RACE DEBRIEF

    Armed with a new format, new tracks and new title challengers, the fifth season of Formula 2 is set to kick into gear at the Bahrain International Circuit this weekend.

    Last season saw the second tier produce three more Formula 1 graduates after the tightest title fight in F2’s history, so you won’t want to miss a second of the latest instalment as the greatest young racing talents on the planet go toe-to-toe for a seat in the pinnacle of motorsport.

    Here are five reasons to get excited ahead of the new season…

    WATCH: Ultimate Guide to the 2021 Formula 1 Season

    1. More races at each round

    This season sparks the start of a new era for Formula 2 with an increase from two to three races per round. There will now be two reverse grid Sprint Races on a Saturday, while the Feature Race has switched to Sunday – a move designed to whet your appetite directly before the Grand Prix itself.

    A move made in part to cut costs and safeguard the future of the series, the addition of more action at each round is certainly a welcome development for fans.

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    Big changes in F2 this season, with two reverse-grid sprint races and a Sunday Feature Race

    Remaining unchanged from last year, Friday’s 30-minute qualifying session will still determine the starting grid for the Feature Race – F2’s main attraction, with mandatory pit-stops, more points and more laps.

    The key changes for this year are in the Sprint Races, with the line-up of the first determined by reversing the top 10 finishers of qualifying, and the starting grid for the second determined by reversing the top 10 finishers of the first Sprint Race.

    READ MORE: New three-race F2 and F3 weekend formats announced for 2021

    Put simply, another reverse grid means more overtaking. How teams and drivers deal with the new changes should also prove thrilling in the opening rounds, with strategy set to play a bigger part than ever.

    Although, as CEO Bruno Michel has said himself, “the best drivers will always win.”

    Top 10: Best Overtakes of the 2020 Formula 2 season

    2. The next generation

    Mick Schumacher, Yuki Tsunoda and Nikita Mazepin are the latest in a growing list of graduates to Formula 1 from the second tier, increasing the number to eight in four years since GP2 re-branded to become FIA F2.

    That’s a remarkable number and proof that the system works. F1 teams aren’t afraid to place their trust in a rookie and the next F1 graduate will more than likely be lining up on the 22-strong grid in Bahrain this weekend.

    Robert Shwartzman and Christian Lundgaard are just two of the names gunning to follow in the tyre tracks of Schumacher and co., but know that they need successful seasons if they’re to convince those on the other side of the paddock to hand them a deal.

    READ MORE: Alonso’s return, Ferrari’s form and Mercedes’ struggles – 12 key questions ahead of the 2021 season

    The duo showed flashes of their potential in 2020 – see Shwartzman’s dramatic win in Budapest and Lundgaard’s dominance in Mugello – but both saw their title charges falter due to a lack of consistency.

    Fix this and they stand a great chance of taking that graduation tally to double figures.

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    ART Grand Prix's Christian Lundgaard is one to watch, along with Prema's Robert Shwartzman (main image)

    3. New tracks and returning favourites

    Despite featuring fewer circuits overall, the F2 calendar has a much more worldly feel about it this season, with five ‘flyaways’ and just three rounds in Europe.

    As well as the return of Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi and Monaco to the calendar, F2 will also join F1 in Saudi Arabia for the very first time, on a circuit that’s been hailed as the ‘fastest street track in F1 history.’

    The sheer amount of overtaking that occurs during F2 races makes this a tantalizing prospect on its own…

    ONBOARD: Discover Saudi Arabia's new F1 track

    4. F1 driver academy battles

    The ultimate aim of the second tier is to produce ready-made talent for F1, but with so many different teams represented across the grid in the form of driver academies, rivalries are bound to form. After all, winning is in the nature of every racing driver.

    Ferrari dominated last season with Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman all featuring in the top four – a feat that won’t have gone unnoticed by those at Red Bull or Alpine. Shwarztman is back to lead the charge for the Scuderia this time around at PREMA, as is his former F3 team mate, Marcus Armstrong, who will turn out for DAMS.

    READ MORE: Stefano's State of the Nation - F1's President and CEO on his long to-do list and the season ahead

    As well as Ferrari, Alpine, Red Bull, Williams and Sauber are all represented on the F2 field. Alpine trio Christian Lundgaard, Guanyu Zhou and Piastri will all feel that they’re in with a shout, as will Red Bull’s contingent, Jehan Daruvala, Liam Lawson and Juri Vips, with the latter two set for a fascinating intra-team battle at Hitech.

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    Liam Lawson (above) is part of an exciting intra-team rivalry at Hitech, but there are plenty more of those up and down the grid

    5. Exciting newcomers

    Those who kept a keen eye on the second-tier last season will already know all about Shwartzman, Lundgaard and Felipe Drugovich, but there are also a host of new faces on the grid for fans to become acquainted with.

    There’s plenty of excitement surrounding F3’s top two from last year, Oscar Piastri and Theo Pourchaire, who took the championship by storm in their rookie seasons. Pourchaire in particular set tails wagging, becoming the series’ youngest ever race winner at the age of just 16.

    Red Bull junior Lawson was the most impressive of the new blood in pre-season testing, consistently punching in top five lap times and finishing second on the final day – despite running the second fewest laps.

    Oscar Piastri relives his 2020 F3 title glory at Mugello

    F3 race-winners Lirim Zendeli, Bent Viscaal and David Beckmann will also all make the step-up, as will Matteo Nannini and Alessio Deledda, but one name who few may not know too much about is Gianluca Petecof.

    The Brazilian – who is the Formula Regional European Champion and a former member of the Ferrari Academy – is highly-rated and was expected to join Formula 3, but opted to bypass the third tier all together and jump straight into F2.

    Given the rapid emergence of AlphaTauri star Yuki Tsunoda, you’d be foolish to rule out a rookie starring this season.

    The F2 season will kick off on the same weekend as F1, 26-28 March, in Bahrain. Don't want to miss a minute? Subscribe to F1 TV Pro for every single session live and visit the official F2 website for more.