The pre-season picture seemed conclusive, and the abrasive asphalt of Bahrain proved many predictions right in F2. But there was one team that only showed its promise in Jeddah and did so in style
Way back in 2019, Richard Verschoor won the Macau Grand Prix for MP Motorsport. It was a timely result, as it occurred just when his career needed a boost and just as the Dutch team began a big-name hiring spree.
Paolo Angilella, who had helped turn Prema into a dominant Formula 3 force, and his former colleague Daniele Rossi arrived at the start of 2020 and then a year later the rebranded Alpine Academy signed up to MP’s vision by sending its juniors there for F3. Felipe Drugovich had reaped the rewards of the technical expansion as an F2 rookie in 2020, with a win on just his second start and a maiden pole at his fourth attempt being highlights, while behind-the-scenes there continued to be new signings and promotions from within MP’s ranks to bolster its efforts in Formula 1’s support series.
MP’s F2 line-up for 2021 was able to show the progress being made technically, but the seemingly underfunded Verschoor only once got a top result out of a car that looked seriously quick in the final two rounds in the hands of Jack Doohan and also Clement Novalak after Verschoor and team-mate Lirim Zendeli lost their drives.
At that point Mattia Oselladore also joined the team. The Italian was Prema’s technical director in its most dominant years in FIA European F3 and did the 2019 F2 season before becoming a driver manager and then being hired by MP as an F2 race engineer last December.
Post-season testing that month hinted even more heavily that MP had a very strong package, with long-run pace in particular looking formidable. But it wasn’t able to repeat that in pre-season testing at Bahrain, with returnee Drugovich only doing one viable stint between red flag stoppages and Novalak appearing on track in far shorter bursts that left pundits, and quite possibly MP, with very little data at hand to compare it to its opponents. And that story continued into round one.
Average race pace
Novalak had two messy races, only one of which he finished, while Drugovich qualified well enough to start on sprint race pole but faded to sixth, and finished fifth in the chaotic feature race after pitting early. After losing his front wing there wasn’t much to learn from Novalak’s sprint race, but on race pace Drugovich was fourth in the sprint and third in the feature.
He’s now top of the standings, with a feature race win, sprint race podium and a pole to his name from round two in Jeddah, but Novalak is still without points or much usable race data so MP’s form can only be assessed by the efforts of one driver. What we have definitely learned still is that the project going on at the team is making it faster, and it has a driver capable of making the most of it. Whether Novalak can avoid his usual tricky rookie seasons in series could influence MP’s later form.
Pre-season much of the talk was about Carlin’s Liam Lawson, who had set the benchmark pace over a single lap and on long runs during testing and was full of confidence. Bahrain was a circuit where he won on debut in 2021, and his return there resulted in two podiums to start 2022. He then won the Jeddah sprint race, but pitstop trouble ended his podium run after.
Lawson didn’t win at Bahrain because he didn’t get the job done in qualifying, although teams didn’t quite realise going into the weekend how crucial that session would be. The updated tyre compounds from Pirelli proved equally capable when it came to durability, and it meant the ideal strategy by the end of the first weekend was to start on the harder compound and then switch to the softer one as early as possible as it provided the grip for faster laptimes. But an early stop posed a greater risk of exiting into traffic and then on cold rubber not being able to make progress past slower drivers still on their first set of tyres.
Another factor that influenced the strategy calls was the expectation that safety cars would be prevalent, which proved to be the case at Bahrain but not entirely in Jeddah. In the latter round, Prema’s Jehan Daruvala went for an undercut and ended up moving from outside the top 10 to earning a podium finish as a result.
It was a strange outcome because of the factors contributing to performance in Jeddah beyond wing levels, given straight-line speed’s importance when the majority of the track is acceleration zones, and suspension stiffness.
The track surface there is only a few months old and still very slick compared to the sand-pelted abrasive asphalt of Bahrain, but F2 holding its races in the day while Formula 1 raced at night in Saudi Arabia meant ambient temperatures were higher so tyre temperatures would build as quickly as they would have after dusk at Bahrain. The available grip level was high enough that, to put it kindly, drivers were less likely to crash out on new tyres.
Because of the two very different circuit demands and surfaces, and the unexpected durability of Pirelli’s soft compound which several drivers pointed out in their conclusions from both weekends, it does make it somewhat redundant to combine data from the first two rounds. But there are patterns that are clear from 2021 that have carried over, and on race pace there were eight different teams in the top eight which shows F2 is on course for another highly competitive first half of the season.
Starting out in front is an obvious advantage for being fast over a race distance, with overtaking proving possible still but requiring a set-up compromise to have an effective race car in the situation of starting in the pack. A redundant comment to some extent when the cars are set up with qualifying and the softest compound in mind, knowing it should be suitable for the race too and that drivers will just have to endure a slightly slower car and possibly one struggling for grip entirely when completing race stints on the harder compound. ART Grand Prix’s Theo Pourchaire was fast enough on both tyres to win the Bahrain feature race despite saying the hard had “no grip”, and Drugovich had the advantage over Trident’s Richard Verschoor in Jeddah although the latter actually was the faster in the second stint. The post-pitstop laps made the difference.
In the Jeddah sprint race, Van Amersfoort Racing’s Jake Hughes looked to have made the right choice using the softs as his starting tyre, but there wasn’t quite enough running behind the safety car for him to hold the advantage over the medium runners to the end of the race and the 27-turn lap took its toll on his rubber and left him finishing third rather than first.
Daruvala’s charge there and Bahrain podium means after four races he leads the way on race pace, calculated using a 10-lap rolling average. Hitech GP’s Juri Vips is second after surprising himself with his consistent pace in the Bahrain feature race which he nearly won before the safety car came, and Drugovich’s time at the front in Jeddah has helped put him in third place.
Lawson is fourth after his faulty wheel change cut short his most recent race, and is showing the consistent frontrunning pace Carlin had in 2021. Alternate strategies for the likes of Vips’ team-mate Marcus Armstrong has meant he’s in the top 10 with enough clean air running compared to rivals, while Daruvala’s rookie team-mate Dennis Hauger is down in 13th and may not quite have the pace to be one of the top drivers yet but did lead the Jeddah sprint race before a race control mix-up.
The frequent safety cars in that race though meant data from there isn’t actually included in Formula Scout’s compilation of long-run data because it’s not representative when there are no more than five consecutive laps ran at a representative pace.
DAMS is once again lacking in qualifying pace, and therefore race pace on the soft tyre, but does look strong in races even if the numbers don’t immediately show it. In between overtaking people, the laptimes of Ayumu Iwasa and Roy Nissany have actually been consistent over stints and they have less of a pace drop-off than most of their opposition until any hefty lock-ups while in battle. But with the outright pace not there in the first place, it means the pair are starting races deeply mired in traffic and then holding on to their positions where possible rather than rising up the order. Iwasa did go on a back-to-front charge at Bahrain but when DAMS’ cars have been pushed to their limits other problems away from tyres have reared up.
On single-lap pace it is Drugovich and Verschoor, who took Trident’s first GP2/F2 win since 2016 in the season-opening race, that are on top and Campos Racing’s Ralph Boschung is in third after continuing his late-season 2021 form. He could feasibly be on top were it not for some close shaves with other drivers in qualifying, and is one of many who has suffered from car problems already. A few self-inflicted errors has hampered his races too and like Novalak he knows he has a very fast car underneath him but has already had too many moments that have stopped him from being a victory contender.
The FIA F3 Championship supported F2 at Bahrain, and while its pre-season test there had made it look very much like an open shop on who would be at the front it turned out that the testing order pretty much translated into the race weekend.
Average race pace
Hitech’s Isack Hadjar was third fastest on long-run pace in the F3 sprint and fastest in the feature, which he finished in first and 25th place respectively, and he topped the race pace table in testing too. It was Prema’s Ollie Bearman who was quickest in the sprint race, having led from the front and taken an on-the-road debut win before a track limits penalty dropped him behind Hadjar.
The reason Hadjar is at the top of the race pace average already is he picked up a puncture while battling MP’s Alexander Smolyar in the feature race and ended up at the back of the field but in clean air once he had pitted. With fresher rubber than his rivals and fewer side-by-side battles to then worry about, his only rivals on pace were Trident’s Roman Stanek – another to pit after getting a puncture from battle – and Prema’s Arthur Leclerc who charged from 13th to third in the first half of the race and then hunted ART Grand Prix’s race winner Victor Martins.
Omitting the sprint race pitters leaves Trident’s Zane Maloney on top, and it looks very much like his team and Leclerc’s are already continuing their fight at the front from last year. ART GP looks even quicker than before, and corresponds with team boss Sebastien Philippe’s comments that all three of his drivers will be able to contend for top results, and MP’s technical growth continues into F3 as its trio of drivers are all in the top 14 on race pace (despite Kush Maini having to start from the back of the 30-car grid for his 15th and 16th place finishes) and qualified within the top 13.
Only Prema in the races and ART GP in qualifying could boast the same, although Trident likely would have joined them had Red Bull junior Jonny Edgar not been fighting through the weekend with a long-term illness that has led to him losing a significant amount of weight during the off-season and created a physical challenge for him to even drive in Bahrain.
Next up for both series is Imola, a track that GP2 last visited in 2011 and FIA F3’s predecessor GP3 never got around to, so the whole competitive picture could be shaken up again. Whoever masters one-lap pace for the track should be in a good position to have cleaner races up front, move up Formula Scout’s data tables and most importantly score a big haul of points to remain in title contention.
More from the start of the season
Reflecting on a rare F2 weekend where racing wasn’t the big talking point
Five things we learned from the 2022 FIA F3 season opener