Three days, 10 teams and 20 brand-new cars descended on Paul Ricard last week for Formula 2’s first official pre-season test ahead of the 2018 season.
While it is perilous to draw conclusions from testing ahead of any category’s curtain-raiser, the week did provide some intriguing hints into what F2’s pecking order will look like in 2018.
Billed to be the battle of the promising Brits, pre-season chatter prior to the opening test had highlighted Lando Norris and George Russell as likely candidates to contest for the title and the three days at Paul Ricard served to suggest that the narrative has mileage.
Norris, who enters his debut season in F2 with Carlin and as the reigning European Formula 3 champion, topped the overall timesheet for the week, with a benchmark of 1m42.226 posted on the second day of the test.
His initial pace has been hugely impressive. His only previous experience of the uniquely delicate Pirelli tyres was his debut F2 race weekend in the 2017 season finale in Abu Dhabi, (where his feature race was curtailed after just four laps following an engine failure). To compound matters, Carlin is a returnee to the series this season having not competed in ’17.
Norris has plenty of challenges to overcome this season, and that’s before he faces off against the reigning GP3 champion Russell.
ART Grand Prix’s Russell was the star performer on the final day of the test. Following a dismal day two in which he only recorded 15 timed laps, Russell topped the mileage charts the next day and posted his fastest time of the week. His 1m42.396s was the third fastest time of the test.
However, the timesheet does not tell the full story. Russell was one of only four drivers to set their fastest times of the week on the final day, with the second day proving to be when the track offered the best grip of the test. As such, Norris and Russell are likely to be either neck-and-neck or the latter carries a small advantage away for the opening test.
Their team-mates could well play a pivotal role if indeed the championship fight is between Norris and Russell. Both Carlin’s Sergio Sette Camara and ART’s Jack Aitken posted personal best times for the week within two-tenths of their team-mates.
Camara was another star performer of the test. His maiden campaign in F2 last year was one of anonymity before his breakthrough sprint race victory at Spa and subsequent podium at Monza. He seems set to continue his strong end-of-season form into this year. Camara finished second on the overall timesheet – a slender 0.166s adrift of Norris – and was the faster Carlin on the final day.
Fourth on the overall timesheet and 0.180s away from the top spot was Alexander Albon. His debut F2 campaign in 2017 was marred by a collarbone injury mid-season. Albon returned to form by the end of the year, securing second in the final sprint race following a dramatic last lap dice for victory with champion Charles Leclerc.
DAMS is yet to announce it’s 2018 driver line-up, but with Albon performing well during the test and occupying the car on all three days, it seems inevitable that the Thai driver will be confirmed at the team.
Albon is likely to partner Force India Formula 1 reserve Nicholas Latifi, albeit the Canadian missed the entire test due to illness. He was replaced by Oliver Rowland and Macau GP winner Daniel Ticktum, who both finished within the top 12 on the overall timesheet, suggesting that the new-liveried DAMS will be a competitive package this season.
Promising pace was also demonstrated by F2 rookie Arjun Maini. Having hit the ground running by topping the times on day two of the Abu Dhabi post-season test at the end of 2017, the GP3 graduate and Trident recruit finished seventh on the overall timesheet at Paul Ricard.
Trident struggled to regularly score points last season and finished bottom of the teams’ championship as a result. Maini’s impressive opening test pace suggests that 2018 could be a better year.
Despite being new entrants to the series this season, Charouz gave the impression of being veterans of the series during the test, with both Louis Deletraz and Antonio Fuoco showing early pace. The former’s 1m42.698 was an excellent time and suggests that the team could fight for victories in 2018 if it can quickly understand the art of managing the Pirelli rubber.
This was something that Prema managed in emphatic fashion upon entering the series in 2016. Having guided both Pierre Gasly and Leclerc to GP2/F2 championship glory during their only two seasons in the second-tier series, Prema is an unbeaten force so far.
One-time race winner Nyck de Vries is part of an all-new driver line-up at Prema in 2018 and was initially anticipated to be the most prominent title protagonist outside of the British contingent.
Contrary to past form, the team had a quiet test. De Vries finished eighth on the overall timesheet, 0.475s behind Norris. His team-mate Sean Gelael was a lowly 16th. Prema did complete a healthy number of laps across the week though, finishing with a total of 383 – three more than ART managed and only six less than Carlin.
The combination of de Vries and Prema will almost certainly be a race winning one in 2018, albeit a quiet first test has served to temper expectations.
Reigning team’s champions Russian Time beat Prema to the king of anonymity accolade during the test. The team completed the fewest number of laps of any outfit, clocking a measly 317, while 2017 series vice-champion Artem Markelov was 17th on the overall timesheet and rookie Tadasuke Makino was 20th.
Having been absent from November’s provisional 2018 entry list, Russian Time was a surprise addition to the grid this year. The slow start is perhaps attributable to a lack of preparation compared with rival teams. What is certain is that Russian Time is the team with the most ground to make up during the second and final test in Bahrain.
This three-day test begins on March 21 at the Sakhir International Circuit. The venue also hosts the season-opener, with the first feature race of 2018 on April 6 followed by the reversed grid sprint race the following day.