Nicholas aims to make a fast GP2 start in Malaysia this weekend

The GP2 field is returning to Malaysia for the first time since 2013 and that means almost the entire grid will have no previous experience racing at the track. Nicholas is determined to add to his championship points haul this weekend and facing a new track is an attractive prospect for the 21-year-old.

“It’s a fresh challenge for me and I’m pretty sure for the whole field,” the DAMS Racing driver explains. “This is only the second new track of the year after Baku and that’s great news. The more experienced drivers won’t have an advantage like they do at other tracks.

“Based on the prep that I’ve done with my team back in Le Mans and in the sim, the layout of the Sepang track is something that I like a lot and it should suit my driving style. That gives you a good feeling, but there is still plenty of hard work to do on the track. For instance, the circuit has recently been resurfaced so we will have to see how that affects the tyre wear.”

A second challenge that Nicholas will have to overcome early is a change to the traditional GP2 race weekend timetable. Practice and qualifying are normally held on a Friday afternoon, but in Malaysia a shortened 30-minute practice will be held on Thursday – 24 hours before qualifying gets underway. Making a fast start will be imperative.

“Losing 15 minutes from practice and having it a day earlier than quali makes the weekend a bit more of a challenge,” Nicholas says. “That gives people less time to get up to speed and to learn the track. It’s always nice to have practice and quali on the same day because you have a bit of rhythm. Okay, everyone is in the same boat, but it’s clear the prep that’s been done before the weekend will be more important than ever.”

With one event remaining after Malaysia, Nicholas – who scored a podium finish at the opening race of the 2016 season in Barcelona – is determined to end this year on a high and feels he and his DAMS Racing team have identified some key areas in which they can improve after the last event at Monza in Italy.

“We did plenty of analysis at the shop and we’ve identified some small adjustments that can be made from my side, the team’s side and with the car set up,” Nicholas explains. “We think we’ve found something that will help to look after the rear tyres a bit easier.

“I reckon we’re moving in a better direction and each lap and race is giving me more experience to understand and learn in my first full season of GP2. This year is all about acquiring the knowledge to be a force in 2017.”

Nicholas, who is supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2016, will arrive in Malaysia having enjoyed some valuable seat time in the Renault Sport F1 Team’s 2012 car.

As part of his role as the team’s Official Test Driver, Nicholas completed around 400kms of running at Valencia in Spain last week and then travelled to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium at the weekend to complete demonstration laps in the same V8-powered car.

“It gave me more experience in an F1 car and has also helped to put me back in driving mode for GP2. It’s around a month between Monza and Sepang and that’s quite a while out of a car,” Nicholas says.

Narrow points miss for Nicholas at Monza

The Canadian, who got his season off to a flying start with a podium at the opening round in Barcelona, was the fastest man on track during part of Saturday’s Feature Race and capped his weekend with a fine eighth place in Sunday’s Sprint Race.

However, Nicholas lost Sunday’s point-scoring result after the race when, along with another driver, he was handed a 20s penalty for coming off the throttle a fraction of a second too late during a Virtual Safety Car period.

Despite the disappointment, Nicholas took away more valuable experience from Italy’s Autodromo di Monza – a circuit that is notoriously hard on tyres due to its long, high-speed straights and heavy braking zones.

The circuit’s challenge made for a tricky qualifying session which Nicholas finished in P14. “I thought when I finished my laps I was going to be much higher but I just didn’t extract the full potential,” he said. Looking at my best corners I could have been eighth, with a much better starting position for the first race.”

Starting the Feature Race on the soft compound tyre, an early mistake under braking forced a costly change to Nicholas’s race strategy. “Just before the pit window opened I had a massive lock-up and flat-spotted one of the tyres so badly that I couldn’t drive on it and I was forced to pit as soon as I could,” he explained. “I knew then that trying to manage the new medium tyres for the next 23 laps would be really, really difficult.”

Emerging from the pits with fresh rubber, Nicholas climbed to eighth and was the fastest driver on track at one stage, even though his feeling was less than perfect. “It was good initially, and I undercut everyone on the same strategy,” he said. “But I knew it was going to be difficult towards the end of the race: I wasn’t 100 per cent happy with the balance of the car which was destroying the rear-left tyre.”

Nicholas’s chances of maintaining that position were dealt a blow later on by a lengthy safety car period that bunched the field right up. Outpaced after the restart, he finished in 15th position. “My tyres had been on longest and were in worse condition than anybody else’s. When we restarted I simply didn’t have the same amount of grip and the pack got away from me – from then on I was just trying to get to the end,” he said.

Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2016, made good progress on Sunday when analysis of Saturday’s data and a few subtle set-up changes to the car led to a marked improvement.

“It was a better performance, for sure,” Nicholas said. “I improved my tyre management and had a more consistent race. At the end I still had zero tyres left but I managed to keep a much more reasonable pace. It was definitely a step forward, but we were still really struggling with the rear tyres this weekend. Now we need to analyse the data we have collected to find out why. 

“One factor will be the downforce. For Monza we ran less than we have all year, which calls for different tyre management as the car is sliding about more and there’s less grip. It’s my first experience of this situation and another lesson learned,” he added.

Nicholas will return to GP2 competition later this month for round 10 at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit.