With race experience in F1, WEC, DTM and Super GT, Roberto Merhi was vastly overqualified to be Ralph Boschung’s F2 substitute last weekend. But utilising his experience actually gave his return a feel-good factor
Roberto Merhi has two podiums in his last three Formula 2 races, although two of those starts were 1322 days apart.
The 31-year-old Spaniard was picked by Campos Racing and Ralph Boschung to stand in for the latter in last weekend’s races at the Red Bull Ring due to Boschung’s ongoing neck concerns ruling him out of racing, and when first announced it seemed like a typical chapter in Merhi’s motorsport story since he first graduated from single-seaters’ secondary tier in 2011.
The Mercedes-Benz Junior Team was revived in 2012 not as a Formula 1-aligned young driver development programme but as a scheme for DTM drivers, and Formula 3 Euro Series champion Merhi was one of its first signings. He took one podium in two years before returning to the junior ranks to race in Formula Renault 3.5.
At the underdog Zeta Corse team he posed a serious threat to Carlos Sainz Jr’s title ambitions in 2014, and beat him to a first taste of F1 too, then landed a surprise drive at the Manor Marussia team with whom he contested two thirds of a F1 season while continuing in FR3.5.
His second FR3.5 campaign ended with him being excluded due to slowing down excessively after the finish line at the Red Bull Ring no less and causing a big crash. He stayed on Manor’s books until the team, now competing in the World Endurance Championship, closed in 2017 and he sought a revival of his F1 ambitions again by moving to F2.
In 2018, Merhi raced in plain black overalls in a low-budget approach that attracted more raised eyebrows than plaudits. But he stood on the podium in the Monaco feature race that year with MP Motorsport, and then again with Campos at the end of the year. Although multiple times he has been rumoured to make an F2 return since, and they were pretty believable given how desperate some of his previous career moves looked, he didn’t race single-seaters again until last December’s S5000 Series in Australia.
But on each occasion, in FR3.5 and F2, it’s worth remembering that it was the teams ultimately deciding to take on Merhi because of what he could provide in the car – because it certainly wasn’t budget – and maybe Boschung summed it up best on Sunday after Merhi came from 21st on the grid to finish third in the feature race. Were it not for a five-second track limits penalty he fiercely argued against, then he would have had a first win at this level since September 2014.
“As I am still recovering, I have called Roberto after his incredible race, firstly to congratulate him and secondly that I want him to continue driving in my car for the next F2 race,” Boschung said on Twitter. “I support 100% talent and not a driver with 100% money… #vamosTeto”
Merhi replied: “First of all you are truly a friend. Second of all you are a super person that I know that I will have a friend for the rest of my life. It is hard to find people like you in this space. Thanks again Ralph for the trust.”
The low-grid placing doesn’t tell the whole story of Merhi’s return either, as he qualified only 1.077 seconds off pole and was faster than team-mate Olli Caldwell. During the weekend, he spoke to Formula Scout about the main challenges.
“Obviously, to get used to the car, get used to the brakes, get used to the downforce. I mean it’s so long that I don’t drive these cars and with new wheels… obviously, adapting to the situation. From free practice, after 45 minutes [going into qualifying], I was adapting and I did a decent free practice.
“Then in quali, we had only four laps in total, push laps, and then the advance of pace compared to free practice was huge and it caught me by surprise a little bit. Also physically it’s not the same. When you do a faster laptime, it gets harder physically. And to be fit on these cars, you need to be driving these cars. And especially for one lap, it’s very hard to be on the peak.
“After driving a GT [in Japan], this car is much more powerful, has much more downforce and the g-forces are much higher.
“It’s pretty hard. Obviously, that was for me the main thing. Then I got a bit of traffic over there that compromised a little bit the result, and also this weekend has been a little bit crazy I think for everybody with the track limits. I’m not used to this car anymore and got track limits. Maybe the car is narrower than I expect, but also I think they confused [violations] from car to car because sometimes I am behind my team-mate and they gave me a track limit when it was him. There is a lot going on to be honest.”
Since Merhi’s last F2 appearance, the series has switched from 13 to 18-inch tyres, but he didn’t go in completely blind as he did a test on them at the abrasive Bahrain circuit in 2020.
“Bahrain is a very particular track and it’s hard to really know, to get knowledge, because it’s very easy to overheat the tyres. You cannot push so much, the grip is not so good as here. Here, the grip is much higher, the g-forces are higher. It’s very simple, you cannot push so hard in Bahrain, not so much grip. For me, the tyre is easier than it was used to be because you have not so much degradation, the warm-up procedure is not as strict as it used to be. Before, I think it was 90% of the result of the qualifying, but now you can do the time in both laps. Then I think it’s not harder, I think it’s easier actually for the driver. I mean you can see it on the race. We are able to manage to do the same laptime every lap.”
Unfortunately turbo issues in the sprint race limited Merhi’s progress up the order and eventually sent him into retirement, and also therefore made it difficult to do a proper analysis of his race pace. Then in the feature race the difference between drivers starting on slick tyres versus grooved on a drying track made comparative long-run analysis difficult (although he was faster than many series regulars on the medium compound in the race’s second half and pulled away from those he overtook), but given Merhi may be in the car again at Paul Ricard in two weeks he could have another chance for heroics and to show the strength of Campos’s package in a year where Caldwell has struggled and Boschung’s impressive form has been disrupted by his neck injury.
“Of course [I will be able to make progress with more seat time],” Merhi said to Formula Scout after the sprint race. “I think maybe tomorrow if it’s raining, I can get my first points,” he then added, not knowing what the next day would hold.
“Today, I had traffic at the beginning, I had an issue with the turbo and I had to retire, and I think that the turbo issue affected me through the whole race and maybe yesterday because it was a bit of lack of power always going on the throttle. I don’t know if it’s due to that problem, but I was complaining about that sense I had in the car and today finally that thing broke down, and it was [a problem that] more accelerated lap-by-lap through the race. But I learnt a lot.
“For me, it was very important to do as many laps as possible today and I did every lap apart from two because of the issue. But I’m learning a lot and I think next weekend or the one after if I keep going, I will get better and better. I just need laps in the car. It’s normal. Even in free practice, every lap I was faster. But then, you have the stop for qualifying, then you go again, I need to build up again. It’s not so easy you know. It’s just that I need time on the car. It’s normal.”
And then on Sunday it was almost as if Merhi set out to prove all of the points he had made the day before as he went on his feature race charge. Afterwards, he spoke exclusively to Formula Scout about the result.
“It was a good race. I made the call of starting on the supersoft tyre and for me it was obvious, but I don’t know why other people didn’t. Then I managed to have a good start, a good first lap overtaking people. Then the safety car I think compromised a little bit because it took [up several] race laps. And then I managed so well to keep the tyre temperature.
“[Enzo] Fittipaldi pushed me out of the track a few time and I didn’t like at all his behaviour on track. After that, I was able to stop, it was a good pitstop from my team crew. Going forward, on the medium [tyre] I was pretty easy at the beginning. I didn’t want to stress the tyre, to make sure I had tyre at the end of the race, because I know there are many laps.
“I think people like [Jehan] Daruvala [who he overtook late on to finish second on-track] were pushing flatout, like qualifying, and I was taking care of the tyres. The penalty was a shame because it was a victory after the exclusion of Richard Verschoor.
“At the end of the day, I’m happy. If they told me at the beginning of the weekend that I was gonna finish P5 or P4, I would be super happy. And if I was going be finishing P2 crossing the line and with a stupid penalty of five seconds, I will sign it somewhere.”
Both Merhi and Campos heavily disputed the penalty, which was awarded in-race, and spent a substantial amount of time through Sunday afternoon talking with the stewards. However the penalty was not reviewed, and afterwards the team put out a statement saying the “sporting officials couldn’t prove” Merhi’s track limits violations.
Formula Scout asked both Merhi and team principal Adrian Campos Jr about the sour end to a weekend that otherwise ended on a high.
“I think it’s easy to make a track limit [violation],” said Merhi. “But when you see so many drivers having the same thing, for me it’s not anymore a problem of the driver. We are not all stupid. We should have something to help us drivers. Something, a wall, you know, I don’t care.
“But we cannot race like this with the track limits, being careful, because sometimes you make a mistake, you lose time and they give you a track limits. And it’s what happened to me. The last one, it was a mistake that I lose half a second and they give me the track limit. Then for me it’s not fair at all. Also the same happened to me yesterday. For me, there’s something to do there. I know it’s a hard job for drivers and the FIA, but we need to do something for that because we cannot race like that.”
After a race where the team had nailed its strategy and pitstop, and of course had to bring in a replacement driver last-minute, Campos found the loss of a potential race win more than just frustrating.
“It’s even more than that because we have been through really difficult last races with all the issues with Ralph,” he said.
Before knowing a post-race time penalty for Daruvala would put Merhi back on to the podium, Campos added:
“We couldn’t even put the second car on track. And now, as we do it, we start from the back, we do a great race, we do a good strategy with a good pitstop, Roberto drove amazing. We really deserved the podium and then we lost it by the penalty.
“I mean, if he went off track and this applies for everyone, there is nothing I can say even if I feel like the track limits is a rule that is too hard for the drivers. When you are driving at 200kph in one corner, to go off for 5cm or 10cm you can lose a podium because of that, it’s something that is not fair. So, it’s something we need to change in the future. At this moment, from one side I am quite happy for the performance that we had, and from another side, I’m really disappointed for losing the prize that we got.”
Interviews by Alejandro Alonso Lopez