European F3; Super Formula; DTM; IMSA; Motogp; Formula Renault Eurocup; NASCAR Cup; ELMS
LANDO NORRIS GOT OUT OF HIS DAMAGED car and sat forlornly in the gravel trap at the Red Bull Ring’s Turn 4, straight away turning himself into a social-media meme, but that shouldn’t be the way the Austrian round of the Formula 3 European Championship is remembered. Last Sunday featured two superb races between two top mega-talents in the forms of Joel Eriksson and Norris, the Swede winning both to bounce back after his miserable mid-season run. And Saturday’s race provided a win for Callum Ilott, under pressure all the way from Eriksson.
Yes, Norris failed to do what everyone expected him to: clinch the championship with a round to spare. But still he harvested enough points to put it beyond reach of Eriksson and Ilott, and it was only Norris’s dramatic last-lap exit from the finale that allowed Maximilian Gunther to retain the most minuscule of chances going into the final round at Hockenheim.
Norris raced brilliantly apart from one critical error, but the real star of the weekend was Eriksson. It was too little too late for the Swedish BMW junior as far as the championship is concerned, but impressions mean a lot at this level and, just as Esteban Ocon’s career got momentum from the refracted limelight of Max Verstappen in F3 2014, hopefully Eriksson can profit from the attention on Norris.
Eriksson had balance issues in free practice, but the Motopark team fixed this and he qualified third – behind the returning-to-form Prema Powerteam duo of Ilott and Gunther – for the opening race. “I know we’re quite fast in the races,” he alluded confidently in reference to his recent form – even when he and the team have struggled in qualifying. In that opening race, he jumped Gunther into Turn 1 and then sought a way past Ilott on the first lap.
Ilott was driving a spare chassis, having caused heavy damage with a slide over the kerbs at the fast Turn 5 left-hander on his way to pole. “The car felt OK and I continued,” he said, “but obviously it wasn’t OK when they checked it…” Euro F3 sporting regulations don’t give any penalty for changing chassis once a weekend is under way – and, crucially, Ilott’s original engine was installed in the ‘new’ car (so there was no 10-place grid drop), which the Prema mechanics stayed up until 4am working on. No two tubs are identical, and Ilott admitted: “You don’t know if the car’s going to be OK, you don’t know if the balance will change. I did my laps to the grid and felt it was pretty good and I thought, ‘That’s OK’.”
Gunther felt his front tyres fall away but took a solid third, while Norris made an audacious late pass – into the second of the two quick left-handers – on Tadasuke Makino for fourth. Norris and the Carlin team had struggled on Friday. “The track caught us out,” he said. “We had a bit of oversteer in free practice, and then went completely opposite for qualifying and had really bad understeer. That killed us in the slow corners, but we changed a few things for race one and it seemed much better.”
That was backed up in the subsequent second qualifying, in which Eriksson – his driving a beautiful blend of aggression and style all weekend – put in a virtuoso performance for a double pole, before Norris’s last-lap blast left him just 0.003s short. At this point, Eriksson
RED BULL RING (A) SEPTEMBER 23-24
was still slightly in the hunt for the title, but admitted: “It’s gone – I don’t care about that now. I want to take as many wins as possible and have as much fun as possible.”
He certainly did that on Sunday. OK, Norris’s second place in the morning race knocked winner Eriksson out of mathematical contention, but who cares when you’re driving that well? They ran in tandem, Norris never getting into a position to attack after his numerous feints on the opening lap, Eriksson’s only worry being his right-side mirror detaching itself and flying past Norris.
In the finale, for which Norris had, uniquely among the frontrunners, saved two new tyres from his weekend allocation (he’d gone oldrubber all-round for race one due to qualifying ‘only’ fourth), their fight in the first two laps was thrilling. On the run downhill to Turn 4 on the second lap they were millimetres from interlocking wheels, but it was epic, clean stuff. Then Eriksson got away, before Norris came back with just over five laps to go…
Eriksson had to defend Turn 4, got a poor exit, and Norris had momentum, feinting from one side to the other. But he misjudged things, hitting the back of Eriksson. Norris’s rightfront-wing endplate went flying while Eriksson reported his car was briefly lifted at the rear. As Eriksson sailed to victory, Norris found it tough to keep up the pace, struggling particularly badly on the two left-handers. Ralf Aron and Ferdinand Habsburg closed in, but Aron was as much preoccupied with keeping Habsburg – who raced superbly all weekend – at bay as challenging Norris. With a lap to go the Estonian got a breather, forced Norris to defend at the uphill Turn 3 hairpin, then launched an attack into Turn 4. But, wheels locked, his Hitech machine slithered helplessly into Norris, sending them both into the gravel and out of the race.
“Because he was so close he lost front downforce and that turned me around; I don’t blame him,” said a teary-eyed Norris magnanimously. It was enough for Gunther – who had driven more spectacularly than for a long time, but who’d suffered handling issues in second qualifying and could do no better than ninth and sixth on the grid for races two and three – to keep himself in the frame for Hockenheim. Seventh in race two, he was fifth in this one.
Gallingly for Habsburg, the slowed pace of Norris prevented him pulling out the 5s necessary to take second place after he’d been penalised for flouting track limits on the opening lap. That allowed Nikita Mazepin to inherit second and, when the Fulham-domiciled Austrian archduke slowed 200 metres from the line (he hadn’t been told of the penalty, which often is the best course of action psychologically), that allowed Makino into the 5s window for the final podium position.
That completed a good weekend for Hitech’s lesser-heralded drivers, Mazepin having held Ilott at bay in the morning for a fine third. That was just as well for the team, as Jake Hughes’s recent fine run ended when he holed the sump on the kerbs in free practice, needing a new engine before qualifying and taking a 10-place grid penalty. He was penalised out of the points in race two for uncharacteristically colliding with Habsburg on the last lap, then took a drivethrough for a clash with Guan Yu Zhou in the finale.
Hughes wasn’t the only frustrated British talent: Norris was sitting in the gravel; Ilott had spun through the gravel on lap one after a clash – also with Aron. But it was amazing racing.
Eriksson leads Norris, as Mazepin, Ilott, Daruvala and Aron give chase