The teams arrived in Monza knowing that they had only three rounds remaining in the 2017 season, and it’s at this time of year that people start to see the shape the championship is taking: if they’re leading they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel and move towards it, and if they’re chasing they look to get their season back on track, and push hard to close down the gap.
ART have been here before, having won 6 out of 7 seasons ahead of the start of the current one, and it was clear that they had one hand on the trophy and were looking to close it out: with the top 4 drivers in the points table racing for them, it could hardly be otherwise.
Within the team the fight for the drivers’ title was building up too: a stunning weekend for George Russell in Spa gave him the whip hand, and if his teammates were to take the fight to him then Monza would have to be the place it happened.
To add an extra wrinkle, the forecasts were suggesting rain would hit the circuit on Thursday, right when the teams would be running in free practice and damaging the drivers’ prospects for learning anything new about the track before returning the next morning for qualifying, and for the races. As it turned out the forecasts were wrong, but not in a way anyone could have guessed.
The session opened late on Thursday afternoon to strong sunshine, albeit with ominous looking clouds looming all around, and the field was straight out on track as soon as they could to get some laps under their belts. As usual, the top of the timesheets changed fairly constantly with Dorian Boccolacci, Leonardo Pulcini and Nirei Fukuzumi setting the early pace before Anthoine Hubert took over at the top a third of the way through, with the pace calming down as it appearing that everyone was working on their race simulations.
But Giuliano Alesi pushed hard at the 30 minute mark, taking over with teammate Ryan Tveter playing rear gunner in P2 to putting the Trident duo ahead of the ARTs, and in the final 5 minutes it was all change with Hubert, Boccolacci, Fukuzumi, Jack Aitken, Russell and then finally Fukuzumi once again taking the top spot as the flag dropped for the end of the session.
Early the next morning, however, the rain had finally arrived and was falling heavily all around Lombardia as the teams migrated to the pitlane for qualifying. Given the severity of the rain, the race director had soon delayed the start and was out on track to get a better understanding of the conditions: it was only a few minutes later that the call was made, and the session was cancelled.
Given the cancellation, the grid was formed by the classified order from free practice, with Fukuzumi handed pole and the points that go with it. The Japanese driver was happy with the result, but was muted in his celebration in the back of the truck: “Normally I want to get pole position in qualifying, but the conditions are quite bad for driving now.
“For the race it is a good opportunity for us to start from P1, and it is good for the Japanese fans with Nobuharu-san also in P1 from yesterday: I am used to racing in the rain from Japan, and I will look for a good result.”
The strength of the rain changed all day long, but there wasn’t a period where it stopped completely, causing the circuit to remain waterlogged throughout. The F1 qualifying was heavily impacted, with Q1 getting underway briefly before being red flagged for a couple of hours as the race director waited for the track to be dry enough to allow some more running.
Eventually the call came that everyone feared: the delays meant that the GP3 Race 1 was to be pushed back until Sunday morning, with Race 2 to be cancelled.
No one was happy about the decision, even if everyone understood the rationale behind it, and it meant that the nervous tension always carried across the grid was to be stretched out even longer than usual. By the time the race arrived, with the track bathed in sunlight at last, nerves were stretched to breaking point.
Which made Fukuzumi’s plight even harder to bear. The Japanese driver had a great opportunity to close the gap to teammate Russell, and had extra time to think about the start and how to take advantage of starting from pole. Heart wrenchingly his challenge was over before it began: his car ground to a halt at the pit exit, and despite the best efforts of his team they were unable to get it restarted in time to take the start.
It was all to the advantage of Russell, who had one less challenge to think about as he sat on the grid, waiting for the lights: when they went out he eased away from the line with Hubert and Aitken squabbling behind him. At Variante della Roggia Pulcini and Alessio Lorandi came together, with the former riding the latter’s rear wheel all the way to the barriers: the safety car was straight out on track as the medical team extracted Pulcini from the car, who emerged shaken but otherwise okay before heading to the medical centre for the usual checks.
Repairs meant it took 8 long laps for the safety car to head back in, but Russell was ready for it: an early getaway saw him hold off his teammates down to turn 1, with the 3 of them running away once again from the rest of the field. Hubert had the pace over Russell after the safety car and squeezed by him at Rettifilo on lap 11, but it wasn’t to last: the Briton responded in kind 2 laps later, just before Juan Manuel Correa missed his braking and flew into the rear of teammate Arjun Maini, bringing out the VSC boards for the clean up.
If Hubert’s challenge hadn’t paid off, maybe Aitken would have better luck: he made a great restart at Parabolica to run side by side with his teammates before grabbing the lead at turn 1. But Russell was not going to accept it without a fight, running on his teammate’s rear wing all lap long before getting a better run at Curva Grande and reclaiming the lead at Roggia on lap 16.
As the laps rolled down, 2 more events impacted running (and any chances of attacking Russell once more): Maini’s rear wing disintegrated on the front straight, and Niko Kari spun off the kerbs at the Lesmo complex into the wall. The safety car was out once again, and the race was over: Russell won from Aitken and Hubert.
“It’s been an eventful weekend, or an uneventful one, I’m not really sure which word to use!” Russell laughed after the race. “I’m extremely happy to get the win today, although I’m feeling very sorry for Nirei as it’s extremely unfortunate what happened to him. It’s a great result for the team, 1-2-3, and they’ve given us an amazing car all year. I’m really happy to get the win here, and to go to Jerez with a good gap in the championship to try to seal the deal there.
With just 2 rounds remaining in the championship, there weren’t enough points left in the pot for Trident to close down ART in the teams’ title fight, and it was clearly something Russell was thinking about for his own challenge: “obviously they would have been starting ahead of me for the reverse grid on Race 2, so in some ways it’s worked out better: although I do like to race and to get some more points under my belt, I’m not too disappointed!”
Aitken, his closest rival for the title, was his usual cheeky self when asked what he had to do to win the big prize: “get 2 poles and 4 wins! Obviously in Jerez my goal will be to close the gap as much as possible and then apply a bit of pressure for Abu Dhabi, which I think is going to be quite hard on tyres, and qualy will be just one lap, which suits my style.
“I’ve had good results in Jerez and Abu Dhabi in the past, so all I can do is keep my head down, keep working, and see what we can do.”
For more stories about Round 6 in Monza: http://www.gp3series.com/Global/GP3/2017/06_The%20Insider/Insider2017-GP3-Issue112.pdf