European F3: How Norris took the crown
The British rookie did his best to keep the Euro F3 title race open. But once he’d sorted his demons, there was little a brimfully talented field could do to stop him
There was a telling moment after the action had finished at the Nurburgring in September. Lando Norris had held off Jake Hughes to take his ninth – and what would transpire to be his last – Formula 3 European Championship victory of the season. The race hadn’t been a thriller, but it had been tense, Hughes keeping Norris on his toes throughout, the duo separated by less than a second as they crossed the finish line.
Norris, an individual who is delightfully honest and candid, verging towards self-deprecation, was as ever picking out moments where he hadn’t quite done things perfectly. “I was really thinking about my driving,” he admitted, “which is something I don’t really like to do. Normally, when I’m fast I’m just driving, not having to think about corners and braking markers, but this time I was.”
There in a nutshell was what made Norris so brilliant this season. It’s quite easy to make sweeping generalisations about competitors’ driving styles.
‘Oh look, there’s Callum Ilott being spectacular again; oh, Jake Hughes is so smooth; wow, did you see Ferdinand Habsburg ragging it through the fast stuff?’ But Norris defies categorisation because he so often adapts perfectly – without, apparently, even thinking about it – to whatever confronts him minute by minute. You’d have said the Mclaren Formula 1 protege was pretty tidy judging by his driving at the opening round at Silverstone, but then watching him in the wet in free practice at Pau, his car at ludicrous angles, blew all those preconceptions away.
Norris wrapped up the title in the first race of the Hockenheim finale, and it’s only because of his two main shortcomings this season that it didn’t come sooner. Firstly, his epic qualifying form – he started all the first nine races from the front row – was so often undone by his duff starts over the first half of the campaign. He’s never had a rocketship reputation for his getaways, but in F3 this was more cruelly exposed than it had been through his junior activities in Formula 4, Formula Renault 2.0 and BRDC British F3. He finally got the complex F3 starting system sussed at Spa – ironically, the circuit where you don’t want to be leading on the first long straight.
The other aspect that counted against Norris, and this is being quite harsh because we don’t want him to change, was his racecraft. He would think about moves that had never been invented, often pulling off a mega-pass, but it did get him into trouble a few times – particularly when he ran into Joel Eriksson in the penultimate event at the Red Bull Ring, when a solid finish would have guaranteed him the title, and left himself vulnerable to a last-lap attack from Ralf Aron.
It’s typical of Norris that he used the televised aftermath – he sat in the gravel trap looking like a bewildered, upset junior-school kid – as an opportunity to make fun of himself on social media. And that paid dividends when fellow meme legend Fernando ‘Deckchair’ Alonso was announced as sharing a car with Norris in next January’s Daytona 24 Hours.
How the Twitterati loved that!
But the Carlin team loved him for those ambitious moves; how could the guys and girls there not? On more than one occasion team boss Trevor Carlin compared Norris to Takuma Sato – “That’s what Taku would’ve done,” he’d chuckle – and you have to remember here that the Japanese folk hero is revered within the squad’s Farnham factory as the winner of its first-ever title, British F3 in 2001.
This season was an incredible turnaround for Carlin’s FIA F3 fortunes. Its drivers had drifted away one by one during 2016, claiming that the cars weren’t competitive, and that season the Nurburgring and Imola rounds took place without a single Carlin Dallara on the grid. The team bounced back to win
the Macau Grand Prix with its old favourite Antonio Felix da Costa, and worked its collective bums off to get back to a state of competitiveness for 2017. Dutchman Stefan de Groot – himself a handy F3 pedaller a decade and a half ago – took on the chief engineer role, while Matt Ogle (who ran Jack Harvey to the 2012 British title, Antonio Giovinazzi to European runner-up in ’15, and da Costa to ’16 Macau glory) looked after Norris. Stephen Lane was on Habsburg’s car and ex-fortec Formula Renault 3.5 wizard Stuart King, via a year running Sergey Sirotkin in ART’S GP2 team in ’16, was drafted in to work with Jehan Daruvala.
They were slightly aided in their quest by the Dallara update kit, introduced for 2017 with not just safety modifications but new aero too. After six consecutive seasons of Prema Powerteam drivers winning Euro F3 titles, this did affect the competitive order. The campaign ended with pilots from three different teams – Norris, Eriksson (Motopark) and Maximilian Gunther (Prema) – in the top three, and with Hitech GP (principally, but not only, with Hughes) often every bit as competitive too, but playing catch-up after a poor start to the year.
With Eriksson leading the championship through much of the early stages, thanks to not only the BMW junior’s own brilliance but also Norris’s starting gaffes, there were grumblings from the Mercedes-engined teams that the Volkswagen units powering Carlin and Motopark were significantly faster. Certainly, VW tuner Spiess had taken advantage of ‘reliability improvements’ in between the end of the 2016 European season and Macau. But, realistically, the difference was more likely that the VW teams were simply able to access the power they previously couldn’t use without risking blow-ups (as had happened uncomfortably frequently). Combine this with the skills of Norris, Eriksson, Carlin and Motopark, and the fact that, of the Merc teams, Prema – by its own vertiginously high standards – and Hitech had dropped the ball, while Van Amersfoort Racing was lacking a recognised frontrunning driver.
The other significant factor was Norris’s impeccably choreographed career. He wanted for nothing – sharp management, superb resources, fitness crew in attendance at all times – in stark contrast to main rival Eriksson, a freewheeling, old-school, practical dude who prefers to get on with things himself. Whispers, which were understandably firmly refuted by those close to him, flew around the paddock suggesting that Norris was getting mileage in private tests in different machinery – he definitely did a few days in a GP2 car, which helped prepare for his Formula 1 testing – but there was never any suggestion that anything illegal was going on.
Whatever, none of this can disguise the fact that Norris and Carlin did an outstanding job in 2017. As a Euro F3
newcomer – oh yeah, he won the rookie title too, needless to say – Norris prevailed over what was, in recent years, arguably a leading quartet second only to the Ocon/blomqvist/verstappen/auer 2014 season. Carlin too ended something of a jinx in Euro F3; amazing to think that this was the squad’s first title at this level. It was not only Norris on form, but fellow Frenault 2.0 graduates Daruvala and Habsburg were also race winners, and they too played their parts in the overall success. If ever Norris was missing anything anywhere, he knew that he had two quick team-mates to check data with – one good example of this was Habsburg’s absolute flat-at-scheivlak bravery through the fast corners at Zandvoort. Jake Dennis also provided a handy barometer in Carlin’s fourth car at the opening three rounds, and his slightly disappointing results – after a year out of F3, and having to readapt from his
GT3 activities – were further proof of how talented this year’s crop was.
Eriksson rarely had this data luxury at Motopark. The Swede started the season with two very inexperienced team-mates in Marino Sato and Keyvan Andres Soori; David Beckmann transferred over from VAR during the summer, but the German’s driving seemed unfocused, ragged and often desperate, so he wasn’t often much use either. Unfortunately for Eriksson, the all-important qualifying form dropped off in the middle of the summer, just at the point when Norris sorted out his starts. Eriksson would often complain of an overall lack of grip pushing him down the grid and, despite being arguably the best, most instinctive racer in the field, it was too high a mountain to climb to get back into the leading positions in races, where he said the car was usually fine. A late-season test at the team’s home circuit of Oschersleben put him in a much better mood, and Eriksson stole Norris’s thunder at the Red Bull Ring, then shared the wins with Gunther and Ilott at the Hockenheim finale to remind everyone
again of just how good he is.
Gunther and Ilott were in the invidious position of being at Prema – and therefore expected to fight for the title – in the year where the variables were bigger than at any time since the currentgeneration Dallara was introduced in
2012. The update kit, including a new front wing, meant a heavier car and the Prema boys struggled with rear-end instability. Prema has always been about a driver adapting to the characteristics of the car – even Felix Rosenqvist didn’t like the Italian squad’s set-up when he first tested it, but knew he had to knuckle down – and potentially, as a consequence, it was a little slow to react to what its drivers were saying.
Gunther can be magnificent to watch but this year, overall, he was too conservative in his driving and particularly lost form when he moved into the championship lead in the middle of the season. Ilott too is a mega-talent, but it’s fair to say that he made a few too many mistakes while in top positions, and that cost him a lot of points. Overall, though, it would be unfair to criticise either for not winning the title with the ‘mighty’ Prema – that would not only fail to take into account the fact that F3 is now pretty even between teams at the head of the field, but also denigrate the outstanding work done by Carlin and Norris. It was notable too that, when Prema really struggled, for example slithering in the wet at the Nurburgring, Ilott was absolutely miles in front of team-mates Gunther, the impressive Guan Yu Zhou, and Mick Schumacher.
Bearing in mind its resources, Hitech’s early season was a big disappointment. One or two voices from the Silverstone team’s camp reckoned that it had been a bit too reliant on its simulator predictions, and that things improved after returning to a more basic set-up. Hughes – in his first full season of F3 – looked excellent, but all his team-mates showed form: Aron is a a terrific little racer; Nikita Mazepin is always capable of pulling out a megalap; and Tadasuke Makino looked very promising by the end of the season. Most of them suffered from an unfortunate propensity for Hitech cars to be used as target practice for out-of-control rivals.
Dutch team VAR had a tough campaign, and reigning German Formula 4 champion Joey Mawson was usually its best hope of a big result, but the Australian did have a lot of incidents. Harrison Newey raced well and was especially strong at Pau, and Pedro Piquet could deliver when he was fired up, which wasn’t that often. At least the team, which looked beleaguered early in the year, got back onto more of an even keel after Beckmann had departed.
All these guys have talent, yet for Formula 1 stardom of the future look no further than Norris: this was an absolutely brilliant season for him.
Watch out world.
Hughes was a race winner for Hitech in his first F3 season
This one’s for you: Norris with Carlin spannerman
Eriksson was on sublime form in snow-capped Styria, and ended up as title runner-up
Daruvala leads Dennis and Habsburg at Monza
Gunther heads a Prema trio of Zhou and Ilott at Zandvoort, but faded in second half of season