Formula 2 may have a brand-new car along with some fresh faces in 2018, but the excitement and competitive nature of the series remains unaltered.
In a frantic feature race in which tyre degradation proved to be a key factor, a rookie win was hardly in the script – but McLaren Formula 1 protege Lando Norris clearly didn’t receive the memo.
Claiming pole position on Friday evening after edging out compatriot and reigning GP3 champion George Russell, Norris had demonstrated his raw speed. The next day, his credentials as a prospective championship challenger were laid out in definitive fashion.
A lightning start, pre-eminent pace and excellent tyre management allowed him to build a 10-second lead over the chasing pack. He comfortably claimed victory in only his second F2 feature race.
In Sunday’s sprint race, it looked as though an engine misfire issue would end Norris’s weekend prematurely. Stuttering out of the final corner on lap two of 23, Norris slipped from fifth to sixth and lost several seconds before his Mecachrome engine fired back into life.
However, Norris recovered and eventually challenged his team-mate Sergio Sette Camara for the final ticket to the podium at the end of the race. Camara’s defence was unbreakable and Norris was forced to settle for fourth.
A pole, a podium and a determined drive to fourth on only his second weekend in an F2 paddock, Norris left Bahrain with an impressive 39 points. This time last year, eventual champion Charles Leclerc had gathered 36.
Given that Norris’s first taste of champagne in the series has come at a circuit in which the Pirelli rubber is at its most unforgiving, there is a strong case to label him as championship favourite.
With Camara having grabbed a double-podium result in the second Carlin, it would seem that the team is also well-placed to challenge for the teams’ championship. Carlin may be a prestigious name in junior single-seater racing, but given its absence from the 2017 F2 field, its speed out of the blocks with both cars this season is hugely impressive.
The other standout story of the weekend was the determination and race-craft demonstrated by Artem Markelov.
The expectation was that Markelov would shine as he enters his fifth season at GP2/F2 level, but pre-season testing had been far from conclusive. Russian Time had struggled for pace and recorded below average mileage. Markelov’s best times had even been eclipsed by team-mate and series’ rookie Tadasuke Makino.
After qualifying 17th and then further complicating matters by stalling before the feature race formation lap, Markelov’s weekend looked to be following the testing trend.
He then proceeded to stun the field, scything up the order from his pitlane start and eventually reaching the podium places. But for a stunning display of defiant defence from Camara, Markelov would have finished second. His strengths have historically been in tyre management and performing bold overtakes and both traits were on full-display in Bahrain.
With the pre-season cobwebs well and truly eradicated it was a measured drive in Sunday’s sprint race to deliver his seventh F2 victory. Markelov’s double-podium in Bahrain has seen him settle into second place in the drivers’ standings.
In year five at this level, anything less than a title will resemble failure. After all, he was 2017’s vice-champion. Markelov is a man under pressure but his performance in Bahrain demonstrated that he is capable of handling the weight of expectation.
If Markelov started the weekend poorly but built to an impressive crescendo when it mattered, then Russell’s debut weekend in F2 showcased the opposite.
Russell was just 0.062 seconds adrift of Norris’s qualifying pace. Just as fans enthused about a front-row featuring the prospective championship protagonists and the opening chapter of the billed “Battle of the Brits,” Russell fluffed his lines suffering huge wheelspin off the line and descending down the order.
He fought back to finish fifth but then endured another dire start in Sunday’s sprint race. One of five cars to stall on either the formation lap or race start, Russell was lapped en route to an 18th place finish.
Given ART Grand Prix’s strength in pre-season testing, where both pace and mileage had suggested that it would be the team to beat in 2018, Russell would have expected more than 10 points from the opening weekend.
To already trail Norris by 29 points is an early dent to his title hopes. In a series as competitive as F2, difficult weekends are somewhat of an inevitability, but in a 12-round season, a driver can only afford one or two sub-optimal outings if they are to take championship glory by November. Russell has already used up one of his off-weekends in round one and that simply serves to enhance the pressure going forward.
Elsewhere, Maximilian Gunther ensured that Norris was not the only rookie to earn plaudits following the season-opener. In the recognisably pink Arden, Gunther converted an all-action feature race performance into a sprint race pole as a result of finishing eighth.
Reverse grid pole can often be a detrimental weight on a driver, particularly a series rookie in a strategically complex and tyre-limited sprint race, but Gunther was up for the challenge. He lost out in an early battle with Markelov but managed to hold off the advances of the Carlin duo to secure second.
Two lock-ups within the space of a lap mid-race suggested that the rookie’s podium aspirations were crumbling but he demonstrated great resolve to recover his pace and consistency.
European Formula 3 is a great proving ground for single-seater talent and on the basis of his Bahrain exploits, Gunther could join Norris as a graduate winner in F2 this year.
Bahrain staged a titanic round of F2 in which the highly anticipated Norris and Russell battle was not the main story. Instead, Markelov showed a champion’s determination, Gunther impressed on debut and Camara highlighted that Carlin will not be a one-man team. Russell and ART have work to do in order to deliver on their pre-season promise.
F2 is at its intriguing best in 2018.