Multiple race-winning FIA Formula 3 European Championship team Hitech GP encountered a mixed outing at the Red Bull Ring over the weekend, 21st/22nd May, but still came away from the fourth event of the season with podium success for George Russell and Rookie victory for Ben Barnicoat.
After finishing fifth in round 10 on Saturday morning at the undulating Austrian track, Russell took his fourth podium of the campaign in round 11 later in the day but a bid for more silverware on Sunday in round 12 went awry due to retirement following a first corner tangle.
Racing Steps Foundation-backed driver Barnicoat bounced back impressively from a puncture in race one and a drive-through penalty in the second contest to secure his fifth Rookie class win in round 12 in fourth place overall – little more than a second shy of the outright podium.
Nikita Mazepin also fell foul of a couple of penalties, as did the bulk of the entry list at some stage during the weekend, but he was still able to showcase outstanding pace in Sunday’s encounter with lap times a match for outright podium performance. He took a best finish of 14th place overall in round 12, eighth in the Rookie classification, despite an unfortunate track limits time penalty.
“It’s been a mixed weekend really, a little bit disappointing after the two wins at Pau seven days ago but we’ve still taken away good points”, said team principal Oliver Oakes, “Ben was very happy with his pace, George less so, but the aim now is to be back fighting for wins at Norisring. Nikita’s results weren’t quite what he wanted but he showed some great pace – especially in the final race.”
Qualifying was unbelievably close at the sharp end with less than 0.2 seconds covering the fastest seven drivers in session one. Barnicoat was the best of the Hitech racers, securing third on the grid for round 10 a mere 0.055 seconds shy of pole, with Russell sixth and Mazepin 20th on the grid.
Barnicoat got away fairly well at the start, although was edged back to fourth into Turn One, but into Turn Two his race was badly impacted when he was tagged from behind – the contact resulting in a puncture and enforced pit-stop from which the Briton fought back brilliantly.
After an early Safety Car, racing resumed on lap four with Russell holding sixth while Mazepin was an elevated 15th after an excellent start to the contest. Mazepin and Barnicoat both made progress but the former was delayed two laps later, when eyeing a pass, which allowed Barnicoat to move ahead.
Russell, meanwhile, had a great battle with Nick Cassidy and moved up into fifth as the race wore on and then, on lap 18, a horrifying accident involving Ryan Tveter, Zhi Cong Li and Piquet led to red flags. With the result declared from lap 16, Russell finished fifth, Barnicoat 10th and Mazepin 15th.
Only two thousandths of a second stood between Russell and pole position for round 11, the Briton starting alongside Lance Stroll on the front row of the grid, with Barnicoat lining-up in 14th place – due to a penalty from race one – and Mazepin 16th.
Russell was edged back to third on the run into the second corner while Barnicoat climbed into ninth place over the first few tours and Mazepin ran in 15th place. Due to debris on track, the Safety Car was deployed on lap four with racing resuming on lap six and Barnicoat made a stunning re-start to leap into seventh place at Turn One after positioning himself perfectly on the inside line.
Soon after, though, officials adjudged the Briton to have jumped the start and he was hit with a drive-through penalty. Incredibly, Mazepin too was served with a penalty for a similar indiscretion and he took his drive-through at the end of lap six with Barnicoat following suit next time around.
Back at the front, Russell continued in third as the lead trio began to significantly close up and on lap 12 he grabbed second into Turn One after capitalising on a mistake for Callum Illott. Unfortunately, though, Russell locked a wheel under braking so ran wide at the exit, allowing Ilott to go back ahead.
Russell stayed within just a few tenths of his rival for the remainder of the contest but had to settle for third at the flag while Barnicoat recovered to finish 15th and Mazepin claimed 17th place. Post-race, though, Illott received a time penalty so Russell was moved up into second.
Round 12 on Sunday morning didn’t begin well for Hitech when Russell’s race came to an end at the first corner as he tried to gain a place on the inside under braking, contact resulting in damage which led to retirement to the pits.
Barnicoat profited from the melee to move up into sixth place but Mazepin was somewhat delayed and slipped back to 16th position. Racing fell under Safety Car conditions on the fourth tour and at the re-start on lap seven Barnicoat produced some outstanding driving to leap into the top four.
Locked in a huge battle involving half a dozen cars on the run out of the first corner, at Turn Two he sliced his way through into fourth and boldly tried to go around the outside at Turn Three in a bid for third place. Thereafter, he remained in fourth place to secure his fifth Rookie victory of the season but, post-race, he was put back to fifth overall due to a penalty.
Mazepin delivered seriously impressive podium-matching pace and really came alive during the second half of the contest. On lap 15 the Russian set the fastest lap of the race at that point and he had climbed into the top 12 by lap 18. Embroiled in a huge four car battle at the fringe of the top 10, Mazepin stayed 12th but was dropped to 14th place due to an unfortunate track limits penalty.
Ben Barnicoat (Car No.24):
“Obviously, I’d have liked to be fighting for the outright wins but another Rookie win is good and I’m really pleased with the pace we showed this weekend – it was extremely strong and, personally, probably the best pace I’ve shown all year. The speed has been great and I did a lot of overtaking too which I’m very happy about.”
George Russell (Car No.12):
“This weekend we struggled a little bit with the pace, it’s probably the first time all year we haven’t had front-running pace but we managed to salvage a P2 and P4. We still managed to come away with some good points but now we have to put full focus onto Norisring and get back on track and fight for these wins!”
Nikita Mazepin (Car No.11):
“We experienced some difficulties with the car at the beginning of the weekend, I was good in slow speed corners but I had to do better in the high speed and I also had some problems with the track limits too. Throughout the weekend, though, we made improvements and I was happy with the pace in the end.”
There is now a five week break in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship calendar with rounds 13, 14 and 15 of the season taking place at the Norisring in Germany on 25th/26th June.
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Driver Standings (after Rd12):
4th George Russell, 109pts; 5th Ben Barnicoat, 88pts; 20th Nikita Mazepin, 1pt
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Team Standings (after Rd12):
2nd Hitech GP, 249pts
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Rookie Standings (after Rd12):
1st Ben Barnicoat, 191pts; 8th Nikita Mazepin, 62pts