The air in Sakhir was rife with anticipation as teams and drivers descended onto the Bahrain International Circuit for the first official F2 tests of 2021. Three-days and a few thousand laps later, we have our first hint of what may come in the new season.
Here are five things we learned in pre-season testing...
1. LUNDGAARD LOOKS IN GOOD SHAPE
Targeting a Formula 1 seat in 2022, Christian Lundgaard will settle for nothing less than the strongest of title challenges this season. Sticking with ART Grand Prix and ridding himself of any unwanted bedding in period at a new team, he feels he’s giving himself the best possible opportunity to do so.
The Alpine junior was very quick at times last season – his performances at Mugello a particular highlight – but struggled with consistency and fell out of the title race in the final round following a run of five pointless finishes in six races.
The early signs look positive for Lundgaard, who was the only driver to break the 1m 42s barrier in Sakhir and finished fastest overall. The Dane was also towards the top for distance ran, putting in a total of 218 laps – the fourth highest of the field.
2. THE ROOKIES IMPRESSED
A number of rookies shone across the three days of testing, with F3 race winner Bent Viscaal finishing second fastest overall with Trident while the Dutchman’s F3 rival David Beckmann finished first on the opening day.
Perhaps the most impressive of them all was Hitech’s Liam Lawson, who consistently punched in top five laptimes – despite running the second fewest laps - and finished second on the final day. The Red Bull junior was frustrated to only take fifth in F3 last season, but three wins were proof of his raw pace. He will need to unlock it on a regular basis.
Last season’s top two in F3 were solid if unspectacular throughout the three days. Regularly in the top 10, Oscar Piastri and Théo Pourchaire’s times look promising in tandem with a strong lap count.
3. THE TEAMS WEREN’T GIVING MUCH AWAY
The three-day stint in Bahrain gave us our first glimpse of where the teams are at heading into the campaign. Finishing fastest overall with Lundgaard, ART look in good form going into Round 1. The French outfit have won two of the last three Drivers’ Championships, but they missed out on the title to PREMA Racing in 2020, so they will naturally be keen reclaim their place at the top of the pecking order.
The reigning champions were quiet in comparison, posting solid top 10 times without really standing out. It’s not much of a surprise given that PREMA were similarly reserved during the three-day pre-season testing in Sakhir last year.
Runners-up UNI-Virtuosi were equally coy. Felipe Drugovich and Guanyu Zhou were both in the top five for laps completed and frequently high up in the standings without doing anything spectacular. It certainly feels like they’ve got more in the tank.
Hitech Grand Prix will also be ones to watch in 2021. Last season, the British team managed to put a title bid together after joining the grid only a few weeks ahead of pre-season testing. Opting for Red Bull juniors Liam Lawson and Jüri Vips this time around, the former F3 title challengers finished all three days in the top 10 and were second and third on Day 3.
4. A LOT OF LAPS COMPLETED
4,253 laps of the Bahrain International Circuit were completed across the three-days of pre-season testing. Surprisingly, of the top five for laps run, only one driver was a rookie –Pourchaire.
The F3 vice-champion is the youngest on the grid at 17-years-old old and his ascent up the junior ladder has been rapid. Punching in the second highest figure overall - one behind Guilherme Samaia – Pourchaire will hope that his F2 debut in the final two rounds of 2020, and the distance ran in pre-season, will make the full-time step-up slightly less steep.
Following the two of them, in the top five were more experienced challengers Felipe Drugovich, Christian Lundgaard and Guanyu Zhou. All three drivers know that they will need to hit the ground running if they’re going to challenge for the title in 2021.
5. RE-DESIGNED RUBBER
Pirelli’s updated hard compound was given its first official track-time in Sakhir, with the decision taken to re-design it in an attempt to reduce wear and graining.
DAMS’ Marcus Armstrong was amongst those to comment on the new rubber, explaining that the step between the soft and the hard compounds felt greater than in 2020.
An updated medium compound has also been introduced ahead of the season, with the aim of improving resistance. How much difference this will make during a race remains an unknown, but the early signs look positive.
A whole host of questions remain unanswered with less than two weeks to go until the start of the season. Will experience come to the fore in 2020, or will a fresh talent emerge from the latest crop of rookies? Only time will tell…