The FIA Formula 3 Championship title fight was already gripping heading into the season-ending triple-header last weekend, but the first leg at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps only added to the drama. Two first-time winners starred in chaotic races, while familiar names endured their worst weekends of the season, tightening the title fight even more.
By Michael McClure
Isack Hadjar, on 106 points, leaves Spa as the sole leader of the championship for the first time, but the fight below him is as intense as ever. Ollie Bearman is just one point behind on 105 points, with Victor Martins on 104, Arthur Leclerc on 101, Roman Staněk on 96 after taking two second places, Jak Crawford on 80, Zane Maloney on 74 and Alex Smolyar on 73. That’s eight drivers within a weekend’s worth of points as the series heads to its penultimate round in Zandvoort.
Maloney’s fortunes turn upside down – literally
It was the image nobody wanted to see: an F3 car hurtling towards the barriers at Blanchimont at full speed, turning over on impact, then being struck by another car while upside down before landing right side up in the gravel, the car a shell of its former self.
Maloney’s horror crash with Oliver Goethe was a proper reminder of the progress that F1 and single-seater racing had made in safety. On Lap 6, Staněk had passed Goethe for fifth a few seconds earlier in the corner and gestured to Maloney to follow him through, but the Barbadian’s overtaking attempt at the second apex, while perhaps overly ambitious in hindsight, ended with far worse consequences. The newly installed gravel saved Maloney and Goethe from having an even scarier, higher-speed accident.
The Trident mechanics worked all night to build Maloney a brand-new car for the Feature Race, which he was due to start second. Their efforts paid off handsomely as Maloney captured the lead from pole-sitter Caio Collet on Lap 11 around the outside of the Kemmel Straight and held off teammate Staněk until the end. Perhaps the only mistake for Maloney on Sunday was running wide at Les Combes on his attempt to grab the lead on Lap 1, requiring him to heed position to both Goethe and Collet.
As the Barbadian anthem rang out over the venue, the idea that Maloney had been flying through the air just under 24 hours earlier seemed inconceivable. It was a poignant story of redemption, one that demonstrates the unwavering commitment of team members behind the scenes whose work rarely gets the attention it so richly deserves.
Bearman: A bona fide contender
Bearman laid down a strong benchmark in Bahrain by crossing the line first in the opening Sprint Race, but a five-second penalty for violating track limits one too many times handed the win to fellow rookie Hadjar. Fast forward five months, and the Ferrari Driver Academy’s Bearman now trails Red Bull junior Hadjar by one point in a tightly contested championship.
What set Bearman apart from his peers this weekend was his performance in the Sprint Race, which was as controlled as they come. Starting fifth in his first race at Spa, Bearman rose to second by the end of the opening lap, albeit helped by contact between front-row starters Zak O’Sullivan and Juan Manuel Correa, and took over the lead from Brad Benavides on the Kemmel Straight on Lap 2. He was unchallenged from there and romped away on the restart after the red flag to take his maiden F3 win by nearly five seconds.
Bearman started the Feature Race in eighth but put in a similarly impressive performance to finish on the podium. The Briton had moved up to sixth by the opening lap but didn’t manage another overtake until Lap 15, when he overtook Jonny Edgar for fifth place at La Source. On the final lap, he got by Goethe for fourth and ended up on the podium by dint of a five-second time penalty for Collet for his fourth consecutive third-place finish in a Feature Race.
Days like that season opener in Bahrain are what could be the tipping point in the championship, but weekends like Spa are what Bearman needs to prove that he is worthy of the F3 crown. If nothing else, fighting for an unprecedented third racing title in two seasons is certainly an accomplishment on its own.
Rookies put on their best displays
Behind Maloney and Bearman, several other rookies starred this weekend, taking their best results of the season and impressing after largely unremarkable campaigns.
Goethe is an obvious mention, having qualified fourth and finished fourth in the Feature Race after leading at one point. He might have been even higher up in qualifying had he not needed to slow for a yellow flag on his final attempt, on which he set a middle sector more than four-tenths faster than that of anyone else. The Sprint Race will be remembered for the accident and the full night of rebuilding that it required of Campos, but even in that race, Goethe displayed remarkable composure to avoid the opening-lap chaos unfolding in front of him and rose from ninth to fourth in one sector.
William Alatalo’s final qualifying lap put him third, but he had crossed the line right after the chequered flag came out, meaning he did not benefit from the drying track and ended up in an unenviable 13th. He rose to sixth early in the Sprint Race and finished there, but he had to regain several positions that he lost when he dropped his Jenzer into the gravel on exit at La Source on the safety car restart. In the final laps of both races, he sparred with David Vidales: Alatalo successfully passed the Campos driver into Turn 1 on Saturday but lost out on track on Sunday at the final corner before the stewards, in a ‘unique’ decision, reversed the positions because of a track-limits illegality on Vidales’ part, reinstating Alatalo to seventh.
Benavides was an unknown quantity this year, with no prior top-five finishes in cars and not a single full season of racing in any category. To see him leading the first lap in the Sprint Race, even if he benefitted from the reverse grid, was one of the surprise moments of the weekend if not the season as a whole. Benavides slipped down to eighth by the flag and from 10th to 18th in the Feature, but he still got his first points on the board and, most importantly, good experience at the sharp end of the grid.
A word, too, for Francesco Pizzi, whose third place in Qualifying was another of the positive surprises of the weekend. Unfortunately for the Italian driver, his Feature Race was compromised on the opening lap when Collet’s rejoin at Les Combes forced him to swerve into the gravel. Having fallen down to the midfield, Pizzi was then hit by an out-of-control Kush Maini at the Bus Stop chicane and fell to the back of the field, from which he never recovered.
Front runners’ impressive recoveries
The mixed-up grid at Spa also put some familiar names at the back of the grid, including several of this season’s race winners and championship contenders. Four of the top five drivers entering the round started no higher than 20th for both races, requiring them to show their overtaking prowess.
Leclerc was the highest starter of those and the most successful at moving through the field, picking off cars one by one in the Sprint Race to end up fifth. Hadjar rose from 23rd to 9th in that same race with some bold overtakes on Christian Mansell and Grégoire Saucy at Eau Rouge, while fellow Red Bull junior Crawford made up the most places of all to finish 11th, just nine-tenths away from points, after starting last. None of those three drivers made it to the points on Sunday, however: Leclerc was 11th, Hadjar 14th and Crawford 17th.
One driver who recovered impressively from in-race incidents was Franco Colapinto, who was spun out of fourth place on the opening lap of the Sprint Race by Edgar. Colapinto recovered from the rear of the field to 15th on that chaotic day, but the arguably more impressive performance came on Sunday. He started the race ninth but fell to 30th after an apparent issue affected him off the line. Though nearly half the race took place behind the Safety Car, Colapinto found enough time to fight back to 12th, just 1.5 seconds off team-mate Reece Ushijima in 10th.
A contender who lost the chance to put on a recovery drive, though, was Martins. The ART Grand Prix driver was dinged for a jump start from 24th on Saturday and had to serve a drive-through penalty, which dropped him to the rear of the field. On Sunday, his car sustained terminal damage after Maini swerved his disabled MP Motorsport car into the path of Martins in an attempt to return to pit lane. He leaves an F3 round scoreless for only the second time in his F3 career, albeit at a crucial point in the title fight.
Header photo credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd
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