AUTOSPORT’S TOP 10 DRIVERS
His preparation was second to none, yet three outstanding moments of sheer improvisational brilliance spring to mind: an astonishing pole lap at Pau, over half a second clear of Ilott in his group; a single flying lap at the end of wet free practice at Spa, having sat out the whole session, which sprung him a second clear; and an extraordinary pole in the wet at the Nurburgring by nine tenths. Norris wasn’t perfect, but his relentless speed and commitment earned him a fully deserved title. And all at the age of 17. This will leave Formula 2 rivals in 2018 very worried, whichever team he’s with.
Our top five this year are comfortably clear of the next batch, between whom there’s not much to choose. The Force India-backed Mumbai talent gets it because, apart from his superb win at the Norisring, he also led most of the way in a race at Monza. Incredible record of 30 finishes from 30 races as an F3 rookie, 25 of them in the points, tells a tale of a very solid and consistent season. Daruvala is missing just a tiny bit on qualifying pace, and he could be a bit more aggressive in the races. That’d probably bring the finishing record down, but would raise his win tally.
There’s a nucleus of people who’d say there’s nothing to choose between BMW’S Swedish junior talent and Norris, but that you have to give the verdict to the Brit. Eriksson, though, was often outstanding, and it was only Motopark’s rough patch in the middle of the season that dropped him out of the title picture. Even during this period, he put in storming drives to second from 12th and 10th on the grid at Spa. He’s a classic, old-fashioned, hard-but-firm racer – utterly brilliant battles with Norris and Hughes towards the end of the season exhibited this clearly.
The would-be next king of Austria was a very pleasant surprise this year. He scored a podium second time out at Monza, and scored a terrific victory at Spa with a broken bone in his hand, legacy of a Norisring shunt – this was hugely popular, because he’s an absolutely cracking bloke with a great sense of humour. The win seemed to unlock a new confidence, and his driving became notably fast and committed – at Zandvoort, he was able to be flat in some places when team-mate Norris couldn’t. Both he and Daruvala will hopefully return to F3 in 2018; they’d be top contenders.
Prema thought it could polish this exquisitely talented rough diamond, but it took a long time to do so. Good results – which could have been wins – were thrown away at Silverstone and Pau. Other races showed that perhaps Ilott’s instinctive racing sucks him into disadvantageous positions on the track and leaves him vulnerable. He does have a very admirable, pure, clean-racing approach, which can be taken advantage of by harder-edged rivals. Interesting that he beat Norris 10-8 on poles, although admittedly Norris lost two more to grid penalties.
GUAN YU ZHOU
This was the Chinese Ferrari junior’s second year in F3 but only his third overall in car racing. After switching from Motopark to Prema for 2017, he was still a bit raw and his dramatic driving style – he seems to be massively late on the brakes – probably needed honing down a bit. But there were instances where he was quicker than team-mates Ilott and Gunther in some corners. It should also not be forgotten that Habsburg’s win at Spa could have been Zhou’s: they were both on four new tyres, and Zhou was ahead of Habsburg when he was taken out by Norris…
Part of the selfmythologising ‘Prema Way’ is to play the title game softly-softly, not take undue risks. This talented Mercedes DTM junior needed reining in during 2016. Then, when his great title shot came this year, he swung too far the other way. You have to feel for Gunther, because with Prema’s edge gone the team’s methodology was less effective. It wasn’t until the penultimate round at the Red Bull Ring that suddenly here he was, on the absolute edge. Perhaps the Merc DTM pullout, and his own shortage of budget for the future, may have had an adverse effect.
Qualifying is everything in F3. This laconic, funny and highly intelligent Estonian switched from Prema to Hitech for 2017 and, if only he could put a whole lap together, he’d have been Hughes’s equal. The big problem is sticking all his sectors together on the same lap. He did that brilliantly at Norisring to set the fastest-ever F3 lap of the circuit, but of course, at only 48s a lap, you get many bites of the cherry there… Superb, instinctive racer with good judgement, but his qualifying woes often left him in the midfield turbulence from where it’s difficult to emerge unscathed.
In his first season of F3, Hughes was the Hitech standout – way ahead of his team-mates in the points, and 12 times out of 20 sessions the team’s top qualifier. The Brummie ticks every single box. He’s a good bloke, strong feedback, and drives an F3 car beautifully smoothly and with great accuracy. When the team improved and he stopped getting hit by the errant Norris, Ilott, Gunther etc, his results improved, and he even looked an outside shot for a top-four position in the points. Possibly the driving style could be more attacking when conditions suit, but otherwise excellent.
A bouncy, amiable bloke and bruisingly-hard racer, Mawson is pretty much the epitome of an Australian race driver. Even down to the fact that he’s got no cash. His investors back home got him in at Van Amersfoort Racing and he flourished whenever conditions were tricky. But perhaps those financial worries over his long-term future led him to overstrive, because there were too many incidents. He’s a terrific little talent and, as a rookie, was 10 times out of 20 VAR’S top qualifier (against six for Piquet and four for Newey, both second-year F3 drivers).