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.