A front row in qualifying, a podium and a fastest lap ought to add up to a decent Saturday race in the penultimate weekend of the GP3 series at Jerez. Unfortunately it proved disappointing, and I have dropped out of the running to win the series.
GP3 has not been to Jerez with the current generation of car, so nobody had much in the way of useful data. For free practice it was just a case of going out and feeling what was possible – and just as important, what wasn’t. As ever, all four of us in the ART team were close, and looking in good shape relative to the other teams. For myself, I knew the track well having recently had my Renault F1 test there, as well as having had a fair bit of success there in Formula Renault Eurocup.
All that meant that I was quite comfortable going out for Friday’s free practice, and that went smoothly. I ended the session second fastest, just 0.07 seconds down.
That carried on into qualifying in the afternoon, and I was fastest when we finished on the first sets of tyres. For the critical second set I was a bit unlucky to be compromised by quite a lot of traffic. I was able to do a decent lap, and held pole until very late in the session, but right at the end my team-mate Nirei Fukuzumi came in with a great effort to snatch pole and push me back to P2. Still, not too bad.
For the race itself, I had a tricky tactical problem. I felt I had to win to keep my (slender) title hopes alive, but I couldn’t afford a bad result or a non-finish as that would jeopardise my current runner-up position. Of course, other drivers know that as well. Nonetheless, my aim was to go for the win.
In the race, after a good start I tried to pass Nirei around the outside of Turn1, but he held firm, braking just late enough to stay ahead. However, my move cost me a little momentum, and that enabled team-mate and series leader George Russell to get his front wheel just inside my rear wheel on the run down to Turn 2. It was tight, and I felt that if I held my line a crash was inevitable. I couldn’t afford that, and so I opened up the steering and let him through. I remained third all the way to the finish, not under too much pressure from Dan Ticktum in fourth.
A (small) consolation from the race was the two points gained from having fastest lap. As overtaking is so difficult at Jerez it is always a goal, and there is fairly constant radio chatter with the engineers about who has it, and when is the best time to go for it. I did a couple of good laps, and just stole it from Nirei – by three thousandths of a second!
The result put me sixth on the reversed grid for Race 2. I got a good start again and there was close and tough racing through the first few corners – I really had to stand my ground. Going in to the hairpin at Turn 6 is the heaviest braking zone at Jerez, and I was defending on the inside from George. I could see him in my mirrors braking very late and, again, it looked like there was a good chance we would collide if I held my line. My cooperation was required, but I felt my position in the championship left me no option. I opened the steering and he forced his way through (followed by Nirei as a result of me being forced wide). Eventually I finished sixth, a disappointing result. George finished fourth, good enough to secure the championship.
So, congratulations to George on winning the title. That is a fine achievement and there is no dispute about that. For myself, I’ve learnt a few things too. It’ll be different next year.