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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Mar­cus Sim­mons, Deputy Edi­tor

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.

This one’s for you: Nor­ris with Car­lin span­ner­man

Hughes was a race win­ner for Hitech in his first F3 sea­son

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

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