Highly rated British driver George Russell moved back into the coveted top three in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship standings during the penultimate event of the 2016 season at Imola over the weekend, 1st/2nd October, with two superb podium finishes in rounds 26 and 27 for Hitech GP.
Taking fourth in the first of the event’s three contests at the Italian track, Russell went on to chalk-up his ninth and 10th podiums of the season in the subsequent races to move a full 33 points clear of Nick Cassidy in the battle over third in the standings. Notably, Russell will go into the season finale at Hockenheim in a couple of weeks within 36 points of second placed Maximilian Gunther.
Hitech GP team-mate Ben Barnicoat had a somewhat trying weekend, the Racing Steps Foundation driver achieving a best finish of eighth in race one, while Russian youngster Nikita Mazepin almost managed to break into the points-paying top 10 in the second contest with 11th place.
“George raced very well this weekend and the pace was there throughout”, said team owner Oliver Oakes, “Two podiums is a good return from the weekend and, importantly, he’s back into the top three in the championship which was the target going into Imola.
“It was a frustrating weekend for Ben unfortunately, he was on the back foot after getting caught out in Q1 but he recovered well with a strong drive in race one and in Q2 he was back where he belongs. Nikita certainly deserved another outright points finish from the weekend, he wasn’t far away at all in race two with a very good performance.”
Russell began Saturday morning’s race, round 25, from third on the grid and made a good start to initially try and challenge for second before being edged back to fourth into the first corner. On lap eight, the Safety Car appeared on track following an excursion for Pedro Piquet and at the re-start the next time around Russell was nudged to fifth where he stayed for the remainder of the race.
Producing pace mere hundredths shy of the fastest lap, and a match for the podium finishers, the British driver stayed close in the wheeltracks of Nick Cassidy – his rival for a top three championship placing – and took the flag just 0.4 seconds adrift. Post-race, though, he was elevated into fourth.
Qualifying didn’t go at all to plan for Barnicoat and he therefore lined-up 15th on the grid, two places behind team-mate Mazepin. After gaining a position on the opening lap, Barnicoat then managed to move ahead of the sister Hitech car on lap three to climb into the overall top 12, seventh in the Rookie class, with Mazepin dropping back to 17th and ninth in class.
Barnicoat and Mazepin both made good progress throughout the contest, the former especially so with some excellent driving, and ahead of a second appearance for the Safety Car on lap 14 they held ninth and 14th position respectively. Barnicoat remained ninth to the flag, sixth Rookie, before being promoted into eighth post-race with Mazepin taking 13th place overall and eighth in class.
Lining up third on the grid for round 26 on Sunday morning, Russell made a great start to try and challenge for second place and although initially unsuccessful he managed to get ahead of Joel Eriksson at the end of lap one following a mistake by the Swede.
Pulling away in second place, Russell’s attempts to edge further clear were thwarted when the Safety Car appeared on lap four. After the re-start a lap later, Russell came under pressure for second but fended off Eriksson well and on lap eight he set the fastest lap at that point.
Following a second Safety Car period on lap 10, Russell again had to keep an eye on his mirrors and on lap 12 into Tamburello he was passed by Eriksson. On lap 16 a third Safety Car period occurred and when racing resumed Russell held third spot to the finish to secure his ninth podium of 2016.
From seventh on the grid, Barnicoat maintained position early on and then moved into the top six prior to the first Safety Car. Challenging for fifth at the re-start, he remained in sixth but was then edged back to seventh by Sergio Sette Camara where he stayed to the second cautionary period.
At the second re-start, though, Barnicoat and Mikkel Jensen both ran wide as they disputed seventh position and the resulting trip through the gravel resulted in a stone flipping into the airbox of Barnicoat’s car – resulting in a loss of power and, ultimately, a luckless retirement.
There was much better news for Mazepin who, from 15th on the grid, produced an excellent performance and only missed out on an outright top 10 points finish on the final lap. Edged back to 16th place early on, the Russian moved back into the top 15 on lap two and ran close behind Niko Kari – the winner of race one on Saturday – up to the second Safety Car period.
Holding an improved 14th place at the re-start, Mazepin leapt into 12th as a result of the dramas affecting team-mate Barnicoat and Jensen and he then assumed 11th place overall when David Beckmann triggered the third Safety Car period. Breaking into the top 10 with a lap to go, the Hitech GP racer was edged back to 11th by the recovering Jensen – seventh in the Rookie class.
Russell started the final race of the weekend from third again, while Barnicoat was seventh – but received a grid penalty after the clash with Jensen in race two – and Mazepin started in 15th position. Russell made another good launch to hold third place and he then swept past Callum Ilott into Tamburello for second, a placing he comfortably held to the flag.
Mazepin was tagged into a spin on the opening lap and therefore dropped to the tail of the field but he mounted a terrific recovery from 18th overall, ninth in class, to finish inside the top 15 and seventh highest Rookie. Penalties for a couple of rivals, though, moved him up into 13th overall.
Barnicoat was unfortunately edged back several places over the first few laps, and he continued to slip backwards as the race wore on. Eventually taking the flag 13th overall and sixth in class, he was moved up into the top 12 as a result of a time penalty for a rival.
George Russell (Car No.12):
“The car felt good all weekend and I’m really happy with the results, two podiums from three races is great and hopefully we can go on to secure third in the championship. Finishing second will be a tall order, but that’s what we’ll be aiming to try and do at Hockenheim. Generally, Imola has been a very good weekend for us.”
Ben Barnicoat (Car No.24):
“Race one went really well, qualifying was a bit of a disaster so to come through so well was good to be honest. In the second race, after I went off the track with [Mikkel] Jensen, a stone went into the airbox and got stuck and I lost power so that’s why I had to retire. It wasn’t the weekend we wanted but hopefully we can end the season with three strong races at the final round.”
Nikita Mazepin (Car No.11):
“It was a tough weekend, the pace looked strong for the whole team but I made a mistake in FP2 and spun into the gravel which put me on the back foot a little bit. The races were consistent, mainly staying out of trouble, and even though I was hit in race three and spun around – which took all my hopes for a good race away – I came back to P13.”
Hitech GP’s first full season in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship will reach a conclusion just two weeks from now, over the weekend 15th/16th October, at Hockenheim in Germany.
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Driver Standings (after Rd27):
3rd George Russell, 260pts; 10th Ben Barnicoat, 124pts; 19th Nikita Mazepin, 5pts
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Team Standings (after Rd27):
2nd Hitech GP, 499pts
2016 FIA Formula 3 European Championship Rookie Standings (after Rd27):
5th Ben Barnicoat, 310pts; 9th Nikita Mazepin, 148pts