The first season of the new Formula 2 in 2017 was really just a last hurrah for GP2, albeit one that produced one of the championship’s most impressive graduates yet in Charles Leclerc.
2018 is more like a proper new start, with the first new car for seven years. There are also several exciting new drivers (as opposed to just one), as the top three GP3 drivers and two of the top three European Formula 3 drivers from last year all make the step up. That increased number of potential F1 stars should be met with increased promotion and attention courtesy of Liberty Media.
Hopes for a increased number of cars faded over the winter, but it has very much been the second-rate drivers that have decided to stay away rather than absolute superstars, and so the amount of exciting talent runs deep into the 20-car grid. Several race-winners from other competitive championships will end the year outside of the top 10.
Pre-season testing seemed more difficult to read this time than in the past, with the new car providing a reset of the form book among the teams. Here is Formula Scout’s guide to what to expect from each.
For a while it looked like Russian Time would not defend the teams’ title it won last year, but here it is back for more along with?series veteran Artem Markelov, now entering his?fifth season with the team.
Markelov enjoyed his best season to date last year, picking up four victories and finishing runner-up to champion Charles Leclerc, to complete an incredible?transformation since his first year in the series, where he finished 24th in the championship with six points.
Will his upward trajectory continue into 2018, or has Markelov reached a glass ceiling? He lacks experience of developing cars, and Russian Time may not be as well-placed as Prema, ART or Carlin in this regard – something pre-season testing seemed to back up. What he does have in his favour is his experience with the Pirelli tyres. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he qualified only mid-pack in Bahrain, yet still repeated his feature race win from 12 months ago.
Perhaps the biggest positive from pre-season testing was the performance of Markelov’s new team-mate?Tadasuke Makino. It?s quite the jump for the 20-year-old Honda protege, considering he only finished his maiden Formula 3 European season in 15th.
However he ended 2017 with strong form, backing up the results that made him highly rated in his homeland, and he could surprise many.
Given the way Prema turned up and utterly dominated the last two seasons in the life of the GP2/11, it has to be considered a major threat when everybody starts with a blank sheet of paper. What could make things interesting however is that fact that all of Prema’s hopes, both in terms of pure results but also in terms of developing a fast car, rest with one driver.
This is the chance of Nyck de Vries‘ career. Too often, due to politics and dwindling resources at McLaren, he has been ended up making the wrong move at the wrong moment, and lacked confidence in the clear ability he’s possessed since he was a kid. Now, there will be no excuses.
In his rookie F2 season in 2017, split between two beleaguered and now absent teams, he was rapid over a lap, but never really mastered the tyres in the races. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that problem has already vanished by his first race with Prema, given how the team helped Pierre Gasly, Antonio Giovinazzi and Charles Leclerc to get on top of it, and this could give him a decisive advantage over the strong crop of rookies that are expected to be his biggest challengers.
He might still be awaiting his first test for McLaren, but de Vries’ many years on the Woking simulator could be invaluable in developing the new car. Yet, the big doubt is that if he does ever end up down a set-up cul-de-sac, he doesn’t have somebody with similar experience on the other side of the garage to guide him out of it.
Sean Gelael doesn’t deserve all of the stick that he gets. For starters, where would Antonio Giovinazzi, Tom Blomqvist and de Vries be now without the family’s generosity? Also, in defence of his F2 record so far, this will (in theory) be the first time he has had properly competitive machinery.
However, it would also not be unfair to say he’s the only driver on the F2 grid to not have shown some decent promise at some point in his career. Sadly, there has been little evidence in pre-season to suggest that might be about to change.
DAMS couldn’t have left it much later to formally confirm its driver line-up for Bahrain, but in reality both Nicholas Latifi and Alex Albon have seem fixed at the French outfit since December’s Abu Dhabi test. Except that Latifi was forced to miss the first proper test with the new cars because of illness, which surely puts him on the back foot at the start of the season.
The DAMS package looked quick without Latifi at Paul Ricard, both in the hands of Albon but also super-subs Oliver Rowland and Dan Ticktum. But having consistently placed in the top 10 in France, DAMS was then was rarely seen in it in the Bahrain test, so this team’s place in the pecking order is as much of a mystery as any.
DAMS does know what it’s doing with a single-seater at this level though, and it can count on what could be one of the most balanced driver pairings out there.
Latifi took a huge stride forward last year, comparing well to Rowland. The new car and talented rookie intake means it won’t be easy to build upon that, but another top-five finish and the superlicence points with it could be enough to get him to F1, given the considerable financial clout he is considered to have.
Albon meanwhile didn’t live up to expectation at ART last year, but showed glimpses of promise (like joining Leclerc on the front row on his Monaco debut) before injury interrupted his season, and should only be stronger for that year’s experience. That he is only currently confirmed for Bahrain is a disappointing surprise.
ART Grand Prix
In contrast to Prema and DAMS, ART has entrusted two rookies to help it get up to speed with the new car. There’s good reason for that though, with?George Russell and?Jack Aitken?earning promotions after finishing one-two in GP3 last year with the team.
Although they have no experience at this level, both drivers are well equipped to help create a fast car, given they have been working on the simulators at the Mercedes and Renault Formula 1 teams respectively for more than a year, and have earned increased roles and backing from those teams thanks in no small part to the strength of that work. In some respects, that makes this the strongest team on the grid, with two trusted opinions to rely on when it comes to car setup.
Russell starts among the three main title favourites for most, with little reason to believe he can’t continue the speed and maturity that made him one of the most impressive GP3 champions to date.
But do not discount Aitken, who believes the faster car could suit him better than GP3. He was the top rookie in his debut F2 test in Abu Dhabi in December, and there has been nothing to separate the team-mates in pre-season.
If there’s one clear weakness in ART’s arsenal, it’s the drivers’ lack of experience of F2 race distances, but neither had any trouble meeting the need for good tyre management in GP3.
Last year, the Dutch team ended its wait for its first victory in the series since Marco Sorensen won the 2014 Sochi sprint race last year, when Sergio Sette Camara won at Spa.
It heads into 2018 with a brand new driver line-up. GP3 race winner Ralph Boschung switches from Campos. The Swiss driver had torrid luck in his maiden F2 season, and expect a much bigger points haul this year than the 11 he achieved last year.
Boschung will be partnered by ex-Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi, as he continues to try to relaunch his career after multiple appearances last season.
Merhi showed his podium potential at Monza last year, but also some erratic driving that isn’t what one would expect of such an experienced and successful single-seater racer. Mega in Formula 3 and Formula Renault 3.5 but lacklustre in the DTM and F1, it remains to be seen how good Merhi can be in F2, but he struggled to set the best times in?testing.
Arden is keen to use the introduction of a new car to return to its glory days at this level, and has given itself a great chance of doing that with an exciting all-rookie line-up in Maximilian Gunther and Nirei Fukuzumi.
Gunther set the fastest time of the Bahrain test, and brings the pink of BWT to the team after finishing in the top three of the Formula 3 European Championship in both of the last two years.
After four winless years, Nato put Arden back on the top step of the podium for the first time since 2012, in Baku last year, and there is no reason why Gunther can’t continue that good work.
He won?t be the only one capable of putting Arden on the podium, with Honda junior Fukuzumi also keen to impress. Unlike his compatriot Makino, there are no doubts over whether Fukuzumi is ready for F2 graduation. ?He?s spent the last two years in GP3, finishing last year just seven points off the runner-up spot held by his team-mate Aitken.
Gaining Red Bull athlete status off the back of Honda’s tie-up with Toro Rosso, this is Fukuzumi?s chance at proving he?s ready to make his F1 debut in front of his employees. Gunther’s future may realistically lie outside F1, but he and Fukuzumi form arguably Arden?s most promising line-up this decade.
Campos heads into 2018 in far better shape than one year ago, thanks largely to a new title sponsor through Monaco-based Italian?Salvatore Gandolfo, whose investment has helped to bring in an?extremely competent lead driver in Luca Ghiotto.
When Ghiotto is on form, there are few who can challenge him. Take Monza last year for example, where he took the chequered flag first in both the feature and sprint races (though he would only keep the sprint race win). He was unstoppable and bounced back from heartbreak in style.
He has a point to prove after been second fiddle to Markelov for most of 2017. Campos is undoubtedly Ghiotto?s team this year and it’s down to the man who was narrowly beaten to the 2015 GP3 title by current Formula 1 driver Esteban Ocon, to lead them back to the front. His combination of ability and experience could make him a dark horse.
Though he is a multiple World Series Formula V8 3.5 race winner, Roy Nissany?s junior formula credentials pale in comparison to Ghiotto?s thus far. This will be his first real test against arguably the highest quality grid in junior single-seater racing.
Despite pairing two Haas-affiliated juniors together, Trident’s line-up is perhaps the most lacking in any star quality, but it could spring a?surprise or too, particularly in the case of?Arjun Maini.
The Indian rookie has shown consistently quick pace through pre-season testing, backing up the speed he showed on his first time in the previous generation car in Abu Dhabi in December.
Karun Chandhok’s protege exceeded expectations when he rivalled Russell when the pair were team-mates in BRDC F4. His rise since has been relatively unspectacular, and he’s unlikely to be providing a title challenge to the Briton this time around, but things are certainly looking positive.
For?Santino Ferrucci, some of the same points apply. The promise he showed when he scored a pair of top-five F3 finishes at the Norisring not long after his 16th birthday has hardly been seen in the three and a half years since, with hindsight showing some of his career moves to be rather unwise.
Stepping up to F2 mid-way through last year because he was struggling in GP3 could have looked odd at the time, but his early performances without any prior testing – he scored in his first two feature races – were genuinely impressive.
And yet he has come nowhere near to matching Maini’s form in pre-season, with Trident’s duo displaying one of the biggest disparities in the pack.
Trevor Carlin doesn’t like to do things by halves. It’s why he pulled his team out of GP2 after a lacklustre 2016 campaign, and why he is back just one season later after the opportunity arose to take his British Formula 4 and European Formula 3 champion Lando Norris to the next level.
The potent combination of talent and resources that Norris brings has allowed Carlin to do this properly, and that includes re-hiring Italian engineer Daniele Rossi following a spell at Prema that included aiding Antonio Giovinazzi’s stunning rookie campaign in 2016.
Norris took Carlin back to the top in F3 last year against the might of Prema and there’s very little reason as to why he can’t do the same in F2, particularly given the relative levelling of the playing field that the new car provides. Topping the first two days of testing was ominous – although perhaps not as much as leading the last two days would have been.
The need for race management will provide Norris with an extra challenge this year, and he’s newer to the concept of the Pirelli tyres than the GP3 graduates are – but he already looked good on them in last year’s Abu Dhabi sprint race when he charged into the top 10 in the closing stages.
Carlin’s effort is not all about one driver though, having also managed to attract?Sergio Sette Camara, probably thanks to the success of their one prior weekend working together, when the Brazilian was only denied Macau Grand Prix victory in 2016 by a pair of veterans.
The Brazilian’s sprint race win at Spa last year might have been his first victory in car racing, but it also made him the youngest winner at that level since Fernando Alonso at the same circuit some 17 years earlier. His talent is clear, and he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Charouz Racing System
Carlin isn?t the only newcomer who looked strong throughout testing. Charouz?s all-sophomre line-up of Antonio Fuoco and Louis Deletraz regularly featured at the top of the table at both Paul Ricard and Bahrain.
Both are looking to make amends after a damaging 2017. Fuoco has already began this process, out-pointing champion Leclerc in the second half of last year after scoring on just three occasions in the first half.
Ferrari?s continued commitment to Fuoco for a sixth successive season, will be a major confidence boost for the Italian. If he can start 2018 in a similar vein to the way he ended 2017, Fuoco should be a good dark horse for the championship.
His team-mate Louis Deletraz also has a point to prove. Dropped by Renault at the end of 2016, he finished a lowly 17th in his maiden year in F2, one year after narrowly missing out on the Formula V8 3.5 title to Tom Dillmann.
Charouz, who has enjoyed great success in other championships, should offer an important second chance saloon for two drivers with plenty to prove.
Written by Peter Allen and Josh Suttill