F2 and F3 held their pre-season testing at Bahrain earlier this month, and both will start their 2022 calendars at the circuit. What was there in the test laptimes that could tell us about who could win this week?
As always, take conclusions made from any kind of tests in motorsport with a pinch of salt. Especially so when testing takes place on highly abrasive asphalt, the cars are blasted by desert heat and sand and unreliability in spec series is still an issue.
For Formula 2, the pace was faster than last year – with Carlin’s Liam Lawson beating Christian Lundgaard’s 2021 benchmark by 0.074 seconds with a 1m41.623s – and there was enough green flag action for run programmes to be completed. At the same time, there was a lot of disruption with red flags and come the end of the three days of testing a bitter sandstorm meant the final session didn’t even go ahead. And that lost session might have told us a lot.
From the five sessions that did take place – one in the late morning and the other under darkness in the evening on each of the three days (prior to the sandstorm) – it was the cooler conditions of the night where the faster laptimes were set and it was Lawson who came to the fore. On the second evening he was quickest by 0.473s, with Campos Racing’s Ralph Boschung and ART Grand Prix’s Theo Pourchaire setting identical laptimes to go joint second fastest.
Lawson topped the first morning and spent much of the first evening on top too before Prema’s Jehan Daruvala launched himself ahead with five minutes remaining with a 1m42.074s lap that put him second fastest overall come the end of the test. But the end gap between himself and Lawson, 0.451s, was the same as the gap covering second to 11th on pace.
Undeniably Lawson has got very comfortable with Carlin’s package very quickly, and the team is renowned in F2 for its set-up flexibility to suit a variety of circuits. On one hand, Bahrain is clearly one of its strongest as it claimed a double win and took pole in the 2020 round using the circuit’s Outer loop, and a earlier switch to focusing on race runs in last year’s pre-season test at the track set it up well for 2021. Since F2’s switch to 18-inch tyres two years ago it’s been Carlin’s happy place.
On the topic of race runs, it was Lawson who was ahead in those two weeks ago. And again with a pace advantage of four-and-a-half tenths of a second to Pourchaire. A Prema driver was close behind, and this time it was Dennis Hauger.
The long-run pace reflected teams’ programmes during testing more than their pace, with Pourchaire’s team-mate Frederik Vesti in fourth, then Daruvala and the Van Amersfoort Racing duo of Jake Hughes and Amaury Cordeel who sandwiched Carlin’s Logan Sargeant at the bottom of the top eight. Impressively Hughes and Cordeel, both inexperienced in F2 and driving for a team making its series debut this year, were on average split by just 0.049s per lap over race runs. They were 0.079s apart on outright pace, with Hughes ahead, and while it’s totally feasible VAR could land in F2 with a big splash there is absolutely no expectation for Cordeel – a driver who has not visited any podium since winning the 2018 Spanish Formula 4 title – to be outpacing the likes of Hitech GP’s Juri Vips in the Bahrain season opener as he did in testing.
Carlin was the benchmark team on long-run pace across last season, helped considerably by being able to set up a car to be fast at almost every circuit, but that didn’t turn into title success as Prema’s Oscar Piastri mastered qualifying to take an astonishing four consecutive feature race wins and the crown. Lawson’s testing pace at Bahrain was a direct response to that.
“In general, we were lacking pace, especially quali in the last few rounds,” Lawson said of his 2021 season with Hitech.
“There were occasions where it was OK but others where we lacked it completely. Qualifying sets up your whole weekend, so if you qualify badly, it’s tough from there.”
Last season a three-race format was at play, but now F2 and F3 return to two races per weekend, and with a revised points system putting even more emphasis on feature race success.
“There are always things to improve on. Not just qualifying in general but putting everything together in one lap. Quite often you go from free practice on a harder compound of tyre to qualifying on a softer compound of tyre and I think doing that has taken longer than it should have.
“I have generally always gotten there in the end with quali, but it would have been better to be there right at the start and keep chipping away from there. In free practice in Baku, I was 1.6s off P1 and I had to find 1.6s, plus everything else that everybody else was finding, to put the thing on pole – that’s a very radical jump and not one that I can make every weekend.
“I was lucky to be able to do it that weekend, but that is something that I want to be able to go into next season and already be there up the front in free practice, or at least in the first run of quali so that I don’t have to find so much time.”
A second year in F2 will mean “everything is a lot more natural” for Lawson, and this time his full focus is on the series after he dovetailed it in 2021 with the high-pressure task of fighting for the DTM title as a rookie in a Ferrari GT car.
“I don’t think it is ever a good situation when you have to use your brain and overload yourself with thinking about everything in the race car, so everything coming more naturally is always a better position to be in.”
The Red Bull junior will have Formula 1 free practice duties with AlphaTauri to juggle as well in 2022, and increased F1 work on the simulator as teams need their junior drivers to get a understanding of how the changes to the world championship’s technical regulations for this season transfer into driving experience in the cockpit. While Red Bull can call upon the likes of Formula E star Jake Dennis, it will still be a race of sorts between Hauger, Lawson and Vips to establish themselves as the driver to call upon for race weekend support when F2 isn’t in the support paddock. And with a record 14 rounds on the F2 calendar – as the cancelled Sochi event is planned to be replaced – it’s already going to be a busy year for Lawson.
Even if Lawson’s testing pace doesn’t translate into the season, his team principal Trevor Carlin is confident he has other attributes that will make him a threat.
“What excited me most about Liam is his phenomenal racecraft,” he said during testing to media including Formula Scout.
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“He’s one of the strongest, toughest racers I’ve ever seen. Sometimes he went over the mark a little bit last year, but the rest of the time he’s a super fighter and we at Carlin love motor racing and when you see a real racing driver fighting and battling, that’s what we love. Because we enjoy watching it, and having him in our team is going to be really exciting.”
It’s not just F1 with technical changes for 2022, as F2 has also made slight variations. Pirelli has made new hard and supersoft compound tyres, with the supersoft now the sole tyre choice at that level of grip where previously there were two softer compounds it could pick from. It will be similar to the ‘aggressive’ supersoft previously used on street circuits, but with increased resistance to mechanical and thermal damage. Due to the abrasiveness of Bahrain’s surface, plus the layer of sand that often sits on it, it’s an ideal circuit to test tyre durability – but Pirelli provided the hard and soft compounds as those are the ones that will be made available for racing at Bahrain.
The new hard tyre will also be more resistant to mechanical damage while being a larger step from the medium compound being carried over from 2021. That gap in performance between the two race tyres is “with the aim of challenging the drivers and increasing strategy options”.
Most of the fastest race runs were set on the final morning of testing, with several teams doing the full feature race distance of 32 laps on one set of tyres and with a cool-down lap punctuating each run before putting the tyres through a second heat cycle. It was usually on the second part of these race runs when fuel was lower that the faster race pace – calculated by Formula Scout with a rolling average of a driver’s fastest 10 consecutive laps in a stint – was set.
During that session it was MP Motorsport setting the outright pace, with 0.972s splitting its two drivers Felipe Drugovich and Clement Novalak at the top, but neither ran for more than six laps at a time and not at a representative pace for the duration of that either. Novalak ended up being the only driver who didn’t truly log a proper race run on any tyre, while Drugovich only did one run of 11 laps on the second morning of the test and was 0.292s slower than the average pace of Charouz Racing System’s Enzo Fittipaldi who was the best on long runs during the session. But with no other attempts at long runs that weren’t interrupted by red flags, it meant Drugovich ended up 2.259s off Lawson’s benchmark from the next morning.
This lack of data from the Dutch team is particularly interesting because of how its had gone about long runs during post-season testing at Yas Marina Circuit last December. Both drivers had been able to stay on track without a drop-off in pace, actually getting faster over the duration of a stint on some occasions when you ignore the impact of traffic (although the slipstream also provided an advantage on occasion), and MP bolstering its technical staff is clearly working. But not being able to make comparisons against its rivals in Bahrain makes it a big unknown going into this weekend.
There are a few other strong takeaways from testing, mainly that inexperienced rookies Cem Bolukbasi (Charouz) and Ayumu Iwasa (DAMS) look like they still have a lot to learn with the tyres, and that the Boschung-Campos combination is very strong at the desert tracks. Given his form on the previous version of the supersoft tyre, it will be interesting to see if he can start the season with strong results at Bahrain and Jeddah before the more ‘traditional’ circuits of Imola and Barcelona.
One impressive driver being the benchmark over a single lap and a race distance, the impact of revised rear tyre compounds and red flags were also the main talking points of FIA Formula 3 Championship pre-season testing, which took place at Bahrain on the same days as F2.
Hitech’s Red Bull junior Isack Hadjar was the driver in question, and it was an ART GP rival most consistently lapping at a similar pace in both parameters in the form of Alpine junior Victor Martins.
Hadjar was fastest on two mornings out of three, with the afternoon sessions being headed by Martins on day two and then Trident pair Zane Maloney and Roman Stanek on the other two.
While Hadjar did have a 0.355s advantage on outright pace, it was far, far closer over a stint. On the second afternoon it was incredibly close between the sextet of drivers usually appearing at the top of the timesheets and F4 graduate Ollie Bearman.
Using the rolling average, over 10 laps there was just 1.539s covering Bearman, Maloney, Martins, Trident’s Jonny Edgar, Bearman’s Prema team-mates Arthur Leclerc and Jak Crawford, and Hadjar. That meant they were split by 0.154s per lap.
Surprisingly, with how Trident’s run plan worked out between red flag stoppages, Maloney was only 14th fastest on race pace and the last driver within a second of the pace of Hadjar’s best run.
Several of the red flags were caused by reliability problems, one or two of which were known to be components failing in the heat and then setting alight. That was the fate that befell Carlin’s Enzo Trulli, with an engine fire leading to his car’s tub being burned and requiring a new one for him to continue testing. It was a hugely impressive undertaking by Carlin to get the single-seater sophomore back on track the next day and to look competitive in a car where set-ups were being applied from scratch.
Reigning champion Hauger has helped developed F3’s new rear tyres from Pirelli, with the updated construction aimed at “promoting greater driver involvement” by degrading faster and inducing oversteer, with a specific aim from the promoter to make “racing in F3 even more demanding” as F3 often lacks overtaking despite turning up to tracks with a 30-car grid.
The new rear tyres are softer, and therefore grippier when in the peak temperature window, but, just like the previous ones and pretty much any other Pirelli tyre in single-seaters, if you push for more than three laps in a row (or sit behind another car for that duration) then they will overheat and you have to back off to get them back into a suitable operating window.
One of the key points of testing for many drivers, particularly the rookies, was to find a balance with the car on new tyres, then once drivability was ‘mastered’ to move on to understanding how to manage the tyres over a longer distance. Experience is critical, but rookies such as ART GP’s Gregoire Saucy looked particularly strong on full race runs. For the first time in its short history, FIA F3 will have sprint races this year but will not introduce pitstops.
Having a new type of tyre is supposed to make teams start from a blank page for set-up, but there was no massive differences reported in comparison to the hard compound from 2021 from those that Formula Scout spoke to.
One unknown from the F3 running, with no television pictures, was how drivers used DRS around the track. Speed trap figures on each lap gave an indication of when drivers did go free-reign on activating it, rather than stick to the strictness applied in races when it can only be used when within one second of the car ahead. But, as one driver put it, “you can’t trust people not to” use DRS when they want during testing and that could certainly have impacted the long-run data.
There was also the changing wind direction, with drivers that were lapping while there was a tailwind down the pit straight having an easier time than those who headed out while there was a headwind or even sidewind.
Prema’s domination of FIA F3 was ended last year by Trident, which beat it to the teams’ title, and both teams looked like they had picked up from where they left off in 2021. In media sessions they also talked up the likeliness that they will be battling each other for titles once again, but ART GP also looked strong and talking to drivers and teams across the paddock drew the response that Martins is the driver to watch when it comes to rivalling Prema.
Some of the strugglers from last year reported the same issues despite switching teams, suggesting they need to adapt their driving styles to maximise the performance of the Pirelli-shod F3 car, and Patrik Pasma made his case for the vacant Jenzer Motorsport seat with an impressive race run on the final morning. Russian driver Alexander Smolyar, who tested for MP, showed the single-lap capability of that package before losing his seat in the wake of sanctions against his country.
It’s even harder than F2 to pick out a pecking order for F3, and Hadjar’s pace being so far ahead of his team-mates’ makes it incredibly difficult to understand Hitech’s placing. Collating driver feedback hasn’t been much help either when so many of the drivers have said the same thing. As of now, it’s all coming down to “we’ll see next week”.
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Bahrain pre-season test reports
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