For the first time since 2015, the GP3 Series headed to the Black Sea for the penultimate round of the calendar, visiting the Sochi Autodrom in Russia. A new venue for the current GP3 drivers, the close walls and sharp corners offered a unique challenge for them to tame as the business end of the season draws nearer.
Championship leader Anthoine Hubert looked to get his weekend off to the best possible start, heading into the round with a small chance of clinching the title in Russia if results went his way. Hubert topped Free Practice, but was unable to reprise his form in Qualifying proper – instead, the honour of the fastest lap fell to his teammate and primary title rival Nikita Mazepin, who clocked in a 1:52.569 to secure provisional pole at his home round.
However, the Russian’s time was deleted thanks to a breach of track limits, handing pole position to Leonardo Pulcini – his second of the season. His first in Barcelona was hampered by a poor start, and the Campos driver was eager to put that behind him and secure his first ever GP3 win.
“It was a good session for me,” enthused Pulcini. “I Iike the track and it’s my first time here, and I found I’m confident on the track. The car was good, and I was working well through the session – we had our program. I didn’t do a very good lap – well, it was a good lap but I did two mistakes and lost a little bit of time, but I’m very confident tomorrow. Hopefully I can go out and get my first win, we saved a set of tyres in Free Practice for the race so I think it’ll be good.”
This time Pulcini made an excellent start, covering off fellow front-row starter Callum Ilott into the opening corners and forging ahead early on to keep the British driver out of DRS range. Hubert then overtook Ilott, who began an alarming descent through the field. With championship implications very much at the forefront, Hubert measured risk and reward and elected not to push Pulcini too hard, as the Italian began to scamper out of view.
The pendulum then swung behind him, and Mazepin began to factor into the battle for second – slowly catching Hubert, he pounced on a rare mistake by the Frenchman on the penultimate lap and emerged right on his tail. Although Hubert was able to keep a DRS-augmented Mazepin behind him on the run to turn 13, he had no answer on the final lap and was left to concede the place. The day however belonged to Pulcini, who finally secured his first GP3 win with a controlling drive – crossing the line 3.955 seconds clear of Mazepin.
“It feels amazing to win,” Pulcini said. “Being the one to fight with the ART guys feels amazing for me. Obviously, the team did an amazing job and we’re working very well together to be at the front. We did it again today, after the pole position from yesterday, to get the first win today feels amazing. I wanted to win as much as possible, and I just focused on my own race and didn’t watch the mirrors. I focused on my pace and put a gap in the last lap – I was just controlling the pace in the beginning and the middle of the race, and in the last part I was pushing like crazy.
“I started the weekend with my mind very clear – obviously, our potential for this year wasn’t how it went, but I’m trying to come back for the last two races and finish as high as possible.”
In Sunday’s Race 2, polesitter Joey Mawson took a leaf out of Pulcini’s book off the line and swept immediately to the inside line to cover Jake Hughes, who had joined him on the front row. The Australian has earned a reputation as an uncompromising defender in GP3, and kept the field behind him in the opening corners before looking to sprint into a strong early lead. However, he then began to fall into the clutches of David Beckmann, who was looking for his third victory of the season.
Mawson withstood the pressure, however, and Beckmann used two of his DRS activations to no avail. The German decided to take a more circumspect approach, dropping out of range to manage his tyres and put his focus on a late-race assault for the win. His patience was rewarded, as a virtual safety car emerged with two laps to go; Mazepin hit the wall at turn 13 after Hubert began to attack. Slow to react to the restart, Mawson had Beckmann right up behind him ahead of the final lap, but the Trident driver was unable to move past into turn 2. Staking Mawson out through the remainder of the lap, Beckmann charged past at turn 13 to snatch victory.
“The weekend started very badly,” explained Beckmann, “and I thought it was going to be a very hard weekend, but I recovered in Race 1 and I could manage to finish fifth. The car was mega. Even in the last 9 laps I had three flat spots, but I was still braking hard and could also overtake Hughes on the final lap. Today I could overtake Joey on the last lap! I must say a mega thank you to the team because the car was amazing all the way through. I think that shows that we have the potential to always be at the top. We keep working on that and hopefully we will have the same speed in Abu Dhabi.”
“I wanted to pass Joey to drive my own rhythm and have a clean air. But he was defending hard and I couldn’t pass him so easy. I backed off. Still I tried to push a lot because I knew I had Verschoor behind me. I was quite in a bad situation: I had to push, but look after the tyres at the same time. Then the VSC came and so after the ending we had one more lap. To finish the race like this is always a nice feeling for the driver who finishes in front.”
Heading into the Abu Dhabi finale, Hubert holds a 32 point lead over Mazepin in the standings, and the pair will be doing everything they can to end the weekend as the final GP3 Series winner. When the sun sets at the Yas Marina Circuit, who will be on top? We can’t wait to find out.