The penultimate step on the road to the ultimate dream, FIA Formula 2 is the last hurdle in the journey to Formula 1 and motor racing stardom.

Racing in the shadow of F1 on Grand Prix weekends is an honour but also a hugely pressured environment. Now more than ever before, drivers are under the microscope, and the closer they are to realising their dream, good results are crucial.

While the dream is closer than ever, the level of competition, emotional swings and importance of form are also greater, and handling the weight of expectation is just as much a part of the job as the racing.

“When you have a bad F2 weekend, you know that it could decide if you're going up, if you're staying or if you're going down when it comes down to the end of the year,” says Rodin Carlin rookie, Zane Maloney.

“So, the highs are higher. The podiums that I've had have been amazing. I had podiums in F4, F3, now podiums in F2, now I need a win, but the highs are definitely higher. The lows are lower because it's just more pressure and more at stake. But the less you can make that a thing in your head, the better.”

Like Maloney, Isack Hadjar is also part of the Red Bull Junior Team, notorious for demanding the very best of those in their ranks at all times. Backing from a Formula 1 team opens doors that could have previously remained firmly shut, but it’s a double-edged sword.

Of course, they wouldn’t be there without clear underlying speed and potential, but with new opportunity comes extra level of pressure, with more interested parties keeping track of performances. Then internal expectations can be the source of pressure moreso than the watching eyes of the F1 paddock.

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“I would say the approach remains the same, but I think having bad results affects you more because you're accountable to someone and you have to deliver everything,” the Hitech Pulse-Eight rookie says.

“Being part of the Red Bull Junior programme and having to deliver I think has helped quite a lot, but it's part of the game. It's because of them that I can do what I love doing, so I put myself under more pressure than they do.”

Both drivers arrived in F2 on the back of strong F3 campaigns in 2022. Hadjar was a title contender from early on, Maloney put together a late bid himself, securing a trio of Feature Race wins to end up second in the Championship.

READ MORE: Have the F2 rookies found more pace after the summer break?

Those strong results only elevated the expectations placed upon both for their maiden F2 campaigns. For the drivers themselves, the wanting to hit the ground running was clear but the level of competition could not be ignored.

“Coming into the season, I was just looking forward to hitting the ground running,” Maloney said. “We went through loads of stuff with the team in testing and you feel confident, but we didn't have the best testing programme, let's say, so we didn't go in with complete confidence, which obviously is not great to start a season out.

“Then we finished off Bahrain in P3. So, it was quite funny. A miracle of a race let's say, which is a lot of pressure to be jumping up as a rookie against second, third or fourth-year drivers. It doesn't matter how long you've been doing it for it's still the same amount of pressure and I think as a rookie, if you give yourself less pressure, that’s when you do bad.

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“I think all of us on the grid are under the same pressure and circumstances. So, you have to just go out there and try to do the best job you can every round. F2 is a lot of chaos, so you have to deal with some of that too.”

He wasn’t alone as Hadjar took a little while to get up and running in F2, a frustration having been a front runner the year before.

“After testing, I didn't have it in mind that I’d be fighting for the win in Bahrain, it just didn't look like we had the pace, and it was a bit frustrating. The goal was to maximise everything, Qualifying, the race, but then the car is harder to drive than in F3, tyre management is a is a big, big thing. It was quite a shock, to be honest.”

READ MORE: Would You Rather with Zane Maloney

While Maloney has Enzo Fittipaldi alongside him at Rodin Carlin, Hadjar is joined at Hitech Pulse-Eight by fellow Red Bull Junior and F2 rookie, Jak Crawford.

For the Frenchman, it has meant that there have been some missing pieces to the Formula 2 puzzle as he has tried to find pace throughout the season. With Maloney’s experienced teammate having achieved podiums and a win, there’s a clear benchmark to compare against versus Hadjar and Crawford’s finding their own way in 2023 as rookies.

“I wouldn't say having a rookie alongside me helped,” Hadjar admits. “I wish I had a more experienced teammate rather. I think it's quite reassuring to have someone coming from F3 struggling like me. Obviously, nothing against Jak but having someone going for their second season season would have been more helpful, that's for sure. So that’s been quite a difficult situation for Jak and myself.

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“In the end, it's all down to you when you're in the car, no matter who is alongside you and how much experience they have, you’re going to give your best, so I think it doesn't really matter. But working throughout the season, it's been good to see the data from seasons gone by, that was quite helpful. But it's a different season, different Championship so you’re learning but never 100% accurate.”

Having had the majority of the 2023 campaign to learn some tough lessons and enjoy the stronger days, both can recognise what has gone well and what hasn’t. As with the majority of drivers, their approach to race weekends has stayed broadly the same but smaller details have been discovered and that has come from experience.

READ MORE: Judo, Japan and some iconic TV moments: Getting to know the real Isack Hadjar

Arriving in F2 having been in the form of his career after winning three consecutive Feature Races to end the F3 season the year prior, Maloney admits that his early approach in F2 didn’t pay dividends in the way he’d expected.

The difficult results led to a bit of soul searching and acceptance that his preparations for F2 hadn’t been ideal on reflection. The Bajan driver says that along with the learned experiences and understanding of the crucial details in F2, a return to a more positive mentality has brought better performances, demonstrated by recent results.

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“The Zane of 12 months ago was faster because he was winning races. I had to try to find myself a little bit during this year because coming into F2, maybe I didn't do the best job at learning what I needed to before the season. It's difficult, you go from F3, and you think that you know what to do. You jump in F3 and be fast straightaway but the F2 car takes something different, and I could have done better there.

“So, I've just tried to mentally get back to the state where I was when I was winning, which we have now. Other than Monza, we've been on the podium twice in the last five races with another top five, so I feel like I found myself again.”

Likewise, Hadjar admits that there have been several races this season where a better result was on the cards but through error or misfortune, they haven’t arrived.

“There has been a lot of missed opportunities. When I think about Melbourne and Baku - Melbourne I got taken out running for the podium, Baku I had incredible speed, but I messed up Qualifying and hit the wall. I've made rookie mistakes, but I think most importantly, I just didn't have the pace. That was the main issue - making sure we are competitive enough.”

Both will have one final chance this year to end on a high note. They have completed plenty of mileage around the Yas Marina Circuit courtesy of post-season testing following the end of the 2022 campaign, giving them a step-up compared to completely new destinations like Jeddah and Baku. Now it is time to put what they’ve learned in 2023 into practice.