Nicholas bounces back with GP2 performances at Spa-Francorchamps

The DAMS Racing driver, a podium finisher at Barcelona earlier this season, spent the summer break understanding how he could avoid a repeat of the frustrating results at the most recent GP2 races in Hungary and Germany. And his work paid off at Spa as he qualified in a solid P11 for Saturday afternoon’s opening Feature Race.

As the 25-lap race unfolded, Nicholas initially found himself on the back foot as he lost a handful of places to his rivals by getting squeezed wide at the top of the hill after Eau Rouge. But a stop for the prime tyre signalled the beginning of Nicholas’s fight back.

Although he felt he was a little conservative with his new tyres at the beginning of the stint, the Renault Sport F1 Test Driver impressively picked up his pace as the field raced to the chequered flag and he leapt from P18 to P13 at the finish line.

Making progress during Sunday’s 18-lap Sprint Race was always going to be more difficult with the cars running in close proximity and no requirement for a pit stop.

Nicholas started in P13 and was happy with the pace that he was able to find during the race. For the second successive day, he was one of the fastest drivers on track in the closing stages and eventually finished in P12.

Although his final results were tinged with disappointment at Spa, Nicholas felt he’d made progress with the quality of his own driving and, most importantly, in understanding how to get the best from Pirelli’s tyres during both races.

“There’s definitely a theme of disappointment with the results in Spa but I think I can be happy with the performance in the races,” he explained. “The main thing for me this weekend was to try and improve after Budapest and Hockenheim where I struggled quite a lot with my driving and the tyres.

“I generally feel I made a step forward in my own performance and in the knowledge and experience I’m getting with the tyres at Spa. There is a fine line between pushing too much to try and maintain track position at the start of a race and then dropping off towards the end. And the same applies with being too conservative at the start of a race and then one of the fastest at the end.”

Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2016, is determined to continue his learning as he contests his first full season in the GP2 series where experience counts for so much.

“It’s clear we’re missing the outright pace in the races but I’m working hard to find that sweet spot where you are fast and attacking – but in a way that works the tyres as little as possible,” he said. “That’s coming with experience and my target is to put together all of the things that I’m learning so I’m continually improving as a GP2 driver.”

With no respite before the ninth round of the GP2 series at Monza in Italy next weekend, Nicholas heads straight back to the DAMS Racing headquarters in Le Mans, France after Spa to continue his preparations.

As a high-speed circuit with unique characteristics, tyre degradation at Monza is expected to be vastly different from that encountered at Spa. But Nicholas is looking forward to taking on that challenge.

He said: “Monza is a completely different track and conditions around tyre deg will be new again. But that’s part of the challenge and I’ll do lots of prep with the team to understand what’s likely to happen so that I can continue with the momentum I’ve found at Spa. It’s important to keep moving forward.”

Nicholas is ready for his GP2 racing return at Spa Francorchamps

Nicholas, who has one podium finish to his name so far in 2016, used the summer break to enjoy some time relaxing with his family at home in Toronto and to thoroughly analyse his performance during a sequence of two back-to-back race weekends in Austria, the UK, Hungary and Germany.

But with the mid-season break now over, Nicholas is fully focused on this weekend’s battle at Spa where he ultimately hopes to convert the strong potential he has shown in qualifying during 2016 into a pair of point-scoring race results.

“The objective at Spa is to continue the strong form we’ve been having in qualifying, but to then use that to make a big step up in our race performance,” Nicholas said. “For sure, the goal is always to get into the GP2 points. But first we have to make sure we have the pace at the start of the weekend and the performance will come from that.

“Some of our most recent races have been pretty tough and myself and the team want to change that. If the right performance is there as a team, in me as the driver and we feel like we’ve made a step forward, I’ll be happy with that.”

Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2016, suffered at the hands of significant tyre degradation during the last GP2 encounter at Hockenheim and he’s been working closely with his DAMS Racing team during the summer break to understand how he can manage his car’s Pirelli rubber more effectively during the eight GP2 races that remain this season.

“The team and I have been able to analyse everything in more detail and reflect on Hockenheim,” he said. “I now feel I have a better understanding of the problems we encountered in Germany and it’s good to know that Spa won’t give us such high degradation. This is my first full season in GP2 and getting experience of how to manage the tyres effectively was always going to be my biggest challenge this year.

“But it takes time and you can’t just say ‘if I do this and this everything will be fine’. Understanding the tyres is something I have to make small improvements with and that’s a process I hope to continue with at Spa.”

Nicholas’s chance of making the step in performance he’s targeted should be helped by the fact he’s racing on a track he enjoys and, crucially, has recorded success at in the recent past.
The 21-year-old said: “I’m definitely looking forward to going back to Spa because it’s one of my favourite tracks and a place where I’ve had some good results in the past. I scored my first pole position at Spa in British F3 and I qualified on the front row at Spa in Formula Renault 3.5 last season.

“Being able to take corners like Eau Rouge flat out is one of the attractions of Spa but for me the track has lots of other qualities. The nature of the circuit is high speed and it has a great flow to it. The way the corners link together is fantastic and that makes it a fun place to race a GP2 car.”

Nicholas aims to increase his competitive edge at Spa

The Canadian, who is tackling his first full season in GP2, completed the seventh round of the GP2 Series at Hockenheim in Germany earlier today and now has three weeks away from the paddock to prepare for round eight at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium (26-28 August).

“I’m going to use the next few weeks to look at everything that’s gone on in the first half of the season so I can hopefully come back even more competitive at Spa,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s been a busy season so far and I’ve had to learn a lot in quite a short space of time.

“I want to continue improving so I’m grateful I have a bit of time to take stock away from the race track and re-focus on the things I’ve done well and where I need to improve.”

This weekend’s races in Germany proved to be another learning curve for Nicholas as he sought to understand how Pirelli’s GP2 tyres would perform at Hockenheim – a track he had never driven in GP2 machinery before Friday’s free practice and qualifying sessions.

A positive performance in qualifying got the weekend off to a strong start as Nicholas guided his DAMS Racing car to P7 on the time sheets.

“I was pretty confident for quali because the car is always good and competitive in that session,” Nicholas explained. “I showed straight away what I was able to do on my first set of tyres and everything felt good. I was a bit unfortunate on my second set as my track position wasn’t great and I hit a fair bit of traffic. But P7 was a positive first step towards having a good weekend.”

Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2016, started Saturday’s Feature Race fantastically and quickly fought his way up to P3 as the opening laps of the race unfolded. But he wasn’t able to maintain that pace as the performance of his prime tyres suffered on the Hockenheim asphalt.

By the time the race strategy allowed Nicholas to pit for new soft rubber, the deficit to the point-scoring positions ahead was too much to claw back and he had to settle for P14 at the chequered flag.

“Things started really quite good. I was on the attack and wanted to be a bit more aggressive at the beginning to try and decide my own fate,” the Renault Sport F1 Team test driver said. “I got some clean air and was settling into P3. But, in hindsight, I pushed too hard in those opening laps and the tyre degradation was absolutely terrible.

“It was frustrating because we were running at the front and had the race slip away from us like that. But this is the track where we’ll see the highest tyre degradation this season and I learned a lot in that situation.”

Starting from P14 on the grid for Sunday’s Sprint Race, Nicholas was bumped – literally – down the order as the field charged through the first two corners. He therefore opted to concentrate on managing his tyres and eventually came home in P17 after 27 laps of racing.

“The positive in the second race was the fact that I kept my tyres to the end,” Nicholas said. “In the first race I did 20 laps and was screaming for a pit stop. But in race two I did 27 laps and the pace was quite competitive in the end.

“For sure, this was another weekend where I learned a lot about tyre degradation and I’m determined to take the positives from the negative situations when they arise. That’s how I’ll improve as a driver and how I’ll build on my strong qualifying in future races.”