George Russell raced to his second victory, and Hitech GP’s fourth success, of the FIA Formula 3 European Championship season at Spa-Francorchamps on Friday, 29th July, before adding his seventh podium of the campaign on Saturday, 30th July, to climb into the series top three.
Qualifying on pole position for the second and third races of the weekend, neither contest was straightforward for the British driver but he displayed superb pace and racecraft on his way to a 7.4 second victory in round 20 and battled back superbly from a stall in round 21 to take third spot.
Racing Steps Foundation-backed Ben Barnicoat began the event with the third podium of his debut season in the series in round 19, his sixth Rookie class win, but misfortune followed in the other two contests – a technical issue in race two and contact, with subsequent damage, in race three.
Ever-improving Russian youngster Nikita Mazepin starred with his best ever performance in qualifying, setting the third fastest time overall in the second session, and he went on to secure his second outright points score of the year in round 21 with a career-best eighth place finish.
“It’s obviously great to win again and George was mega quick – two poles, a win and a podium and two fastest laps proves the pace”, said Hitech GP team principal Oliver Oakes, “It was also a very strong weekend for Ben and Nikita, they both had some misfortune but the pace was there. Ben deserved more than one podium and Nikita was easily the most competitive he’s been all year.”
Qualifying for round 19 on Thursday, 28th July, took place in very wet conditions and ended with Barnicoat the fastest of the Hitech GP trio, securing third on the grid for the weekend’s first race, with Russell sixth quickest and Mazepin posting the 14th best time.
For session two though, determining the grids for rounds 20 and 21, a dry track greeted the drivers and all three Hitech team-mates starred in the first slick-tyre session of the weekend. Thanks to a terrific lap of 2m12.110 seconds Russell secured pole, with Mazepin a remarkable career-best third overall – just 0.2 seconds shy of making it an all Hitech front row – and Barnicoat fifth fastest.
Race one on Friday began under Safety Car conditions as a result of more heavy rain and racing proper only got underway with just 15 minutes left on the clock. Barnicoat was challenged for third into La Source as the action began, but he re-took the place with a superb move at Eau Rouge.
Russell held sixth initially and grabbed fifth place on the seventh tour with a superb piece of driving around the outside at Turn Seven. Mazepin, meanwhile, climbed into 13th place on the opening lap and then moved into the top 12 as a result of issues for Mikkel Jenson on lap nine.
Thereafter, positions remained static and the race concluded back under Safety Car conditions following a late excursion for Weiron Tan. Barnicoat took his third outright podium of the season, and sixth Rookie class win, with Russell finishing fifth and Mazepin 12th and sixth in class.
Round 20 began dramatically when Barnicoat’s car was unable to depart the grid on the formation lap. After changing the steering wheel in the pits, he started the contest from the pitlane and delivered a superb drive to almost break into the points-paying top 10, taking 11th from stone last.
From pole, team-mate Russell held onto first place and Mazepin was just as smartly away from the line to maintain third. On the run out of Raidillon, Russell was swamped by the pack which benefited from the slipstream and he was elbowed back to third, with Mazepin squeezing past into second.
Running in his highest ever position in FIA F3, Mazepin’s hopes of challenging for a maiden podium were cruelly dashed at the end of the opening tour when his car ground to a halt at the exit of the Bus Stop chicane with a fuel pump issue – immense disappointment for the series rookie.
Russell, meanwhile, moved into second place as a result of the untimely departure of Mazepin and then set off after race leader Joel Erikkson. Reducing a two second deficit to nothing inside four laps, the Briton swarmed all over his rival and produced a fantastic pass on lap six along Kemmel Straight. Thereafter, Russell dominated to win by 7.4 seconds and he also posted the fastest lap of the race.
Starting round 21 on pole position thanks to his second best time in qualifying two, Russell wasn’t able to get away from the line after stalling and by the time he got going he had slipped down to 12th place. Barnicoat, on the other hand, made a terrific launch from third but had to take swift avoiding action to miss Russell’s car and so headed through La Source in third still.
Taking second out of Eau Rouge, Barnicoat then looked to challenge for the lead into Les Combes but as he turned into the corner contact from behind resulted in a puncture and badly shredded right-rear tyre. He managed to crawl to the pits and eventually finished in 20th spot, 10th Rookie.
Moving back up from 12th into seventh by the end of lap one alone, Russell mounted a superb recovery. Taking sixth on lap two, he then grabbed fifth on lap five after an entertaining battle with Mazepin – who had run as high as third place during the opening laps – and Russell then took fourth.
Closing on the top three, he pressured Lance Stroll lap after lap as the race neared its conclusion and on the ante-penultimate tour at the Bus Stop, Russell produced a sensational pass. After some superb wheel-to-wheel action between the duo over the final two laps, where they traded third spot several times, Russell determinedly secured his seventh podium of 2016 and also set fastest lap.
Mazepin ran very strongly indeed early on in third but after having to avoid the incident involving Barnicoat, his car was launched over the sausage kerbs and sustained damage to the floor and also the fuel tank. Despite that, he still managed to end the race in a career-best eighth place for the second outright points score of his maiden FIA F3 season. He was also the fourth highest Rookie.
George Russell (Car No.12):
“Stalling on pole in race three was really frustrating, and it was my fault, but the win on Friday was really good and our pace was unbelievable – I was six tenths quicker than anyone on track. I think it was the best win I’ve ever had in my career and we were set for the same in race three. It didn’t work out but we put on a good show and I attacked throughout to get back to the podium.”
Ben Barnicoat (Car No.24):
“Qualifying went really well and race one was great, I always go well in the wet and it was nice to be back on the podium. Before race two started I couldn’t select a gear, so they pushed me into the pits and the team fitted a new steering wheel which sorted it. Finishing 11th from the pits was good, I did a lot of overtaking, and race three went well until I was hit. I can’t believe the bad luck we had!”
Nikita Mazepin (Car No.11):
“It’s been a strong weekend and I’m happy the team bounced back so well after Zandvoort. Our pace was really good in the dry and I was especially happy in second qualifying, as a rookie driver on the dry track for the first time, to qualify so high in P3 and P6. Race one was average and race two very disappointing, but race was three was good at the start. I moved into second but then had to avoid Ben’s accident and we had damage to the car over the kerbs. Still, P8 is our best result yet.”
There is now a lengthy six week break in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship calendar with rounds 22, 23 and 24 taking place on 10th/11th September at the Nurburgring in Germany.
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Driver Standings (after Rd21):
3rd George Russell, 194pts; 7th Ben Barnicoat, 117pts; 19th Nikita Mazepin, 5pts
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Team Standings (after Rd21):
2nd Hitech GP, 405pts