2017 will go down as the year of Charles Leclerc, who conquered the FIA Formula 2 Championship in his rookie season and will move on up to Formula 1.
The Ferrari Driver Academy star joined Prema Racing, who had taken the Red Bull-backed Pierre Gasly to the final GP2 Series title in 2016, and was immediately on the pace, and he took eight out of eleven pole positions and seven victories.
Nine other drivers took victories, with only Artem Markelov, Oliver Rowland and Nobuharu Matsushita doing so more than once, but ultimately an often-entertaining season will go down as Leclerc’s year.
Excitement From the Start
Tyre management has always been an integral part of the series, and it was seen at the highest level during the season opening round in Bahrain, with Markelov in the Feature race managing his tyres superbly, while Leclerc stormed to victory in the Sprint race by gambling on making a pit stop!
Such was the tyre degradation in Bahrain, those who could manage their tyres better had the advantage, as was proven in the Feature race when Markelov kept life in his to overhaul a ten-second deficit to Norman Nato and Leclerc to take the victory.
However, nothing matched what Leclerc did on the Sunday. Leading the Sprint race by around ten seconds, he jumped into the pits to switch to the softer of the two compounds but fell to fourteenth with just eight laps remaining, only to have such a pace advantage that he passed car after car with relative ease and was on the tail of the leading duo of Luca Ghiotto and Rowland heading into the final lap.
He passed Rowland heading into turn one, and then was in position when Ghiotto locked up heading into turn four to take a remarkable victory and show the world just what he is made of.
The Circuit de Catalunya saw Leclerc take his first Feature race victory from pole position, with Ghiotto and Rowland again completing the podium, while Matsushita took his and ART Grand Prix’s first win of the season in the Sprint race after a mistake from long-time leader Nicholas Latifi after the Canadian lost one of his wing mirrors saw him drop down to third.
The trip to Monaco was perhaps the worst weekend of the year for Leclerc, which was a major disappointment for him being his home event. He was leading early but was caught out by the timing of the safety car that dropped him down the order, before a suspension failure ended his race, and after a clash with Nato early on in the Sprint race that earned him a penalty, he pulled into the pits to retire for a second consecutive afternoon.
Rowland took his first win of the season in the Feature race after inheriting the lead from Leclerc due to the safety car intervention, denying Markelov a second consecutive Monaco Feature race victory by less than a second, while Matsushita was a distant third.
Nyck de Vries took his maiden victory in the Sprint race ahead of Rapax team-mate Johnny Cecotto Jr. after the Dutchman jumped the Venezuelan into turn one on the opening lap, while Gustav Malja took his only podium finish of the year in third for Racing Engineering.
Leclerc stars again… and again
Whereas Monaco was a disappointment, Baku was just Leclerc at his very best, with another pole position being followed by a third win of the season in the Feature race, despite two safety car interventions and a red flag after Sean Gelael blocked the track at the ultra-tight turn eight, with de Vries and Latifi completing the podium.
After a storming drive, Leclerc took the chequered flag first again in the Sprint race, but a penalty for going too fast through a yellow flag zone saw him drop behind Nato, who took his only win of the season for Pertamina Arden, with Leclerc second ahead of Latifi.
However, the penalty for Leclerc was rather controversial, with the lap he was apparently speeding the first he had in clear air through the long middle sector after a previous lap overtake on a slower car, but after Rowland copped a similar penalty for the same reason in the Feature race, a penalty had to be applied for consistency.
Leclerc continued his fine form into the Feature race at the Red Bull Ring, denying Latifi the victory after going a different way to the Canadian with his tyre strategy, while Antonio Fuoco finally found his way onto the podium, the second Prema Racing driver attempting the same strategy but ultimately he was unable to match his race winning team-mate.
Markelov took his second win of the season in the Sprint race ahead of Alexander Albon, who was returning to Formula 2 after missing the Baku round due to injury, and Rowland, while Leclerc retired after a collision with team-mate Fuoco. However, the bigger accident came on the opening lap, when an unsighted Raffaele Marciello collected a stalled Ralph Boschung, bringing out the safety car, although both drivers emerged unscathed from the scary looking incident.
Leclerc took his third consecutive Feature race victory at Silverstone despite a brake fire before the start and an oil leak during the race, with Nato denying Rowland second place, while Latifi finally found his way to victory in the Sprint race ahead of Ghiotto and Markelov.
Rowland had been on course for a podium but was handed a penalty for forcing Markelov off track that initially dropped him to tenth after a late safety car bunched up the field. However, he backed up the field too much on the restart trying to get a jump on his rivals and was handed another penalty post-race.
Leclerc’s run of six consecutive pole positions came to an end at the Hungaroring through no fault of his own, after he was disqualified from qualifying despite setting the fastest time thanks to a non-compliant brass shim on his diffuser.
Despite this, he climbed from the back of the field to finish fourth, with Rowland taking his second victory of the season from team-mate Latifi and de Vries, although Markelov gave the Briton a big challenge, only to crash out heavily late on attacking into turn one after being edged towards the grass.
Matsushita took his second victory of the year in the Sprint race after getting ahead of front row starters Albon and Nato early on, while Rowland made it up to second from eighth on the grid ahead of de Vries, who denied Leclerc the final spot on the podium.
Disqualifications, Penalties and Maiden Wins
Leclerc dominated the Feature race at Spa-Francorchamps, only to be disqualified for having an excessively worn plank under his car, with Markelov inheriting the victory, while Rowland was likewise removed from the results for the same offence. Ghiotto made it a Russian Time one-two, with Fuoco ultimately being classified third.
Sergio Sette Câmara took a surprise victory in the Sprint race, just a day after the MP Motorsport driver scored his first points of the season. The Brazilian made a super start to jump into the lead at the start from third on the grid, and he was untroubled until the chequered flag to finish ahead of de Vries, who had moved from Rapax to Racing Engineering, and Ghiotto, while from the back of the grid, Leclerc managed to make it to fifth and Rowland eighth.
Matsushita took pole position at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza but could not convert that into a win, with Fuoco being declared the winner despite not leading a lap! Ghiotto took the chequered flag first but was handed a penalty for cutting the chicane on the final lap of a chaotic race, gifting his fellow Italian the victory, who also capitalised on a clash between de Vries and Leclerc on that final lap.
Ghiotto’s penalty also promoted Matsushita to second and Latifi to third, but the Italian recovered superbly on Sunday to take his first win of the year ahead of Sette Câmara and Fuoco, who denied a revitalised Louis Delétraz a maiden top three finish late on.
The championship made the journey to the Circuito de Jerez for the penultimate round of the season, moving away from being the support to Formula 1 for one weekend only, and Leclerc’s fifth Feature race victory of the season saw him clinch the title with three races remaining.
Another pole position – a record equalling eighth of the season – gave him the advantage, with Rowland unable to continue the fight despite finishing second ahead of Fuoco, while Markelov’s excellent tyre management came to the fore again in the Sprint race to give the Russian ace a fourth win of the season ahead of Latifi and Rowland.
The season concluded at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, and Rowland took victory in the Feature race, only to be disqualified from the results for the second time in the season due to the skid block again being excessively worn, giving Markelov his fifth win of the season. Fuoco had initially finished third but was also disqualified, with Leclerc moving up to second ahead of Ghiotto when everything was confirmed.
The final sprint race was a cracker, with Leclerc ending his F2 career with victory after a last lap pass on Albon, who had looked on course to take his maiden win until the duo ran side by side down the back straight after a gentle nudge by Leclerc on the Thai driver’s car at the hairpin, while Latifi denied Matsushita the final spot on the podium, while Markelov’s sixth place confirmed him as runner-up in the championship ahead of Rowland, albeit seventy-two points behind Leclerc.
The Deserving Champion
Leclerc became the first GP3 Series champion to move up and add the Formula 2 (nee GP2 Series) title to his achievements, with none of the preceding champions having ‘done the double’, and the Monegasque driver now makes the move into Formula 1, the first champion to make the immediate jump into the parent category since Romain Grosjean in 2012!
There has also been an emotional side to Leclerc’s season, with the fact he lost his father Herve mid-way through the campaign, while he was also extremely close to the late Jules Bianchi, and perhaps it is apt he has made it into Formula 1 with the backing of Scuderia Ferrari.
It’s just a shame Jules is not there to share in his joy and success, whilst losing his father figure during perhaps his most important season of his career would have had a huge effect, but he maintained his pace and performance from start to finish to become a deserving inaugural Formula 2 Champion.