Theo Pourchaire said he “could have driven a lot faster” in his dominant F2 feature race win in Bahrain, and Ralph Boschung praised his car too after two podiums. But did the pair have a pace advantage?
There were two standout drivers in the opening Formula 2 round at Bahrain, and both came away with a dominant win. Campos Racing’s Ralph Boschung made the most of clean air following a good start from reversed-grid pole to win the 23-lap sprint race, and Theo Pourchaire converted his ominously large pole advantage into an ominously large feature race win.
Boschung ended a very long wait for what was his maiden F2 win, having made the podium just four times in the 95 championship races he had previously contested, but his presence at the front was no surprise given he had started 2022 strongly on the same track with fifth place in qualifying and two fourth places in the races.
After two rounds last year, Boschung was actually the third strongest driver on one-lap pace and seventh on race pace, and a round later he picked up his third podium from his last 10 starts. A neck injury prevented him from building on that through the season, but he’s now fully recovered and – as in 2022 – has even been asked if he has a car capable of fighting for the title with.
“I definitely think that the team gave me a car that, as we saw today, can win races,” Boschung said last Saturday.
“I also think pole positions is clearly a possibility, more than just one. Obviously the level is just so high and you can make the slightest mistake and then be nowhere in a race weekend. The car is there to do it. It’s just everything has to go together.”
He added: “I am confident, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most confident [I’ve been in F2]. Last year, the beginning of the year, I felt really confident. Since the neck injury, things changed a little bit. I see racing a little bit differently than I did before, and I think the confidence maybe takes a little bit of time to come back. But obviously winning like this is going to be a big boost to my confidence.”
Sprint race fastest laps
Bold laps are set after pitstops
Boschung described his win as “basically running like in a test run alone; I didn’t have to fight, I didn’t have to defend, so it was just about managing the tyres”. He ended up finishing 10.848 seconds clear of second place at the end of the 23-lap race.
Boschung unsurprisingly had the best race pace, calculated by taking a driver’s best 10-lap rolling average from a stint, as he was able to focus on being consistent with not just his laptimes but also his inputs at the wheel. A less aggressive drive not only prolongs tyre life, but also lessens the strain on other compontents that need to last far longer than just a single race.
However Boschung was only the seventh best in the sprint race when it came to fastest laps, despite maintaining tyre life better later in the race, and his fastest effort was only the 15th best of the race. Four of the six drivers that went faster than him were drivers who chose to pit during the race – a tactic rarely seen in sprint races at anywhere other than Bahrain – and they all set their fastest laps late in the race on low fuel while Boschung and ART Grand Prix pairing Victor Martins and Pourchaire reached their peak pace within the first five laps and were unmatched for extracting pace from their starting tyre.
That Boschung, Pourchaire and Martins were also the top three on race pace is even more impressive, because those who pitted feasibly could have pushed harder on either set of tyres depending on when they timed their stop. And those who did go the full distance actually covered more mileage on a single set than the longest completed stints (22 laps) from the feature race, which had an early safety car period that helped drivers manage tyre temperatures.
Martins finished third in the sprint race and Pourchaire was fifth, from eighth and 10th on the grid respectively, and they shared the front row for Sunday’s feature race. Boschung started 10th, but climbed to third on the first lap as Martins dropped down the order with a slow start then got involved in a crash that put him out of the race.
The only driver Boschung had to pass to then reach Pourchaire was his Campos team-mate Kush Maini, and he did that almost immediately after the safety car period ended on lap four.
Boschung chose to start the race on Pirelli’s soft compound tyre, which is grippier than the hard compound but has a shorter shelf life when pushed to the limit, and therefore he could have had a pace advantage over the leader after showing the benefits of its grippiness with his lap one passes.
But, on a heavy fuel load, it actually meant the most sensible thing for Boschung to do once he was in second place – which was not taken into consideration with his strategy choice – was to prioritise consistency once again and try to make his tyres last as long as Pourchaire’s. He not only did that, but actually stayed out two laps longer than his rival.
“For sure I wanted to score points, stay or score big points if possible,” Boschung said post-race. “We took the decision to do the alternative strategy. It was kind of a gamble. We started with the option, I was I think the only car in the top 10 to be with the option tyres. And I just had a mega first lap, and to finish P2, I mean the car was just incredible.”
“We said we wanted to do the opposite of the guys in front to try to be in clear air, because our raw pace is very good this weekend.”
However Boschung admitted he couldn’t actually better Pourchaire’s pace in the opening stint, and after his two full laps in the lead following his rival’s stop he then returned to track in fourth place and with several drivers on his tail.
“With free air, it’s obviously a little bit easier to manage the tyres,” he said to Formula Scout. “And I was in traffic for a little bit during the race, so I tried to make sure I don’t overdrive behind the car. And when I got some pressure from the guys behind, I tried to intentionally make them use their rear tyres when I knew that they could anyway not really overtake me, so that they dropped a little bit.
“We worked with Campos, it was kind of our weak point last year, the race pace in general. We worked in testing really over the winter and in testing a lot, and I think we found a very decent baseline to start the season.”
Feature race fastest laps
Boschung, despite finishing second, dropped 18s to Pourchaire in the second stint and ended up being 15th fastest in the field on race pace (0.445s/lap down on Pouchaire) and also fastest laps, where he was 1.629s slower than Pourchaire’s best.
Aside from the two-stopping Brad Benavides (PHM Racing by Charouz), Clement Novalak (Trident) and Richard Verschoor (Van Amersfoort Racing), the fastest drivers on both fronts were Pourchaire and Rodin Carlin’s podium finisher Zane Maloney.
Maloney came from 18th on the grid to finish third, and echoed a bold statement from Pourchaire that he “had a lot more pace at hand” in the second stint despite eight of his passes taking place during that stint.
“The car was unbelievable. I was really able to push the whole race without any degradation,” added Maloney.
Formula Scout went prodding for more details, asking the podium trio how the handling of their cars had changed through the race. Of particular interest was Pourchaire, who maintained a 1m50s pace for 14 consecutive laps and actually got faster at the very end of the race while others got slower as their tyres aged – supporting his claim he “could have driven a lot faster”.
“With my strategy, it was a bit different because starting on prime with high fuel, the car is not easy to drive the first few laps,” Pourchaire said. “But then just after the pitstop – [it] was around mid-race or something like that – you have less fuel, soft tyres, the car is much more easier to drive. And at the end, you have a bit of tyre deg. Even with less fuel, it’s difficult to drive because it’s very warm and the rear tyres are struggling. So you need to adapt your driving through the race.”
Boschung said: “For us, starting on the option with heavy fuel, usually it’s not ideal. It’s actually better to be with the option towards the end and really push the tyres to the limit. So I just had to be very careful with the rear axle the whole time. Usually the front is never an issue on the option. Then once I boxed going on the prime, the tyre is a little bit slow in general and I just had to manage the slips again.”
The slips – i.e lateral sliding of the tyre during turning – increase the surface temperature and can increase also the wear and the stability of the tyre due to deformation of the sidewall. At a circuit like Bahrain, which has highly abrasive asphalt (which is therefore grippy), there are several tight corners such as the downhill Turn 10 left-hander which is particularly punishing on the tyres because of the tight apex even when drivers are off the brakes.
The comments from Maloney – in just his second weekend of racing in F2 – suggested his pace was set by those around him for much of the race, although his actual laptimes were usually faster than most on track.
“We started on the prime, but when you’re in such a big train, you’re just trying to stay where you are. There’s no sense in going for moves because then you just kill the tyre,” he said.
“On the prime, it was quite difficult to just stay behind the car, and if you didn’t, then you’re going to get overtaken. So it was more just follow the leader. Then when I boxed for options, they all undercut me so I had a bit of a gap. I could really push on. The balance was great on low fuel with the soft tyres.
“And to be honest, when I was coming through the field, I was thinking to myself ‘maybe in two or three laps, I’m gonna really drop off a cliff’, but that cliff never came and we were able to push to the end. So, to be honest, like Theo said, you need to change your driving throughout the race, and it’s a big difference from quali.”
There’s a lot to be learned from how all three of the podium finishers performed in the second half of the race, but the biggest question is to what degree it was individual brilliance and how much of it was down to strong baseline set-ups from the teams. The best way to assess if Pourchaire really had pace in hand was if Martins had been able to complete the feature race too, while Carlin looked rapid but also fragile at times and Campos have more than shown this kind of promise in the Middle East before. All eyes are now on Jeddah.
|Sprint race||Feature race|