Returning to the scene of what he described as his ‘worst outing by far’ of 2016, Nicholas immediately demonstrated a renewed sense of confidence as he lapped eighth-quickest during an incident-strewn free practice session.
Qualifying was even more of an interrupted affair, punctuated by three red flag periods, but P3 on the grid behind the wheel of his DAMS Racing machine equalled the Canadian’s best-ever performance in the fiercely-disputed Formula 1 feeder series.
“It was just about putting everything together,” he said. “The car felt great and it was a tidy if not quite perfect lap. I was really pleased, because qualifying has been a bit of a weakness so far this season and we’ve been working hard to improve that.”
Like the majority of the F2 front-runners, Nicholas began Saturday’s Feature Race on the super-soft Pirelli tyres and he instantly stole P2 from Nobuhara Matsushita. He was keeping leader Charles Leclerc within reach when the Safety Car appeared at the end of lap two, and after losing out to Nyck De Vries at the re-start, he settled into a solid P3.
Following his pit-stop to switch to the medium-compound rubber on lap eight, the 21-year-old rejoined in P9 but he moved back up to P4 as the tyre changes played out. After the action was neutralised by a Virtual Safety Car period and subsequent full Safety Car intervention, Nicholas relieved Ralph Boschung of P3 before the race was red-flagged with four laps remaining due to a multi-car accident blocking the track. A second rostrum of the season was just reward for a mature and composed performance.
“While I didn’t have the best speed on the super-soft tyres, after I put the primes on, I was much stronger,” recalled Nicholas. “Once things settled down after the pit-stops, I was running at pretty much the same pace as Nyck so it would have been tough to challenge for P2 but in any case, a podium was a great way to reward the team for everybody’s efforts.”
From P6 on the grid for today’s Sprint Race, Nicholas got away well again to grab a couple of spots on the opening lap, and he opportunistically advanced to P3 when Boschung and Norman Nato made contact directly ahead.
Although forced to give best to the flying de Vries and Leclerc, a brace of retirements elevated the Renault Sport Formula One Team test-driver back to P3. He remained there to the chequered flag to cement his finest weekend to-date at F2 level and to move up to fifth in the drivers’ championship standings.
“I got a really good start today, which continued the trend this year of moving forward at the beginning of each race,” reflected Nicholas, who is proudly supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina in 2017. “It was a more difficult race to manage as I was struggling a bit for grip, which is why the top two were slightly out of reach.
“Overall, I’m very happy with the double podium. The goal this weekend was to bounce back quickly after failing to score in Monaco – and that’s exactly what the DAMS guys and I did. We were consistently up there and we really earned our results.
“Compared to last year, the situation is night-and-day. Race pace was clearly my weak link in 2016, but we did a lot of work over the winter to try to get to the bottom of that and it seems we’ve turned things around. Now we need to keep pushing to improve the car so we can get higher up the podium and win some even bigger trophies!”