Winding into its ninth season, the 2018 GP3 Series kicked off – as usual – at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya after a trio of pre-season tests. While a smattering of heavy, grey clouds loomed over northeastern Spain, the sun broke through at the opening of the practice session, as if to conveniently welcome the drivers to the circuit.
The early pace in the session was set by newcomers MP Motorsport, with Niko Kari and rookie Will Palmer winding the times down in the opening stages. After fifteen minutes, the standings then bore resemblance to the Mad Hatter’s tea party – a handful of drivers were all pushing hard to set the pace, before the ART Grand Prix pair of Anthoine Hubert and Jake Hughes fired their way to the top of the timesheets, before Hughes usurped his teammate to head practice with his final timed lap.
ART continued to prove their pace in qualifying, Hubert wresting control of the session early on as he sought to start his second GP3 season in the best possible manner. Nikita Mazepin then took the reins by a tenth, holding provisional pole into the midpoint of the session as the field retreated to the pits for new tyres. Hubert launched an assault on the Russian’s best lap, before his overtures for pole were stymied by traffic, and a subsequent brief dalliance at the top was quickly extinguished by the rapid Mazepin. With one minute left on the clock, Leonardo Pulcini fired in the best lap of the session to snatch top spot – his and Campos’ first ever GP3 pole positions.
“It feels amazing to be top,” said a relieved Pulcini, “especially after last year and all the bad luck I had, I wanted to work really hard. I worked hard mentally with the team to just put it all together for the weekend, and we did it. For the second set of tyres, I put my lap all together – on the first set, I had some difficulties, I was P9 I think, but focused on myself and the lap came out. I’m very happy because it’s my first pole, first pole for Campos and we’re very happy.”
Pulcini’s start in Race 1 lacked the lustre of his qualifying efforts, and the Italian relinquished positions to the ART trio of Mazepin, Hubert and Callum Ilott in the opening corners. Having immediately picked up his pace from the previous day’s running, Mazepin set about opening the gap to Hubert, placing himself out of DRS reach to roar into a strong lead – aided by the Frenchman’s battles with Ilott for second.
Ilott thrust his way into second place, streaking around the outside of Hubert at turn 1 before going after Mazepin, but seemed unable to make any further approaches on the lead; the Moscow native’s pace was increasingly consistent, and Ilott’s later struggles with tyre management allowed Hubert to re-pass the British driver. Despite fastest laps from Hubert, Mazepin seemingly had no trouble in raising his pace to counter his teammate’s efforts, bringing home victory in his first ever GP3 race in a mature display of race management.
“It was almost a perfect start,” explained Mazepin. “After quali I missed out on pole by very little, and I would say that’s due to experience, we just weren’t able to take advantage of the tyres to put the lap together. Nevertheless, I was quite confident going into the race, and we had a good start. From there, it was all about controlling the pace and looking after the tyres.
“It was quite a difficult task to be quick and to be able to lead the race but also to preserve the tyres for the end. But I think I did a good job, and I wasn’t driving at 100%, I was just maintaining the pace. It was a steady race, but it shows that you can win, even if you don’t have the experience – if you listen to experienced people and learn from them.”
Overnight rain swept the Barcelona circuit, and the drivers woke up to a damp track with visible puddles during the middle sector. All but one driver bolted on the wet Pirelli tyres for Race 2 – Palmer gambling on slicks – and the subsequent race was something of a thriller. Giuliano Alesi, starting on the front row, grabbed the lead at the opening of the race from polesitter Juan Manuel Correa, who was then subject to a stunning move by Hubert around the outside of turn 12 later in the lap.
Shortly after, Alesi’s Trident teammate Pedro Piquet dropped his car on the exit of turn 9 for a heavy shunt in the opposite wall, bringing out a safety car. Alesi managed the restart to perfection, streaking clear of Hubert and setting a pair of fastest laps in the process. Shortly after, compatriot Gabriel Aubry found himself in the gravel having been edged off the road by Arden stablemate Joey Mawson, welcoming a second safety car.
Again, Alesi was in his element, shooting off into the distance at the race’s resumption before the third and final safety car emerged for Tatiana Calderon’s beached Jenzer. With a final lap shootout in the offing, Alesi set the fastest lap to cruise two seconds clear of Hubert at the finish.
“I think the car was the best car I’ve ever driven because everything was just so perfect,” crooned Alesi. “It corresponded perfectly to my driving style. I managed to hold off Anthoine who was really quick in the beginning. I think it worked out for everyone. We’re really happy with this result, but our main objective now is to try and improve our qualifying. We saw yesterday that I had the pace to maybe win the race had I started at the front, but I couldn’t because I started at the back.
“We went out on the formation lap on slicks, but it was super difficult to drive. I was sliding everywhere, it was hard to brake and take the corners. So there was no other option but to start on wet tyres. It went quite as I expected from there: when I started the lap the tyres worked well. I’m really happy with everything.”