By The1nsider 1 month ago

Ahead of its final ever 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, ART Grand Prix underlined their intentions from the off, and the pair of Anthoine Hubert and Jake Hughes fired their way to the top of the timesheets – Hughes usurping his teammate to head practice with his final timed lap.

ART continued to prove their pace in qualifying, but 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. 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 –bringing home victory in his first ever GP3 race in a mature display of race management.

Overnight rain swept the Barcelona circuit, and the drivers woke up to a damp track with visible puddles during the middle sector. Giuliano Alesi, starting on the front row, grabbed the lead at the opening of the race from polesitter Juan Manuel Correa, managing three safety car restarts to perfection, streaking clear of compatriot Hubert and set the fastest lap to cruise two seconds clear of Hubert at the finish.

After over a month’s hiatus, the GP3 Series made a long-awaited return to action for the second round of the 2018 calendar, reconvening on French soil for the first time in racing trim. Hubert drew first blood and set the opening pace in Free Practice – leading an ART Grand Prix 1-2-3-4 by almost half a second. Hubert was left visibly disappointed after losing his grasp on pole position to countryman Dorian Boccolacci in the dying stages; the Cannes-born MP Motorsport driver swept to the top of the timesheets having crossed the line with seconds to spare.

Boccolacci almost lost his focus at the start, struggling to get off the line on the formation lap and recovering just in time to assume pole position for the race start – and this time, the Frenchman made no mistake. Retaining his lead ahead of Hubert and Alesi, Boccolacci quickly began to scamper up the road and set about building a break over the lead ART – which stood at two seconds after the opening series of laps. Hubert then hit back, setting a string of quick times to eat into the MP driver’s lead, but Boccolacci ultimately retained control of the situation – managing the gap and leaving his rival without enough time to seriously challenge for the lead.

Unfortunately for Boccolacci, his day wasn’t quite done. Having been subject to post-race technical checks, it was found that his car lacked the requisite amount of fuel required for an official sample, leading to his disqualification. Hubert assumed his first GP3 victory, but not in the manner that he’d have liked.

Thanks to the subsequent shuffling of the order, Callum Ilott assumed the reverse-grid pole for Race 2, and the British driver immediately found himself in a four-wide situation at the start with fellow front row starter Pedro Piquet, along with Joey Mawson and Alessio Lorandi. Battling at close-quarters, Piquet stole into the lead at turn 1 and briefly assumed control of the race, before Ilott quickly made amends and thrust his way back past on the opening lap. Ferrari Academy driver Ilott was then able to flex his muscles and build a lead, checking out and streaked to his first GP3 win by 3.4s over Piquet, who claimed his first Series podium alongside third-placed Mawson.

As soon as the GP3 fraternity had dusted themselves off after France, the teams and drivers immediately travelled to Austria for the third round of the 2018 calendar – heading for the verdant (and overcast) Styrian hills surrounding the Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg. A damp practice session welcomed a curious order as Ryan Tveter headed the session while later in the day, pole position was also taken in the dying moments of qualifying; for the first time this season, an ART driver took pole – Callum Ilott pipped teammate Jake Hughes by 0.03s as the session was aborted; Hubert was left stranded at the side of the road to bring out a red flag.

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 Mawson’s car from the start-finish straight, after the Australian immediately suffered from mechanical issues. At the restart, Ilott surged back ahead, having enough in the tank to showcase his dominance in the race – claiming his second consecutive GP3 victory, four-and-a-half seconds clear of second-placed Pulcini.

Jenzer Motorsport’s David Beckmann claimed the reverse-grid pole for Sunday’s race, but the German was quickly thrown out of the equation as he was squeezed between Tveter and Giuliano Alesi into the first corner for a first corner collision. 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 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.

Silverstone was next up, ending the series of three race weekends on the bounce to bring the category towards the midpoint of the season. Heading into his home round having claimed the lead of the standings in Austria, Callum Ilott’s goal was to head into the break before Budapest with a more comprehensive lead over countryman Anthoine Hubert. Alesi grabbed the quickest time in practice but in qualifying, Hubert had shaken off the disappointment of a nightmarish weekend in Spielberg to clinch his first GP3 pole position, heading teammate Nikita Mazepin by a tenth with a 1:46.033 lap.

Getting away from the line on the formation lap, Hubert suffered a slight scare having edged away from his grid slot slowly, but was able to reassume his position at the front of the grid. He kept the lead as the lights went out, keeping Mazepin at bay in the early stages before the action was nullified by a pair of virtual safety cars. At the eventual restart, Hubert led the field away and quickly built a gap over Mazepin – opening the taps and sprinting away to cross the line and claim his second victory of 2018 – and his first on-track – as Mazepin and Ilott completed an all-ART podium.

Alesi, having fallen down the order in Race 1, had ended his descent to collect eighth and the reverse-grid pole with it. Although getting away well, Alesi had to watch teammate Pedro Piquet surpass his efforts off the line and climb to first place. Piquet – as his illustrious surname would suggest – looked at home in the lead of the race, and kept Alesi at arm’s length throughout with consummate ease.

Reclaiming the lead in the standings, Hubert had hit the 100-point mark ahead of the next round in Budapest, the final round before the summer break. David Beckmann posted the fastest time to get off to the best possible start at his new home; having moved from Jenzer Motorsport to replace the F2-bound Alessio Lorandi at Trident, while Hubert fired in a 1:31.409 to clinch his second consecutive pole position.

The Frenchman suffered from a slower start than his rivals at the beginning of Race 1, allowing his ART Grand Prix teammate Nikita Mazepin to charge into the lead, bringing Pulcini in tow. Mazepin looked imperious in the early stages, maintaining a strong gap over the Italian racer while simultaneously trying to preserve the life in his soft Pirelli tyres. In the final stages, the Force India development driver tapped into the remains of his tyre life to put the lead out of Pulcini’s reach – crossing the line with a 10.6s lead to clinch his second win of 2018.

In race two, Dorian Boccolacci came under pressure from fellow front-row starter Juan Manuel Correa at the start, but the Frenchman hung onto the lead. Having lost a race win due to technical irregularities earlier in the season, Boccolacci was in no mood to let this one go. Immediately, the MP Motorsport driver rocketed away from the field and managed his pace thereon in, beating Ilott to second place by 2.3s.

After the summer break the field reunited in Belgium for the round at Spa-Francorchamps, and Beckmann vindicated his mid-season switch to Trident having thrust his way to the top of the timesheets in Free Practice. He then went one better and followed it up with his first GP3 pole position in qualifying, darting off the line in the race and staying ahead of the field to avoid the resulting congestion at La Source; with the four ART Grand Prix cars stuck behind Pedro Piquet on the outside line, Beckmann’s Trident teammate Ryan Tveter hugged the inside to nip past – rising from eighth to second.

Although Beckmann went two seconds clear by the end of lap 1, Tveter got into gear and went after his younger teammate, making serious in-roads and getting to within DRS range to reel Beckmann in on the Kemmel Straight. Here, the American mounted an assault, but ended up overshooting the braking point and had to resort to the run-off at Les Combes as Beckmann breathed a sigh of relief, later claiming his first GP3 win.

Reverse-grid pole sitter Mawson maintaining his lead on the opening lap of Race 2, but then began an alarming descent through the field, propagated by losing positions to Hughes and Mazepin at the Kemmel Straight on lap 3. Mazepin then made his play for the lead on the following lap, diving past into Les Combes and re-emerging from Malmedy with the lead in his grasp. From there, the Russian produced a trademark drive of management to clinch his third victory of 2018.

Immediately after Spa-Francorchamps, cars were painstakingly prepared and sent immediately down to Monza, just north-east of the Italian cosmopolitan city of Milan. And then the rain fell, resulting in the cancellation of Free Practice, where 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 as her erstwhile teammate David Beckmann reaped the plaudits in qualifying for the second successive weekend.

Beckmann covered the inside line at the start 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; 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.

Beckmann’s teammates took centre stage in Race 2 as Piquet took on Alesi, both clearing polesitter Richard Verschoor early in the race. After a safety car, Alesi locked up while trying to overhaul the Brazilian for the lead into turn 1, but passed Piquet at Curva Grande on the next lap. Piquet refused to give up the fight, pouncing on a mistake by Alesi with a handful of laps to spare to clinch his second victory of 2018 after a thrilling duel.

For the first time since 2015, the GP3 Series to the Sochi Autodrom in Russia. A new venue for the current GP3 drivers, Hubert looked to get his weekend off to the best possible start and 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. 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.

Pulcini made an excellent start, covering off fellow front-row starter Ilott into the opening corners and forging ahead early on to keep the British driver out of DRS range – the Italian soon began to scamper out of view. With no real threats, the day belonged to the Italian, who finally secured his first GP3 win with a controlling drive – crossing the line 3.955 seconds clear of home favourite Mazepin.

In Sunday’s Race 2, polesitter Mawson took a leaf out of Pulcini’s book off the line and swept immediately to the inside line to cover off any threats, but he then began to fall into the clutches of Beckmann. Mawson initially withstood the pressure, however, and the German decided to take a more circumspect approach. Slow to react to a late VSC restart, Mawson had Beckmann right up behind him ahead of the final lap, who charged past at turn 13 to snatch victory.

Ends of seasons are funny things: realistically everyone knows that a championship is made up of all of the rounds in a year, but when we get to the end of the year with the title in the balance it always seems that the final round is worth more somehow, that it’s scored at a higher level than the others. Maybe that’s why Abu Dhabi felt like the winner takes it all.

But it wasn’t entirely true: Anthoine Hubert arrived at the Yas Marina Circuit with a handy 31 point lead over Nikita Mazepin and, although there were 48 points to play for over the weekend, it still felt as though it would be the results on the circuit that would decide the title race, rather than the points table. No wonder it seems so tense in the pitlane, particularly around the ART Grand Prix garage.

Free practice arrived soon enough, and if it wasn’t going to be a tension breaker it was at least an opportunity to let off a bit of nervous energy, and to lay down a marker for the weekend. Hubert set the pace early in the session ahead of the usual ART train, but having done what they needed they sat back to let the others have a moment in the sun. With a few minutes remaining David Beckmann struck, with Gabriel Aubry right behind him but going wide in the final turn as he matched the German’s time to the thousandth, but both of them were pushed back just before the flag when Giuliano Alesi ran purple in every sector to claim the honours, with Hubert in P8 and Mazepin finishing up in 12th place.

Clearly both men were eyeing up qualifying as the best opportunity to lay down a marker, with a potential 8 point swing being invaluable for the title fight. The ART drivers assumed their regular positions at the top of the timesheets, with Hubert leading the way as the field returned to the pits for a change of tyres and a rethink. As the flag dropped Pulcini improved, getting one hand on pole until Mazepin crossed the line to steal it from him. Hubert had to settle for P3 behind Pulcini.

On Saturday afternoon Mazepin made a slow start and cut straight across to cover Pulcini, who made a great one, with Hubert slotting in behind the pair with a watching brief, determined to keep his powder (and DRS engagements) dry and hope that the front 2 would attack each other throughout the race and allow the Frenchman an opportunity later in the event.

Pulcini was soon on the front foot, blasting past Mazepin on the back straight for the lead, but the Russian stuck to the Italian’s tail for lap after lap as the pair staged an epic battle for the honours: Mazepin braked late to steal the lead from Pulcini at the marina chicane on lap 4 but ran wide at the hotel complex a lap later, giving the Italian a line back into the lead. On the next lap Mazepin was still pushing hard and ran deep at the marina, running across the kerb and back on track as he regrouped for another attack.

Unfortunately for the Russian he failed to round a bollard that was installed for exactly that situation, and the stewards had no choice but to issue a 10s time penalty for the infringement, an almost fatal blow for his championship ambitions. It was manna from heaven for Hubert, who was closing in on Mazepin when the penalty was announced, dropping back immediately as he concentrated on managing the car and tyres as his ambition switched to simply getting the car home in the points.

At the flag Pulcini had a 2 second lead over Mazepin, who was dropped to 5th with the penalty to promoted Beckmann and Hubert to the podium, and it was done: Anthoine Hubert was the 2018 GP3 Series champion.

The Russian was clearly disappointed to see the title go, but was equally determined to sign off the season in style. When the lights went out on Sunday afternoon poleman Correa made a storming start to lead the pack into turn 1, with Giuliano Alesi and Mazepin taking advantage of a poor start by Hughes to sweep by.

On the run down the long back straight Beckmann and Hubert were side by side and drifting to the right, when Pulcini appeared there and wanted to hold his line: Hubert was the meat in the sandwich as he and Beckmann broke their suspensions and were forced into retirement, forcing a VSC period in the process.

Alesi was soon all over Correa at the restart, with the American defending well to deny the Frenchman another Sunday win, forcing him back into Mazepin’s clutches in the process. But bad news was soon on the wires for the top 2: Correa and Alesi were handed 5 second penalties for speeding under the VSC, destroying their good work so far. Mazepin saw an opportunity and pounced, slicing by Alesi on lap 8 at turn 9, and was soon filling the leader’s mirrors.

The Russian pushed a little too hard at one stage, running deep at the marina chicane but crucially rounding the bollard before recommencing battle. As the laps rolled down Mazepin held station until the final lap, slicing cleanly into the lead at the marina and storming away, with Jake Hughes and Simo Laaksonen rounding out the final podium.

And as the curtain dropped on what was the final GP3 Series weekend, with the front runners looking to make the step up to Formula 2 and others moving over to the all-new Formula 3, there was more than a few people at the end of season party sharing his views on how effective the series had been in helping drivers and team make a crucial step up the motorsport ladder, giving them a taste of what was yet to come in their careers.

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