Home Featured “The real season starts next week”: Did Bahrain pace mean much in F2?

“The real season starts next week”: Did Bahrain pace mean much in F2?

by Ida Wood

Photos: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Everyone wants to start their season strongly, but even those who did in F2 at Bahrain were keen for the event to be seen as an outlier. What was the logic behind that, and did the results reflect the pace in round one?

When Rodin Motorsport’s Zane Maloney crossed the line to win Formula 2’s feature race at Bahrain, his second victory in two days, it marked him out as an early title favourite. That’s probably an accurate assumption to make. But as for if he can win again, remember 2018?

Prior to last weekend, that was the previous occassion that F2 had debuted a new car, and Carlin’s Lando Norris took pole then convincingly won the season-opening feature race at Bahrain, with team-mate Sergio Sette Camara in second. Carlin did not win again thereafter, and while Norris was a distant championship runner-up the team did win a title thanks to the combined scores of its two drivers. Later seasons featured more wins but less points and only one more real title challenge.

Rodin Cars bought out Carlin over this winter, so statistically it was a new team last weekend. But with the same crew putting in the hard work, it felt much like the stunning start that crew had in 2018.

Maloney was asked repeatedly about what had changed or been improved upon since his rookie season in which he only scored in eight races with Carlin, and how much of an impact the new Dallara F2 2024 car had on his competitiveness. He mostly put it down to a mindset change rather than than a technical understanding or driving improvements being behind his pace, which he clearly did have an advantage in, although sometimes he did let slip some details from the cockpit.

Before going out on track last Wednesday, he said the below to media including Formula Scout:

“It’s a new car, with the same team, same engineers, mechanics, so really building on last year, but almost forgetting about it in some ways. And kind of moving forward. So far, I guess since Abu Dhabi [the 2023 finale], or even before that, I’ve been a lot more on top of my driving. So just continue in that way. Qualifying is the main thing to improve from last year, for sure.”

Maloney went on to qualify third, just 0.067 seconds off pole, and won the two races by 5.49s and 4.621s respectively. He called those margins “unbelievable”.

“I’m a lot more confident as a driver now. Which was lacking last year for the first time in my career. Usually I am confident, I wasn’t last year,” he told Formula Scout in the paddock on Friday, the day of his sprint race win.

“So just getting the correct mindset back, which I’ve had throughout my career, which has done me well in Formula 3 and Formula 4. And I have that now. Even a bit more. So looking forward to just having confidence in myself, confidence in the team and really just pushing on.

“In F2 it’s very difficult of course when it comes to confidence, because I’d say that where I’m better as a driver, of course I’m more experienced, I’m better in the car, but it’s all mindset. In F2 when you arrive in practice, you are half a second off in the first push in practice, not really having the confidence, it’s really almost impossible to get that back through the weekend because you have two laps in practice, two laps in qualifying and then you’re racing.

“That’s the main thing. Going in with the mindset of getting on with it, having good confidence and then that grows throughout the weekend. It’s almost impossible to gain in an F2 weekend, and lose as well, in terms of pace. So the weekends fly by.”

Drivers faced lower temperatures, and therefore less thermal degradation with tyres, in the sprint race due to it being at night. The feature race was a far bigger challenge with two compounds and the desert sun.

“We were trying to compromise one tyre to help the other. I’m not going to say what we were trying to do, so I wasn’t quite sure it was going to happen with that, but once I got three or five laps in and I realised what pace we had, I kind of was just managing until my engineer Stu told me to give it everything. And I did that, boxed, and then of course the main part of the race was the safety car restarts,” was Maloney’s summary of his feature race win.

Race pace

Sprint race Feature race
Pos Driver Pace Pos Driver Pace
1 Antonelli 1m47.467s 1 Maloney 1m47.573s
2 Maloney 1m47.727s 2 Marti 1m47.934s
3 Bearman 1m47.874s 3 Aron 1m48.012s
4 Crawford 1m48.104s 4 Bortoleto 1m48.275s
5 Hadjar 1m48.146s 5 Maini 1m48.491s
6 Aron 1m48.169s 6 Colapinto 1m48.600s
7 Marti 1m48.263s 7 O’Sullivan 1m48.621s
8 Martins 1m48.292s 8 Maloney 1m48.706s
9 Villagomez 1m48.401s 9 Miyata 1m48.707s
10 Duerksen 1m48.453s 10 Hauger 1m48.909s
11 Hauger 1m48.597s 11 Marti 1m49.038s
12 Miyata 1m48.685s 12 Antonelli 1m49.053s

Bold pace set after pitstops

The follow-up question was about what off-season work Maloney had done to make such expert race management possible.

“I do feel like I’m a step above fitness-wise, mental as well and just a lot of sim [work]. And really looking back at last year. I mean through Christmas, I like watching the races anyways, back on F1TV. So it’s honestly hundreds of hours just watching the races and seeing what I could have done better, what everyone else did good versus bad, and you learn so much from that. So generally I think that’s what it is, and then just a small mindset change, getting a little bit more confidence in myself and know that I can go and do it. Which obviously showed this weekend, but there’s still so much work to do this year.”

He added: “I’m driving better. That’s plain and simple. Like I said, I don’t think I’ve become a better driver from last year to this year. I don’t think as a driver you in terms of pure pace throughout your career, you don’t gain a crazy amount. I mean, it’s more mindset-wise. In F3, I went into the race weekend almost in my mind knowing that I’m going to be in the top three in qualifying and then in the races, just because I knew I was driving well.

“Then all the mistakes in F3, your confidence drops a bit. And then going into F2 last year, I had a great first round, but as soon as I had a bad second round the confidence starts going down, and I just trusted in myself a bit less. My braking wasn’t amazing, just because I didn’t want to ruin a set of tyres in practice going into qualifying. This year all that’s gone. I’m here to prove that I’m good enough for the next level. And just continue to hit practice from the first lap as hard as I can, and then the weekends start to go smoothly from there. Rodin have been properly teaching me mindset more than driving to be honest, and it’s really worked out.”

When then asked if his only target now was the title, Maloney was initially lost for words.

“Urrrr, hmm, well. I remember Theo [Pourchaire, 2023 champion] sitting here, I was where Paul [Aron, race runner-up] was, and he was asked the same question and he said of course it’s a long year. He was correct. This is such a long way to go. In terms of championship, I don’t think anyone can look at that right now. I’m focused on going to [round two in] Jeddah and having the same performance in terms of pace.

Maloney and Marti had to pass many cars in the sprint race

“I know every weekend I’m not going to win two races, that’s not how F2 works, but we need to take this pace over to Jeddah. And once we do that, then I can speak to you more about that because then I’ll know that if this pace is genuine throughout the whole season. But for now, I just need to buckle down with the team, and Jeddah’s almost the most opposite track you can get to this. So kind of get myself mentally ready to send it on the streets.”

In fact, Maloney said that for Jeddah, he must “almost forget Bahrain in terms of pace” and once again emphasised that “when I have the right mindset and I go into the sessions attacking, I drive a lot better”. However since he is “starting to” believe in himself now “and it’s working out”, perhaps putting his confidence-boosting Bahrain performance to the back of his mind so quickly would be a regressive approach to take with just a few days separating the first two rounds.

Campos Racing’s Pepe Marti finished third and second in the two Bahrain races, and echoed some of Maloney’s sentiment about ignoring their Bahrain excellence. It was another instance of a team potentially repeating misleading form, since last year Campos took a win and a second place at the track, was full of confidence, then only got one more podium all season.

“I didn’t really expect to be on the podium today,” said Marti after the sprint race, in which he gained eight places. “I was really disappointed yesterday with my second [qualifying] run, I just left too much on the table. So P11 was not where I wanted to be. I had a really good start, which I was quite surprised with, to be honest.”

“I tried to more or less manage my tyres and be intelligent and not try to make any ridiculous divebombs or whatever. And after everybody more or less got into position, I stayed in my place and tried to keep my tyres alive for as long as possible. And just slowly made my way through.”

He added: “It’s not just the driver’s job to be in front, and what the team has done, I think the perfect job throughout the winter. We maximised testing, we maximised the shakedown. I think we’ve [reaped rewards] like this before, the basic strides. And today was just the results.”

Feature race fastest laps

Pos Driver Pace Driver Pace Driver Pace
1 Hauger 1m46.743s 9 O’Sullivan 1m47.158s 17 Maloney 1m47.434s
2 Maini 1m46.755s 10 Bortoleto 1m47.223s 18 Marti 1m47.437s
3 Maloney 1m46.813s 11 Aron 1m47.227s 19 Bearman 1m47.466s
4 Maloney 1m46.821s 12 O’Sullivan 1m47.250s 20 Maloney 1m47.503s
5 Stanek 1m46.825s 13 Aron 1m47.276s 21 Maloney 1m47.524s
6 Aron 1m46.964s 14 Aron 1m47.303s 22 Marti 1m47.532s
7 Hauger 1m46.980s 15 Colapinto 1m47.386s 23 Maloney 1m47.551s
8 Maloney 1m47.135s 16 O’Sullivan 1m47.423s 24 Bortoleto 1m47.561s

Bold laps are set after pitstops

Campos “went a bit in the wrong direction” with set-up for the feature race but Marti again charged from 11th to the podium.

“Obviously I’m pretty confident now, going forward. Maybe not as much as Zane. But very confident,” said Marti.

“But for me the real season starts next week. I feel like, yeah you can have a really good round one, but you have three days of tests [before]. From now on we don’t. From now on we have Jeddah, a new track for me, a new track for all the graduates. So I think that’s where the experienced drivers will probably get a little bit of that extra above us, at least in free practice, which is where you figure things out, and honestly, then we go to Melbourne and other tracks. So we don’t really have that luxury of having three days of testing ahead of every race. So the real season starts next week.”

While Maloney believes attacking from the off is key to getting dialled in this weekend in Jeddah, the less experienced Marti thinks otherwise when it comes to putting himself in a winning position there.

“Like Zane was saying, next weekend is going to be a whole different weekend. I’m not going to go full push on the first lap. I don’t even know where the walls are. Jeddah for me is where the season starts really. I knew that here we were going to score some points. I had that in my mind going into the weekend, but I definitely did not expect to come out P2 in the championship.

“So right now I feel a little bit over the moon but as Zane said before, [it’s] going to be a new week and we race in Jeddah so its going to be head down and try to understand the track as best as possible in free practice, try to nail a good lap in quali which is certainly very important in F2 and then try to score some more points in the weekend ahead of the season where I start to actually know the tracks.”

Far from title contention but with drivers very much considered title contenders prior to two painful trips to Bahrain – one for pre-season testing where they were off the pace and the other for a race weekend in which they scored one point – is Prema.

Sprint race fastest laps

Pos Driver Pace Driver Pace Driver Pace
1 Fittipaldi 1m45.833s 9 Duerksen 1m46.847s 17 Crawford 1m47.205s
2 Bearman 1m45.841s 10 Aron 1m46.909s 18 Bearman 1m47.215s
3 Antonelli 1m46.072s 11 Antonelli 1m46.949s 19 Bearman 1m47.291s
4 Bearman 1m46.115s 12 Maloney 1m47.031s 20 Maloney 1m47.349s
5 Maloney 1m46.585s 13 Crawford 1m47.127s 21 Maloney 1m47.391s
6 Bearman 1m46.652s 14 Martins 1m47.154s 22 Barnard 1m47.394s
7 Antonelli 1m46.695s 15 Marti 1m47.183s 23 Martins 1m47.466s
8 Antonelli 1m46.827s 16 Antonelli 1m47.190s 24 Crawford 1m47.523s

Bold laps are set after pitstops

The situation got so bad for the team that it pitted its drivers in the 23-lap sprint race in the hope of finding more pace. On fresher tyres that did prove the case, even though it tied Andrea Kimi Antonelli and Ollie Bearman down to 14th and 16th place, and their best pre-pitstop laptimes had been 1.446 seconds and 1.307s respectively off Maloney’s benchmark.

Bearman thought the strategy would have helped but his car self-selected safety mode on lap one so ruined his race straight away, while Antonelli said he “managed it quite well” and crucially got experience of two compounds in race conditions a day before his fellow rookies.

“On prime [compound] the pace was good, we were able to keep up with the guys out front. Then we boxed, and on options the pace was strong. To stop for option tyres was a gamble because the drivers at the front were battling, but it didn’t really pay off especially considering that we were starting a bit at the back. With a couple more laps we could have fought for the top 10, but overall it was a good learning experience.”

Unlike the drivers at the front, Bearman’s midfield sentiment was that Prema’s Bahrain pace was absolutely reflective that it would be off the pace at other tracks and said there was “a lot of work to be done” to be competitive in Jeddah. Antonelli struggled more than he expected to on his second set of tyres in the feature race, but sought out the positives.

Since then, Prema’s team principal Rene Rosin has revealed the team has “been working non-stop” and has labelled Jeddah as a “normally friendly venue” with the old Dallara F2 2018 as Prema won three of the seven races held there since 2021. Some are not dispelling their form from past years but even their form from last weekend when it comes to Jeddah predictions, and the likes of Prema will certainly be in the camp hoping that the season doesn’t truly start until round two.

Additional on-site reporting by Roger Gascoigne