The first round of the 2017 FIA Formula 2 Championship opened in Sakhir, Bahrain under unsurprisingly hot and sunny conditions, with Oliver Rowland the first man to put himself on the top of the timesheets for a session: the Briton stopped the clocks at 1:42.221 just nine minutes into a session which saw track temperatures soar to 45 ̊C. But it was a close run thing: Artem Markelov was less than a tenth off his time, with Charles Leclerc just over it.
If the practice session would be indicative of the race pace for many on the grid, it would have little bearing on qualifying: the session took place in the markedly cooler conditions of the evening, with Leclerc claiming the bragging rights (and pole) with a stunning single lap time of 1:38.907, betting the house on running on an empty track in the middle of the session with his rivals unable to capitalise following a VSC period at the end for a crash between Gustav Malja and Nabil Jeffri, growing the margin back to PREMA teammate Antonio Fuoco and Nyck De Vries from less than a tenth to almost eight tenths.
“That was stressful!” he laughed afterwards. “It was the first session of the year, and we never really know what to expect from the others. To be honest, my team and my engineer have done an amazing job with the set-up of the car. It was amazing. I was not really happy with my first lap, but we were still P1 which was a bit surprising to me. And on the second lap, I managed to put everything together although I lost a little bit in the last corner, but apart from that it was a really good lap.
“We are quite happy as well with the strategy: we did one push on the first set to keep the tyres for the race so we know we have better tyres for the race. It looks good!”
Back to the desert heat for the feature race, and Markelov was about to claim first blood in the championship: the Russian made a tremendous start from P7 (having been impeded the previous evening in qualifying) to P3 behind Leclerc and Norman Nato, with the Frenchman moving forward early in the race. But Markelov was biding his time and preserving his tyres, so when Nato (lap 15) and Leclerc (lap 16) stopping well before the Russian (lap 17), giving him the opportunity to lean on his tyres harder, with Markelov claiming the top spot with 2 laps to go before winning by almost 8 seconds.
“My engineer was always saying to me that I had to be patient and it will come to me at the end, and it was a really nice strategy to win the race! I have to say thanks to my engineer and my team for this great result. I learned a lot from last year about managing the tyres, and that was what really helped me here in this first race: hopefully we can win the next race as well!”
Just to increase the drama, Leclerc made a pitstop in the sprint race and still ran home the comfortable winner: PREMA had two options, one with a pitstop and one without, with the Monegasque driver opting for Plan B after picking up early tyre degradation and pushing hard for the lead of the race before stopping for a set of options and pushing hard all the way to the line to reclaim the lead and win what looked like one of the toughest races of his career.
“It was an unbelievable race!” he laughed afterwards. “At the start we were still hesitating between Plan A and Plan B, and after some laps I found myself in P2 and decided to call for Plan B and push, because the degradation was already hard at the beginning. So I began to push and I could stay at a good pace for a long time on the prime, we stopped at the right time on the lap we wanted to stop and went on the option, and to be honest until the last 4 laps I didn’t believe we could catch up until Luca and Oliver started to fight for quite a long time, and we managed to win. I have to thank my engineer for a great car and a great strategy: it has been good!”