As soon as the GP3 Series fraternity had dusted themselves off after the round at Le Castellet, France, the teams and drivers immediately travelled to Austria for the third round of the 2018 calendar – swapping the sweltering and run-off laden Circuit Paul Ricard for the verdant (and overcast) Austrian hills surrounding the Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg.
Going into the round, championship leader Anthoine Hubert was looking to continue his upward trajectory; the Frenchman clinched his first victory in his home race, albeit in the stewards’ room, and desired the opportunity to stand on the top step on the next time out. Instead, the ART Grand Prix driver had quite possibly his worst weekend so far in the series, watching his 14-point lead get eradicated.
A damp practice session welcomed a curious order as Ryan Tveter headed the session; on a drying track, the Trident driver snatched top spot from Campos’ Simo Laaksonen and clinched a 1:19.709 on his final lap for the chequered flag. Later in the day, pole position was also taken in the dying moments of qualifying, although the circuit had remained dry as the bouts of drizzle had thankfully let up. For the first time this season, an ART driver took pole – Callum Ilott pipped teammate Jake Hughes by 0.03s, with Hughes unable to respond as the session was aborted; Hubert was left stranded at the side of the road to bring out a red flag.
“I’m feeling good!” waxed Ilott in the press conference. “Practice was a good start and the pace was okay, and we were just looking at the balance and everything was fine. So coming into qualifying, the first set of tyres was consistently good, I think I was on top at that point and the balance was fine, so I had no need to change anything. Then on the second set, everything was perfect, and I just managed to pip Jake by three hundredths before the red flag. I’m planning to hopefully get a better start than I did in Le Castellet, because those were disasters…”
True to his word, Ilott set off from the line with an excellent start and immediately began to build a break over the rest of the field – intending to counter any threats of DRS from the chasing pack. This was until the safety car was called to clear Joey Mawson’s car from the start-finish straight, after the Australian immediately suffered from mechanical issues. At the restart, Ilott surged back ahead, helped by second-placed Alessio Lorandi having to defend from the chasing Leonardo Pulcini.
Finding his way past his countryman, Pulcini looked to take advantage and catch Ilott, but the British driver had enough in the tank to showcase his dominance in the race – claiming his second consecutive GP3 victory, four-and-a-half seconds clear of Pulcini, to now lead the drivers’ standings after Hubert went scoreless. Behind the leading pair, an almighty scrap for third settled with Lorandi taking his first podium of the year – doing so with a broken collarbone.
“Yeah, this win was a bit more of a professional job!” Ilott laughed. “Obviously, the one last week was good to get and was needed, especially for the championship, but after qualifying it put me in a good position for this race – and I just pushed like hell to try and break the DRS. It worked, and then we had a bit of confusion with the safety car, but it all worked out everyone. From then on, I just managed the gap until the end. I think we all struggled with the tyres by the end – I pushed hard, they all pushed hard in the beginning, but amazing job by the team and thanks to them for getting us here.
“The tyre deg at the end was high – but consistently so. It wasn’t too bad, but at other tracks we would probably struggle a little bit more. Obviously, it’s good [to lead the standings] but we’re not even halfway through the season yet. But it’s good to get some momentum and I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable so I’m happy.”
Having enjoyed a thrilling fight with Laaksonen for eighth place, Jenzer Motorsport’s David Beckmann claimed the reverse-grid pole for Sunday’s Race 2. Yet, any hopes of a first GP3 win for the German were quickly thrown out of the equation as he found himself squeezed between Tveter and Giuliano Alesi into the first corner – all making contact and finding themselves out of the race. As the virtual safety car was called, Hughes collected the lead with Pedro Piquet just behind.
Hughes immediately attempted to build a gap over Piquet, but the Brazilian managed to inch back into contention and momentarily snatched the lead on the ninth lap with a DRS-assisted assault into turn 3. Returning the favour, Hughes reclaimed first place on the following lap and held Piquet at bay for the remainder of the race to claim his first victory of the year. The battle for third was settled on the final lap, and Leonardo Pulcini managed to absorb a late threat from Dorian Boccolacci to seal the last place available on the podium.
“It was really stressful to be honest,” Hughes said at the end of the race. “Obviously, the Turn 1 crash caught me by surprise. I was not really watching at the time, and I had Pedro [Piquet] on my left. I was in the lead at Turn 1 which was not expected, but obviously welcome! But then I was a bit under pressure, and Pedro was really quick so he got past me. But I knew if I could stay less than one second behind I could have another chance. This is what happened and once I got past him, he had no DRS left, but it was a stressful last eight laps trying to not make any mistakes…he was really quick in the corners where he could overtake.
“I’m really happy. The team had to fix the chassis last night. This one is for them.”
It’s all change in the championship order going into Silverstone, Ilott six points clear of Hubert – who now only stands two points clear of third-placed Pulcini; with such a close leading pack, GP3 promises to bring many more surprises next weekend.