The GP3 Series came to the end of the post-summer double-header in Monza, having raced in Belgium just a week prior. Trucks were packed up in Spa-Francorchamps, cars were painstakingly prepared and sent immediately down to Italy, just north-east of the Italian cosmopolitan city of Milan. With GP3 known for its tremendous pack racing, and past races at Monza always figuring as a highlight, the fans were braced for another round of brilliant wheel-to-wheel action.
And then the rain fell. Washing over the paddock with reckless abandon, forks of lightning hammered down on Friday morning and unsurprisingly resulted in the cancellation of Free Practice. With a slight schedule re-shuffle, a ten-minute practice session was organised for just five minutes before the full Qualifying session – which was topped by Jenzer Motorsport’s Tatiana Calderon. The Colombian charged in with a late lap to claim the early bragging rights, but her erstwhile teammate David Beckmann reaped the plaudits in qualifying for the second successive weekend – edging Series leader Anthoine Hubert by just 0.011s to nail a 1:37.959 laptime to the board.
“It was a good qualifying,” mused Beckmann. “There were some different strategies going on and I saw some drivers in Free Practice going onto the soft compound, but we stayed on the medium to have the best possible tyres available for quali. I went out a bit later [on the second set of tyres] because I wanted to make a change. I did a lap that was extremely good, without even getting a slipstream, but it was extremely good and the second sector I was flying! I saw Anthoine was close by 11 thousandths and I thought I won’t hold it, I thought somebody will improve and I’ll be P2 or P3 but then I managed to stay there. It’s extremely nice to have a pole, especially two in a row!
“In Monza, pole position says nothing and it’s actually quite useless. It’s maybe better to start P2 or P3, but I suppose it’s good for the chicanes and you shouldn’t crash! It should be an interesting race with a lot of action, and yeah, it was a great lap and I’m very happy to achieve another pole.”
As it turned out, pole position was vital after all. Beckmann covered the inside line as the flock of front-runners all took to the escape road to varying degrees – leaving the Trident driver’s lead untouched emerging from the first turn. Despite the wet conditions, Beckmann tentatively made the most of the battle between Hubert and Pulcini behind him, holding a five-second lead by the end of the fifth lap. From there, he dictated the pace; Hubert was perilously close to the pack of Pulcini, Callum Ilott and Nikita Mazepin, but soon began to hit back and nibble at the German’s lead.
However, this wasn’t Beckmann’s first rodeo – not any more, at least. Drawing on his experience of leading a GP3 race from Spa, he opened the gap further every time Hubert seemed set to close in, keeping him at several arms’ reach. From then on, all Beckmann had to deal with was a Virtual Safety Car in the final five laps, and had previously set the fastest lap to secure the victory – and with it, the maximum haul on offer of 31 points.
“It’s nice to continue these good days since Budapest,” Beckmann smiled, “and now we have again a win: it’s awesome for the team, and also for me it’s extremely nice. I managed to stay in front: it was a bit tight in the first corner, but that’s normal for these conditions and these corners. It was a very interesting race, especially because the conditions were drying up and the tyres so it was hard to manage the tyres and to keep them cool. In the end I won with quite a margin and I enjoyed it a lot, because these conditions are good and you can push the car to the limit, get some oversteer and it is fun to drive.
“I was very fast in the first sector because I had a secret in the first chicane, I won’t say what secret but they probably already know because I had the onboard on! [laughs] I could manage to get Anthoine always out of the slipstream, so he could close too much behind me on the straights, and I really tried to keep the gap always to 2-3 seconds. Anthoine has the championship lead so I wouldn’t push too much because also I want to win, but we were both extremely fast and it was an enjoyable race.”
Beckmann’s teammates took centre stage in Race 2; the romanticised notion of two big names duelling on the Monza circuit was realised as Pedro Piquet took on Giuliano Alesi, both clearing polesitter Richard Verschoor early in the race. There was confusion at the end of lap 1, as the two were side-by-side as a safety car was called for an incident between Gabriel Aubry and Juan Manuel Correa at Serraglio, but Piquet remained in the lead. Alesi looked to make that history on the lap 5 restart, but locked up while trying to overhaul the Brazilian for the lead into turn 1.
On the next lap, Alesi made his play for the lead and passed Piquet at Curva Grande, cementing his position at the following chicane. Piquet refused to give up the fight, and the two battled hard as the ART duo of Hubert and Ilott slowly wound into their mirrors. Once the chasers were occupied by their teammate Mazepin, Piquet resumed his fight with Alesi, but his overtures to pass were baulked by some inch-perfect defending. Then, the Frenchman made a mistake; locking up at turn 1, Alesi was slow into Curva Grande, giving Piquet the chance to pounce and reclaim first. He duly did so, and defended well on the final lap to secure his second win of 2018.
“I think it was really nice to watch,” said Piquet, “and from the car it was really intense. You had to drive really well in every corner because you cannot afford any mistake. You need to keep close to the car in front. Me and Giuliano had a really good pace, We were pulling away. The others joined us just when we started to fight. I was planning on using the DRS on the final lap, but with 2 laps to go there was an opportunity and I decided to try then because you can never be certain you will get another chance later on. It didn’t work out in the first corner, but I could come back in the second one. I had a good braking and after that it was two really intense laps. It was really hard because I was pushing with really bad tyres in the end. But it was enough…
“I believe we are much better than the beginning of the year in terms of speed. It’s always good to go home with a win, and we improved our position in the standings. I think the next race will be one of the biggest challenges for everyone on a new track. It will be very intense and very hard for everyone.”
Post-race, championship contenders Hubert and Ilott were disqualified from Race 2 having gone below the specified pressure set out by the tyre supplier. Although Hubert’s lead actually increased by two points as a result, Ilott now drops behind Mazepin in the standings with the same number of points. On the Russian’s home turf – the next round takes place in Sochi – there’s going to be a lot of hard fighting among the teammates to get ahead.