Race report – Round 19 (Race 1):
Esteban Ocon (Prema Powerteam) had a message for the other 19 drivers at the Moscow Raceway track this morning. Just because Max Verstappen (Van Amersfoort Racing) won the last 6 races didn’t mean Ocon’s reign at the top of the championship table was in any danger whatsoever. The French teenager was back with a vengeance, coasting to victory in the first of this weekend’s races and making it look all too easy. Jordan King (Carlin) finished 2nd, ahead of Verstappen, the British youngster less than two seconds behind the winner – however, you had the feeling it was only such a small gap because Ocon was content for it to be so.
At the start, Ocon got away smoothly to hold his lead into the first corner, leaving the others to fight over who would be 2nd. Given how hard it is to overtake here, it was greatly to King’s advantage that he started from the front row alongside the Lotus protégé in the Prema car. It certainly enabled him to hold onto his position, while behind him Verstappen started to pressurize Tom Blomqvist (Jagonya Ayam with Carlin) with a view to relieving him of 3rd.
Behind them Lucas Auer (kfzteile24 Mücke Motorsport) was 5th, holding off Antonio Fuoco (Prema Powerteam), with Nicholas Latifi (Prema Powerteam), Jules Szymkowiak (Van Amersfoort Racing), Felix Rosenqvist (kfzteile24 Mücke Motorsport) and Felix Serralles (Team West-TecF3) completing the top ten. However, there were still 23 more laps to go. The order in the latter half of the pack took a bit of a reshuffle when Sean Gelael and Hector Hurst were both awarded drive through penalties for jumping the start, but as neither of them had qualified in the top ten, it was of less concern than it might have been.
As Ocon powered serenely onwards, Verstappen was on the move, finding his way past Blomqvist on lap 2, cheekily nipping through on the inside of the Carlin driver in the final corner, leaving himself free to try and hunt down and pass King if he could. First though he needed to shake off Blomqvist, something that proved a lot tougher than the Dutch teenager might have hoped. Blomqvist was determined to stay with his adversary, the two of them trading fastest race laps as they battled it out.
At the very back Michele Beretta (Eurointernational) fell foul of the track limit regulations and was awarded a drive through for his trouble, but given he had started last, it was pretty academic. Less academic was the warning to Rosenqvist for the same thing. At least it was only a warning… More interesting was the way Ocon was now around 1.3 seconds ahead of King and holding steady, unwilling to push harder than he needed to in order to keep his lead. Maybe he’d seen Verstappen winning the Masters at Zandvoort in the slowest time he could manage and felt those tactics would do just fine here. He did suddenly set a new fastest lap, but soon settled down again, leaving the fireworks to the duo scrapping over 3rd.
Meanwhile, Szymkowiak had dropped out of the top ten, while Carlin’s Jake Dennis (who qualified 6th but had carried a five grid place penalty over from the Norisring) was now in the top ten and pushing hard, much to Serralles’ discomfort as the youngster tried repeatedly to find a way to pass him. Szymkowiak, meanwhile, was now being set about by his own team-mate, Gustavo Menezes, the latter getting past but promptly losing out in the first corner and having to hand the place back. He would try again…
By the halfway point of the race Ocon was still steady at around 2 seconds clear of King, while Verstappen was still being harassed by Blomqvist, and Auer was now having a quiet time of it as Fuoco fell away, the young Italian now pretty much alone out there. Latifi had Rosenqvist right on his tail for 7th, but seemed unworried by the Swede, unlike Serralles who was being plagued by Dennis. Track limit warnings were being handed out willy-nilly by now though and although most of them were not directed at the front runners, Dennis was coming under scrutiny.
Shortly afterwards Dennis made a move on Serralles that looked more than a little overly optimistic, failed to make it stick, and then found himself awarded a drive through. Serralles may well have heaved a sigh of relief when the Racing Steps liveried car vanished from his mirrors, but his relief was short-lived. Menezes had found his way past Szymkowiak and was now replacing Dennis as an irritant to the Puerto Rican, the pair of them swapping places more than once before the flag, Serralles finally bringing it home in 9th ahead of the American.
At the front though, the situation was much as it had been from lap 2. Ocon was still comfortably in front, King was 2nd, while Verstappen and Blomqvist were a lot closer but still too busy with each other to pose a major threat. As the race wound down, that was how it stayed, Ocon coming home to his 6th win of the year and increasing his points lead even further. King was 2nd claiming his 3rd podium in a row, while Verstappen kept his championship hopes alive with a strong run to 3rd. Blomqvist was 4th from Auer, Fuoco, Latifi, Rosenqvist, Serralles and Menezes.
11th went to Szymkowiak, ahead of Dennis van der Laar (Prema Powerteam), Antonio Giovinazzi (Jagonya Ayam with Carlin), Tatiana Calderon (Jo Zeller Racing), Dennis, Santino Ferrucci (Eurointernational), Gelael, Roy Nissany (kfzteile24 Mücke Motorsport) who also had a “track limits” drive through penalty, Hurst and Beretta.
Fastest lap went to Verstappen in the end.