F2 and F3 had three days of test action at Bahrain last week, and both will start their 2023 campaigns at the circuit in two weeks’ time. What do the test laptimes tell us about who could start the season on top?
Despite a few reliability problems, the guys and girls at ART Grand Prix were sitting happy at the end of Formula 2 pre-season testing last Thursday. Their drivers Victor Martins and Theo Pourchaire were both within a tenth of a second of the fastest lap of the week, and the pair had also commanded the top of the charts when it came to race pace.
“There is not only one big challenge, there is a lot of small little details that you need to improve each year and to be very consistent,” said team principal Sebastien Philippe.
“I think we’ve seen it last year. We’ve all been lacking a bit of consistency, only MP Motorsport with [Felipe] Drugovich were really there every time. So I think the main focus is to always be in the top five and to be consistent and do less mistakes than the others, because we all know that it will be a very competitive championship with many good teams and many good drivers. So probably the one who will be the most consistent will be the one who will be there at the end. I think this is the main thing to take care of.”
Consistency wins titles, but speed wins races and ART GP looks to have that in abundance, at least around Bahrain.
“Last year we didn’t deliver what we should have done. Both on the team’s side and the driver’s side,” Philippe adds, and admits: “We have never been capable to repeat two, three, four races in a row with good speed that could bring us more confidence globally in the team.”
With F2 keeping the same format and tyre compounds this year, everything learned in 2022 should be easier to apply with the continuity that this season offers. Particularly at ART GP, where Pourchaire is going into his third season with the team and Martins steps up to F2 after becoming Formula Renault Eurocup and then FIA Formula 3 champion as one of its drivers.
|2||Martins||ART GP||+0.008s||13||Hadjar||Hitech GP||+0.701s|
“After coming back from the summer break we did one mistake, two mistakes and after, you know how it is,” Philippe reflects. “You’re not delivering in the same way.”
“But I think this year Theo is more mature, we have been learning a lot technically with him last year, and we have to deliver this year.”
Pourchaire says ART GP “did a lot of work” during winter “to improve themselves after the mistakes they made” in 2022, and also worked with him “on my weaknesses” after “a lot of mistakes” on his side too last season.
In contrast to the benefits of continuity for improving a team, MP Motorsport has made the most of changes to its technical structure over the past few years to rocket up F2’s competitive order and win both titles last year. It did so by making several high-profile signings from the garages of other teams, bringing in a new philosophy for how its cars were to be engineered.
That shows the benefits of learning from how others work, a skill that perhaps 2022 F2 runner-up Pourchaire is lacking having driven for ART GP in his sole FIA F3 season in 2020 and last racing for a different outfit when he did two F2 rounds with the struggling HWA Racelab team at the end of that year.
But it’s a model of growth that ART GP doesn’t follow, and feels it doesn’t need given the scale of its operations.
“First of all, I’m quite proud of that in ART, is that we never get the engineers from other teams,” Philippe told Formula Scout.
“We have a philosophy and a way of working since the very beginning when Frederic Vasseur created the team. We take a lot of juniors and we build them up in the philosophy of ART. And I’m quite proud today that I can see many old ART engineers in the paddock.
“So the way we work is we for sure definitely improve every year, but we’ve an engineering team that is quite big now because we are in many categories. But it’s as I said before, it’s very small details that you need to improve. We are in a category where you cannot make massive jumps. It’s very little things that you have to work on, on the engineering side, on the mechanical side, because mechanics need also to make a perfect job.
“And you need to have the correct tools to help the drivers to to improve. So it’s not a massive change that will change things, it’s building up a lot of little details that helps you to improve.”
While a large improvement in pace or jump up the competitive order that translates to multiple circuits is unlikely, progress isn’t always a sloping curve. Drivers and teams talk of breakthroughs, often in tyre understanding, that not only lead to laptime gain but then also create a better handling or more managable car over a race distance, which then can lead to even greater gains in pace and also open up more strategy options.
Sometimes you have to keep on working at something with a refined technique to find that breakthrough, and other times you need to try something completely different to unlock that next level of performance. And there’s no better time to do that than testing.
After topping both sessions on the opening day at Bahrain, despite an early steering issue which had to be dialled out, then being the benchmark for long-run performance the next two days, Pourchaire spoke to Formula Scout about the test.
“It went well. It was pretty good,” he said. “Good qualifying pace, good race pace. I was the fastest day one in quali, but day two afternoon I had a gearbox issue. So that’s why there was a red flag at one point. It was I stopped on the track.
“After that when we put the two new sets of soft tyres on, I had a spring issue on the car so the laptime was completely, it was not good, but the car had a mechanical failure. Quali was good, and race pace as well. But MP look strong. We don’t know what they did exactly with the fuel, and with the tyres, but they look strong.
Average race pace
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“We were every time in the top four, both ART cars in the top four in the race pace. Which is a good thing. Let’s see in the races. It for sure will be a bit different. The tests are not very, very representative, but let’s see. I think we have a good car, a good team, so I hope it will be good at the races.”
The freedoms of testing does make it very different to a race weekend, but the range of times during the day and night that F2 ran at meant cars were on track at a variety of temperatures that made for far more useful running than three days at a cold Silverstone would for simulating different track conditions.
But Bahrain has a highly abrasive track surface which is blasted by desert heat and sand, so grip levels don’t neccessarily follow the usual trend of when rubber is laid down, and teams might actually want to run their cars below their performance potential because of the impact of component wear, which is worsened by the sand, and thermal degredation.
On top of that, teams keep close to their chests the fuel levels they are running at, although their tyre choices and whether they are bolting on a new or used set is more obvious once standing in the pitlane.
Pourchaire explained that ART GP’s strategy was to “work on the race pace” in the earlier session of each day at Bahrain “because it will be very warm temperatures and that’s what the race will be”, and “in the afternoon [or evening], we do our qualifying practices with two sets of soft tyres and low fuel”.
Besides the encouraging laptimes, he hoped at least some of the changes made to the car would be effective once the season begins as “we’re here to try a lot of things”.
But what does Pourchaire’s pace say about what to expect in 2023?
As shown above, not only was Pourchaire fastest on race pace, but he was also consistent with each of his race runs.
Formula Scout’s race pace calculations are done with a rolling average of a driver’s fastest 10 consecutive laps in a stint, and within both of Pourchaire’s two fastest race simulations his fastest 10-lap segment was completed in 17m57s. Perhaps even more impressive is that rookie team-mate Martins matced that pace with his fastest stint, and his second-best one was the seventh fastest of all the long runs completed last week.
Prema’s Frederik Vesti looks to be the ART GP pair’s closest challenger over a stint around Bahrain, but was down in 18th on outright pace. For both teams however, their long-run pace reflects how they used their track time.
Besides those three, only Virtuosi Racing’s Jack Doohan and PHM Racing by Charouz’s Brad Benavides put in a long run during the first afternoon of action, then Pourchaire was the only driver to log three of them in the first session of day two. In the cooler conditions of the final evening, Vesti, team-mate Ollie Bearman and Hitech GP’s Isack Hadjar all opted to do two long runs while a third of the field didn’t even do one.
It was no surprise then that Prema, eager to claim the titles back from MP, spent the most time on track with 402 laps set in just over 13 hours of action. ART GP had the next highest tally with 399, and DAMS’ drivers set 377 laps between them.
Trident was at the bottom of the table with 286 laps, and only four long runs in total completed by Clement Novalak and Roman Stanek, who could be encouraged by the fact he was seventh fastest on race pace but 20th on qualifying simulations.
Martins was the fastest rookie across both metrics, with DAMS’ Arthur Leclerc the next best over a single lap and Hitech’s Jak Crawford in fifth place overall on race pace.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the week was MP, with Dennis Hauger and Jehan Daruvala fourth and 12th on the test’s combined timesheet and down in 20th and 18th repectively on the long runs.
The team didn’t comment when asked about how it had fuelled its cars for those long runs, and Hauger’s feedback at the end of the test was that he was “feeling good”, and there was no indication that there was anything to worry about.
Last year it was heavily dependant on one driver not only for points, but also for the application of technical ideas as Drugovich dominated the championship and rookie team-mate Novalak struggled to adapt his driving style to the F2 car. Now it should be benefitting from having two F2 winners in its line-up.
“Yeah, I think so,” MP team principal Sander Dorsman said to select media including Formula Scout.
“Basically we now have two drivers who are proven race winners from last year. So for sure we expect perhaps a bit more equal situation now. And I think also that was what we wanted, wasn’t it; two drivers that can perhaps challenge each other a bit more. If you look at last year probably for Dennis, it’s now time in the second year to gain a bit on consistency and to be always top 10, top five etc.
“The same a bit for Jehan. I think he had a bit of a rough start of the season, but at the end he did a good job. So we like to keep that momentum for both of them and then hopefully they can challenge each other, help each other, and we have some good data over both cars and can push each other forwards basically.”
There’s one more team among the list of F2’s most recent title winners, and it might be the most interesting to watch in 2023.
Since the move from 13-inch to 18-inch wheel rims at the start of 2020, DAMS has been slower to warm up the surface of the tyres than rival teams and it has proven costly in qualifying. It was most visible as an issue in the disrupted 2020 season, still proved costly through 2021 despite a strong-performing car in the races, and then a breakthrough came in 2022.
At Imola, round three of the season, Ayumu Iwasa qualified 0.167 seconds off pole in second place and team-mate Roy Nissany claimed his personal-best qualifying result in sixth.
Tyre warm-up was particularly important as the session took place on a drying track, and Nissany commented to Formula Scout that “we had a lot of preparation and a lot of speculation on how we can warm up the tyres well. So, there were a lot of specific procedures that we applied, and it worked”.
Following that, Iwasa made the front row three more times and Nissany qualified second for the Abu Dhabi season finale.
Yannick Hubert, managing director of DAMS since that event, told Formula Scout about the progress made in that area.
“We can’t change massively the things, it’s important to build around a project, to build with the right tools and with the right persons. In 2023, we brought some new tools in DAMS. I also participate in a way, having been the technical director in Formula E [with the team]. So with this we are trying to raise the result the way I can, and to have the engineers, if possible, with the right skills.”
He added: “I saw that DAMS did a great job [in F2] last year. We learned from each other, the drivers and the team. Drivers went in the direction of the team, and also the team went in the direction of the drivers. And so we found some performance working on this specific exercise, which is warming up of the tyres. Then previously I mentioned that we brought some tools, and you can imagine that these tools are made to bring this kind of performance.”
Although he did not detail what exactly those tools were, it’s clear they they have worked so far and the ones brought in for 2023 seem to be doing the trick too. Leclerc and Iwasa were both in the top eight at Bahrain on qualifying simulations, and within three quarters of a second of Pourchaire on long-run pace.
The team with the most to learn in qualifying and the races in Van Amersfoort Racing, which debuted in F2 last year. It took fastest lap on its debut, lost a podium on just its third start to a disqualification due to skid plank wear, but then took its best result of fourth in the next race. The highest qualifying result achieved during the season was a fifth place.
Richard Verschoor topped the times at Bahrain for VAR, and was fourth fastest on race pace. But prior to improving his times in the latter on day three, he was finding it “very difficult on the race runs” and said the team still needed to find its way. He also said “I didn’t even feel like I got the most out of it” with his fastest lap, suggesting VAR still has a lot of scope to improve.
VAR was also new last year in FIA F3, and took just three years to get a pole and a win. But it didn’t feature near the top during pre-season testing last week.
ART GP and Prema were the teams to beat on one-lap pace, and Gregoire Saucy topped three of the five sessions. Hitech’s Gabriele Mini and Trident’s Gabriel Bortoleto topped the last sessions and were third and fourth fastest overall behind Prema’s Dino Beganovic.
The top 16 were covered by less than a second and that included drivers from eight of the 10 teams. As Saucy was fastest by 0.479s, it meant the next 15 cars were split by 0.520s. It was even closer on race pace, where less than 0.121s split Campos Racing’s Pepe Marti, MP’s Franco Colapinto and Bortoleto at the top, and 0.997s covered the top 22. The drivers outside of that bracket were all newcomers to F3, and three of them were having to adapt from Formula Regional machinery they had been racing just days before.
All but five of the drivers set their best laps on the second morning of testing, with Prema’s Paul Aron in 16th, Trident’s Leonardo Fornaroli in 18th and Rafael Villagomez, Tommy Smith (both VAR) and Roberto Faria (PHM) at the back improving their pace on the final day.
Average race pace
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Bahrain pre-season test reports