ROAD TO F1: Albon stars in F2 as Beckmann seals last-gasp GP3 win
A huge weekend awaited George Russell in Russia, with the Mercedes junior in with a chance of wrapping up the Formula 2 title, while Anthoine Hubert went into the penultimate GP3 round sitting pretty at the top of the standings. So could they seal glory at the Sochi Autodrom? Or will the two title races go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi?
F2 FEATURE RACE
Fresh from the news that he won’t race in F2 next season and will instead try his hand in Formula E, Alexander Albon will no doubt want to finish the current campaign with a bang. He wasted no time doing so in Russia, securing his fourth victory of the year by leading home a DAMS one-two in the weekend-opening Feature Race.
Albon made up three places in a matter of laps at the start, before getting the better of pole-sitter Nyck de Vries in the pit stops, and he then worked his way through the field. It was a faultless display from the London-born Thai driver, keeping his nose clean while his rivals made errors, to take the win ahead of team mate Nicholas Latifi.
De Vries was made to pay for that slow pit-stop, ultimately coming home third ahead of Russell, but fellow McLaren junior Lando Norris had an even more costly mistake when making his tyre switch. The Brit had a poor start, dropping from second to fifth, but things got even worse for him when making his mandatory stop. First he went to the wrong pit bay and when he did get to Carlin, he left before the front-right tyre was fitted, ending his race there and then.
Elsewhere, Artem Markelov looked to give the home faithful something to cheer about, powering from 19th on the grid to lead at the start of lap seven. It was almost a sensational performance - however, the Russian was another to suffer a pit-stop woe, and he ultimately came home outside the points.
So Russell was unable to register a win that would have boosted his title-winning hopes – would he fare any better in Sunday’s Sprint Race?
F2 SPRINT RACE
He would indeed, the Mercedes junior – who has been linked with a move to F1 with Williams next year – mastering the tough wet-dry conditions to claim his seventh win of the season. This victory wasn’t enough to wrap up the title, but it’s his to lose heading to the season-finale in Abu Dhabi.
It was a drama-filled race, with Alessio Lorandi’s collision with Latifi causing an early Safety Car – but once the race settled into a rhythm, Russell was able to get ahead of reverse-grid pole-sitter Nirei Fukuzumi to claim the lead on lap five.
He held on, finishing ahead of second-placed Sergio Sette Camara and Albon in third – though the Brit was made to work for it, with the tough weather conditions certainly playing a part in what proved to be another exciting Sprint Race showdown in F2.
When the rain arrived midway through the race, most of the field pitted for wets on Lap 13 – and Charouz were made to pay for gambling on the track drying, as both Antonio Fuoco and Louis Deletraz, despite temporarily leading, ultimately struggled and finished outside the points.
It was another tough afternoon for Norris, who was involved in drama before the race even got underway. The Brit struggled to get away on the formation lap, and was then handed an early 10-second stop-go penalty for being out of position at the Safety Car line.
Things got worse for the Brit later on when Arjun Maini tagged the right-rear tyre on his Carlin, causing a puncture and putting him out of the race. He is now mathematically out of the title race, and though this will come as a blow, at least he has an F1 seat to look forward to…
GP3 FEATURE RACE
After Nikita Mazepin was penalised for breaking track limits in qualifying, dropping the Russian from first to eighth on the grid, Leonardo Pulcini was pushed up to top spot for the race – and the Italian racer took full advantage by taking a lights-to-flag victory.
In what was his first win in the series, Pulcini recovered from a shaky start – he cut the corner at Turn 2 – to ultimately push ahead of his rivals, and he came home 3.9s ahead of Mazepin, who passed ART team mate Anthoine Hubert on the final lap to take second.
Another ART driver, Callum Ilott, will perhaps want to put this race behind him, the British youngster enduring an afternoon to forget. He started second on the grid, but fell behind throughout the race – and when he was en route to reverse-grid pole late on, he made another mistake that dropped him all the way down to 13th.
GP3 SPRINT RACE
Joy for David Beckmann, heartbreak for Joey Mawson. The latter was en route to victory in Russia, only for the Trident driver to dive past his rival in the dying stages, securing his third victory of the season in the process.
Mawson started on reverse-grid pole and looked assured for most of the 15-lap race, but Beckmann began to apply pressure in the latter stages and on the last-lap shootout, he made a move for the win on the brakes at Turn 13 - with Richard Verschoor of MP Motorsport completing the podium.
There was drama behind the top three too, as Mazepin crashed out late on to ultimately allow Hubert to extend his championship leader. The pair were involved in an entertaining tussle all race, but the Russian misjudged Turn 13, crashing out of the race, while his team mate finished P4.
DRIVER OF THE WEEKEND – Alexander Albon
Having secured a seat in Formula E, you wouldn’t blame Albon for already having one eye on his next career move – but the current DAMS driver reminded us of his F2 abilities in Russia, enjoying a memorable weekend at the Sochi Autodrom.
He showed his attacking prowess in the opening race on Saturday, gaining two places at the start and then getting the better of Russell to run behind pole-sitter and early leader De Vries.
Once he had the outright lead by the time all the pit stops were completed, he managed to build a gap over his rivals while dodging traffic, and it was a deserved victory for the Thai racer.
The Sprint Race the following day didn’t yield a victory, but third place means he remains in the F2 championship race, and though Russell has a big advantage, he’s still in with a chance of winning the title.
Russell may hold a 37-point lead - with a maximum of 48 on offer in Abu Dhabi when pole position and fastest lap bonus points are considered – but stranger things have happened…
THE KEY QUOTE
“Mathematically, there’s a possibility for Alex to take the championship – I don’t think we’ve ever seen a 48-point weekend by anyone. Alex had a great weekend here and got 35. I feel we’re in a good position but anything can happen, we’ve still got to go to Abu Dhabi with the same mindset but we’re in a great position. The team would really deserve this, as we’ve had a lot of misfortune through the season and I think going back as far as Baku, that was a frustrating one as we had the race comfortably, then with six laps to go there was a Safety Car and we lost 27 points from a poor restart. If it wasn’t for that, we’d have wrapped it up already!” – George Russell, pictured moments after winning the weekend's Sprint Race.
So it’s Russell and Albon who shared F2 glory in Russia, and they remain in the hunt for title glory with just one race remaining. It’s the Brit’s to lose, with a healthy advantage heading to Abu Dhabi, while Norris drops to third and De Vries and Markelov switch positions.
THE TOP FIVE IN F2
|4||Nyck de Vries||Prema||184|
|5||Artem Markelov||Russian Time||166|
Hubert now sits 32 points clear of Mazepin in the drivers’ standings, while Ilott drops out of the championship battle a further 20 points behind. Pulcini’s win helps him move to fourth, while Beckmann jumps into the top five, replacing Pedro Piquet.
THE TOP FIVE IN GP3
|4||Leonardo Pulcini||Campos Racing||131|
We’ve just one round remaining in both F2 and GP3, and it’s not until the end of next month, so the drivers have some time to recharge their batteries. They’ll then return to action for the last time in 2018 in support of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 23-25.
For more information on the FIA Formula 2 Championship, click here.