the pace also, and we were more or less equal: he was a little bit quicker, but not as much as the laps before. But when we saw the safety car I thought okay, it’s going to be a lot harder now! I was pushing to keep the gap up, and when the safety car came out I had no tyres left and I was a bit scared!
“[After the restart] the tyres seemed to cool a little bit and the team told me ‘last lap’ so perfect, only 1 lap to do so I will push like crazy, and then they said ‘no, 1 lap more’ and I thought another lap, okay, I can push again. But there was 2 laps more and I had absolutely no tyres left! That made things very, very hard but I managed to stay in front, and I had Sean [Gelael] behind me who was cutting the gap between me and Oliver, so he lost a bit of time.
“But I’m very, very happy overall, and we just need to work for tomorrow on the prime tyres…”
The temperatures were soaring once again on Sunday afternoon, with newcomer Alex Palou on pole after a tremendous drive to P8 in the feature defying the pressure of expectation from the home crowd and a delay caused by a technical issue with the safety car to tear off into the lead when the lights went out, easily containing Ghiotto into turn 1 and having an even easier time of it when the Italian and Jordan King came together out turn 2, with Ghiotto nudged into the gravel and falling to the back as Latifi, Artem Markelov, Rowland, Leclerc and Fuoco followed on behind the Briton.
King was soon looking for a lift back to the paddock when his engine let go on the back straight on lap 3, with Latifi using his experience to save his tyres as Palou flew off into the distance. Pitstops had been discussed as a possibility ahead of the race, and so it proved when Fuoco and Leclerc came in around the halfway mark, making the others reconsider the option: Ghiotto had spent his tyres trying to fight his way back up the field, and was in on lap 18 too.
Palou was already falling back to the pack, with Latifi weighing up his options as Markelov sliced by the Canadian on lap 22, grabbing the lead at Dry Sac and flying away, once again proving his mastery of the Pirellis as Rowland caught up to his teammate: the DAMS were soon through Palou but were unable to do anything about the Russian out front, who won by almost 12s over the pair.
Behind them Leclerc was paying for his earlier tyre misdemeanours: having overtaken his teammate along with much of the field, his last lap saw him drop like a stone, handing P4 to Ghiotto after a stunning recovery drive ahead of Fuoco and De Vries, with the new champion just holding out Palou for P7.
Markelov was his usual chilled self in the press conference when asked about his ability to get the best out of his tyres: “It’s a secret! I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a feeling I have with them: I know some lessons on how to save the tyres for the whole race.
“Actually yesterday was a bad race for me, but I had some experience from this and saw how the tyres were working all the race: today we looked at a pitstop as well as going the whole race on one set of tyres, and we chose this as Plan A. I was just trying to chill for the whole race and get some game later in the laps…”
But from a weekend where so much was close to going wrong, everything went right for Leclerc: if his tyres gambles were on the edge of disaster the scoreboard still reads pole, win and championship. If anyone wants to see an example of the motorsport dictum that it’s a sport of fine margins, this weekend is the one to point them towards as proof.
Coming fresh on the heels of Spa, the teams were probably hoping for a drama-free race weekend at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, but if that was the case they had come to the wrong place: Italians are addicted to drama, particularly in racing, and it’s simply impossible to think of a weekend passing without comment at their national circuit.
But there are few who would have predicted it would come from the weather. Spa is traditionally wet at some stage over a weekend but Monza, like the rest of Italy, is generally hot and bone dry at this time of year, which made the forecasts all the more surprising as the teams arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for the races ahead.
There were a few clouds overhead as the teams made their way to the pitlane for free practice on Friday, the remnants of a brief shower earlier in the morning, but the track was dry as all of the drivers made their way onto the circuit for their programmes. Artem Markelov grabbed the top spot at the 15 minute mark, with championship leader Charles Leclerc falling in just behind the Russian before being nudged back a spot by Luca Ghiotto, putting his local knowledge to good use.
If everyone was fearful of the usual Leclerc roadshow in qualifying, they were to be happily surprised for once when Nobuharu Matsushita grabbed his first pole position at this level, and stopped the Monegasque driver taking P1 on the road for the first time this season, with a stunning lap in warm and sunny conditions for the top spot.
The McLaren-Honda development driver claimed P1 on his first flying lap, taking advantage of the F1 rubber laid down in the previous session to set a target to which his rivals could only aspire. Alexander Albon and Leclerc both briefly claimed the top spot with their first competitive laps, but further back Matsushita ran faster, setting the pace in sector 1 and 2 while missing the top spot in sector 3 by a thousandth, grabbing pole by 0.089s ahead of Nyck De Vries and Louis Deletraz.
“It is a really special day for me,” Matsushita smiled after the session. “Last week I had a really big crash in Eau Rouge, and it was a really difficult, really tough weekend for me, and actually this morning I had really good pace and we spoke a lot with the team about set ups for qualifying. My qualifying first lap was really good, no mistakes, really calm and not pushing: I think it was the best lap in my life!”
“At Monza it is easy to overtake because of the DRS and the long straight, but I’m in the best position to start and my main target is to get big points tomorrow, not make a mistake at the start and then take it easy, but not too easy! I think my pace will be very quick tomorrow, and then it’s all about degradation. It will be a good day, I think.”
There were a lot of descriptions made of Saturday, but it’s probable that none of them lead with the word good: the day was far too interesting for such mildness. The rain promised for the day before arrived in force, washing out the GP3 qualifying session and most of the F1 running, but when the storm strengthened during Q1 of the F1 qualifying session it was clear that the F2 weekend was about to be heavily affected.
Many of the drivers visited the F1 paddock while everyone waited for the rain to subside and qualifying to restart, talking to their national media and trying to stay dry. Eventually the schedule got under way once more, but GP3 was the main victim of the lost time, with the F2 race pushed back to their slot and the junior category pushed back until Sunday morning.
Rain was still falling when the F2 grid formed, with the new process instituted to run a string of formation laps behind the safety car until it was clear enough to make a standing start, and reducing the race length in the process. After 6 laps the safety car eventually pitted, with another formation lap required when Santino Ferrucci stalled, dropping the lap total to 23 for the race.
Matsushita was slow off the line when the lights went out, handing De Vries a clean line into the lead at turn 1, where Markelov broke his front wing by clattering into the Dutch driver and requiring an early stop for a replacement, with Leclerc attacking Matsushita on the back straight for P2 with Louis Deletraz, Roberto Merhi, Oliver Rowland, Ghiotto, Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Fuoco following the pair across the line at the end of the lap.
Rowland soon made short work of the 2 drivers ahead of him, with Ghiotto following his lead just behind him, while ahead of the pair Leclerc clearly had more speed than De Vries but was unable to use it: the Monegasque driver ran deep a number of times, with De Vries making the most of it each time by pulling away.
Matsushita was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in on lap 17, one lap ahead of Leclerc, leaving De Vries, Rowland, Ghiotto and Fuoco little choice but to stop next time through to cover. Racing Engineering made a great stop to help De Vries maintain his lead as he emerged ahead of Leclerc, and battle recommenced for the win, with Rowland just behind the pair. Unfortunately for the Briton his left rear only made it to the Roggia chicane before detaching, stranding him by the side of the road and bringing out the safety car while the marshals worked to remove his car.
The race was live again with just 2 laps remaining: Leclerc got a good jump on De Vries but ran too deep at turn 1, taking to the escape road while Ghiotto snuck past the Dutchman for the lead. But De Vries got a good tow and ran inside the Italian at Parabolica, reclaiming the lead for the final lap as the trio ran tightly together to Variante Rettifilo for the final time. Ghiotto cut the chicane and re-emerged, Leclerc attacked De Vries at the exit with the pair coming together behind Ghiotto, with Leclerc running wide and De Vries picking up a puncture as Ghiotto pulled away from Fuoco for the win by 2 seconds, with Matsushita (who also cut the corner) just behind in P3.
There was never any doubt about what the win meant to Ghiotto: “It feels amazing! We’ve been working hard all through the season, we’ve been through difficult moments in the second half, and we definitely needed it. It was a pretty crazy race, but wet races are famous for this! I was expecting that at the beginning, and after the safety car came out I was wondering if I could have a go for the win when I was P3: the other 2 drivers had a pretty bad first corner, and I could overtake both of them.
“It’s not easy on cold tyres in these conditions, especially at this track with the hard braking: you really need to have the tyres and the brakes ready! The last 2 laps were really long for me but I’m really, really happy to win my home race: it’s my first feature race win, because I won a sprint race last year but I was missing this, so I’m really happy.”
Unfortunately for the popular Italian the stewards were less happy, handing him a 5 second penalty later than evening for gaining an advantage after cutting the corner, dropping him to P4 and handing the win to countryman Fuoco, and pushing him a few spots up the grid the next day for the sprint race.
When the lights went out poleman Gustav Malja bogged down, leaving a clear run for a fast starting Sean Gelael to blast into the lead ahead of Louis Deletraz, Sette Camara, Malja and Ghiotto, with the Swiss driver back ahead of the Indonesian on lap 4, just before Ghiotto dispatched Malja on the inside of Parabolica for P4.
Ghiotto was on a charge to reclaim a home win, and his job was made a little easier when Sette Camara cut Roggia next time through and had to cede position to the Italian, who now had just Deletraz between him and victory: the inevitable pass came on lap 11, when Ghiotto mugged the Swiss driver at Lesmo 1 for a lead which he would hold tight for the remainder of the race as he eased away from the squabbles behind him.
Sette Camara was determined to show that his Spa victory was the start of a purple period for him, easing by Deletraz on the front straight for P2 but unable to close down the leader, while Fuoco used his home advantage to dispatch the Swiss driver late in the race for a second home podium, much to the delight of his vocal fans in the main straight.
After the emotional rollercoaster of the previous 24 hours, the effects were clear to see on Ghiotto’s face as he discussed the race afterwards: “as I said on the radio after the finishing line, this is probably the victory that feels the best of my career. When they take away a win from you and the day after you win again, it is just the best feeling in the world!
“I think we proved that we were really quick yesterday, and we didn’t win just by luck: I’m really happy about that, and we also proved to be quick in wet and dry conditions, which is really good I think. It’s very good to know that we are competitive in both conditions, even if I don’t think it will be raining in Jerez and in Abu Dhabi! We made a good step forward since Spa, and the momentum looks like it keeps on going. I feel really good right now, because it’s my home race and I really wanted to bring home a trophy.
“I think I slept three hours last night: we were at the stewards’ until almost midnight, then I found it hard to remain calm and it took a while to fall asleep… This morning I was not 100% ready because when you don’t sleep enough you don’t feel ready for the race, but my emotions were in check once I jumped in the car: the rest just disappeared, and I was ready for the race.
“After that, everything went my way, and I’m really happy.”
The weather is the biggest question at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps; it always rains at some time over a race weekend at the fabled Belgian track, so the teams spend much of their time there wondering whether the rain will arrive while they’re on the circuit or not.
For free practice the answer was no: the session took place under warm and sunny conditions, giving the teams the perfect conditions from which to build a strong weekend. Charles Leclerc wasted no time putting a competitive laptime on the timesheets, grabbing the top time on his second push lap just before his fire extinguisher let go, forcing the Monegasque back to the pits.
His team set to work removing the hard to access unit and replacing it within the session, with Leclerc standing around watching and thinking of the laps he was missing as his rivals concentrated on their race runs. Eventually they were able to get him back on track, but with only 2 minutes to circulate and traffic to deal with he was unable to make the line before the chequered flag came out.
Nonetheless his laptime was good enough to top the session, ahead of teammate Antonio Fuoco and Oliver Rowland, as the qualifying work was done at the start. The question for Leclerc’s rivals was what had he lost, along with the laps: would it affect his qualifying session, or the races? The answer to the first question was ambiguous: Leclerc topped qualifying for yet another pole by a good margin, but given the weather and the red flag it’s not entirely certain that he would have had it all his own way, but for external factors.
The threatened storm unleashed itself on the circuit ahead of qualifying, washing away all of the rubber from the F1 session and forcing everyone to start on wets. The rain had mostly stopped as the lights went green, but on a 7km circuit the weather in one section can be different that at the other end. Certainly it was never dry enough for anyone to chance their arm on a set of slicks, and as the first wet session of the year (including tests) the results were likely to be variable.
And so it proved: Leclerc was 22s slower than in free practice, but crucially he was 0.6s faster than the DAMS duo of Nicholas Latifi and Oliver Rowland with 2 quick laps halfway through the session before most of the field returned for fresh rubber and to see what the weather had for them next. A few drivers went out early on their second set, including Artem Markelov: the Russian was looking fast, going purple in sector 1 as Leclerc rushed to get out on track during the driest period of the session, but a spin for Sergio Sette Camara brought out the red flags, denying Markelov’s good work.
The session reopened with 3 minutes remaining, but with everyone on the same section of track and time running out, as well as a return of the rain, there was no chance for anyone else to improve: Leclerc had his 7th pole position of the season. He knew that he’d dodged a Markelov shaped bullet on the way to it, though: “it was the perfect time to go out in this session when he improved, and I was a bit scared that he would finish this lap because it was just before it started to rain again, so the track was the driest possible at that time.
“Luckily he didn’t finish that lap because of the red flag, and then it started to rain again, so that was okay. After free practice this morning we did only 2 push laps, so we were pretty unsure of what to wait for in qualifying, but in the end it all went pretty well. I’m looking at tomorrow’s meteo at the moment and it’s saying rain so we’ll see how it goes, but I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
In a region where the weather changes as quickly as Spa, a long range weather forecast is little more than a coin toss and a hope: when the teams left the paddock on Saturday afternoon it was under gloriously sunny conditions, and they arrived in the pitlane to great grey clouds looming overhead, so everyone just got on with their work and hoped for the best. Unfortunately for Latifi those hopes were dashed early: his engine gave up on the way to the grid, undoing his best ever qualifying performance and opening a space on the front row next to Leclerc.
If the space was an open invitation to the Monegasque’s rivals, it was to be one that went unanswered: Rowland tried to fill it by pushing outside Leclerc at La Source, losing an element of his front wing when they touched for his efforts, while Gustav Malja in P4 made a poor start, lost out to Fuoco and Luca Ghiotto, and soon had new teammate Nyck De Vries on his tail. Jordan King ran over some debris before leaving some of his own as his tyre disintegrated along the Kemmel Straight, and the VSC signs appeared to allow the marshals to clean up.
At the restart Leclerc began the race-long process of leaving everyone behind, with Ghiotto running through Fuoco to pick up P2 when Rowland pitted, the first driver to do so on lap 7. Ghiotto was in on lap 10, Leclerc was in and out next time through to slot back behind Markelov and Fuoco on the alternate strategy but ahead of Rowland, and the fight was on between the two strategies. Markelov ran similar times to Leclerc, the only one able to do so, but the gap was too small for any surprises: the Russian came back out on lap 15 in P6 and had the hammer down.
Fresh rubber and DRS saw Markelov blow through De Vries and Malja at the Kemmel Straight in successive laps, he took a couple more to dispatch teammate Ghiotto at the same place, and then it was the rematch with Rowland. On the last lap the Russian pushed the Briton all around the circuit before arriving at the Bus Stop: Markelov went up the outside, Rowland pushed him wide, but the Russian won the drag to the line for P2, with Leclerc having run through an astonishing 26.6s ahead of the battle for the win.
Asked how he felt to complete such a dominant win, Leclerc could only laugh: “It felt very good! We didn’t have an amazing start, with quite a bit of wheel spin: we couldn’t practice the start, and I think I did something wrong with it. But after that we were very quick, on the option tyres I felt quite good, and we could stay on the tyres quite long which helped us on the second stint.
“On the prime tyres I think we were very, very good: when we left the pits they were telling me ‘you’re two seconds faster than everybody’ and I said ‘can you repeat please?’ because I thought maybe I had misheard them! The car was amazing all the race, and I need to thank PREMA for it. And also I have Antonio as a teammate: we usually give more or less the same feedback, and this helped me to win today, because he obviously gave the right feedback after free practice.
“Thanks to him we managed to have the right car for the race!”
It was probably cold comfort for the Italian, who ran the alternate strategy and could only manage P5 at the flag, but change was to come. Markelov and Rowland were called to the stewards’ office for their last corner contretemps, and an elegant solution was found: Markelov had left the track and gained an advantage, and as such was handed a 5s time penalty, but Rowland had pushed him off the track, and as such was also handed a 5s time penalty, leaving the positions standing. Luca Ghiotto must have been disappointed not to have been 2s closer at the finish…
But then the big one came: Leclerc and Rowland had been discovered to have had too much wear on their skid planks, which are installed to stop anyone running too low and picking up an aerodynamic advantage. There was much discussion behind the scenes by the teams and the stewards, but there could only ever be one answer to a breach of the Technical Regulations: disqualification. Markelov was now classified as the winner, leading home a RUSSIAN TIME 1-2 ahead of Ghiotto, with Fuoco promoted to the podium.
On Sunday the teams had an unusual new aspect to deal with for the sprint race: the wet qualifying meant they all had fresh tyres to use. Sette Camara certainly put them to good use: the starts have been one of his biggest problems with the step up to such a powerful car, but his start from P3 in Spa was absolutely perfect, slicing between front row starters Norman Nato and Roberto Merhi as though they were standing still before flying away from the rest of the field.
De Vries had a flier too, and despite being slightly squeezed by Nato inside La Source the Dutchman blew past the poleman at Kemmel for P2 and headed off after the Brazilian, while further back Rowland and Leclerc were slicing through the field after starting from the back of the grid: at the end of lap 1 Rowland was up to P12, a lap later Leclerc took it from him, and the Monegasque was on a charge back up to the sharp end of the race.
Markelov saw the threat coming and started to move forward, dispatching Fuoco and putting himself behind teammate Ghiotto, who was protecting his tyres and took it as a hurry up call: the Italian blew past Merhi as Leclerc arrived on Markelov’s tail with Fuoco in tow, and the 3 had a great battle until the Russian’s car developed a problem, tipping him into retirement and giving Leclerc a new target.
Ghiotto disposed of Nato for P3 and was closing in on De Vries, who in turn was closing on Sette Camara: it promised a barnstorming finish to the race, but a big crash at the top of Eau Rouge by Nobuharu Matsushita brought out the safety car until the flag, helping the Brazilian to his maiden F2 win.
“It’s a great moment, a great feeling,” Sette Camara noted afterwards. “We didn’t have the best of luck in the beginning of the season, things just weren’t going our way no matter what, but the team kept supporting me and things finally came around in Spa. It’s a good track for me, I had my first podium in a formula car here in 2015, so I’m very happy.
I’ve struggled with the starts: it’s a heavier car and wheel spins a lot, and it was like this yesterday, but we worked on it overnight and today we could get a good start. It was crucial for the win and gave me the confidence I needed. In the last few laps the tyres were going away: I’m not sure what the state of Nyck’s tyres was, but definitely the safety car came at a good time for me! Maybe it would have been a fight for the victory in the end, but with or without a fight I’m happy!”
Behind them Leclerc finished in P5, with Rowland grabbing the last point on offer in 8th, meaning that the Monegasque still extended his lead in the drivers’ championship: Leclerc left Belgium with a 59 point lead over Rowland, who had Markelov just 9 points behind him, as they looked towards the Monza round just a few days away.
The one thing everyone in racing knows about Budapest is that it’s hot, especially when it’s time to race at the Hungaroring: it’s almost always the last round before the summer break, and the combination of the hot, hot heat, the mirage of a holiday just over the horizon and a tight, technical circuit combines to make the Budapest round one of the hardest for all of the teams on the grid.
Which is what made Wednesday so surprising: huge, ponderous storm clouds covered Hungary, causing huge delays, diversions and rough landings for everyone, and driving through the rain lashed streets of Budapest had everyone worried about a new, completely unexpected challenge for the teams and drivers to have to negotiate over the weekend.
They needn’t have worried: Thursday saw the usual hot and sunny conditions welcome everyone to the Hungaroring, and there was more than a few sighs of relief as the teams got ready for free practice. The weather wasn’t the only return to regular service: Charles Leclerc hit the ground running to top the morning session, overturning his own quickest lap 3 times before grabbing P1 a third of the way through the session before everyone concentrated on race runs, with Nyck De Vries having the only notable incident after juddering over the new larger kerbs at turn 11 and into the wall, giving his mechanics some extra work in the few hours before qualifying.
Oliver Rowland was less than a tenth off the Monegasque in practice, with the same gap back to De Vries, and had held a little in reserve as usual. Would this be the weekend to bring Leclerc’s pole run to an end? Unfortunately for his rivals, the answer is both yes and no.
The Monegasque driver was untouchable in qualifying, despite a red flag on his hot lap for a spin by Sean Gelael: Leclerc simply returned to the pits until the track opened, headed back out to set the pole lap by almost half a second and returned, to the astonishment of his rivals. He went back out on his second set behind everyone else, ready to play clean up, but there was no need: no one could get close to his time, so he returned without needing to make a second run.
Leclerc sat in the press conference with Rowland and Artem Markelov, and it was a bit of a glum affair for the others. “PREMA gave me a great car,” Leclerc noted, confirming the obvious, “and I’m very happy about the lap this afternoon: this morning I was not happy with the way I drove, but this afternoon I’m happy with the lap I delivered.
“It’s a good pole position, and we knew that the position would be very important because here in Budapest overtaking is quite hard, so we will have to do a good start tomorrow and try to keep the lead.”
It wasn’t until a while later that Leclerc was called to the stewards’ office, and he had left the circuit before the news emerged: he had been disqualified from qualifying for using a part on his diff which did not comply with the material requirements in the Dallara User Manual, which is a breach of the technical regulations. He was, however, allowed to start the race from the back of the grid, while championship rival Rowland would receive the points and start from pole.
Saturday saw the blast furnace conditions arrive in force, with all of the drivers hiding away as their cars baked in the forecourt of the paddock, waiting for release. But there was nowhere to hide when the lights went out: Rowland might have collected the points for pole but Markelov was P2 in the championship and looking to close the gap to Leclerc, blazing away when the lights went out to lead Rowland, Jordan King and Nicholas Latifi into turn 1.
Budapest rewards the prime strategy (start on softs and switch to mediums), which is why so many of the field use it: there is often an early safety car, and even if there’s not it’s generally quicker, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of drivers using it. Alex Albon was the highest placed gambler to start on mediums in P11, with only 3 drivers towards the back chancing their arms: Sergio Sette Camara, Louis Deletraz, and Charles Leclerc.
The Monegasque driver, on full tanks and harder tyres, ate through his rivals like a crocodile breaking fast, finishing the first lap in P12 and looking for more: unseen by the cameras concentrated on the front of the pack, Leclerc and Albon were engaged in a fierce battle for supremacy, the former teammates reopening last year’s blazing title fight from GP3 as they locked horns over who would have a clear track when their rivals pitted.
King was the first to lose his tyres, with Latifi sneaking past before the Englishman could pit for fresh rubber, while at the front Rowland made a great stop on lap 11, Markelov came in next time through to cover but lost time in the pits, emerging 2 seconds behind his rival, and the Albon/Leclerc fight was now prime time, at the front of the pack. Leclerc clearly had the better car, but a moment of wildness when he tried to go around the outside of Albon at turn 4 but instead got airborne off the huge new kerbs would have worried his team, advising him to bring a halt to the war to make sure his car was still intact.
It wasn’t long before they re-engaged, with Leclerc muscling his way past at turn 2 after Albon braked slightly early at the corner before, but the fight had come with a price: Rowland was only 10 seconds behind and closing, leaving the pair with no way to pit and return before the Englishman and his entourage were through and gone.
And so it proved, with the prime strategy demonstrating its worth, but good fortune was to smile on Leclerc once again: re-emerging in P11 behind Robert Visoiu and Sergio Canamasas, the pair came together at turn 1 to promote the Monegasque driver by 2 places and prompt a safety car, bringing all of his rivals together in front of him just as his tyres were at their best. At the restart he passed 3 of his rivals at turn 1, and he could smell the fear as the others tried to stay away.
Out in front Markelov had been biding his time, and he thought it had arrived at last: on better tyres he launched up the inside of Rowland out of the final turn and was closing fast, with the Briton seeing the threat in his mirrors and closing the door, leaving the Russian no choice but to brake heavily and get swamped or to keep going and hope. Markelov kept his foot down, found the grass at the pit exit and jumped the kerb before launching across the track and into the wall at turn 1.
Latifi saw a chance and went for it, but Rowland had just enough tyres left to guide his teammate wide at turn 2 before the safety car came out, staying there until the final corner for a DAMS 1-2 ahead of De Vries, who’d made a great start before staying away from everyone, with Leclerc promoted to P4.
All the talk in the press conference was about Markelov’s huge shunt, which was still under investigation by the stewards, but Rowland was satisfied with his part in it, with the stewards agreeing with his perspective: “He got a pretty good run out of the last corner, and I was struggling a bit with my tyres: he got a good run up the inside, I defended, and I’m not sure where he was going to go.
“I went all the way to the inside, and I guess he was expecting me to maybe leave a car [width] but there was nothing there, and he went on the grass. I think the rule is if there is any part of the car is alongside you’ve got to leave a car, but he was still behind me when I closed the gap. He had quite a lot of momentum when he committed to it I think, and he went on the grass: he couldn’t go left at that moment.
“But we’ve been on the podium consistently since Monaco, and I think the qualifying recently has been extremely positive: we came second here, only Charles was better than me, so I’m quite happy. I’m second in the championship, I’ve closed the gap a little bit to Charles, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do on qualifying. As a team and a car the result of the 1-2 shows we’ve come a long way, and done a good job.”
Sunday’s track was marginally cooler due to starting earlier, but it made no difference to Nobuharu Matsushita, who made a stunning getaway from P4, running inside and around Norman Nato and stealing a match on poleman and teammate Albon, who was soon squeezed between Luca Ghiotto and De Vries, with the pair running down the hill behind the Japanese driver and in front of Rowland, hungry for more and looking to steal anything he can for his title fight.
With tyre management uppermost in everyone’s mind it was a while before anyone was willing to chance their arm, with De Vries finally spotting a chink Ghiotto’s armour and pouncing at turn 2, leaving the Italian in the clutches of Rowland: the Briton recalled a move Daniil Kyvat had made on him a few years back and sliced inside Ghiotto at turn 6, albeit not hitting him as the Russian had, and leaving a line through for Leclerc to use too.
A VSC period gave everyone a breather after Visoiu slid into the side of Nabil Jeffri and retirement, but at the restart the Malaysian ran over the turn 4 kerb and was launched into Canamasas, with the Spaniard spinning into retirement and another VSC period opening to remove his car from turn 5, with the restart being less eventful this time around. On the penultimate lap Rowland was able to use his superior tyres to run around the outside of De Vries for P2 but Matsushita was gone, and the top 3 were once again trailed across the line by championship leader Leclerc.
“I always have confidence with the start,” Matsushita noted afterwards, “and today I knew it would be good because of the grip. This morning there was a GP3 race so I put down more power, and it was a good start! We’ve had some difficult weekends after Monaco, where we always had the pace but I couldn’t make it work, but I think Spa and Monza are our favourite tracks, we were quite quick there last year, and I hope it will be another podium like these guys and we can continue like that.
“I want to be in the top 3 this year, so I will push!”
Rowland was unsurprisingly delighted with his weekend, having closed the gap to Leclerc in the title fight with a huge haul of points: “after Silverstone race 2 I was disappointed with myself as there were too many errors on my part, probably because it was my home race and I was enthusiastic. But it was starting to get to the stage where Charles was gone and that I was fighting for 2nd, and I didn’t want to believe that.
“Obviously anything can happen, and after this weekend we’re right back in there: we’re not quite with him but we’re closing, and if we keep this pace we can challenge him to the end of the year.”
It was a good moment for the Briton, and great for the championship to close the fight at the front, but Leclerc still managed to finish P4 twice from the back of the grid: if normal service resumes in Spa-Francorchamps it’s likely that he’ll start a little higher next time out.
The handful of days between leaving Austria and arriving in Silverstone gave the teams little opportunity to refocus their ambitions, but nor did they need to as it was clear that their ambition remained unchanged: to shut down the gap to Charles Leclerc. With a 49 point lead over closest rival Oliver Rowland it was obvious that he was going to remain in the lead at the end of the weekend no matter what happened, but that only focused his rivals’ attention on the job ahead of them.
If they were hoping for hot, summery conditions to assist with their task, they were to be disappointed: the usual overcast Silverstone conditions were installed when the teams took to the circuit for free practice, unusually run on Thursday afternoon from the old paddock complex they call home for the weekend rather than the F1 paddock, with everyone hitting the track immediately to get some runs under the belt in case the threatened rain arrived.
Unfortunately for everyone else, Leclerc continued his imperious form at the Northamptonshire circuit, topping the times at the 10 minute mark and staying there for all but a few moments when Nicholas Latifi and Luca Ghiotto briefly borrowed the top spot until he reclaimed it next time through, and then ran quicker still later in the session to top free practice ahead of Oliver Rowland and Ghiotto.
Rowland has long been vocal about the need to steal pole away from the Ferrari Academy driver, for the points as well as for the opportunities it presents in the race, positionally and tyre management wise. Unfortunately for the British racer, he and the others were unable to stop Leclerc grabbing his sixth pole from as many attempts, a record that is unprecedented at this level of racing.
The Monegasque driver was untouchable: fastest on both sets of tyres despite the changeable conditions following an earlier rain shower, Leclerc was competing with himself for the top spot, with his rivals unable to make any in roads on his time around the fast, flowing circuit as he finished the session almost half a second faster than his nearest rivals, Rowland and Norman Nato.
Leclerc was deflecting questions in the press conference about the ease with which he claimed pole number 6, but the advantage was self-evident: “to be honest we didn’t expect anything, we were just working on ourselves and it went quite good today. We had a good free practice and we worked a bit on the car, and more on me obviously, and today it was a good session overall.
“Tomorrow we need to make a good start, which will be the key to the race, and after that in the race it was quite good in Austria, so I’m looking forward to the race. Obviously the degradation is quite high here because of the high speed corners, so the key will be to be in the front in this section of the track, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Saturday arrived, another race on a slightly damp track, and with it came a fifth race win for Leclerc. The Monegasque driver led his rivals into turn 1 and that was about as close as it got: the usual string of fastest laps to build a lap on the soft tyres, with running in clear air allowing him to run a lap more than his rivals and build a bigger lead before the stop on lap 7 and re-emerging in the points and pushing forward, overtaking rivals on the hard compound with his fresher rubber before reclaiming the lead when Nobuharu Matsushita returned to the pits and building a bigger lead for an eventual margin of 9 seconds over Nato and Rowland.
The main talking point of the race was on his in-lap, when oil and smoke started pouring from the back of his car: if his rivals were hoping for a mechanical problem they were to be disappointed once again, as it was simply a loose cap allowing oil to escape until it dropped below a certain level, after which it stopped leaking out, with Leclerc’s race entirely unaffected by the apparent drama.
Behind him were battles aplenty – Nato and Rowland scrapped throughout the race after the Briton’s poor start allowed the Frenchman through, Artem Markelov and Matsushita topped and tailed the race with fights, as did Ghiotto and Nicholas Latifi – but unfortunately for all of them, they were unable to get close enough to fight with Leclerc, who sailed serenely on to another victory, only briefly disturbed by the oil leak.
“I was nervous at that moment,” he confirmed in the press conference, “I think I saw it before the team did: I went on the radio and asked them if they saw on the screens that there was smoke coming out of my car, and I had no answer. A lap later I asked again, and they told me that they did see it, but they didn’t know what was going on. We had already stopped for the prime tyres, so I just carried on.
“I was a little bit scared - I was looking at the screens on the straight and I saw my car with smoke behind it, I looked in the mirrors and I thought the engine would blow up - but nothing happened. After that, on the prime tyres, we were quite fast: I knew Norman was behind me and trying to catch me but I tried to stay calm, and when he reduced the gap to me I pushed again and the car was very good until the chequered flag.
“It was a really good race: I think it’s probably the most positive one of the season, and it shows that I and the team have done a step since Bahrain. I’m very happy.”
A cold, dreary Sunday morning brought the sprint race, the end to a long back to back couple of rounds and a chance for Leclerc’s rivals to finally reclaim some momentum with the Monegasque starting from P8: Latifi tore off into the distance from pole position in exactly the same way Leclerc had the day before, while his rivals squabbled among themselves behind him.
Ghiotto eased himself into P2 while Rowland made up for his poor start the day before with a great one to run outside Jordan King at turn 1 before heading off after the others, but King had other thoughts, fighting back until the pair came together at turn 3, with the MP man coming off second best and allowing Markelov to get a run on Rowland, who edged him onto the grass to stop the Russian’s march, keeping P3 but collecting a 5 second penalty for his efforts.
Leclerc had moved forward 2 spots and was looking for more, but Sergio Canamasas had other ideas, defending robustly for lap after lap against the odds until Leclerc finally found a route through and looked to disrupt the top 4. But late in the race Ralph Boschung touched the grass while trying to get past Alexander Albon, spinning across the track and crashing heavily into the wall at Stowe, prompting a safety car that few would have wanted to see.
If the front pair were hoping the SC would see them to the end of the race, Rowland was looking for an opportunity, thinking that backing his rivals into each other would force them to fight among themselves, giving him time to overturn his time penalty. But the move was in vain: Latifi sailed off into the distance, Ghiotto limped home on tired tyres, Markelov slid past Rowland at the restart to claim P3, and the Briton was given an additional 20 second time penalty for impeding his rivals behind the safety car and at the restart.
For Latifi, who led a win slide in the Barcelona sprint race when he ran wide late in the race, it was redemption and proof that his recent improved form was no fluke: “I’m just really happy. I was on the podium in Barcelona and could show we were able to challenge for wins: that one unfortunately got away from me, but we managed to get this one back!
“We showed good pace in the race yesterday but just unfortunately got stuck behind slower cars, and it’s difficult to overtake around here. I knew the start was going to be crucial: I didn’t get the best one, but I managed to hold off the position and then put my head down, pulled a few fast laps, and managed the race from there.
“I had a big gap so the safety car was the last thing I needed, and I don’t think the race should have been restarted with how late the safety car lights came out: it left me no time to build a gap to the safety car and to control the pace, but I still had good tyres so I managed to control it and just pull clear, make no mistakes on that last lap, and to bring it home for the win.”
Unnoticed initially in a scrappy restart, but certainly discussed afterwards, was the fact that Canamasas managed to fight back past Leclerc on that last lap to grab P5 on track, showing his rivals that he is beatable in the cut and thrust of racing. But to get him into that position again a few of his rivals need to beat him in qualifying so he doesn’t start from the front every time and, with only 2 weeks until the next round in Budapest, time is running out to find a solution to that season-long problem.
The teams arrived in the mountainous region of Styria, Austria on Wednesday with one ambition: close the gap to Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque rider left Baku after an almost perfect weekend had rebuilt his lead in the drivers’ championship after a tough one in Monaco, and his rivals knew that the tight, twisty Red Bull Ring was an opportunity to redress the balance once again.
Thick, dark clouds swirled around the circuit as the teams lined up in the pitlane for free practice, with all drivers straight out to ensure as much track time as possible on a circuit that requires a perfect lap to find a good qualifying position given the historically close times there.
The times tumbled on the first set until Leclerc grabbed P1 15 minutes in, before everyone concentrated on long runs until the final 5 minutes: a number of drivers pushed again, setting fastest sector times until Sergio Sette Camara pulled up on track ahead of the pits, prompting a VSC period and leaving Leclerc on top at the flag, ahead of teammate Antonio Fuoco and Nyck De Vries.
Anyone hoping to bring Leclerc’s run of pole positions to an end was in for disappointment: the Ferrari Academy driver made it five from five, setting the two quickest laps of the session just to be sure. With rain between the sessions and clouds overhead the drivers were immediately out to secure a time, and Leclerc soon held the top spot again, by a tenth over Sette Camara as they returned to the pits. On the second set ART teammates Alexander Albon and Nobuharu Matsushita briefly peeled P1 from Leclerc’s hands, but Leclerc was not to be denied: he grabbed pole by three tenths from Sette Camara (who finished in the gravel on his last lap) and Fuoco.
Leclerc still felt it was the toughest qualifying session so far, though: “Yeah, definitely! We expected the gap to be a bit smaller because it is a short track, and we pushed like crazy! I think that Sergio was on a very good lap before he stopped, so it would have been very close there. But I am very happy: fifth pole in a row, fifth qualifying and we grabbed all poles. I think our strong point is definitely qualy.
"But it doesn’t define the results tomorrow: we need to push and make a good start and a good race tomorrow.”
Unfortunately for his rivals, that’s exactly what he did. Leclerc led Fuoco into turn 1 and didn’t look back, building a solid lead and controlling the pace while managing his tyres ahead of his rivals on the prime strategy while the option drivers, led by DAMS teammates Nicholas Latifi and Oliver Rowland, struggled early on the supersofts before stopping for fresh rubber. After the stops, the pair went in different ways: Rowland pushed hard to overtake and try to hold the gap up to Leclerc, while Latifi bided his time, managing his tyres for the final few laps.
“After the first 3 laps I knew my supersofts were gone,” Latifi noted later, “and when I heard these guys were pitting I knew there were a lot of laps to the end, and based on my experience from the beginning of the race I knew they would start dropping.” And so it proved. The PREMA pair pitted earlier than expected – Fuoco with 9 laps remaining, Leclerc next time around – and although they both set fastest laps on the fresh rubber it was clear that they fell off their peak far too soon.
And then Latifi struck: with 5 laps to go Latifi battled past his teammate before closing in on the top two, running inside and through Fuoco at turn 1 with a gap of 6 seconds up to Leclerc with 3 laps remaining, before closing that gap to just 1.3s at the flag. The Monegasque was happy, but relieved, to be on the top spot for the fourth time this year: “It wasn’t easy, definitely! At the end Nicholas was coming very, very quickly!
“We had a good start and I managed the tyres as much as I could, because I knew I had to do a lot of laps to the pitstop, so I was managing the gap to the end. At around the middle of the stint I could push a bit harder to open out the gap and that helped us to win the race, because at the end the gap was not huge! The last part of the race was really hard to manage, because the soft tyres degrade a lot quicker than we thought, and Nicholas was just very quick.
“I don’t think we could have done any better with the strategy we had: we pitted when we had to because the tyres were done, and we finished on the limit with the option tyres, so I’m happy about the race.”
But tomorrow’s another day, and the sprint race gave his rivals a chance to grab something back, a chance that became bigger still when Leclerc retired early in the race. Artem Markelov took all the advantage after a long hold at the start by blasting off unopposed to turn 1, with P2 man Ralph Boschung bogging down off the line and being swamped: Raffaele Marciello ran blind into the back of the Swiss man, retiring on the spot and prompting a visit by the safety car.
The Russian easily controlled the restart, and indeed the race as he could dictate the pace and was unchallenged throughout, but behind him Rowland had made a tremendous start and was looking to usurp Alexander Albon, now returned from injury, for P2. The Thai driver was not prepared to gift his position: Rowland stuttered and Fuoco pounced, looking for a way past at turn 4 but being squeezed onto the kerbs and back into the path of teammate Leclerc, who had nowhere to go and was tapped into a spin and retirement.
Following a brief VSC period Markelov and Albon headed off into the distance, while Rowland used his experience from the feature race to protect his tyres until late in the race, when he tried in vain once again to demote Albon until they finished line astern behind Markelov. “It was actually a hard weekend for me,” he noted sanguinely after the race, “I qualified in P15, but we did a good job yesterday, working hard to get up to P8 and the reverse pole.
“Today we had a great start, a great restart after the safety car, and I’m pretty happy: thanks to the team, and to everyone who supports me. This was actually a good boost for me for the next race, but I need to improve my qualifying compared to this race because it was a bit of a disaster! If I get a good qualifying I think I can fight again for the top 3 in Silverstone.”
The rest of the field probably agreed with the sentiments, but more than anything they will need to ensure that Leclerc doesn’t improve too. And on current form, it’s hard to bet against him turn 5 into 6 poles in Silverstone’s Round 6.
If you’re given the opportunity to sit down with a racer like Luca Ghiotto, there’s really only one place to start: are you still looking to win the championship this year? “Yeah, of course,” he states matter-of-factly as we sit down on Thursday ahead of the 4th round of the FIA Formula 2 championship in Baku, Azerbaijan in the hospitality area, before going on to show why his season is already a step ahead of expectations.
“First, all the races so far were the ones where I was struggling the most last year: I was looking forward to July, when it’s all the tracks that I like and was good at last year. And I’m only 21 points behind Charles, which is not a lot. A win is 25 points, so everything is possible: there’s still 8 weekends to go, so there’s a long way to go!”
Hindsight might make it easy to scoff at the likeable Italian’s suggestions, but one bad weekend doesn’t change the point he was making ahead of a mistake in qualifying wiping out much of the round. Going into Baku Ghiotto was one of only 3 drivers to score points in every race up until that point (along with Alexander Albon, who was out with an injury, and Jordan King): not even Charles Leclerc had managed that.
And that was exactly the way he planned it. “For sure to be consistent was one of the targets,” Ghiotto continued, “because last year I was quite up and down, I had some good races and then the next one I was out of the points, so for sure that was one of the main goals. Of course we had the potential to do more than we did until now, and I think the only race where we showed our potential was Barcelona, where we were 2nd: it was probably the only weekend where everything went almost 100% perfect.
“Bahrain and Monaco were not so good, especially in qualifying, but I still could manage to bring some points home, which is always good for the championship. I hope that from now on I will do better: last year the first 2 races were the ones where I didn’t do good races, and even here in Baku I retired. I think I arrived here with zero points last year, so this is already much better than last year! From now on I can do better, because they are all tracks that I know and I like very much, like Silverstone…”
Winning races comes down to getting every detail right, but when you’re pushing to get into a position to fight there are two big ones: qualifying and tyre management. What is Ghiotto doing to get on top of these points, particularly after the tyre problem RUSSIAN TIME suffered in the Barcelona sprint race? “We know that Formula 2 races are about managing tyres: what happened in Barcelona was just too much, it was not normal, but the team found out what it was it will not repeat again.
“But I think it’s about everything: if you start at the front and can be in free air then you can manage the tyres, so one thing is a consequence of the other. First of all I need qualifying to go the same as Barcelona, or on pole if it’s possible, and then of course to manage the tyres because we’ve seen last year that sometimes it’s easy to maybe lose 5 or 6 places when the tyres are gone. Qualifying is important but the races are important too, and we’ve got to improve in every single aspect to be at the top.”
He’s right, of course, but with four poles out of four Leclerc has had the whip hand in every feature race, and there’s no question that a successful weekend flows from qualifying (or a disappointing one, as Baku showed). In qualifying Ghiotto has been close - P4, P2 and P8, with the latter being an outlier because of the way the grid in Monaco is formed - so what makes the difference in qualy to push to the next step, being on pole?
Ghiotto has clearly analysed the season so far, and can see hope in the element so far owned by the Monegasque. “Bahrain was a bit of a strange qualifying because of the crash between Malja and Jeffri: we don’t really know who used the second set of tyres properly and who didn’t, so it was a messy qualifying. Barcelona I was really happy with: in the end I lost pole by one tenth, which is nothing, and I did a different strategy to the others so I could fight for pole, even though when we did testing Barcelona was worse than in Bahrain.
“Monaco was not as much about the car, but was more about some little mistakes I did: Artem was in P4 so the car was pretty good, and what proved that was I overtook 2 cars in the race. We never thought we could overtake in that race, so it shows that we had confidence in the car, but qualifying is only 15 minutes so it’s easier than normal to lose a good lap with traffic or whatever. I think that here should be more like Barcelona, because it’s wide and it’s more like a new style circuit, but we’ll see.”
Again, hindsight makes these comments seem silly, but there is no doubt that Ghiotto was pushing hard for pole in Baku, even though it tipped over into the crash in qualifying which pushed him to the back of the grid for the feature race and broke down his weekend.
But even there, it’s worth taking a minute to look at what the Italian did to rescue the round: he was one of only 3 drivers to risk the alternate tyre strategy, and it saw him leading well until the safety car spoiled his chances, pushing him back to P16 and last at the flag, before a great recovery drive in the sprint race saw him finish P8 on the road and 7th in the classifications, continuing his tremendous run of points finishes.
But back to Thursday, with RUSSIAN TIME leading the teams’ championship, largely because he and teammate Artem Markelov were both scoring good points, with the Russian having only missed out on the points once before Baku. How important is it to have a teammate who can also push hard?
“For sure it’s good, because in the end we always say that the first enemy is the teammate, because he has the same car and everything, so it’s the best comparison you can do. It’s good first of all for the team, because we’re the only team that has drivers on more or less the same points, and for me it’s good too because Artem is a good driver, and really experienced: I learned more in these first 3 races then I learned in all of last year!
“Having 2 rookies in the team means it is always difficult to learn: Trident is an experienced team, but it’s more difficult to learn from someone who talks to you than to have the data in front of you. Now that I have an experienced driver there it’s much easier to look and see where I have to improve. It’s really good for us, and hopefully we can continue to do the same, but it’s one of the things we have to count on: we have been the only team where we’ve always been there [in the points], and if we want to catch up with Rowland and Leclerc it’s one of the things we have to do, to always be there in the front.”
But what is the next step? What gets Ghiotto and the team competing with the leading pair, and hopefully taking points away from them? “Well, first of all I need to have a clean qualifying. One thing I’ve learned is that when you try to do more you end up just doing mistakes, so I have to just be calm and relaxed and do what I can do, because I know that I can.
“For sure the one that has proven to be really fast at the moment is Leclerc but I think, I hope, that he will not always be as fast as he was in the first 3 races. If you look at the gap he had between Bahrain and Barcelona it reduced: in Bahrain he was on pole by quite a lot, which was impressive even if qualy was a bit messed up, but in Barcelona and Monaco it was just one tenth and then one hundredth or something to Albon.
“Maybe he was the only one to have real confidence in his car at the beginning of the season, but now everyone else is getting closer and closer, and this happens many times. Even last year if you look at it, Giovinazzi was further away and then in one moment, bam, he was on top. We don’t have to take the standings after the first race and say this will be the same to the end: there can always be changes during the year, and I think that’s going to happen.”
Ghiotto has been in championship fights before, most notably in 2015 when the GP3 Series title was fought out between the Italian and Esteban Ocon, with Ghiotto winning 5 races to 1 but losing the war by just 8 points to the ART (and now Force India) driver. What did he take away from that season?
“For sure the main thing is to be consistent,” he sighs: it might be a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. “I had some little mistakes during the year, and when I say little mistakes I mean touching someone and losing a little piece of the front wing, which didn’t help during the race. I never had big crashes or lost a tyre - okay, in Monza I stalled, but I had 4 or 5 mistakes which at the end cost me a lot.
“After that year I started to look at everything, even the start of the race, and it’s more important than we think, maybe 50% of the race sometimes. For sure I need to be more calm when I’m fighting, to not be too aggressive or to fight with the emotions, but instead to fight with the brain: maybe also I’m getting a bit older and this is just an automatic thing!
“Of course Esteban is such a good driver, and fighting with him was tough because he’s really fast! I think what I’m missing at the moment is just a little bit of confidence [in the car], because that year the car was really made on me, I could just do whatever I wanted. If I could get to the same point here it would be a good season."
Which is easier said than done. Intrinsically Ghiotto is a brave racer – it was what brought him so much support in his title fight – and perhaps he has relied in the past on his innate feel for a race rather than analysing it in depth. It’s clear that he is changing his approach, but how hard is it to switch just off the immediate reactions and look at the whole race remotely while in the middle of a battle?
“So far this year every time something like that was happening I’ve been calm and relaxed, so hopefully it will continue like that,” he suggests, “but definitely that was something that happened last year when I was still doing some small mistakes. To be honest I’m not thinking so much about that, it’s just something that comes automatically: probably it is due to the fact that I learned that I have to be consistent, from 2015 and also from last year, so maybe it’s something where my brain is thinking more about the races and the final result, not that I have to overtake that guy now.
“The only time when I was a bit back to last year’s mind was when I overtook Cecotto in Monaco, when I said I have to do that, but it worked, so that was okay! I think you just have to be calm, especially here because it’s such a fast car and it’s so easy to do mistakes compared to GP3 or other categories. So I think to be calm is one of the key things: for me the past year and this year are the seasons where being consistent is paying more than in the past.
“I don’t know why, but many people said that I look German sometimes, because I’m not laughing like most Italian people! It’s probably a good thing in this world to be always calm, like Kimi: okay, he’s more than anyone, but it’s still a good thing. For me I’m not doing that to show others that I have no fear or anything, it’s just my way of doing it.”
The old Ghiotto might have reacted poorly to a disappointment like his crash in qualifying, but the new one managed to turn the weekend around and still brought some points home in the sprint race, with the feature the only race of the season in which he hasn’t scored points. As disappointed as he was with the weekend, it’s still a run of consistency that is deeply impressive and, as he pointed out, it’s been in the races at which his previous form was not great. So what does he have for the races he likes?
Bring on July.
Tatiana Calderon, who has recently increased her involvement in the FIA’s Women in Motorsport programme in line with the announcement of her GP3 Series drive with DAMS and her appointment as development driver for Sauber F1 Team, has no illusions about her ambitions within the sport which she calls home: “For me I want to beat everybody: not as a woman, but as a racing driver.
“We all have different strengths and weaknesses, we all have different driving styles, and I think it’s just a matter of pushing the team in the right direction so that you can feel comfortable driving the car. So I don’t think it [being a woman] makes a huge difference, and at this stage it’s my second year in GP3 and I think now that people know I can race and they respect me, and take my opinion as a racing driver rather than as a woman, which I think is great.”
Which is not to suggest that she thinks the FIA’s programme isn’t important. “It’s a huge privilege to represent Women in Motorsport,” she confirms in the GP3 paddock ahead of the first race of the season, “and also to encourage more women to follow their passion, because that’s important. When I grew up there was no one I could actually look up to, anyone in racing, and I think this is a sport where we can compete against men, and to win races.
“I just hope that with my passion I can inspire more people, and we can have more women in the sport in all areas, because they can do really well.”
But what got Calderon involved in a sport in which so few of her countrymen, let alone women, have to date succeeded? First and foremost, it was her older sister. “Yeah, I started with my sister: we both started at the same time but she’s 7 years older than me, so she couldn’t really take it as a profession, for her it was just more of a hobby.
“I tried go karts when I was 9 years old, and I just fell in love with the speed and the adrenaline! For me it was always that: I loved the feeling of driving a kart, and it really got me into this sport. I’ve always been a sport lover, but I found my real passion when I found karting.
“There are 3 of us: I also have a younger brother, but he always said ‘no, this sport is for girls’ – he likes to play tennis and soccer instead! Ironically he thinks we do a really good job but he was not really quick when he started, so he didn’t like it. We used to joke about it because he didn’t like motor racing, although just now he is starting to like it a bit more, but he thought it was just for the girls in the house!”
Living in a country without a huge motorsport tradition, albeit with a couple of big name drivers, meant that Calderon was largely left to her own devices, learning at her own pace about what worked for her: “yeah, I think it was a case of finding my own way, but I always followed [Juan Pablo] Montoya’s career because he was getting into Formula 1 when I was starting, and it made a huge impact on Colombia and motorsport. So I come from that Montoya boom, and hopefully I can make sure that people follow the sport in Colombia again.”
And coming from outside of the traditional motorsport markets only adds an extra level of complication, particularly when you move to Europe and compete with drivers who have raced here their whole lives. “Definitely it was a real challenge: this is not your market, so it’s hard to find sponsors when people don’t look at the races because it’s a small series, and also the culture and the way people work is a lot different.
“Unfortunately in South America we don’t have a really competitive single seater series where we can learn and then come to Europe, so there are many challenges that you face, and of course as a woman it hasn’t been easy to deal with that aspect as well! But I think that you earn your respect on track with a stopwatch, that’s where it really counts, and I can’t believe that I am in this position coming from Colombia where we only had 2 drivers in F1 history, so it takes a lot of effort!”
But that effort is starting to pay dividends, particularly in the form of her deal with Sauber, and Calderon has no regrets about following her dreams: “For me one of the best moves I did was to race in GP3, because you’re here in front of and exposed to the big teams, and that’s where I wanted to be. It’s because I did some good races last year that I got called up to meet Sauber: we kept in close contact during the year, and at the end of the year we sat together and discussed how can we work together.
“For me it’s like a dream come true: I came into GP3 with that objective in mind, I wanted to be picked by an F1 team, and I got that. Now I think the best and the most difficult part starts, because I need to deliver. Of course I have a lot of things to learn, but my goal is to race in Formula 1 and I am taking one step at a time, and they have really opened a door at Sauber. I’ve done already 2 days with them in the simulator, it was positive and they are keeping an close eye on everything I do, so it’s a proper development programme that I am getting from them.”
Sauber are keeping the pressure off Calderon, expecting her to concentrate on her main job, in line with those of her rivals such as George Russell (Mercedes), Jack Aitken (Renault) and Nirei Fukuzumi (Honda) who are in a similar position with the other F1 teams: “definitely my main goal is to do really well in GP3, because that’s what they will measure: the progress I do with their guidance, and the help that I get to develop as a driver. My main thing is GP3, and that’s the best way to show them what I’m capable of.
“I think that this series is one of the toughest, and it’s why you see people going from GP3 to Formula 2 and doing really well, like Leclerc, De Vries and Albon: that means the series really prepares you well for the next steps. Even the people who have done a few free practices or tests in the [F1] car, they’re ready: this is why I think the level is so high here in GP3, and why if you want to move up to there you have to prepare here first.”
And if some of her competitors can sometimes be a bit macho, Calderon is more than ready to show them that she’s racing here on merit: “the other day I saw a Mexican guy I raced against, we race in different series now, but he said I remember one time you passed me on the outside, it was this year at this track at this corner, and that I have never felt so shit in my life!” she laughs.
“I thanked him for saying how it made him feel when I overtook him like that, and for sure it doesn’t make things easier, but at this level you also need to think that yes, it’s a woman, but I also need to be on top, and then slowly but surely they start to respect you.”
And they don’t give out a trophy for P1 of the women, it’s just for P1: “Exactly, thankfully!”
With Oliver Rowland closing down Charles Leclerc’s lead in the drivers’ championship to just 3 points in Monaco everyone was watching to see if the Briton could keep pushing and steal a march on his Monegasque rival: after the weekend Rowland announced that the team’s focus would be on improving their qualifying performance to stop Leclerc’s string of pole positions (and the points that come with it), and Round 4 in Baku, Azerbaijan was the perfect place to find out if their ambitions were going to become reality.
But in free practice it was Nyck De Vries, another driver who was looking to turn around his season by moving his strong sprint race performances up to the feature race where the bigger points can be found, who led the way in a busy session. Three VSCs and a red flag hampered everyone’s ability to make full use of the track time, with everyone losing the 15 minutes it took to remove super sub Sergey Sirotkin’s stopped car from the start of the long front straight, and Rowland’s session was shortened when he lost the rear at turn one and found the barriers. Jordan King and Luca Ghiotto rounded out the top 3, with Leclerc a second off the pace in P7 and Rowland himself further back in 14th position.
But when qualifying came it was a return to normal service, with Leclerc continuing his perfect form for his fourth pole of the year, ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita and Nicholas Latifi in a scorching session. The Japanese driver was on the top spot when Ghiotto found the wall at turn 15, bringing the session to a temporary halt, with Latifi halting it again after the restart by losing some of his front wing on the incredibly tight turn 8, but when they re-emerged Leclerc put in the 2 fastest laps of the session to lock down the top spot, despite the improvements made by his rivals.
“It was very, very emotional,” the Monegasque driver noted afterwards. “We have done four poles out of four and it’s amazing! I have never done that in my career, and I just have to thank PREMA for the amazing car. The 2 laps on the second set were quite good, and I’m really happy to be on pole. After what happened two days ago I didn’t feel as confident as in the previous races, and it was quite hard after the free practice we had this morning, but we managed the qualy well and I’m really happy about it.”
From there it looked like Leclerc had the whip hand, and so it proved: the Ferrari Academy ace controlled the race from lights to flag for his third win of the season, ahead of De Vries and Latifi. The Monegasque driver easily led his rivals into turn 1 ahead of Latifi and Matsushita, and a safety car restart following the removal of Johnny Cecotto’s car was simply dealt with as Leclerc tore away once again, with De Vries slicing past Latifi for P2 as the field shook out and waited for the pits to open so they could swap their supersofts for medium tyres.
All the main contenders bar De Vries pitted on lap 7, with the Dutchman using the clear air for a lap at the front to ensure his hold on net 2nd was maintained: Ghiotto, Ralph Boschung and Nabil Jeffri were the only drivers on the alternate strategy, and when the Malaysian found the wall just after the stops there were only 2 cars ahead of Leclerc on track, which became 1 after the VSC restart and before the safety car to remove Louis Deletraz’s car from the barriers on lap 12. Ghiotto, whose gamble had now fallen over with the appearance of the safety car, easily controlled the restart from Leclerc, whose attention was behind rather than ahead as the net leader of the race.
After the restart Rowland was on a charge to get forward and minimise the damage to his championship challenge, blasting past Artem Markelov and picking up positions when Ghiotto pitted and Matsushita ran deep at turn 1 in front of him. He finished in P4 when the red flags emerged following Sean Gelael’s accident at turn 8, ahead of the Russian, Norman Nato, King and Boschung, but a subsequent 10 second penalty undid his good work and pushed him down to 7th in the classifications.
But most of the attention was on the man on the top step of the podium, on a very emotional day for him. “I’m very, very, very happy,” Leclerc allowed in the press conference. “It’s good points for the championship, and I’ve said it many times before but I’ll never stop saying it, thanks to my father for everything he did for me: I dedicate this win to him.”
If Rowland was upset about the penalty, he was soon looking to turn it into a disadvantage: the Briton would start the sprint race from the front row, and if he could dispose poleman Boschung he would be most of the way towards a win which would allow him to claw back some precious points in the title fight. And when the lights went out that’s exactly what he did, leading the Swiss driver into turn 2 before streaking away, with Nato following him through a lap later but not before losing some his right front wing on Boschung’s tyre, which allowed Latifi to sneak through too.
Leclerc had a poor start by his standards to drop back to P10 before fighting back up the order, and was up to P6 when Rowland and De Vries, who was in the podium places after dispatching Latifi, both stopped separately, causing heartbreak for the pair and delight for the Monegasque man, who could now entertain the idea of being the first driver to bring home a perfect weekend (pole, 2 wins, 2 fastest laps) in the championship. He was a second faster than anyone else on track, and put it to good use in dispatching King and Latifi to grab P2 some 7 seconds behind new leader Nato.
The seconds ticked down with the laps, and the timing screens suggested that another Leclerc victory was an inevitability until a message flashed up on lap 17: 10 second time penalty for Leclerc, for failing to slow sufficiently for the earlier yellow flags. Nevertheless he dispatched Nato, who put up no resistance but followed his friend and rival to the chequered flag for the victory, ahead of Leclerc and Latifi.
Every driver wants to win the race on track, but having done all the hard work earlier Nato was sanguine about the result: “My engineer told me maybe ten laps before the end that Charles was catching up and that I needed to increase my pace: I was managing my tyres in case of a safety car or another incident. When I found out that Charles was second I tried to improve my pace, which I did, but Charles was very quick! I just tried to keep the car on track and to push at the limit: I thought maybe Charles would make a mistake, and my main job was to take the car home.
“Then my engineer told me that Charles had a penalty, so I decided to slow down a bit and stay on track, and to be honest it was okay. I was a bit worried earlier for the first two laps, because the front wing was moving a bit, but it was good today, and we were the second fastest on track. I’m happy for the team: it’s been quite difficult these past two rounds, so it’s good to be on top today. We will enjoy it, and then keep on working to come back stronger in Austria.”
And the last word should go to the star of the weekend, Charles Leclerc. After a terrible week at home, the Monegasque driver came to Baku and had a simply stunning weekend, a testament to his abilities behind the wheel and a great tribute to take home. “It was amazing! Our pace was very fast, I felt good in the car, and I was doing the quickest laptimes. I’m still very happy about the second place, and we had the fastest lap which gives us two extra points. I also had a lucky star for the second race with the technical issue of Oliver (Rowland), which happened to me in Monaco.
"We caught back what we lost in Monaco: that is important.”
Almost every racing driver would love to be in George Russell’s position. A drive with the most successful team in the GP3 Series? Check. Young driver programme with the reigning Formula 1 champions? Check. But how does it feel to be in the young Briton’s shoes? “It definitely gives me a lot of self-confidence, and makes me feel appreciated for my career and the job I’ve done up to that point.”
But getting the deal is only part of the job: now the hard work begins. “Yeah, exactly,” Russell confirms as we sit down in the back of the ART truck in the Barcelona paddock, with the young Mercedes driver about to make his GP3 Series debut. “They’re obviously invested in me, and they need me to be successful to take me to the next stage of my career, so from their side they want me to just focus on GP3, and to do my job here.”
So for all of those drivers out there hoping to replicate his success, how do you go about building a relationship with a company like Mercedes? “It all kind of started from racing in Formula 3 really,” Russell begins, “and my first relationship with Mercedes was at the end of 2014, where I did a test for them in F3. I consequentially raced with Volkswagen in my first year until at the end of 2015, when they approached me to be a Mercedes Formula 3 driver, which is a pretty common thing: they usually have 1 or 2 a year.
“I then moved to Hitech in 2016 with a Mercedes engine, and they sent me an email asking me if I would like to do a simulator test on their sim. I had a good couple of days of assessment, they thought I was pretty good, and then I had more of a sim role throughout the 2016 season with them before they then decided at the end of the year to make me a Mercedes F1 junior driver.
“So a lot of it was basically off the back of my being with a Mercedes engine in F3, to my role with the simulator and doing a good job there and with my results, and then getting the phone call really.”
What did it mean to get that call? “I wouldn’t say it was a massive relief, but I had been working so hard on my career to let’s say reach Formula 1, and as you go up the ladder you kind of realise it’s not as easy as you think it is: you think if I win I’ll get there, but it’s sometimes not as easy as that at all.
“Throughout the 2015 season I kind of set my sights on DTM: I had a small link with BMW at that time with the DTM scene, and that became my focus. I just thought Formula 1 is out of reach now, and that’s where I’m focusing towards. And suddenly the opportunity came, they offered me the deal to be a Mercedes young driver in Formula 3, and then they said there’s an opportunity of the F1 simulator stuff depending on how you get on.
“I was quite confident at this point, and I thought I need to take a risk here: if I turned it down and committed to the DTM route then the Mercedes thing was off, and I thought I have to take a risk, do a good job, and hopefully they’ll decide that I’m capable enough to be a part of their F1 driver programme.”
Racing careers turn on decisions like that, and so far it seems to be working out well. What has been the most eye opening part of working so closely with an F1 team? “I do a lot of sim work for them, and I’m learning an awful lot just doing that work: how to develop a car, the amount of work they do, and just how a Formula 1 team works.
“Obviously the guys at ART do a wonderful job, but in Formula 1 they just have so much extra data and resources they can use, and just to see how they use that is mind blowing really. To get an insight into this has made me take a bit of information from there, which has helped a lot on the GP3 side of things.
“It’s definitely been a benefit: their sim is so good, so realistic, that it’s almost like doing laps and laps around a real circuit! If I feel like I need to go to Silverstone, for example, and do a couple of laps at the end of the day because I’m not too comfortable with Silverstone, then I ask if they mind doing a couple of laps, they click a button on the computer, and there we are: we’ve gone from Barcelona to Silverstone in five minutes! From that side of things it’s great.”
And away from the circuit do they give you any help? “Yes, what they’ve done is give me a Hintsa Performance coach: a lot of the F1 guys, I think 12 of them, use Hintsa Performance, so I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been given a guy who has moved over to the UK to be my full time trainer, and that’s been a massive help.
“Obviously I was already doing full time training before, and eating well, but since having him here alongside me everything has just gone to another level really. At the stage I’m at in my career now that’s been really important: there’s such a fine line with everything. And I know that at any time I could potentially get a call saying ‘we need you to test here’, and I’ve got to be ready for that, and for the next stage of my career.”
But the focus has to be on the here and now, and Russell knows that, no matter how tempting it would be to hang around the F1 scene, his real priority has to be on his current job. “They’ve given me a pass for the [F1] paddock, which is great and I can go over there anytime I want, but I’ve decided to myself that I’m here to do one job: my main job is GP3, my Mercedes role is secondary, and they’re completely on board with that.
“From their side they need me to go out and be successful this year, and then the next stage of my career will follow from that. But for now my number 1 priority is GP3, and my Mercedes role is secondary.”
He got a double points haul on his debut, and the recent test at the Hungaroring demonstrated that the hard work is starting to pay off when he topped the first day: next stop Austria, to turn the testing results into racing success.
Watch this space.