Russian Time driver Artem Markelov finished ahead of Norman Nato and and Charles Leclerc at the Bahrain International Circuit as the rebirth of Formula 2 brought about an enthralling race up and down the grid in Sakhir. In the closing stages of the race the Russian hunted down and passed Nato and Leclerc as his fresher soft tyres yielded more grip than those of his rivals.
The top five cars all opted to start the race on the mediuam tyres which meant that they would finish on the softer compound of Pirellis in the latter part of the race. As the lights went out, pole-sitter Leclerc had a solid getaway in his Prema with Nyck De Vries in second dropping back as the result of wheelspin off the line.
Markelov had a barnstorming opening lap moving up from seventh on the grid to third, highlighting his pace early on that would eventually see him overcome the challnge of Leclerc and Nato.
The second Prema of Antonio Fuoco had a less than ideal start and on lap 2 found himself at the mercy of DAMS racer Oliver Rowland into the heavy braking zone of turn 1. In contrast, Johnny Cecotto in the second Rapax climbed from twelfth to eighth in the action-packed opening exchanges.
At the front of the pack the leading cars remained within touch of each other and Nato made quick work of Leclerc in his Arden in turn 1. At this point Markelov was lurking in third position ahead od De Vries and Matsushita with the struggle for victory looking set to be limited to the top trio.
Markelov's team-mate Luca Ghiotto was having a tougher race further down the field as he complained of a lack of rear grip as early as lap seven. With the race taking place in the searing heat of the Sakhir afternoon sun, prolonging the tyre life was key and those unable to do so suffered.
Leclerc and Nato were battling out front and once again traded positions as lap eight got underway with turn one once again being the scene for yet another daring move that saw Leclerc emerge victorious.
Nicholas Latifi suffered a nightmare afternoon as the result of losing his front wing due to running into the back of Alexander Albon as the two emerged from turn 4. Latifi pitted for a new front wing and a fresh set of boots however the coming together wrecked the Canadian's race. Albon's ART was unaffected and streaked away from Latifi before the latter could pit.
At the sharp end, Artem Markelov was heaping the pressure on to the struggling Nato and made quick work of the Frenchman as lap 14 got underway. Nato pitted and strapped on the softer compound tyres with Leclerc following suit, however, Markelov opted to remain on his mediums for another three laps.
Prior to the Russian coming in his rivals were lapping four seconds a lap faster and the gap between the duo and Markelov following his pitstop appeared to be beyond the Russian Time driver as he sat 8 seconds off leading driver Nato. He would no doubt have fresher, grippier tyres at the end but whether or not he could reel Nato and Leclerc in remained to be seen.
As lap 21 came and went Nato seemed in control as he was consistently lapping quicker than Leclerc, but on the following lap it was Markelov who grabbed the headline lap time albeit with a ten-second deficit.
The race saw many daring overtaking manoeuvres and Oliver Rowland pulled off a stunning move at the first corner on De Vries, keeping his foot in and riding the kerbs allowing him to hold the position as the Dutchman fought valiantly in his debut race. King and Ghiotto then moved past later in the lap as he fell from fourth to seventh as his tyres gave up.
As time progressed Markelov was hauling in the leading two, at one point lapping over two seconds a lap quicker. His incredible pace saw the once large gap dissolve very quickly and the difference in grip was demonstrated by the Russian streaking past Leclerc on the run from the last corner down the pits straight.
Markelov's move past Nato on the penultimate lap was slightly more difficult, however, his tyres allowed him to navigate turn four more efficiently as the latter waved the white flag, knowing that any attempt to keep the Russian behind would have been fruitless.
The race-long personal battle between Rowland and King saw the latter come out on top in the end as a daring move on the last lap gave him a credible fourth position.
Markelov's ability to make his medium tyres last longer on the first stint was no doubt the key factor in the race. This allowed him to push hard at the end of the second stint and the Russian can be proud of a mature drive and victory.
Bahrain International Circuit - Winter testing