New format but familiar problems in Formula 2’s first triple-header weekend

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Formula 2 debuted its new weekend format in Bahrain, with two 45-minute sprint races on Saturday instead of the usual hour-long feature race which has now been moved to Sunday.

The top 10 from qualifying had to start in reverse order for the first sprint race, with those in 11th to 22nd starting where they qualified. The actual results of qualifying were still used for the feature race as in previous years, but now just a day later.

A reversed grid was also used for the second sprint race, but in another change the top 10 finishers from the first race were flipped, rather than the top eight, to set the starting order. It wasn’t the easiest format to understand for new fans, particularly as penalties and appeals after Friday’s qualifying session meant it wasn’t clear who would be on pole for the season’s first race until Saturday morning.

The move to an expanded three-race format for 2021 has been made as part of a plan to make the series more cost effective. As last year the championship features 24 races, but they are spread across just eight weekends instead of 12.

Drivers and teams had said before the weekend that they would need to be cautious in race one, given there would be less than six hours before race two to do any repairs if involved in a crash. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the action on track was utterly bland as cars followed each other around in a DRS train. Some drivers also reported overheating of car components in the wake of those ahead, such as their turbochargers, and had to escape the slipstream to cool down the car in the seating heat of the Bahrain afternoon.

F2 drivers got to race three times last weekend
High temperatures previously affected the three-day pre-season test at the circuit too, with teams spending hours in the pits while test sessions were live as they waited for the track to cool.

Saturday afternoon’s second sprint race was a livelier affair, as the caution of race one was thrown out of the window by drivers, knowing the race two result would have no impact on their starting place for Sunday. That made for spectacular action with faster drivers starting further back and on different tyre compounds. The victory battle was decided by a three-way fight into turn one on the final lap.

Holding the race at night, which drivers had not run in during testing, added an unknown as teams didn’t know how Pirelli’s modified version of the hard tyre for 2021 would perform in the cooler conditions. In the end the new format proved it could provide top-class entertainment.

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It’s reasonable to expect some drivers to start getting more cautious in race two as half of this year’s rounds take place on street circuits, but several of the expected title contenders are already on the back foot and they will have no choice but to fight for every point.

Another fire extinguisher problem ended Petecof’s race
Over-ambitious passes on Bahrain’s sandy track surface contributed to a few of the retirements, the type of action that would have happened regardless of the format change. But the fact remained that F2’s new look failed to mask its familiar shortcomings: namely unreliability and sometimes inconsistent penalty calls.

In race one there were three retirements attributable to mechanical fault. The engine in Marcus Armstrong’s DAMS car failed and took out Campos’s Ralph Boschung as he rear ended Armstrong just as he lost drive, and ART rookie Theo Pourchaire also lost power.

HWA’s Alessio Deledda stopped on track in race two, and the victory hopes of Hitech driver Juri Vips ended when his car stopped downshifting. Given how little mileage was put onto components in testing by those two in particular, it did raise more reliability questions.

Vips had an utterly luckless weekend
It was an especially frustrating weekend for the Red Bull junior team member. “It’s been almost laughable” he reflected after being removed from the results of qualifying for a technical discrepancy unrelated to his performance.

Sunday’s feature race was nine laps longer than the sprint and encouragingly there were no engine or gearbox failures this time, but Gianluca Petecof had to park up early after the fire extinguisher went off in his Campos car. It’s a failure that has been described previously as being a one-in-a-million fault, yet since the introduction of the current F2 2018 chassis it has occurred multiple times.

In 2020 there were frequent reliability issues through the season that seemed to trace back to the parts’ suppliers rather than the teams using them, and series CEO Bruno Michel admitted it did “reflect badly” on F2. Pre-season this year he said the series’ new format would “help to improve reliability and safety”, but the weekend didn’t really follow that script.

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Vips’ poor luck included several penalties and a subsequently withdrawn appeal by his Hitech team over the minor technical infringement in qualifying which meant the race one grid was settled only hours before the race. As qualifying also decided the feature race grid, Vips misfortunate was doubled, and he had to start from last place twice.

Lundgaard was barred from second sprint race podium in error
In addition to his gearbox problem, Vips was handed a five-second penalty for a Virtual Safety Car infringement in race two and then again in race three. While these penalties appeared to be by-the-book, the response to other incidents, particularly the various moments of contact across the weekend left room for improvement.

Three near-identical offences of contact at turn one by different drivers resulted in calls of ‘no further action’, a five-second penalty and a 10-second penalty were the decisions made.

Differences in interpretations of incident are one thing, but the handling of a penalty issued to ART’s Christian Lundgaard was especially disappointing. Race control overlooked the fact he had served his 10s penalty in the pits on his way to second place in the Saturday night sprint race. The extra time was incorrectly added to his race result, relegating him to ninth place, and Lundgaard was incorrectly prevented from taking to the podium.

It was only a few hours later that they admitted that they had not been able to verify what Lundgaard had done in the race and as a result promoted him back to second place. It left teams unhappy, fans confused and Alpine Academy director Mia Sharizman unimpressed – Lundgaard and fellow Alpine juniors Oscar Piastri and Guanyu Zhou’s thrilling final-lap battle for the win was also under investigation for a separate incident at the time of the podium ceremony.

Zhou’s win in the feature race a day later felt like a suitable crescendo to the weekend and a fitting lead-up to the grand prix. Moving F2’s main event to the same day as the grand prix was a clear upside of the new format. In other respects, it served only to distract from the same problems F2 has had for the last few years.

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2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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15 comments on “New format but familiar problems in Formula 2’s first triple-header weekend”

  1. I enjoyed the F2 this weekend. I agree that there are still far too many mechanical issues for a spec series.
    I didn’t particularly think race 1 was bad, yes a bit dull. I do think its less likely to be spectacular, but not just because you only have 6 hours to repair damage, but more so that if you crash in race 1, you start at the back of race 2. I think its more a fear of grid position loss than damage.
    I do also feel that the heat for race 1 was a greatly contributing factor. Hopefully that will be less of an issue at other rounds.
    In a way it might have been an idea for the first sprint race to be a bit shorter still? Again to help mix up the strategies between the three races, rather than both sprints being identical laps, but give the complication of calculating a grid, maybe additional race formats would add more confusion.

    I don’t understand what Bruno Michel is suggesting.

    Pre-season this year he said the series’ new format would “help to improve reliability and safety”

    I genuinely can’t find a link between 3 races per weekend instead of 2, and safety? Unless he’s concerned about dying in a plane crash and there being fewer venues now? Although when you add in F3, that’s more venues collectively!

  2. I thought it worked pretty well. Provided something fresh for competitors and viewers alike.
    Race one was a bit meh, but given the temperature and tyre saving, that’s hardly a surprise. Certainly the action picked up a lot for the remaining races.

    I’m probably in the minority, but I actually don’t need or even want 100% perfect reliability. Random failures every now and then keep the jeopardy up and make sure we need to watch the whole race right to the end. As long as it is spread roughly evenly around the field, it’s just a factor of motorsport.

    Looking forward to the next one. Pity they are so far apart.
    Would be nice if they ran some additional events without F1 at some different circuits each year. More challenges.

    1. The unreliability shouldn’t happen for a couple reasons: it’s a spec series, it’s a development series, and the car is already 3 years old. Most of the grid is funding their own drives, so every time one of these cars fails, it takes away budget from the teams/drivers. They are supposed to use spec cars to control costs and promote more track time and driver development, but too many teams have been replacing high dollar parts that have failed over the years since this chassis was introduced. Incredibly unfair because the teams don’t get to choose what cars/parts they buy, and the money they are spending isn’t being used to fix known issues.

      There is already enough action in most F2 races without random mechanical issues. And the fire extinguisher thing; I don’t think I’ve seen that happen before in any series in the 20 years I’ve been watching racing, and it’s happened 3 times in 2 years in F2.

  3. I’m not a fan when it’s really difficult to answer the simple question of ‘Who won?’ Well three drivers won races with different sets of rules to set each race and ultimately no driver really took the headlines.

  4. Good points in the article. I watched some of the races, and simply gave up trying to understand the format and instead just watched the action.

    1. This is it.
      What are we watching car racing for? A story? A narrative? A plot?
      Or car racing?

  5. That’s exactly what I’ve been saying about F1’s silly implementation of ‘qualifying races’. After the first few where there will be excitement due to its newness and teams having not worked out the best strategy the races will descend into cars following each other round being very careful to not but excess wear on components. And then the only way to ‘fix’ that will be to award points to the races and that’ll dilute the Grand Prix. As a casual observer of F2 the main thing preventing me watching it is that there’s multiple races and so none are the ‘big event’. Who won F2 this weekend – loads of people and somebody that didn’t win at all could be leading the championship by coming 2nd in all 3 races. It’s all just a bit complicated and unappealing to a fan

    1. My quote didn’t work – it was in response to this “Saturday afternoon’s second sprint race was a livelier affair, as the caution of race one was thrown out of the window by drivers, knowing the race two result would have no impact on their starting place for Sunday.”

    2. Uh.. 3 people ‘won’ F2 this weekend, because there were 3 races….
      F2 isn’t a GP.

      1. I guess an accurate headline for the news would be: “X, Y and Z won in F2”.

  6. The biggest problem I have are the gaps between races. 2 months between races is absurd and really does nothing to keep me engaged.

    I also feel for the rookies who will need to reacquaint themselves with the cars all over again…and in Monaco no less!

  7. Can’t say i’m a fan of the new format as not only was the 1st race quite dull but it also just doesn’t really feel all that important. Like sure it sets the grid for race 2 but even so it just sort of feels like it’s lacking somehow, Like it’s a race that doesn’t really need to happen but is happening purely so they can say they are holding more races in the season.

    Also with how powerful the DRS was & how huge a factor tires were a lot of the ‘action’ in the subsequent races just felt a bit fake somehow with most of the passing been more down to some artificial device rather than some brilliant piece of driving purely down to driver skill.

    You look back at a race like the one with Hamilton coming through the field at Istanbul & his overtakes & the bits of racing we got felt natural, It felt like it was down to good drivers racing hard showing there racecraft. I just don’t get that same feeling from the series now as it just all feels a bit fake when you have DRS creating push of a button passes & tires falling off a cliff.

    It’s hard to know what is down to the pure skill of the drivers & what is created by one of the gimmicks & I just can’t say i’m a fan of that. I’d much rather the series go back to been the more pure racing which highlights & promotes pure racecraft as that was for me the biggest draw of the series in the pre gimmick days.

  8. Lundgaard’s penalty was a funny one, because I’m 99% positive he served it during a Safety Car. In F1 you are not allowed to do that (I think of Jules Bianchi in Monaco 2014), but maybe after all these years the rule has changed or maybe it has never been written on F2’s rulebook.

    The format is interesting, maybe a bit confusing for the non-die-hard fans, but there is a minor glitch it should be fixed: P9 and P10 in Sprint Race 1 get no points, but P10 converts into pole in Sprint Race 2, so there could be some races where, if P8 is far ahead and no penalties are expected, driver at P9 tries to slow down to be overtaken. This could be a complete farce and it should be addressed.

  9. I’ll keep an open mind about race weekend format (although dc above makes a few good points for improvements) but the thing I do not like as a F2 follower is the gaps between race meetings. For the last couple of years I have been enjoying F2 more than F1 and now there are only 8 meetings in a year (on the positive side F1 looks interesting this year!)

    I get the cost saving element etc. but why not focus on the Eurpoean F1 weekends to shorten the F2 race year rather than spreading it over the whole F1 season.

    1. Completely agree.
      And, as someone wrote above, must be horrible for rookies to get a feel for the car and tyres.

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