Esteban Ocon is the first French driver to lift the title since Jules Bianchi in 2009
Esteban Ocon (Prema Powerteam) claimed the 2014 FIA European F3 title at Imola this afternoon, finishing 3rd on the road behind Max Verstappen (Van Amersfoort Racing) and Prema team-mate Antonio Fuoco. He is the first French driver to lift the title since Jules Bianchi in 2009, and he will be rewarded later this month with a Ferrari test drive to be held at Fiorano on October 29th.
However, the race itself took on a somewhat farcical element with three Safety Car periods in total, and almost certainly more time spent behind the Safety Car than was actually spent racing. Before the start most people assumed that Verstappen would simply launch himself from pole and vanish up the road, never to be seen again by his opponents. So it was something of a surprise when Fuoco appeared in the lead, Verstappen having lost out to the tiny Italian, the Prema driver making the better start.
In the pack, Tom Blomqvist (Jagonya Ayam with Carlin) lost a place to Nicholas Latifi (Prema Powerteam) at the start when the Canadian squeezed him out, while behind him it all kicked off as the two Carlin camps attempted to self destruct. Ed Jones (Carlin) whacked into Antonio Giovinazzi (Jagonya Ayam with Carlin), tearing a wheel off the Italian’s car and going off into the gravel himself. The Safety Car was promptly deployed for several laps while the resulting mess was removed to a safe place.
The field settled in for the long haul with Fuoco leading the pack, from Verstappen, Ocon, Latifi, Blomqvist, William Buller (Signature), Jake Dennis (Carlin), Felix Serralles (Team West-Tec F3), Lucas Auer (kfzteile24 Mücke Motorsport) and Jordan King (Carlin). In 11th was Roy Nissany (kfzteile24 Mücke Motorsport), from Gustavo Menezes (Van Amersfoort Racing), Felix Rosenqvist (kfzteile24 Mücke Motorsport), Nick Cassidy (ThreeBond with T-Sport), Sean Gelael (Jagonya Ayam with Carlin), Tatiana Calderon (Jo Zeller Racing), Dennis van de Laar (Prema Powerteam), Michele Beretta (Eurointernational), Alexander Toril (ThreeBond with T-Sport) and Jules Szymkowiak (Van Amersfoort Racing). 21st place was Sergio Sette Camara (Eurointernational), from Wing Chung “Andy” Chang (Team West-Tec F3), Santino Ferrucci (Fortec Motorsport), Sandro Zeller (Jo Zeller Racing), Richard “Spike” Goddard (ThreeBond with T-Sport) and Hongwei “Martin” Cao.
At the restart Fuoco kept control of the situation and managed to hold off Verstappen, who was very interested in taking the lead. The Dutchman couldn’t find a way past and had to settled back in to second for the time being. Now usually a Safety Car calms everyone down and afterwards we can get on with some racing without further problems. Not so today. Zeller ended up having a massive off, while Calderon tangled with Gelael. The Indonesian ended up stranded in the middle of the track after a trip through the gravel, while Calderon limped round with broken suspension. Chang was far luckier when an off track moment saw him drive straight through the gravel on outside of Tamburello and back on at speed, not losing any ground as a result.
However, with two cars off the Safety Car was inevitable, and it duly picked up Calderon instead of the leader. The result was a large slow moving queue as the field came round towards the first corner as they all shuffled about trying to stay in the correct order. It was definitely all fun and games this afternoon. Needless to say the order barely changed apart from the disappearance of Gelael and Zeller. So now we again had Fuoco, from Verstappen, Ocon, Latifi, Blomqvist, Buller, Dennis, Auer, Serralles and King. 11th was still Menezes, from Nissany, Rosenqvist, van de Laar, Cassidy, Beretta, Toril, Szymkowiak and Ferrucci. Goddard was next from Chang, Cao and Calderon who then limped into retirement. Again the clean-up operation took quite some time to complete, but finally we were ready to go racing once more.
At the second restart there was absolutely no hesitation from Verstappen – he’d been handed a second chance and was not going to blow it. Fuoco could do nothing to resist and knew that if Max didn’t go this lap he would certainly get him not long afterwards. The Van Amersfoort car was flying, and Verstappen was past and into the lead before they even reached Tamburello. He immediately began to pull away and that should have been the last anyone saw of him as he left Fuoco to hold off Ocon, while behind the pair of them Latifi was still ahead of Blomqvist, while Buller was scrapping with Dennis, and Auer, Serralles and King rounded out the top ten.
More safety cars
However, behind King, Rosenqvist was on the move, desperately trying to make up ground. On lap 11 he went for it, but ended up running over King’s rear wheel and launching himself straight into the barriers in what was a very heavy crash. The car was badly damaged, and initially the Swede didn’t seem able to get out which was worrying. The Safety Car rejoined the race and took control of the pack while marshals and medics consulted and eventually Rosenqvist got out of the car under his own power and was removed to the medical centre for a quick check up.
Now the top ten under the Safety Car was Verstappen, from Fuoco, Ocon, Latifi, Blomqvist, Buller, Dennis, Auer, Serralles and King. Menezes remained 11th, with Nissany, van de Laar, Cassidy, Szymkowiak, Toril, Berretta, Ferrucci, Chang and Sette Camara completing the top 20. In the final two places were Goddard and Cao so not much had changed really. Then again we hadn’t exactly had much racing. And we wouldn’t get much.
By the time Rosenqvist’s car had been dragged off to join Gelael’s in the trackside used Dallara compound there was less than six minutes to run. Verstappen restarted neatly and once again started to push to open a reasonable gap, while Fuoco went unchallenged because Ocon knew that finishing where was would be more than good enough to give him the title. He would happily leave the heroics to the RedBull man at front.
Behind the top three Blomqvist attempted to have a go at Latifi, ran wide and almost lost the place to Buller as result. Further back, Sette Camara shot across the gravel, a move that had the weary marshals reaching for the SC board and the yellow flags in anticipation. However, the Brazilian survived and continued on his way and the board was stowed away for another time. Meanwhile Cassidy dropped from 14th to dead last, which most likely had something to do with van de Laar. It was a shame for the Kiwi as he’d been running quite well up to that point.
No one can stop him!
At the front Verstappen came home a convincing winner for the 9th time this season. Afterwards, he knew what had gone wrong initially: “At the prestart I stalled so I lost momentum and when the lights went out it was difficult to stay behind at first, but I tried to stay calm. I knew I could get past him and had done all my passing in the second race so this was not so exciting. I got the extra speed from my steering wheel from Suzuka! No we just set up the car to be really fast.”
Fuoco was happy to finish in second: “Second place was very good but Max was much faster, I tried to stay in front of Max but couldn’t. I stayed in front of Esteban. I was disappointed in Race 1 and Race 2. At the restarts I knew he would try to get in front and so I didn’t try to close the door on him. Congratulations to Max and to Esteban.”
Ocon was just pleased to have wrapped up the title: “My race was not bad and I took no risks into the first corner. It was good for the points and the championship. I tried not to think about it before, just tried to keep up the pace. Now I’m very happy about winning the championship and to test for Ferrari.”
Behind them Latifi finished 5th ahead of Blomqvist, Buller, Dennis, Auer, Serralles and Menezes, who eased King out of 10th. King ended up 11th from Nissany, van de Laar, Szymkowiak, Toril, Ferrucci, Beretta, Chang, Goddard and Cao. 21st was Sette Camara, ahead of Cassidy.
The fastest lap of the race was set by Verstappen.
Next Races: Rounds 31, 32 & 33, Hockenheim, Germany, October 17th/19th 2014