Home Featured How a team switch has tilted Ticktum towards F2 title contention

How a team switch has tilted Ticktum towards F2 title contention

by Ida Wood

Photos: Sebastian Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency

Carlin’s 2020 success in Formula 2 was built on often being the benchmark team over a single lap. This year it has taken on a driver whose race pace is already proven, and now has the kit to deliver in qualifying too

Analysis of last season’s Formula 2 qualifying and races delivered a slightly different picture to what the final championship standings showed, and this wasn’t helped by reliability issues inflicting several frontrunners in a variety of ongoing ways.

Two drivers whose placings strongly mismatched their actual pace were Jehan Daruvala and Dan Ticktum, who are now team-mates together at Carlin. Daruvala was held back by an underpowered Mechachrome engine that killed his confidence as well as his pace, while Ticktum lost a win to a faulty fuel tank that his DAMS team were frustrated at having to run with.

An engine change propelled Daruvala to the front with restored self-belief by the end of 2020, and Ticktum’s found qualifying form since joining Carlin for 2021. Similarly, it’s an improvement in car confidence that has made him a title contender.

In F2, the softest tyre compound used for qualifying is rarely tried out in free practice, and essentially going in to qualifying ‘blind’ on what the tyre demanded exposed both DAMS and Ticktum’s shortfalls. The team had a set-up that took too long to build temperature in the core of the rubber, while Ticktum’s smooth style didn’t work the tyre surface hard enough. Combined it made for warm-up issues that made them a non-threat in qualifying, but one of the strongest at tyre management in races.

So with a move to a team that clearly had a stronger qualifying set-up, would it come at the expense of Ticktum’s race pace?

Not so far, with particularly impressive runs on high fuel loads on the hardest compound available at each race weekend. Ticktum says it’s “not surprising” the harder compounds are the tyres he’s most competitive on, and explained why.

“It’s a combination of everything. I’ve got a bit better, the package itself at Carlin is just slightly more dialled in,” he said.

Photo: Formula Motorsport Limited

“I wouldn’t say there’s a massive difference in terms of the skillsets of the personnel [versus 2020], I just feel like Carlin have just got more of a hold of things of the new car on the 18-inch. It all sort of feels more connected, the tyres are much less of a problem to worry about. And I’ve got more confidence in myself, and in the car in general.”

Carlin provided a hypothesis for an explanation of the minimised trade-off too, saying it had a lot of set-up variability between rounds. Ticktum was then asked if that was something he had noticed in comparison to his rookie F2 season.

“Yeah, I think they’ve got their baseline set-up, and we talked about the calendar this year and we said ‘we’re strong here, here and here, [but] a lot of those tracks are characteristically quite different’.

“They’ve learned a lot in the previous years, and they’ve got a very good baseline for more or less each track, so we know roughly what needs to be changed for each track. We always seem to hit the ground so far – touch wood as we’re not that far in – but looking at them last year as well they seem to always be very quick in practice. Which is a combination of a lot of things, but equally they’re obviously dialling the set-up in well for each track.”

That kind of gain lends itself to a more efficient use of practice sessions, which means work can be done to make the car as strong for races as it is in qualifying. Which is of additional importance this year now there are more reversed-grid races.

“I’ve never got in the car, so far this year, and really complained about the balance,” Ticktum said.

“Like it’s always been pretty bloody good. There might be rounds where we are a bit more on the backfoot, but I’m sure with the people we’ve got – we’re a very, very good bunch of people – that we will be able to overcome it quickly and be quick by the end of the weekend or hopefully within it.”

Pirelli has revised some of its compounds for this year to reduce graining, and two rounds have featured a tyre used for just a few laps in racing conditions in 2020, and that makes it harder for comparisons to be made to last season.

“The hard is harder – the deg hasn’t been horrendous this year. But you know it’s always going to be bad.

“And also the problem is I’m driving a different car this year for a different team, so I can’t absolutely say how different the tyre behaviour is because the car itself is different. But so far it hasn’t been terrible. It was better in Bahrain than I was expecting. It was still unfortunately [meaning] we’re driving around a lot slower than we should be.”

That’s a circuit-specific issue as Bahrain has highly abrasive asphalt, but Ticktum said “even in Baku you can’t push 100% in traction zones really at all, you still have to be delicate”.

While simultaneously being one of many to call for more practice time, Ticktum also likes how the format of a single session where you “get probably four, maximum five proper push laps” before qualifying puts more onus on driver adaptation than series with more track time. He sees that when Carlin starts the weekend with a quick car, “it doesn’t give any other teams time to catch up”, but admits it’s probable his outfit won’t be “quite so on the front foot” at some point with the tyres.

“I think managing the tyre thing is quite interesting, in a way, because you’ve got to push right to the edge of where the grip is, without taking any of it – as soon as you obviously go past a slip angle a little bit even, you’re damaging the tyres. That’s all about feel, and how you set the car up with the team. You’re just constantly sailing right to the edge of slipping the tyre. It’s a lot about feel, which in Baku was what we were pretty good at. Especially in the third race, we were so fast. Even [faster] if I didn’t have the stop-go penalty, which you could argue a lot about the reason I got it.”

A three-into-one collision with Theo Pourchaire and Marcus Armstrong in the Baku feature race left Pourchaire with an injured left arm and Ticktum pitting to replace his front wing. He then extended his first stint before serving a 10-second penalty alongside his compulsory tyre-changing pitstop. He took fastest lap by over half a second in his second stint, and made his way up to eighth to finish just 1.72 seconds behind Daruvala. Ticktum described his pace as “just another level”.

But the numbers, upon closer analysis, actually show more impressive pace in the weekend’s sprint races. Ticktum’s late stop in the feature meant he had fresher tyres than his opposition while on a light fuel load, hence the fastest lap, but so short was that second stint that a more representative view of his race pace is taken from the first stint where he was down on those who had already pitted. However in the other two races, he was far closer to the long-run benchmark.

This is where the trade-off of moving teams is more evident, as unlike last year Ticktum hasn’t actually been fastest on a race run anywhere. His description of Carlin’s strengths tie to the fact that he’s consistently on the pace in qualifying and the races, with the joint highest average starting position for the feature races, and he’s currently fourth on supertimes measuring single-lap pace across a season. By Formula Scout’s calculations he’s on average the fastest on long runs over the first three rounds.

At a similar point in 2020, after 10 races over five rounds and at three circuits rather than this year’s first nine races at three different circuits, Carlin’s Yuki Tsunoda was 44 points off the championship lead but ahead of the driver who would become champion. Come the end of the year, he was only one point behind the mid-season leader and 15 behind the champion.

Ticktum is currently just 18 points off the top spot, and without that Baku penalty he could have been at least eight points closer and up to third in the standings heading into his home round at Silverstone.

Carlin is confident of repeating the 2020 charge it did with Tsunoda, and part of that is down to the calendar. While two of the first three rounds taking place on street circuits wouldn’t usually make for a highly accurate measure of which team is fastest, it does in 2021 because half of the season is taking place at non-permanent venues.

That Carlin can be on the pace in Baku and Monaco, where victory was claimed in the second sprint race once Hitech GP’s Liam Lawson was disqualified for incorrect use of a throttle map and Ticktum was in contention for another podium in the feature before a crash with Prema’s Oscar Piastri, is encouraging for visits to Sochi and Saudi Arabia’s new Jeddah circuit.

“I think Sochi is a bit of an anomaly,” Ticktum said. “It’s all 90° corners, so it puts a lot of stress on the surface of the tyre, not the core. So got to look after the tyres a lot there. With your right foot you’ve got to be very delicate.”

That wasn’t an issue for 22-year-old last year, because his smooth style didn’t overheat the rear tyres on the track’s low-grip surface. But if he does arrive with a car and a driving style that will get him up to speed faster, he will be gaining in the first two sectors – as a result of getting the front tyres up to temperature quicker – at the expense of a lack of grip in the final sector.

“Saudi looks interesting. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be great for overtaking. It looks quite fast and flowing with walls quite close to you, so I think I’ll probably quite enjoy it on a quali lap.

“Lots of long, quick corners. I think wear will be more of an issue there, but we’ll see. Sochi, even though it’s not got a lot of fast corners, it punishes the surface a lot because it’s lots of short, sharp rotations on the throttle. It’s a traction-limited track.”

Pirelli can be expected to bring the softest possible compounds to Sochi, and perhaps a step harder at Jeddah depending on what data the FIA gathers when homologating the circuit. It won’t be until December that F2 races there, and there’s another round after that, which leaves a lot of spare time between races. That’s already left Ticktum feeling “like a full-time streamer, part-time racing driver” this year with his gaming in the calendar gaps, but he’s also spending time coaching younger drivers.

“I’ve done coaching for a little while, and I just find that there’s a lot of aspects to motorsport that I find quite interesting. Like I quite like to know how aero works for example, but there’s a few different aspects of coaching. I like to tell drivers why I’m telling them to do something, rather than just telling them to do it. I think a lot of coaches don’t help, if I’m honest.”

Formula Scout caught up with Ticktum while he was at Spa-Francorchamps working with Christian Mansell, who was making his Euroformula debut with Carlin and without a team-mate to work with or learn from.

Photo: Fotospeedy

“I think if I am going to be here, then I’m going to try to make the kid better. So there’s lots of little things I can talk to him about, and I’m just good at looking at the data. I can see immediately just on onboards whether him saying the car is too twitchy is the car being too twitchy, or it’s him not quite making the right inputs. Trying to help the team a little bit as well, especially when you’ve got one car. Unfortunately if you haven’t got a team-mate, it’s a bit tough.”

Ticktum did the original shakedown of the Dallara 320 car Euroformula uses off the back of success in the preceding F317 design, and he has done shakedowns for teams too. He actually bought the F317 he dominated the 2018 Macau Grand Prix in.

Six of his opponents from that year’s FIA European Formula 3 season he now races against in F2, while six others are already professional racing drivers including Haas F1 rookie Mick Schumacher who ultimately beat Ticktum to the F3 title.

Neither confident or concerned, Williams junior Ticktum is matter-of-fact about his F1 chances now after past near misses.

“We’re in a good place [at Williams], I would say. They just told me to fully focus on this year, and I’ve got a chance, I can’t say more than that. But I’ve got a good chance there.

“I’m really looking forward to being hopefully part of the team next year with a new car, with the new regs. But we’ll see.

“I’ve [still] got a majority of this year to do, and there’s a lot of variables in F2 that sometimes unfortunately I can’t control. I’m just going to do my best, and I know I’m good enough to be in F1, it’s just a question of the stars aligning, in inverted commas.

“A lot of drivers which should have been there [in F1], but haven’t. There’s only 20 seats, and some of them are dominated by money, unfortunately. Us drivers who aren’t paying have got to be perfect at a very young age, which is sometimes not easy.”