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.