By The1nsider 4 months ago

If the pre-season tests were little indication of what was to come in 2017 – a little too wet, the teams were a little too savvy to show their hands – then Barcelona would have to do as a marker for the season to come, being the circuit everyone knows better than any other. Nirei Fukuzumi was first out of the gate in free practice, but Jack Aitken claimed the first points of the year for pole ahead of his teammate, and the season was underway.

Fukuzumi just had the line into turn 2 at the start of Race 1, with he and Aitken pushing each other hard all the way round the circuit for lap after lap until wretched luck struck the Briton in the form of a mechanical gremlin, leaving the Japanese ace to claim the first win of the season, ahead of Leonardo Pulcini and Alessio Lorandi. “I had a good start and then I tried to manage the tyres as best as possible,” Fukuzumi noted later, “but then Jack was quite close, so that complicated things a lot! When I tried to challenge him, he had a problem with the car. I am quite sad for him, but anyway I am so happy with this win!”

Race 2 was a far simpler affair: Arjun Maini got a brilliant start from P2 and left everyone else behind, crossing the line 6 seconds ahead of Dorian Boccolacci, who held off Lorandi all the way to the flag. “It was a hard fought race,” the delighted Indian noted later, “I had a good start and managed to take the lead, although Boccolacci was putting a lot of pressure on in the first few laps. It was a pretty consistent and simple race after that for me, I just had to maintain my pace and save the tyres as much as I could. We are putting up a challenge to ART now, and I’m really looking forward to the next round!”

He had a bit of a wait given the nature of the calendar, and a 2 day test in Budapest was all the field had to amuse themselves with before round 2 in Spielberg, Austria, where battle could recommence. Marcos Siebert topped free practice under ominously cloudy skies, but the next morning the pace was frenetic, with George Russell emerging on top for his first pole position, ahead of Aitken and Boccolacci.

Aitken made the better start but Russell had the better line in Race 1, with Anthoine Hubert picking up track position along with a 10s time penalty for clattering into Pulcini: with temperatures soaring the order at the front remained unchanged, with Russell claiming his maiden win from Aitken, Fukuzumi and Hubert for an ART 1-2-3-4. “I’d say 90 percent of the race I was in control and managing the gap to Jack behind, but in the early stages, just after the virtual safety car, there was a lot of oil on the circuit. That was quite scary, but other than that I was just managing the gap to Jack, and it was a great race for ART: they completely dominated it as a team.”

If Race 1 had been an ART benefit, Race 2 was to give the others a chance to shine. Ebullient South African Raoul Hyman made the most of his opportunities by leading from lights to flag from the reverse pole, unruffled by his rival’s attentions to record his first win in GP3. Behind him Alesi and Tveter made storming starts: Alesi looked strong all race, but Tveter ran out of tyres and was unable to hold off a late charge from Fukuzumi for the final podium place. “I’ve been waiting for that for a while, because I’ve been wanting to be here for a while!” Hyman gushed afterwards. “I had a decent start yesterday, today’s was pretty good, and we didn’t have a challenge into the first corner: I never had to defend at all!”

After such a long wait for Round 2, Silverstone’s third round appeared just a few days later, with Russell looking to continue where he left off in Austria at a circuit that already held many happy memories for him, and the Briton led the way from his teammates in free practice on Thursday to lay down a marker. He made it 2 poles in week the next day, leading the way on both sets of tyres to give himself every advantage in Race 1.

Hubert was determined to be a spoiler to his plans, and sure enough the Frenchman made the better start to grab the lead at turn 1, but Russell was unruffled: he took a long tow before blasting past on the Hangar straight for a lead that would not be released, with Lorandi making good use of a late VSC restart to mug Aitken for the final podium position. “This feels great!” Russell laughed afterwards. “I’ve been looking forward to doing this race ever since I signed to do GP3 with ART: I’ve got lots of great memories from Silverstone, and it brought a lot of confidence to me coming into this weekend. To win in front of my home crowd, with family and friends coming to support me, is a great feeling!”

Race 2 had become an opportunity for the non-ART drivers to shine, and so it proved once again. Stepping up from his first podium in Austria, Giuliano Alesi drove a solid, mature race from the front row for a strong race win, denying a fast-starting Aitken, with Niko Kari holding off a late challenge from Russell for the podium. “This is great for me and for the team,” Alesi reflected after the race. “It’s really satisfying to get this result, which rewards all the hard work we’ve done outside of the circuit: it has finally paid off. This is not just for me, it’s for the team and also for Ferrari: they’ve supported me even when I did not get the results.”

The usual heat and strong sun were installed over the Hungaroring in time for Round 4 to get under way, with Russell continuing his recent rich vein of form in free practice, but Aitken took the honours in qualifying for his 2nd pole of the season ahead of Russell and Fukuzumi as red flags drew the session to an early end. If Russell was annoyed by that, there was worse to come: the Mercedes F1 junior’s car pulled up on the installation lap, giving Aitken one less problem to worry about in Race 1.

When the lights went out he was gone, easily dealing with a safety car and a VSC restart to bring home his first win, unruffled by teammates Fukuzumi and Hubert behind him. “We wanted this win from the start of the season,” Aitken smiled in the press conference, “it’s just been some things getting in the way. I won a race last year already, which helps: if I had not won at all, it would probably be worse! It’s just nice to see we’ve finally got the result we wanted and I can go to the summer with a bit of a smile.”

Overnight Trident team manager Giacomo Ricci dreamt that his team led everyone home as a 1-2-3-4 in Race 2: it wasn’t as far-fetched as you would imagine, given that his cars were starting from those positions, but racing doesn’t tend to work like that. When the lights went out they only had eyes for each other: poleman Ryan Tveter made a good start and moved straight across to cover Kevin Jörg, but he focussed so much on the Swiss driver that he braked slightly too late for turn 1, ran deep and handed the inside line to Alesi, who snapped up the lead ahead of the pair. With Boccolacci holding off the challengers behind him, Ricci’s dream came true at the flag.

Alesi was ebullient afterwards: “the race was filled with positive emotions, because at the start both of my teammates went wide and I managed to take the lead. After that I managed to keep it until the chequered flag. I made a few mistakes here and there, but I still managed to stay ahead. I’m really happy!”

There’s no doubt Russell left Budapest for the summer break an unhappy man: a string of issues meant he left for his holiday without any points from the weekend, with Aitken closing the gap in the standings to just 9 points. If Spa-Francorchamps was to be the turnaround, then free practice was no indication: Boccolacci topped an uneventful session. Qualifying posed a bigger problem: an earlier storm left the track too wet for slicks, but Russell simply bolted on some wets and tore off to pole, from Fukuzumi and Maini.

Russell put in a demonstration run of how to win in Race 1, dealing with an early attack from Fukuzumi by cruising back past at the Kemmel Straight after an early VSC for victory by over 7 seconds from Aitken, who squabbled all race long with his Japanese teammate. “This weekend’s been perfect for us so far,” Russell smiled afterwards; “we had unbelievable pace in qualifying, and I was interested to see how I would handle it today in the dry. Obviously the pace continued with us! All in all, it’s been a perfect qualifying, race, and we got the fastest lap as well.”

Sunday’s race opened to sunny but cool conditions similar to those from free practice: Julien Falchero made a slow start from pole, Alesi made a strong one to cut across his bow and into a lead that he would not relinquish all the way to the flag. But behind him Russell was on a charge, blasting by his rivals to P2, running out of laps to dispatch Alesi but finishing ahead of his teammate Tveter. “After yesterday’s great race and the amazing pace we had we were aiming for the podium,” Russell laughed, “and that’s what we did! It was almost a perfect weekend, with fastest lap in both races, pole and a win on Saturday. That’s just what we needed after the unfortunate weekend we had in Budapest!”

After his stunning weekend Russell had the whip hand in the drivers’ title fight: his teammates would need something big in Monza to pull things back in their direction. Rain was forecast for free practice, but the ominous looking clouds held their cargo throughout the otherwise uneventful session, with Fukuzumi topping it with a late charge.

Early the next morning, however, the rain had finally arrived and was falling heavily all around Lombardia as the teams entered the pitlane for qualifying: the race director delayed the start before inevitably cancelling the session. The grid would be formed by the classified order from free practice, with Fukuzumi handed pole, along with the points that go with it. But worse news was to come: with the rain delaying F1 qualifying for hours, Race 1 would be pushed back to Sunday morning, and Race 2 would be cancelled.

If the Japanese driver thought the weekend’s good fortune was going in his direction, he was soon to be corrected: a mechanical gremlin saw him unable to leave the pitlane, handing the advantage firmly to Russell, who led his remaining teammates when the lights went out until a lengthy safety car period put a cork in the race. Hubert briefly got by before put back in his place, with Aitken making a better VSC restart to pass at Parabolica, but Russell returned the favour ahead of another late safety car period, which handed the win to the Briton ahead of Aitken and Hubert.

“It’s been an eventful weekend, or an uneventful one, I’m not really sure which word to use!” Russell laughed after the race. “I’m extremely happy to get the win today, although I’m feeling very sorry for Nirei, as it’s extremely unfortunate what happened to him. It’s a great result for the team, 1-2-3, and they’ve given us an amazing car all year. I’m really happy to get the win here, and to go to Jerez with a good gap in the championship to try to seal the deal there.”

“I’ve got to try and get pole and a win to take some points off George,” Jack Aitken observed upon arrival in Jerez for the season’s sole standalone race: “we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.” Tomorrow arrived, hot and sunny and bright, and the field headed out in an unusual timeslot for them, with Russell taking the early bragging rights in a free practice that went all the way to the flag. Qualifying followed suit, with Russell grabbing the top spot in the closing minutes: as the flag dropped it looked as though it was all over, but first Aitken pushed past his title rival into P1 before Fukuzumi barged through too, upsetting the apple cart by denying his teammates the 4 vital points for pole.

No one was happier than Fukuzumi on the grid, knowing the advantage he had as long as his launch was okay, but Aitken was at least comforted by being ahead of his title rival for the start. The Briton made a great getaway when the lights went out but had to cede to his Japanese teammate to avoid a collision, handing half a line through for Russell: the Mercedes junior driver got his elbows out, running side by side with Aitken before claiming P2 at turn 3, with the 3 running line astern all the way to the flag.

“I am so happy to win the race today,” Fukuzumi laughed in the press conference, “it’s been too long! The race was quite a simple one: I had a good start, nothing special, and after that I remained in the lead and I could manage the tyres until the end. The degradation was not so high for me and I could manage my pace. This win today wins a lot: I’ve overcome all of the obstacles, and it makes me very, very happy!”

Russell would need to outscore Aitken by 4 points in Race 2 to claim the title, and most in the paddock was resigned to the fight going all the way to Abu Dhabi: with Aitken holding off Russell at the start most were mentally unwinding in the belief that the weekend was over. But Russell had other ideas, muscling his way by the Renault junior at Dry Sac with Fukuzumi following his lead, although even after grabbing the fastest lap Russell was still 1 point short of the title as the field circulated in lock step.

Ahead of them Dan Ticktum was P4 and looking for more, and was soon all over the back of Kari: on lap 13 he pushed his way by at turn 2, the pair touched with Ticktum sliding into the gravel trap and retirement as Kari continued to the podium (losing it after the race for causing a collision, with Hubert moving up), behind Lorandi and Boccolacci. The extra points meant Russell was champion. “It wasn’t really an easy race because Dorian was always on my tail right from the start,” Lorandi noted afterwards, “it was really important to make a good restart, but after we did a good turn 2 I knew it was going to be done. I want to thank the team and everyone, and congrats of course to George for winning the championship.”

As soon as the race press conference was concluded, the championship one could begin. “I would like to give a massive thank you to everybody at ART Grand Prix;” Russell smiled as the cameras flashed around him, “they have been absolutely incredible with all four of us. It’s helped to have three extremely fast and intelligent teammates. We all got along very well this season and we have all come together after every session to talk with the engineers and to push the team forward. I’m sure it means a lot to the team, but they are fairly used to winning this category!”

With both championships settled, Abu Dhabi was an opportunity for the drivers to let their hair down and go for it, and the entire grid lifted their game for it. Niko Kari’s season hadn’t really gone to plan, but the Finn wasn’t going to drop his head: he grabbed the honours in free practice by a tenth from Boccolacci, and was soon looking for more. No one expected much from Russell in qualifying, coming right on the heels of the F1 FP1 which saw him circulating for Force India, but the Briton swapped overalls, jumped in the car his team had towed to the pits for him, and grabbed pole from Pulcini and Kari.

If he had any concerns for the race it was that the Arden pair 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 they made great getaways, 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. Pulcini later suffered a slow puncture, dropping him down the order and promoting Maini to 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.”

Once again Race 2 saw a Trident front row, this time with Tveter on pole: the likeable American made a perfect start to lead Boccolacci, but the Frenchman bided his time before mugging his teammate on lap 2. Ticktum joined them on the podium, having picked up a time penalty on the way for leaving the track and gaining an advantage: he overtook Tveter late on but couldn’t overturn the time gap, handing P2 back as he celebrated his first podium behind Boccolacci and Tveter.

“After all the season we finish in a good point,” the Frenchman laughed later, “and I want to thank all the team, my engineer and the mechanics who trusted me. 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!”

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