The GP2 name may be gone but F1’s top feeder series, newly rebranded as the FIA Formula 2 Championship, continues with the same machinery and the same close racing between young, hungry race drivers looking to make a name for themselves. In my three years of following the GP2 Series, I’ve grown familiar with the crazy, desperate on-track battling within a grid comprising of both precocious and inexperienced young drivers. It wasn’t uncommon for tempers to flare during races and if the heat in the Bahrain desert was any indication that we would see some drivers losing their cool, to my surprise, this was the cleanest race I have ever seen in my time with this series. Even those who have had notorious reputations for questionable driving standards were well-behaved in the midst of the desert heat.
First, the start of the race was enough to impress me. I didn’t notice any contact whatsoever and no debris went flying. Everyone negotiated the tight first corner very smartly. As the opening lap went on, I saw a few ‘dive bomb’ maneuvers but they were all controlled and led to no contact.
For the first few laps, a steady train of cars headed the pack with no apparent leading group of cars but slowly, a clear top three started to pull away from the rest. The man who started from pole and reigning GP3 Series Champion Charles Leclerc of Prema Racing led for a few laps before being overtaken by series veteran Norman Nato of Arden International. These two were followed closely behind by another series stalwart, Team Russian Time’s Artem Markelov. Later on, Leclerc would regain his lead from Nato just as the latter was beginning to experience graining on his Medium compound tires. Markelov would move up to second place right before Nato made his mandatory pit stop. Then, Markelov would catch up to the leader, right before Leclerc went into the pits.
Leclerc, a Ferrari Academy Junior Driver, emerged ahead of Nato after his pit stop but the latter would immediately take back the net lead of the race. Meanwhile, Markelov continued on for a few more laps before finally making his pit stop, where he would emerge back into third place behind the leading duo of Nato and Leclerc.
With all the front runners done with their respective mandatory pit stops, it was a sprint to the checkered flag. Up to around three-quarters race distance, Nato and Leclerc enjoyed a comfortable lead from their nearest threat. From there on, Markelov made his tire strategy work and drove a remarkable stint on Soft tires that were a handful of laps fresher than the two front runners. No one managed their tires better than Markelov on this day. On both of his stints, he invested on tire life by saving holding back a bit of pace early for the opportunity to attack late. This strategy paid dividends and Markelov’s execution of it was right on the money.
In the last few laps, Markelov chased down Nato and Leclerc by lapping up to two seconds faster than both of them. The Russian driver calmly made the two passes to gain the lead and march emphatically to the first checkered flag of the Formula 2 season, claiming victory for the first time since his impressive yet perplexing win in last year’s Monaco Feature Race. In his previous three seasons in the GP2 Series, he wasn’t always the calmest driver in the field but today, I saw a racer who has leapt into a new level of maturity. Under the glare of the sun, Markelov drove with blistering pace but attacked coolly. And to be fair, the entire field kept their poise just as much as the race winner did.
Despite his aforementioned victory in Monaco last year, this will technically count as Markelov’s first race win in the F2 Championship because technically, everyone is a rookie following the rebranding.
Honestly, the crash-free racing surprised me and I might even say that after just one race, driving standards in this series have taken a step up. We’ll see again in tomorrow’s Sprint Race if they continue to head on down the right path.