Hitech GP has become an FIA Formula 3 European Championship race winner on only the second weekend of the 2016 season, thanks to a sensational performance from F3 newcomer Ben Barnicoat in a rain-lashed round six at the Hungaroring near Budapest on Sunday, 24th April.
Producing a true landmark performance for the British team in incredibly challenging conditions, the Racing Steps Foundation-backed ace controlled the final encounter of the weekend with a faultless drive after taking the lead on lap six and also claimed his second Rookie Class win.
His elation was in stark contrast to the bitter disappointment felt by team-mate George Russell, though, whose departure from the race on the sixth tour – after contact with Maximilian Gunther as the pair contested the lead – opened the door for Barnicoat’s success.
Russell certainly had the pace to challenge for wins in Hungary, having led round four on Saturday, 23rd April, until a rare tyre problem struck, but he had to settle for a best of fourth place in round five. Russian racer Nikita Mazepin put an otherwise character-building event behind him with a very competitive 13th place finish, sixth best Rookie, in round six.
“I’m so proud of everyone at the team”, said ecstatic team boss Oliver Oakes, “Ben did an amazing job in race three and to take his first win on only his second weekend in the championship, Hitech GP’s first victory, really is an incredible result. It was a very well judged drive, absolutely fantastic. “We’re obviously very disappointed for George, he deserved to be on the top step of the podium and was just very unlucky with how things turned out – and also with the tyre trouble in race one. For Nikita, it was very much a weekend to learn from going forward but his pace was good.”
In opening qualifying on Friday, 22nd April, Russell produced some searing lap times and actually ended the session with pole position – the team’s first – but later had his best lap disallowed, having been adjudged to have exceeded track limits, so started round four from second on the grid instead. Mazepin performed impressively to out-qualify Barnicoat, the Russian just shy of the coveted top 10 with the 11th fastest time, but as a result of an off-track incident after second free practice he was prevented from taking part in race one which elevated Barnicoat into 12th on the grid.
Russell made an exceptional start to take the lead on the run into the first corner and opened up a fair advantage before the Safety Car was deployed. After the re-start on lap three, the Hitech driver continued to lead but he soon began to fall into the clutches of his pursuers as a result of what was later identified as tyre failure. He ultimately retired to the pits in abject disappointment.
Barnicoat ended the opening race inside the points in ninth position, fifth highest placed Rookie, after making good progress during the latter stages. Initially holding 12th position overall, locked in a tight train of cars in the midfield all running nose-to-tail, he climbed into 11th place on lap 11 and then moved into the top 10 the next time around before gaining ninth as Russell fell back.
For round five on Saturday afternoon, Russell started fifth on the grid and again made a superb launch from the line to grab fourth and then third place on the run to Turn One, before thinking about a challenge for second on the outside.Despite significant pressure, Russell held onto third with some inch-perfect driving but on lap 11 a late bid for the place from Guanyu Zhou at Turn One dropped the Hitech driver back to fourth where he stayed to the chequered flag on lap 22.From eighth on the grid Barnicoat was elbowed back to 10th place, third in the Rookie class, after needing to avoid an incident ahead and remained there for the duration of the race. He had the pace to finish higher up the order but no clear passing opportunities came about. Aiming to put the off-track dramas of earlier in the weekend behind him, team-mate Mazepin began round five from 16th on the grid, seventh in the Rookies, and made good progress to move into 13th and fourth highest Rookie by lap nine. Closing up behind Pedro Piquet, Mazepin made a pass at Turn One on the 18th tour but contact resulted in broken suspension and retirement.
Rain arrived at the Hungaroring ahead of Sunday’s race with Russell beginning the contest third on the grid, Barnicoat in sixth and Mazepin 18th – the Russian was due to start in 19th place but Ralf Aron had an excursion on the lap from the pits to the grid. Due to the volume of water, officials started the race behind the Safety Car so racing proper got underway on lap three. Russell momentarily grabbed second place, before slipping back to third after running wide, but he soon made second his own at the end of the opening lap. Instantly closing up behind race leader Gunther, Russell was visibly the faster of the two and swarmed all over the back of his rival. Seeing his chance on lap six, as he went through cleanly on the inside there was contact on the exit as Russell nosed ahead which eliminated both from the race.Barnicoat, who made swift progress on the first racing lap to impressively climb into the top three and first of the Rookies, swept through into the overall lead after the incident and following a brief Safety Car period he dominated with a supreme display – taking the flag five seconds clear on lap 16.Mazepin also revelled in the difficult conditions and made excellent progress from the back prior to the Safety Car to slice into 13th overall. Breaking into the outright top 12 within two laps of the re-start, after an entertaining see-saw scrap he eventually finished in 13th position and sixth in class.
Ben Barnicoat (Car No.24):
“Well, it ended up being a great weekend for me! I had done a little wet running in Paul Ricard, which went extremely well, so I was feeling pretty confident but I really wasn’t expecting to take the win. The pace in the opening laps was amazing which allowed me to get up to third before an incident with the front two drivers handed the lead to me. From there, I just controlled the speed and came home with the victory which I was ecstatic about! I really can’t thank all at Hitech GP enough for giving me such a good car to be able to do what I did.”
George Russell (Car No.12):
“Once again we had a weekend with an unreal amount of potential but came away with so little, we led two races and had to retire from both of them. In race one, we made a great start and got into the lead straight away. After around five laps I felt as though I had a puncture in my rear-right tyre and as the laps went on the car became undriveable which forced us to retire. We then found out as we pitted, we had a tyre failure which was bitterly disappointing as this is almost unheard of in F3.
“For the final race of the weekend we started from P3 and in the early stages our pace was absolutely incredible. We were all over the back of P2 before forcing him into a mistake and we then caught the leader straight away. I came out of Turn 10 with a great run on the leader and decided to pass down the inside. He really didn’t want to give up the position and, considering the circumstances with the poor weather, a collision was unavoidable if the driver didn’t want to yield. I’m extremely happy, though, my team-mate Ben and Hitech finally got the win the team deserved.”
Nikita Mazepin (Car No.11):
“It was a weekend with a lot of unexpected issues, although the pace was very good throughout the whole race weekend. In Q1 I thought I did a fine job being P11 but I wasn’t able to start race one after an incident off the track. I had my lap times deleted in Q2 and Q3 but the race pace was very good. It was a difficult weekend but lots of positives to take from it and a lot to learn.”
There is now a three week break in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship calendar ahead of one of the biggest events of the season, the annual Grand Prix de Pau, which will take place over the weekend 14th/15th May at the famous French street circuit.