Home Featured How F2’s “crazy” first home delivered a big headache for teams

How F2’s “crazy” first home delivered a big headache for teams

by Craig Woollard

Photos: Formula Motorsport Limited

Formula 2 visited Imola last weekend, where its predecessor series GP2 kicked off way back in 2005. But with more than a decade since single-seaters’ second tier last raced there, it left a lot of head-scratching

“We are very happy to go back to Imola, we think it is a great track, it has a lot of memories for everybody. Some good and some less good but it’s always a pleasure to go back to Imola and to go back to Italy as well. So, we are looking forward to it.”

Bruno Michel said ahead of Formula 2’s trip to Imola for its third round of 2022. It’s where his preceding series GP2 started 17 years ago in dramatic and trouble-laden fashion, and where the sister GP2 Asia championship ran its final races in 2011.

Before that the circuit was a staple of the International Formula 3000 championship, which was killed off so GP2 could be born, and for two years in the 1970s it had its own grand prix on the European F2 calendar.

Therefore, there wasn’t a huge amount of data for teams to go off coming into last weekend. Many drivers had never been, and those who had only carried circuit experience in Formula 4 or Formula Regional machinery, so it was imperative that the single free practice session went without major disruption…

Sadly, that is not what the teams and drivers were given. Rain on Friday morning severely hampered running, and practice was pushed back later in the day, reduced in length and was interrupted so much that drivers only completed no more than five laps. Several didn’t even complete a timed lap before heading into qualifying.

Ahead of the weekend, Carlin’s Logan Sargeant and Charouz Racing System’s Enzo Fittipaldi spoke about their preparation coming into the event. Poor weather was expected, but the worst of it was set for Friday.

“It’s looking a bit up-and-down at the moment, We’ve prepped for both wet and dry and we just have to be proactive and take what comes to us,” said Sargeant, and Fittipaldi said Charouz too was prepared and ready for wet or dry running.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

And it was Hitech GP’s Juri Vips who seemed the most prepared as he prevailed in a very tricky qualifying to take his first F2 pole. He had circuit experience from racing in Italian F4 in 2017. But that didn’t come in handy when it mattered on Friday.

“The most important thing on days like these is to keep calm,” Vips reflected. “Two hours before qualifying we had literally the full dry set-up on the car, because we didn’t expect any more rain, then it started raining all of a sudden and everyone was panicking, we had to change the set-up immediately because if you go with a dry set-up on a wet track you’ll just be last no matter how good of a job you do.

“There was that factor. We didn’t know what the weather was going to do, maybe it was going to dry, there were a lot of questions and a lot of things you can’t really predict. It’s out of your control, but you have to make the best of the situation because in the end the weather and all these other factors, it’s the same for everyone. You have to remain calm and do your job.

When asked if his Italian F4 experience provided any advantage, he added: “In a situation like we had today, absolutely not.

“It wasn’t like anything I’ve driven before. I think I’ve had a race a while ago in F4 when it was a drying track, but I don’t really remember how it went.

“Haven’t got a lot of experience in these kinds of conditions in general. I’ve driven in F4 here, in the dry, but today wasn’t even wet, it was half wet-half dry and you sort of experiment with the grip and it’s quite a weird qualifying session and quite a weird grip we had today, so I don’t think it really helped.”

Jack Doohan, an Imola rookie, qualified third and pointed out that he and his fellow F2 rookies actually had no experience of driving the Dallara F2 2018 car in the wet, as teams have ducked out of running in those conditions during tests.

Imola winners in secondary tier single-seaters

Year Series Winners
1970 European F2 Imola City GP leg 1: Emerson Fittipaldi   leg 2 & overall: Clay Regazzoni
1972 European F2 Imola City GP leg 1: Peter Gethin   leg 2: Bob Wolleck   overall: John Surtees
1986 Int. F3000 Trofeo Elio de Angelis: Pierluigi Martini
1987 Int. F3000 Trofeo Elio de Angelis: Stefano Modena
1998-’99 Int. F3000 Gonzalo Rodriguez, Nick Heidfeld
2000-’04 Int. F3000 Nicolas Minassian, Mark Webber, Sebastien Bourdais, Bjorn Wirdheim, Vitantonio Liuzzi
2005 GP2 feature: Heikki Kovalainen   sprint: Adam Carroll
2006 GP2 feature: Gianmaria Bruni   sprint: EJ Viso
2011 GP2 Asia feature: Romain Grosjean   sprint: Dani Clos
2022 F2 sprint: Marcus Armstrong   feature: Theo Pourchaire

“I’d say maybe I didn’t manage myself the best in free practice,” he admitted. “Just with the red flags, I wanted track [time] and maybe I got slightly frustrated inside my helmet, but it was the key to the performance in qualifying with the amount of delays, and obviously in these tricky conditions, the red flags.”

More overnight rain made Saturday, when the sprint race was held, look pretty sketchy too. It did actually end up dry, which was again a whole new challenge for the set-up on higher fuel loads, and Vips’ team-mate Marcus Armstrong won.

In a dramatic feature race the next day, victory and the points lead was taken by ART Grand Prix’s Theo Pourchaire. He was thrilled as much by getting to tackle the circuit in the dry as he was with victory.

“This track is very old, a lot of bumps in a straight line and it feels like we are going 500kph on the straight,” he said. “It’s crazy! It’s jumping a lot and the track is very [tight], but it’s very fun to drive. It’s one of the best, one of my favourites.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Van Amersfoort Racing’s Jake Hughes, who spoke exclusively to Formula Scout.

“The track’s great. I love the track, I was disappointed we didn’t get to drive it in the dry in qualifying. The wet tyres don’t like Imola in the dry and it seems there was a bit of a lottery as to who had the grip and who didn’t,” he explained.

“I think if it was a dry qualifying, I would have loved it. Just now driving on the super-soft in the race, it was a really good experience to drive this track on that tyre. In the end, looking at the weekend, I’m a little bit disappointed I didn’t get to drive more dry laps of the track, but I would like to see it on the calendar still.”

However, he wasn’t as excited about the overtaking opportunities. The drivers seemed to have mixed opinions about how easy it would be to pass, with Vips stressing that tyre wear and how much of a ‘DRS train’ the pack became would dictate how the race would pan out.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“Maybe there’s something we can adapt with the car,” Hughes said. “I don’t know maybe if there’s room to add a DRS zone before turn 17 [Rivazza], maybe Turn 15 to 17 down the hill. Because you can’t quite get close enough. That’s potentially one thing you could look at.”

After the sprint race, Formula Scout pressed Armstrong and Prema’s Dennis Hauger and Jehan Daruvala for circuit thoughts and how their victory fight had panned out having gone into the race not knowing how their set-ups, or tyres, would fare.

“[Tyre wear is] inconsistent, let’s say, from track to track,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes we have literally zero deg, and sometimes it’s a complete disaster. We hadn’t driven on slick tyres here at Imola yet, so it was a bit of a difficult one knowing how much to push at the beginning and then – at the end I sort of stayed a little bit conservative, I knew that Jehan would try to attack at the end, so I always kept something in reserve. It wasn’t the easiest with predicting what the tyre would do.”

Daruvala reinforced how lacking teams were in knowledge too, which put more emphasis on the drivers to improve the car.

“It was new for the drivers, new for the teams, so it was a bit of exploring. Now we will analyse from this race and try to get better. I don’t think anyone had a perfect balance during the race, as drivers we have the brake bias and stuff to help manage the balance of the car.

“I tried to do that as much as possible but definitely it wasn’t an easy race, I struggled with the rears especially when I was trying to get close to Marcus. And in the end, the pace was strong, so I’m pretty sure if we had clear air for the whole way, the race would have been different. I was pushing a lot, and that did hurt my tyres.”

Despite the trepidation of not knowing how long tyres would last, and therefore having to be cautious and more importantly consistent in case of a performance drop-off to get as much data as possible, it was an attacking race from most drivers.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Hauger added: “And for me as well, I think I was quite good in the beginning, a bit too keen and just lost a bit of ground after that in terms of the tyres. And to be honest, I didn’t think it would be that big of a limitation, such a technical and slow-speed track, but in the end, there are things to look at tomorrow and try to maximise during the feature race.”

But Hauger’s feature race lasted mere metres, and DAMS’ Roy Nissany proved to be a surprise star of the show on Sunday before crashing out. Formula Scout caught up with him earlier in the weekend and he gave a hint or two as to how both DAMS cars qualified in the top six, a rare sight in F2.

“We had a good set-up for [getting tyre temperature],” he revealed. “That was crucial. We had a lot of preparation and a lot of speculation on how we can warm the tyres up well. So, there were a lot of specific procedures that we applied, and it worked.”

“We focused on thermal heating [in cold and wet testing at Barcelona]. This tyre is like a bible that you have to understand. We gave it a good focus in Barcelona, and it paid off absolutely.”

MP Motorsport’s Felipe Drugovich, points leader entering the weekend, had questions after he only qualified 12th.

“The first part of the qualifying was okay, we were P6, P5, P4 all the time, which was alright. We know we have to improve in the wet, but it wasn’t too bad.”

But once drivers went on their second runs armed with actual experience of the track conditions, the situation changed.

“And in the end for some reason, some people improved massively, and we didn’t have an improvement which wasn’t good. And then I finished P12, and yeah it compromises a lot the weekend,” dwelled Drugovich.

Imola was also new for the FIA Formula 3 championship, with its predecessor GP3 having never been, so it proved a totally fresh challenge for the teams and drivers.

A lot of simulator work took place in advance, as expected, but Hitech’s Kaylen Frederick was a little bit sceptical coming into the weekend about its usefulness.

“I’ve never been here before but my team-mate [Isack Hadjar] has so that’s been quite useful having some references. Obviously been doing a lot of simulator work, but even that isn’t always 100% accurate because we haven’t always had the cars at the track here.

“So it makes it hard to have any realistic references but obviously a lot of sim work has gone into preparation for this weekend. And Hitech might have raced here a while ago [in FIA European F3 in 2016] but not with any cars recently.

“We don’t have any onboard footage but we’ve managed to get a couple of bits so we’ve been doing what we can to look at different onboards videos and a lot of sim preparation for me mainly because I haven’t been here before.”

ART GP’s Gregoire Saucy claimed his first car racing win at Imola last year en route to his dominant FRegional Europe title with the team, and video and data from then was utilised for F3.

His team-mate Victor Martins wrote off Friday’s conditions as applicable to prepare for Saturday in any way, and pointed to other areas informing set-up decisions for the races.

“I think it just comes with your base from the past years and from [round one at] Bahrain, but we have the medium [tyre] this weekend so it changed a bit the approach of the driver also. So in the end it was to put the base that we know, that the team knows, and then try to fine-tune for tomorrow.”

Like the F2 drivers, those in F3 were impressed with the venue as well, as they told Formula Scout on Saturday.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“For me, I would have loved to seen the track [on the calendar] in previous years,” said Prema’s Jak Crawford, who won twice at Imola while racing in Euroformula last year and once when in F4 the year before that.

“I love the track a lot, and it’s a really difficult track to race at, very technical. Today I had to overtake some cars and it was not so difficult, so I quite enjoyed it. DRS was helping massive, so there’s definitely some racing as well.

“It’s just a fun track to drive at, an old-school track, you can be all over the kerbs, it’s really high-speed.”

“There have been plenty of fights this morning,” Martins observed after finishing second in F3’s sprint race. “It’s quite a cool track to race on. I think every driver’s enjoyed racing here. Even on my side, I enjoy it, I still enjoy it, even if I was missing a bit of pace. Because sometimes when a driver doesn’t have the pace, they always hate the track.

“I still really liked to be there, and for the long straight with the DRS is really, really massive, I think maybe only today because we had a bit of headwind, but we will see for tomorrow. But for sure it deserves a place in the championship for the future.

The winner Franco Colapinto added: “Honestly, the race here in Imola is amazing. I’m really happy to be here, and of course, the FIA did a great job to bring F2 and F3 as well to Italy and to Imola. All the history that has been going on here, it’s just unbelievable.

“I’m really enjoying driving here as well, even in the wet, it’s a really fun track to drive. And looks like for the racing as well, it was full of overtakes, full of fights in this race.”

Imola has indeed been a very refreshing addition to F2 and F3’s shared calendar. Its deal to host Formula 1 with the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix until 2015 means the historic venue may well welcome F1’s warm-up acts for a few more years to come.

At least next year, should it be on the calendar, the teams will have done a bit more than just five laps of running before being thrust into qualifying.

Additional reporting by Alejandro Alonso Lopez

Listen to our analysis of the weekend on our latest podcast below, or find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Imola’s recent winners in tertiary tier single-seaters

Year Series Winners
2022 FIA F3 Sprint: Franco Colapinto   Feature: Roman Stanek
2021 Euroformula R1 & R3: Jak Crawford   R2: Stanek
2016 European F3 R1: Niko Kari   R2 & R3: Lance Stroll
2014 European F3 R1: Esteban Ocon   R2: Tom Blomqvist   R3: Max Verstappen
2011 Italian F3 R1: Edoardo Liberati   R2: Kevin Giovesi
2010 Italian F3 R1: Daniel Mancinelli   R2: Stephane Richelmi
2009 Italian F3 R1: Pablo Sanchez Lopez   R2: Marco Zipoli
2004 Italian F3 R1 & R2: Toni Vilander
2003 Italian F3 Marco Bonanomi
2002 Italian F3 Vitantonio Liuzzi