Kari and Boccolacci fly to their first victory
Put a collection of teams and drivers together without a championship to fight for, and they’ll still race as hard as possible: it’s just the way they’re wired. George Russell already owned the drivers’ title, his squad ART owned the teams’ one, and if there was some mathematical interest in the fight for vice-champion spot between his teammates it wasn’t taxing anyone’s imagination outside of the French team’s pit: everyone else saw it as a chance to shine.
Niko Kari’s season hadn’t really gone to plan, but the Finn wasn’t going to drop his head: the weekend would give him one more shot at redemption before the season finished. Free practice came around on Friday under the expected warm and sunny conditions, and went to script early in the session as the times tumbled, with Nirei Fukuzumi the first person under the 2 minute mark before Kari, Dan Ticktum and Leonardo Pulcini swapped P1 between them.
Dorian Boccolacci finally grabbed the top spot just before the 20 minute mark and held on until late into the session as everyone worked on their race simulations. With 5 minutes remaining everyone turned up the wick once more, the top spot cycling through more drivers before Boccolacci reclaimed P1 with 2 minutes remaining: it looked like the Frenchman had done enough as he slowed in the 2nd sector only to hear that Kari had claimed P1 by a tenth, leaving him no time to improve as he rolled to the flag.
But just because he already had the title didn’t mean Russell was going to take it easy on his rivals. The Briton kept his powder dry in free practice ahead of another FP1 run for Force India in F1, starting his debrief from the car before jumping into the engineers room for a few minutes to finish before swapping race suits and running out to the pitlane once more to jump into the car his team had towed around, quickly scan the data, and pull down the visor for qualifying.
All of the drivers were straight out to take advantage of the F1 rubber with Russell, who had helped to lay down some of it, taking the early part of the session easy as he reacquainted himself with the GP3 references, allowing his rivals to squabble over the top spot: Boccolacci, Arjun Maini and Dan Ticktum all spent time on the top spot before returning to the pits, with Russell staying out one lap later, running green in sector 1 and purple in sector 2 before returned to the pits, confident he had more to come.
With 5 minutes remaining the drivers swapped best times in the various sectors as they warmed their tyres for the push to the flag: Pulcini and then Russell claimed P1 with a few minutes remaining, then pulled back for a slow lap before pushing again on the last tour. Maini ran wide out of the marina section and lost his chance, while up front Kari topped the timesheets before being usurped by teammate Pulcini and then Russell as the chequered flag dropped.
The session couldn’t have gone better for the Mercedes junior: “it was always part of the plan, that we pushed on the in lap: I was still building up to it so I knew it would be my quickest lap, but we knew that the end of the session would be the quickest, and we needed to come into the pits at that time so we could fit the new tyres and get out in time again.
“So yes, I’m very happy with that! 50% of the poles for myself, 100% for ART: that’s a fantastic achievement. Straight after the FP1 session with Force India I didn’t really know what to expect, coming back into a GP3 car just 40 minutes later, and it was very different! It took a bit of learning to get used to it but the car felt great, we really optimised the session, and I’m really happy to get pole position again.”
If he had any concerns it was that Pulcini and Kari had nothing to lose and would be desperate for a win, giving him more than usual to think about at the start. And so it proved: when the lights went out the Arden teammates made great getaways from P2 and P3 respectively, leaving Russell the choice of which driver to cover. He chose the Italian and pushed across to the inside line, leaving the outside wide open for Kari to swoop through and into the lead at turn 2, with Pulcini following him through at the end of the long straight at turn 8.
With chaos reigning further back the top 3 sailed on serenely, but a brief VSC period on lap 5 saw Russell almost steal a march at the restart, with Pulcini closing the door forcefully to put him back in his box, handing Kari the opportunity to break the DRS barrier and concentrate on tyre management.
Another VSC period to deal with Giuliano Alesi’s stricken vehicle gave Russell another chance to mug his rival, and this time he made it stick: worse was to come for Pulcini when his left rear started to deflate, dropping him back down the grid before an inevitable retirement on lap 17, handing Maini a place on the podium behind Kari and Russell.
The Finn was his usual phlegmatic self after the race: “we have been struggling all year to find a good set up on the car to really improve everything, but finally we have done it, and for the first weekend it is really working. Of course we’ve had a few good weekends, a few podiums, but I’m really happy.
“The car was really good, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow: we’ll try to make a good start and go ahead.”
Once again Race 2 saw a Trident front row, this time with Ryan Tveter on pole: the likeable American made a perfect start to lead Boccolacci, Steijn Schothorst, Alessio Lorandi and Ticktum into turn 1. The Frenchman was soon all over the race leader as the pack took shape, with Ticktum putting Lorandi on notice on the back straight and Kari moving up just behind them.
It only took 2 laps for Boccolacci to make the pressure stick: he was easily through Tveter for the lead on the back straight before heading off into the distance, while Ticktum was also looking racy, blasting inside and through Lorandi on the back straight on lap 7 and looking for more. He tried to repeat the move on Schothorst on the next lap, with the Dutchman closing the door: Ticktum squeezed past but with all 4 wheels over the line, picking up a 5s time penalty in the process.
Boccolacci had a simple run to the flag while Ticktum continued his serene run up the timesheets, easily dispatched Tveter for P2 on the road and pushing hard to overturn his time penalty, but the American simply shadowed his rival home to gain P2 back after the Briton’s time was added, and Russell rounding out a tremendous season in P4.
The Frenchman, who had been fast all season but just unable to make it stick in the races, was overjoyed to close the season with a win: “finally after all the season we finish in a good point, and I want to thank all the team, my engineer and the mechanics who trusted me.
“In the end it was an easy one, because there was a gap of 5.5s, but this achievement was not easy: we had to work a lot, especially on races because it was my weak point through almost all the races, because my qualifying was always good. Finally I understood how to manage the tyre and also to be fast, and I could win this race and finish the season on a good point!”