The foundations for the 21-year-old’s strongest F2 performance of the 2017 season were laid in Saturday’s 37-lap Feature Race, in which he charged to a P6 finish.
Nicholas started on the hard ‘prime’ compound of Pirelli tyre, with the intention of switching to the soft ‘option’ tyre later in the race. However, an inopportune deployment of the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) benefited the drivers that were on the opposite strategy and Nicholas was unable to climb any higher than P6.
“It was a shame that the VSC caught out everyone who was on the prime-option strategy,” Nicholas explained. “I’m pretty sure I would have finished P3 otherwise, because my pace was really good.”
With the top-eight positions from the Feature Race being reversed to form the grid for the Sprint Race, the DAMS Racing driver filled P3 on the grid for Sunday’s 26-lap encounter. Living up to his pre-event promise to run at the front of the pack, Nicholas made a fantastic getaway to lead into the first corner on the 4.66km track.
Although it was the first time he’d led an F2 race, the Canadian felt comfortable and eased clear of his rivals, crucially moving out of range of the DRS zone and reacting to any increase in pace from those behind him.
Nicholas extended his lead to 3.5sec but on lap 21, as he was on course for his breakthrough F2 victory, the right-side mirror detached from his car and caused him to be distracted at a vital point of the circuit, the braking area for Turn Five.
Nicholas explained: “A lap previously, I thought I hit something quite big on the main straight. It smashed into my helmet. I later realised it was my right mirror, but I didn’t find that out until the braking zone for Turn Five.
“I wasn’t looking in my mirrors too much before that because I had a big gap over the cars behind me, so I had no reason to. But with the mirror being in my peripheral vision, I suddenly noticed something that’s supposed to be there wasn’t there. That threw me.
“In that corner it’s very easy to lock up the inside front tyre and go wide if you miss the braking point by a little bit. I lost concentration for a tenth of a second and hit the brakes too late.”
As Nicholas ran wide and lost momentum, he dropped from P1 to P3. Nevertheless, he recovered his pace to push DAMS Racing team-mate Oliver Rowland hard for P2 in the race.
“When I came back on the track, obviously my tyres were dirty and then I was battling with Oliver,” said Nicholas. “I didn’t have the mirror on the right side of the car, so I couldn’t see where he was on that side and that made the situation a little more difficult to manage.”
Nicholas crossed the line 1.3sec behind Rowland to collect his second podium at Catalunya in as many years, and was philosophical about the incident that cost him the win: “There’s nothing I can do now about what happened, but obviously the win was mine and I feel sorry for the team because they gave their all this weekend. I’m disappointed for myself because I’d earned my position and was comfortable.”
Indeed, Nicholas was delighted with the positive step forward he made in Spain. As well as claiming a healthy 18 championship points across the two races, he proved he is capable of running at the front and dictating the pace in the F2 category.
“I was particularly pleased that I was able to control the pace from the front and managed the gap to break free from the DRS zone by taking the instructions from my race engineers,” he said.
“This year my race pace is much better. That’s a big positive compared to last year. The main thing we have to improve going forward is our pace over one lap in qualifying.”
The brace of points finishes in Spain have elevated Nicholas to sixth position in the FIA F2 drivers’ championship. He will be back in action on 25-27 May at the famous Monaco street circuit.