Silverstone-based FIA Formula 3 European Championship team Hitech GP made its mark on the category during the opening event of the 2016 season at Paul Ricard in France over the weekend, 2nd/3rd April, with podium success for George Russell and Rookie class victory for Ben Barnicoat.
Embarking on its first season in the globe’s premier F3 series, Hitech GP got its campaign off to a superb start with Russell finishing third in round one on Saturday morning, just ahead of Barnicoat in fourth which secured the Racing Steps Foundation driver the Rookie class win on his debut.
Russian 16-year-old Nikita Mazepin also celebrated success on his first weekend in Formula 3 with a hat-trick of Rookie class scores and, notably, an outright points-paying top 10 finish in the third and final contest of the weekend.
“It was a good first weekend for us overall – the highlight being our strong performances in qualifying and race one”, said Hitech GP team owner Oliver Oakes, “As with a typical first event, we did have a mix of highs and lows but I couldn’t be more proud of everyone and how they handled their first weekend. We now look forward to preparing for the next event in Budapest.”
Russell and Barnicoat were very evenly matched in opening qualifying, lapping fourth and fifth fastest respectively, while Mazepin secured 18th position on the grid for his FIA Formula 3 European Championship debut. Barnicoat was also second quickest rookie.
When the lights went out for the first race of the season, on a track damp in places after overnight rain, Russell and Barnicoat climbed into third and fourth after good starts – the latter also grabbing the Rookie class lead – and remained there throughout the 25 lap contest.
Inexperienced car racer Mazepin was edged back a couple of places on a busy opening lap but quickly moved back into 18th position and by lap eight had progressed into 17th place. Just before mid-distance, though, he was edged back to 19th where he stayed to the flag on his series debut.
For round two, Barnicoat was the highest placed Hitech qualifier in seventh and Mazepin started a much improved 12th on the grid. Russell, though, had a huge amount of work to do – having originally secured a front row spot in second qualifying, his times were disallowed when the fuel remaining in his car fell fractionally below the minimum permitted so he was put to the back.
Determined to make as much headway as possible, Russell did just that on the opening lap as he climbed from 21st on the grid into 13th place. His cause, though, was somewhat assisted by a multi-car tangle at the first turn which resulted in a bitterly disappointing retirement for Barnicoat.
Following an early Safety Car period, which concluded at the end of lap three, Russell climbed into the top 12 while, further up the road, Mazepin was driving particularly well in ninth position, having been as high as eighth prior to the re-start, and the third highest placed Rookie.
Edged back to 10th place a couple of laps later, Mazepin then slipped behind the advancing Russell on the eighth tour during a huge battle involving half a dozen cars. Russell’s hopes of a top 10 finish were dashed right at the end though, following a late Safety Car period, when he was shuffled down to 11th in another intense scrap while Mazepin took 12th overall, fourth in the Rookie classification.
“The disqualification of George after his great qualifying performances was a massive low and something as a team we take full responsibility for”, reflected Oakes, “For George and the team to recover from that showed our true character.”
Round three on Sunday morning began with Barnicoat 11th on the grid rather than sixth, as a result of a penalty applied after the race two tangle, Mazepin was 12th once more and Russell again had to try and carve his way through from the rear of the grid.
For the second race in succession, Barnicoat had dramas at the first corner – after being tagged on entry, he was forced wide but recovered safely in 13th position. Moving into the top 12 on lap two, he stayed there until lap 22 when he moved into 11th, sixth Rookie, after a spin for Harrison Newey.
Mazepin put together a racey first lap and moved up into 11th place where he spent the first half of the contest. Closing up at the halfway point on the coveted points-paying top 10, after Newey’s spin the Russian climbed into 10th spot and maintained the place to also secure fifth in the Rookie class.
For Russell, a stunning first lap – during which he rocketed into 14th position from the back of the grid – was undone when he was forced to pit at the end of lap three after sustaining damage to his front wing. Emerging back into the race with a new nose cone, Russell eventually ended the contest in 18th position.
George Russell (Car No.12):
“We have a lot of positives to take from the weekend. We had absolutely mega pace throughout, qualifying P4, P2 and P2, just 0.01 seconds off pole in Q2. Unfortunately, we had a slight miss-calculation with our fuel load and came in less than 0.1 litres under the limit which meant we got disqualified from Q2. That was a massive shame as we were plenty over the weight limit, so this really did not affect our pace at all. But rules are rules.
“In race one, we made a good start and got into P3, and ended that way. It was great to get Hitech’s first podium in the championship which I’m sure is the first of many. In races two and three, we had to try and make the best out of a bad situation, starting from last on the grid. We showed great pace in race three, quicker than the leaders on almost every lap which was very positive. Overall it’s a massive disappointment to get two potential podiums taken away from us, but that’s how the game works and I’m sure we’ll come back stronger than ever.”
Ben Barnicoat (Car No.24):
All in all, we have to take the positives from the weekend which there were a lot of. Our pace throughout practice and qualifying was really good and the team did a superb job to give me a good, fast car to deliver some good times in qualifying. Race one went extremely well where I managed to get fourth position from fifth, which I was extremely happy about for my debut race in the series!
“Race two didn’t quite go to plan as I made a mistake on the run to turn one, causing a collision and having to retire. It was a costly mistake but I learnt huge amounts to take on board for the rest of the year. I was very happy with the team and I am feeling confident for the remainder of the season. I can’t thank them enough for helping me and being as supportive as they were throughout my debut weekend, the same applies for my sponsors the Racing Steps Foundation.”
Nikita Mazepin (Car No.11):
“I was very happy with the performance of the car and team, as well as my progress throughout the whole weekend. We started on Thursday with some issues driving-wise, but we managed to fix them as soon as possible.
“Tricky weather conditions made it even more difficult for my debut event in FIA F3, due to this I didn’t have a very good result in Q1 but I managed to understand what I was doing wrong and managed to be P12 in Q2 and Q3 which I was quite happy with. I found the races very hard too, but it was clear to see the team and I were making progress and we managed to get my first F3 points in race three which I am very happy with.”
Next stop on the FIA Formula 3 European Championship schedule is a visit to the Hungaroring, near Budapest in Hungary, over the weekend 23rd/24th April.
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Driver Standings (after Rd3):
8th George Russell, 15pts; 9th Ben Barnicoat, 12pts; 18th Nikita Mazepin, 1pt
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Team Standings (after Rd3):
3rd Hitech GP, 47pts
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Rookie Standings (after Rd3):
4th Ben Barnicoat, 33pts; 6th Nikita Mazepin & Niko Kari, 26pts