Canada's Nicholas Latifi got his 2017 Formula 2 campaign off to a strong start in Bahrain this weekend, overcoming some of the toughest track conditions of the season to secure a fourth place and eight championship points.
The DAMS Racing driver ended Sunday's sprint race in Sakhir just 4.6 seconds shy of the podium after an impressive run up from P11 during which he managed his tyres shrewdly on a circuit renowned for its abrasive surface and scorching temperatures.
It was a confidence-inspiring performance for the 21-year-old, and an upbeat end to a weekend that started with disappointment in Saturday's feature race when Nicholas damaged his front wing while overtaking and was forced to pit for a replacement.
But even then there were positives to take. While the stop dropped him down the field, and prompted an early change to the soft-compound tyre, Nicholas fought back to end the race in P11 - just one place outside the points.
"I think today was probably my best race since Barcelona last season. It was the first race in a long while where I was able to properly enjoy it and have fun," Nicholas said. "After so much anticipation, things really came together well. The car set-up felt good and that helped my driving."
"It was a strange start to the weekend though, and for practice and qualifying the track felt very unfamiliar - even after three days of testing not long before. It was puzzling. Both me and my team-mate were missing something - but having looked at the data I think we understand more about that now."
Starting Saturday's feature race from P13, Nicholas, who is supported by Royal Bank of Canada, Lavazza and Sofina, made a good start and picked up two places before measuring his pace to conserve his tyres.
"I kept a comfortable pace, driving my own race until lap 10 or 11 when I judged it was time to attack and use the tyres," he explained.
"Quite quickly I caught the guys in front. I passed one but then made a clumsy effort to try and pass Alexander Albon. I tried to get the undercut and he defended well on the apex and when I tried to cross I ran into him and destroyed my front wing. That was really disappointing and pretty much ruined my race."
The necessary early pit stop for a new wing meant Nicholas also became the first driver to swap from the 'prime' to the 'option' tyre. "That left us with 20 laps on the soft compound, on a track that was more than 50°C - and that was way too much," he said.
"But in fact it turned out way better than I expected. To finish P11 was a good case of damage limitation and shows the progress that we have made over the winter. Without the accident I feel I could have finished in the top eight and would have had everything to play for in race two."
Starting Sunday's sprint race from P11, Nicholas again made up a few positions before managing his pace to keep his tyres in optimum condition. "With about seven laps to go I made my move and fought my way up to third, I was the fastest of the lead bunch and thought I was guaranteed a podium until I saw Leclerc in my mirrors!" he said.
"Still, P11 to P4 is a strong result that shows the steps that the team and I have made - especially on tyre management. Bahrain is a circuit known for massive tyre degradation and hopefully I'll be able to manage the tyres just as well, if not better, at the other tracks."
Nicholas and the rest of the F2 competitors have a four-week break until the next round of the championship in Barcelona, Spain on 12-14 May.