Home Featured How Bearman’s “biggest year” made a stuttering start in Bahrain

How Bearman’s “biggest year” made a stuttering start in Bahrain

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: Prema

Prema’s high profile F2 line-up of Ollie Bearman and Andrea Kimi Antonelli went into the opening round at Bahrain under huge public scrutiny. Both endured a nightmare weekend as the team was well off the pace

The two Formula 1 juniors with the most attention on them this year are Mercedes-AMG’s long-time protege Andrea Kimi Antonelli and star Ferrari Driver Academy member Ollie Bearman. Antonelli was announced as stepping up from Formula Regional to Formula with Prema last October, and two months later Bearman was confirmed as his team-mate after concluding his rookie F2 season. From that moment onwards their has been expectations on both – because of who they are driving for and how much they excelled in their respective series in 2023 – to challenge for the title.

But Prema’s drivers were near the bottom of the timesheets in pre-season testing and reduced to scrapping over the minor places in the first two races of the year, leaving Bahrain with one point courtesy of Antonelli’s 10th place in the feature race.

Speaking to Formula Scout in the Sakhir paddock after finishing 15th in that race, a clearly frustrated Bearman was hard-pressed to find any silver linings to take from a miserable weekend in what he considers “the biggest year of my career”.

“It’s tough to take positives,” he said. “We learned a lot about the car but from the performance side it’s been a really difficult weekend. Struggling for pace in all sessions. So we have a lot of work to do before the next race.”

To try to counter the simple lack of performance, the team had opted to put Bearman onto an unconventional strategy in the sprint race with a mid-race pitstop, but an issue with the car self-selecting safety mode at the start dropped him out of contention for any points and he finished 16th.

It went from bad to worse in the feature race, with Bearman stalling and then being hit by Hitech GP’s Amaury Cordeel. It meant Bearman had a trip to the stewards, though as the innocent party, to round off a miserable three days.

Bahrain top speeds
Thursday Races
Pos Driver Speed Pos Driver Speed
1 Aron (Hitech) 179.1mph [FP] 1 Villagomez (VAR) 188.2mph
2 Stanek (Trident) 179.0mph [FP] 2 Duerksen (PHM) 186.8mph
3 Verschoor (Trident) 178.8mph [FP} 3 Verschoor 186.3mph
4 Cordeel (Hitech) 178.5mph [FP] 4 Miyata 186.1mph
5 Bortoleto (Virtuosi) 178.4mph [Q] 5 Bortoleto 185.1mph
6 Maloney (Rodin) 177.9mph [FP] 6 Bearman 185.1mph
7 Miyata (Rodin) 177.9mph [Q] 7 Maini 184.9mph
8 O’Sullivan (ART GP) 177.8mph [FP] 8 Stanek 184.4mph
9 Hauger (MP) 177.8mph [Q] 9 Hauger 183.7mph
10 Maini (Virtuosi) 177.2mph [FP] 10 Martins (ART GP) 183.6mph
~~~ 11 Fittipaldi (VAR) 183.6mph
19 Antonelli 176mph [Q] 12 Antonelli 183.2mph
21 Bearman 175.4mph [Q] 13 Colapinto 183.1mph

The team was tight-lipped on the causes of its woes but a lack of straightline speed did appear to be a not inconsiderable factor. Prema’s cars showed a top speed deficit all weekend, with Bearman consistently one of the slowest through the speed trap.

In free practice, Bearman was 3.04mph (or 2%) slower than the fastest car at the finish line, increasing to a massive 5.59mph (or 3.1%) at the official speed trap positioned just before turn one. By qualifying he was no longer slowest but was still trailing the fastest by 3.29mph. In spec cars that is a huge deficit for any driver to make up for around the twisty parts of the circuit.

Watching trackside, Bearman appeared slower on acceleration out of the turn one hairpin as well, looking noticeably sluggish compared to his rivals as the cars picked up pace for the uphill run to turn four.

“The issues are clear, of course, that’s positive, but the difficult part is rectifying them,” Bearman explained. “At least we’re all in a clear mind and we’re sure what we need from the car and what we need to change.”

The track itself undoubtedly played a role, with Bahrain being a venue where Prema has not always shone in F2.

“For sure, some of it is track-specific,” he said, repeating comments made in pre-season testing at Bahrain. “Over the years it’s been a more difficult track for us. We’ve always seemed to struggle slightly more here so I do feel like it’s an outlier as well.”

The team has just a few days to adapt to the very different challenge of the high-speed Jeddah circuit which hosts round two.

“Jeddah will be the real test because I felt really strong there last year, the car felt really good. So, let’s hope for some of that. It’s been a tough start, I think that gives us more motivation to keep pushing.”

He added: “[Jeddah] has got some walls but it’s very flat. Very grippy surface. So it’s a very conventional track with some walls. It’s not like Monaco or Baku, which are really bumpy and actually use the streets.

Prema’s F2 form
Year Points at Bahrain Points per round elsewhere Pos. after Bahrain End pos.
2018 22 19 3rd 5th
2019 8 5.45 6th 9th
2020 30.5* 33.1 3rd** 1st
2021 37*** 58.21 3rd 1st
2022 8 17.92 7th 4th
2023 0 26.83 11th 2nd
2024 1 8th

*Average from two rounds at the track   ***Bahrain hosted the last two rounds rather than season opener, and Prema was third highest-scoring team over those two weekends   ***The 2021 season featured three-race, rather than two-race, rounds

“I think that track really suited us last year with the corner types and this one didn’t. Let’s hope we keep the same trend but we definitely have to improve as well in understanding of the car.”

With last year’s outstanding rookies Bearman and Victor Martins both staying with their 2023 teams for their sophomore campaigns, they were the favourites going into the 2024 season despite F2’s introduction of a new car.

In Antonelli’s case, the change of chassis was one of the key drivers of the decision for him to bypass Formula 3. But now teams have tested and done a weekend of racing, the consensus on the driving side is the car is similar to its predecessor.

“For the most part, it’s very similar. We have the same weight, the same tyres, same engines, gearbox, some other geometries [where] it seems like the order has changed slightly but it’s very close,” said Bearman.

“The [top 18] was split by a second in qualifying, which is closer than it was last year with a five-year-old car. So it’s tightened everything up which is a bit unexpected, really, if you consider it’s a new car. The margins are fine, which means we need to put together even better laps and make an even better car.”

In 2023 only four drivers were within a second of the pole time, and among those was Bearman’s team-mate and series sophomore Frederik Vesti. Now Bearman is the more experienced driver in Prema’s line-up, which he sees as a positive rather than a source of pressure.

“I know what I want from the car. And I feel like I’m ready to lead the team. It’s been a bit more difficult starting fresh, let’s say, with a new car. I think in debriefs and everything I feel like I’m trying to guide them as much as possible.

“Personally, I don’t feel any more pressure than before. Once the visor goes down it’s all the same for me. Especially now where we’re struggling a little bit, there’s no pressure, we just need to keep working. It’s very early days. We clearly have some work to do.

“But I think coming to the end if we have an upward trend, of course the pressure will get there at the end of the season. But right now I’m just looking race-by-race and trying to improve myself and the feeling of the car underneath me.”

He can take some solace, at least personally, that he and Antonelli “both have similar issues”, in his words. “We have the same feedback which is always a good thing. We have the same direction on both cars to aim for so that’s fine.”

In his rookie season, Bearman had weekends of sublime performance. While his peaks were undoubtedly as high as anyone’s, there were too many weekends where a lack of performance, driver errors or bad luck cost him valuable points.

Bearman is quick to put his hand up to take responsibility: “Those mistakes that I made, especially in the early phase of the season, really came to hurt me. The races where basically we had the pace to finish better than we did I really want to try and cut out this season.”

He is a natural racer, able to execute the moves on track to fight for top positions. Race wins can make an F2 champion, but so can consistency, so Bearman is ready to adapt his approach. However Bahrain didn’t provide the circumstances to show it.

“It’s just about taking what you can and not trying to push over the limits,” he says. “I think in racecraft I’m quite strong. I tend to make good decisions. Let’s say any points losses were coming from mistakes of my own, almost unforced errors which aren’t acceptable. And that’s what I’m looking to work on. In a championship you need to weigh your risks and that’s in the back of my mind but especially at this early stage, and especially after a weekend like we’ve just had you have to take it race-by-race and go for it.

“This weekend is a bit of a different story. I feel like no matter what I did, I really struggled to finish any higher. I feel like I achieved what I could have. This wasn’t really an example of a lack of consistency, just lack of pure pace. I don’t think I deserve to finish any higher than I did this weekend.”

Photo: LAT Photo

Haas will run Bearman in six F1 free practice sessions in 2024, and he will be reserve driver for the team and for Ferrari. How does he make sure that the buzz around his highly-acclaimed F1 activities don’t distract from his F2 title bid?

“Of course, races where I’m going to be doing FPs and F2 on the same weekend does make it a bit difficult. I’ve already done it in Abu Dhabi once for the race weekend and once for the post-season test in F1 and the post-season test in F2 so now I know what to look out for.”

He has already learned from that experience. “Before it was a bit of a question mark. I know what tripped me up in Abu Dhabi and I know not to do that again. If anything, it’s a great opportunity because I get more laps than the others so I’ve got to make the most of it.”

And the F1 and F2 cars are “so different that it’s very easy to kind of make the transition”, he explains, with jumping from one cockpit to the other just requiring a “few little technique things”. But for now he has to put F1 to the back of his mind to help Prema sort its deficiencies with F2’s new car as quickly as possible.

“We just need to keep working. I need to keep giving all the feedback I can and analysing as much as possible with the guys.”

Jeddah could show whether the team has resolved the issues or whether Bearman is going to be in for a long, hard year.