Roberto Merhi on Readapting to F2 and the ‘Lost Win’ That Defined His Comeback

Roberto Merhi on Readapting to F2 and the ‘Lost Win’ That Defined His Comeback

The FIA Formula 2 Championship had its final round in July at the Hungaroring before teams and drivers scattered around the world for the series’ summer break. InsideF2 spoke to a few figures in the paddock that weekend about how their 2022 seasons have unfolded.

The announcement that Roberto Merhi would be replacing the injured Ralph Boschung at Campos Racing from Spielberg onward came as a surprise to many. The 31-year-old ex–F1 driver and current Super GT racer seemed an unusual choice for a return to the FIA Formula 2 Championship, a series in which he last raced in 2018.

But the doubts about the Spaniard’s race fitness were put to rest in the Feature Race that weekend when, through a savvy strategy and opportunism, he climbed from 21st on the grid to third. He downplays it as a ‘decent’ race, but it could have been an extraordinary maiden win were it not for a five-second penalty for exceeding track limits one too many times.

“We lost the win, let’s say, and then we finished third – a bit disappointing with the penalty because [when] we went to the stewards, they never showed me the track limits, all of them. They showed me like two, but not four,” Merhi tells InsideF2 on Saturday of the championship’s 10th round at the Hungaroring.

Merhi complained about the alleged lack of evidence shown to him in the stewards’ room, and at the next round in France, Campos launched an appeal over the time penalty. The team brought in new information downloaded from the car’s positioning data module, a specialised GPS device installed on F2 cars that records a car’s position on track within an accuracy range of 30 centimetres.

The appeal, however, was dismissed by the FIA that same weekend, meaning Merhi’s third-place result stood. “The exact deviation of an F2 car [with] respect to a white line cannot be determined by using the PDM,” the document stated as the primary reason for dismissing the appeal.

Merhi was not the only one who lost a potential win on that Sunday. Richard Verschoor crossed the line in front of him, but his Trident had only 31.3 grams of fuel instead of the required 800, leading to his disqualification three hours after the chequered flag.

Jehan Daruvala was next in line for the win, but he too earned a 20-second penalty for having his grid box dried by the PREMA Racing team before the start. That meant Logan Sargeant, despite crossing the line fourth, eventually inherited the win after a comeback of his own from 15th place, with Enzo Fittipaldi in second and Merhi third, 1.618 seconds behind Sargeant.

Such a fortuitous result for Merhi after four years away made for one of the feel-good stories of the season even if the circumstances of Merhi’s return were troubling. Campos’ regular driver Ralph Boschung had been suffering neck pain since the third round of the season at Imola, and after three mid-weekend withdrawals in Barcelona, Monaco, and Silverstone, he decided to step away from the car permanently on medical advice to treat his severe facet syndrome.

While F2 raced in Silverstone from 1–3 July, Merhi had been in Marrakesh, Morocco, for Round 10 of the FIA Formula E World Championship as the appointed driver adviser. He had a quick turnaround to get ready for F2’s Spielberg round the following weekend, especially with such a late call-up.

“It came last minute to go to Spielberg,” Merhi says. “I was in Marrakech with the FIA Stewards, and at the last minute, they offered me to come here. And then we had a day and a half to prepare.”

It’s understood that Boschung hand-picked Merhi to replace him for the Red Bull Ring. The pair knew each other from two previous stints as F2 team mates – once at Campos for the 2017 Barcelona F2 round and again at MP Motorsport for the first two-thirds of the 2018 season.

The Dallara F2 2018 chassis remains largely unchanged from when Merhi last raced it that year, but the category has evolved significantly. Changes in format swapped the order of the shorter Sprint Race and the longer Feature Race on Sunday morning. Most significantly, F2 ditched the smaller 13-inch tyres in favour of larger, 18-inch tyres in 2020, anticipating a similar move made by F1 ahead of the 2022 season.

Merhi participated in the F2 post-season test with HWA Racelab in 2020, but since then, his only other single-seater experience has come in the two-round S5000 Tasman Series in Australia last November and December. That gap in seat time would make any return challenging, especially one to a car with such specific demands.

“It’s like if you take a football player, a tennis player, you remove the ball or the racket and you say, ‘Okay, you don’t compete. Also, you don’t train’. I don’t train with this car. And then you jump in the middle of a championship,” Merhi explains.

“I knew it was going to be hard. Also physically, if you don’t drive these cars, it’s very, very hard.”

Having the experience of 13 Formula One races in 2015 with backmarkers Manor Marussia makes Merhi a unique case among the drivers in the paddock. The fast, high-downforce cars in F1 exert higher g-forces and the races are longer and thus more physically demanding than those in junior series, but F1 has the advantage of power steering in its cars, which F2 lacks.

Endurance and GT racing, in which Merhi has competed since the end of his F1 stint, has different demands on a driver’s body, with more emphasis on core strength and stamina rather than on the upper body strength required in single-seaters.

“I don’t have many laps on the car to adapt to this car that is a bit particular,” he tells InsideF2. “To jump into a Formula 2 car – because you don’t have the power steering wheel – it’s like going to an old-school car a little bit compared to what I am driving in Japan, the GT car.

“The G-forces are much harder, the [rhythm] is harder, then it’s hard to adapt. Of course, maybe probably to jump in a Formula 1 [car] is a bit easier, but on this car, you need to adapt.”

Merhi’s total time on track was limited too, with 45 minutes in practice, 30 minutes in Qualifying, and 28 laps in the Sprint Race. Merhi only completed 26 of those before a turbocharger issue proved terminal. Crucially, none of his prior running had taken place in wet conditions, which hit the Styrian hills ahead of Sunday’s running.

Merhi took the risk of starting on slick tyres for the Feature Race. The gamble evidently paid off as the track dried and he carved through the field and into an unlikely podium position, but there was also degradation, he says, that became difficult to manage as the race progressed.

“I made the right choice on the tyres. We started on the soft tyre and I think it was the right tyre to start with, and then I had a really good pace at that moment, overtaking the people, adapting to the situation better than the others, I would say.

“And then I took care a bit of the tyres to make sure I had tyre for the last part of the race because I knew everybody was pushing very hard and no one expected degradation.

“I knew our [tyre wear] was always a bit aggressive, especially on the left side of the car, because you have so many right corners that the left tyres are chafing a lot. Then we did a decent race.”

From the almost unbelievable high of Spielberg came a bump back down to earth at Le Castellet, where Merhi retired from both races with mechanical issues. He improved to 15th in Qualifying, to be sure, but he thought more was possible.

The first obstacle was a red flag that came out when Dennis Hauger’s Prema stopped on track with seven minutes to go. Then came the contentious build-up to his final flying lap: Merhi, desperate for good track position and clean air, swerved around Cem Bölükbasi and Roy Nissany and nearly banged wheels with David Beckmann in the final two corners, though nobody was penalised.

“We were the last box going out of the pits, and then doing that in France, with the red flag in qualifying, compromised a lot the Qualifying performance because I couldn’t prepare my tyres well. And then I got traffic,” Merhi says. “My best lap in the Qualifying, I started behind the car [in front by] 0.7 seconds, and if the guy in front is not super quick then you don’t really improve.

“To be honest, in France, I had the chance to go maybe P9, P10 with a normal Qualifying, but obviously, that compromised a lot the weekend. And we had reliability issues in Race 1 and Race 2.

“I was ahead of Nissany in Race 2 when we had the problem with the clutch, and then I came to the pits. I had no clutch and that was it.”

The Hungaroring was another tricky weekend for Merhi, who qualified 20th. Despite fighting back to 14th in the Sprint Race, he endured a challenging Feature Race with a slow pit stop and retired just three laps from the flag with yet more issues. In those races, Caldwell was comfortably ahead of Merhi, who seemed to be enduring the growing pains normally seen in a driver a decade his junior.

A calendar clash with the fifth round of Super GT at Japan’s Suzuka Circuit means Merhi’s F2 return has been put on pause. Boschung will return to the car for Spa, it was announced Tuesday, to partner 2021 F2 rookie Lirim Zendeli, who is stepping in for Olli Caldwell while the British driver serves a race ban.

From six starts, Merhi reached the chequered flag twice. That’s a bleak statistic on paper, but it’s difficult to judge where he might have ended races like the Feature Race in France. Nissany, who was behind Merhi when the Campos driver retired, eventually finished that race ninth. Without the mechanical issue, Merhi might have taken home more points and given the Spanish squad something small to celebrate in what’s been an unexpectedly trying season.

Joining Campos mid-season, especially on such short notice, made it hard for Merhi to guide them forward.

“If I [race] all the year, I can tell you what is our weakest point, but jumping in the championship with a new car and all that, it’s hard to understand why we are struggling. I have a philosophy, they have another philosophy, but we need to understand … how to go to the right way.”

There is no timeline yet for when, or if, Merhi will next race in F2. If it is the end of his F2 career, perhaps it is fitting that Merhi’s ephemeral comeback and the race that has come to define it leave us with more questions than answers: what if he hadn’t had just one race to prepare before it, what if he’d been two seconds further up the road, what if he’d had three track-limits violations instead of four. It’s hard to quantify how sensational a victory it might have been.

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