Like the majority of the field, Nicholas was a newcomer to the Sepang International Circuit – returning to the GP2 calendar following a three-year absence – and had to get to grips with the notoriously abrasive track during a shorter-than-usual 30-minute practice session on Thursday.
“A new circuit is always an enjoyable challenge, and I liked it a lot,” said the DAMS Racing driver, who arrived in Malaysia off the back of two runs in the Renault Sport F1 Team’s 2012 car at Valencia and Spa-Francorchamps during GP2’s month-long hiatus. “It has an interesting and quite physical layout, and the particularly high track temperatures added an extra element to the equation.”
The Canadian found his qualifying efforts frustrated, however, as he lined up 12th on the grid for the Feature Race after his two quickest laps were scuppered by DRS issues and red and yellow flags, likely denying him a fourth row slot.
The start was delayed by two additional formation laps required to remove a stricken car from the circuit, but when the action finally did get underway, Nicholas anticipated the lights with razor-sharp precision to vault immediately up into eighth place. Swiftly settling into the leading group, he gained another spot to seventh next time around, but unfortunately spun on lap three, dropping down the order to 15th.
The 21-year-old peeled into the pits at the end of lap six to swap his medium-compound Pirelli tyres for the more durable hard compound, rejoining the fray in 20th and immediately underscoring his potential by posting a purple opening sector on his first full lap on fresh rubber.
By lap 11, he was back up into 16th and circulating faster than the championship leader directly ahead of him, subsequently finding himself embroiled in a tussle over 12th and going on to take the chequered flag 14th.
“I got a really good start and was settling into a solid rhythm and picking up momentum,” said Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Sofina and Lavazza in 2016. “Then I think I just braked a touch too late for the conditions with a heavy fuel load on-board and low downforce, and the car snapped round on me – it was almost as if somebody suddenly pulled the handbrake on!
“That was a shame, as I was in a great position at the time and I’m pretty confident I would have finished inside the top eight but the spin flat-spotted my tyres, which compromised the whole race as it meant I had to stop as soon as the pit window opened. Although our pace after that wasn’t too bad, with the second stint being longer than expected, it was more difficult to manage the ‘Prime’ tyre.”
In similarly scorching temperatures for the Sprint Race the next day, the Renault Sport F1 Team’s Official Test Driver retained 12th place at the start before benefitting from a collision ahead to advance to 11th. Following an early Safety Car period, he engaged in a fast-and-frantic multi-car battle over the lower end of the points-paying positions and a great move on Jordan King into Turn One midway through paved the way to his sixth top ten finish of the season in tenth place.
“We made some subtle changes to the car for race two, but whilst I had another great start and opening lap, it was clear that as a team we were missing something, because we then couldn’t make much progress,” Nicholas summarised.
“I just tried to keep everything clean, and it was an uneventful race with no mistakes. For me, the most important thing was that I took a big step forward in performance between the two races and put to use what I had learned on Saturday, while gaining more valuable experience along the way – and I still felt great at the end of them both, too, which was good to see as it proves all my physical preparation paid off!”