MP sweeps the top step as a drying track produces magic: 5 takeaways from FIA F3 Round 6 at the Hungaroring

The FIA Formula 3 Championship served up a thrilling weekend of racing at the Hungaroring to conclude the busiest month of its season. At the front of the field, there were two new winners, and at the rear, there were drivers who salvaged difficult weekends by stopping for dry tyres at just the right moment. F1 Feeder Series saw all of it first-hand from the Hungaroring paddock.

By Michael McClure

MP Motorsport finally delivers

Prior to this weekend, MP Motorsport had taken two wins in FIA F3 – a reverse-grid win in Silverstone in 2020 in the hands of Bent Viscaal and another such victory at Zandvoort in 2021 with Victor Martins behind the wheel. The first half of 2022 hadn’t been any kinder in that regard: F3 veterans Caio Collet and Alexander Smolyar had brought the team three podiums, all in Sprint Races, but that win still eluded them.

Hungary had been MP’s worst weekend in 2021, with none of their three drivers scoring any points. But it was their best weekend by far in 2022, propelling the team from fifth to third in the teams’ standings. They now enter the summer break with 146 points, just seven fewer than that of ART Grand Prix in second.

The successes began with Smolyar’s pole position on Friday, his second at the Hungaroring after he took pole in mixed conditions in 2020. He converted that to a fine win on Sunday, while Collet stormed from fourth to first on Saturday and streaked away from the field en route to his own maiden victory. Their third F3 driver, Kush Maini, also took his maiden podium in that Saturday Sprint Race and scored seventh on Sunday for his best points haul of the season.

In the wet today it just felt amazing, especially the first couple of laps

Kush Maini

“All three cars were hooked up in practice and quali, and in the wet today, it just felt amazing, especially the first couple laps. And then when I started fighting, I felt I overheated [the tyres] a little, but just so relieved for the team to finally get a really good result,” Maini told F1 Feeder Series in the press conference after the Sprint Race.

“Our pace has been so good this year, but when you look at the championship, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just so relieved – so relieved for my mechanics, my engineer. I think this is a massive boost in confidence for all of us.”

Differing fortunes at Trident

Trident’s 2022 campaign has failed to match their title-winning 2021 championship. Though Roman Staněk was the driver who starred in the opening third of the season, the momentum has now swung in Zane Maloney’s favour. The Barbadian driver had failed to take points from each of the first four Feature Races, but a fifth place in Austria seemed to lift a weight from his shoulders.

Maloney qualified second at the Hungaroring and held the same position throughout the Feature Race, finishing just 0.025 seconds ahead of Oliver Bearman in third in what turned out to be a drag race to the line on a drying track.

Maloney’s demeanour throughout the weekend was easy, and he understandably left the podium, his first in F3, with a smile. But questions still lingered as to why his team-mates Staněk and Jonny Edgar, who had qualified 14th and 15th, weren’t on the same level during the weekend. 

“We’ve been very close all year, so I’m sure something happened. I’m not sure what it is, so nothing to comment on that, but I’m sure they’ll be quick in the races,” Maloney said in the post-Qualifying press conference when asked what caused the difference in performance.

Zane Maloney, Trident Motorsport | Credit: Formula Motorsport Limited

Overtaking is notoriously difficult around the Hungaroring, so it was no surprise that Staněk cracked the points only once that weekend with ninth in the Sprint Race. Though he ran in similar regions during the Feature Race, he fell backwards late on as drivers on slick tyres came through.

Edgar, meanwhile, had to stop on the first lap after making contact with Pepe Martí, then pitted once more for slick tyres in a late gamble. That brought him up to 24th at the flag, ahead of several other cars who hadn’t stopped at all, but the weekend proved a disappointing one for the Red Bull junior.

The magic of a drying track

It was almost like a video game – or so you would imagine Zak O’Sullivan’s description of how the Feature Race ended. O’Sullivan had been running in an unspectacular 17th place when he and Carlin decided to gamble and pit for slicks at the end of Lap 16. In just eight laps he moved through from the rear of the field to fourth, putting in one of the most spectacular drives of the season and disproving the narrative that overtaking around the Hungaroring is impossible.

As this writer walked to the F2 and F3 paddock in the morning, it was observably too damp for the drivers to start on anything but the wet tyres. But the downpour soon abated, and as the cars rolled out to the grid, there was but a drizzle in the air. Drivers were hesitant to think about racing on dry tyres at any point, but most teams wheeled a set out to the grid in case no more rain fell.

Those at the front of the field would have taken too great a risk, but those in the lower midfield, headlined by the likes of O’Sullivan and Juan Manuel Correa, were much more keen to roll the dice. At first the gains were marginal and losses in track position significant. Francesco Pizzi set sector times more than six seconds slower than those of the front-runners after pitting on Lap 15.

Zak O’Sullivan, Carlin | Credit: Jakob Ebrey Photography

As with any wet-dry race, the landscape changed from one minute to the next, and while the leaders remained constant in the lower 1m50s bracket on Lap 18, slick-shod Correa had set a lap five seconds faster than theirs. O’Sullivan then set a 1:41.592 on Lap 19, and by that point it was game over for those ahead. The outcome of the race now hinged on whether O’Sullivan or Correa could catch Smolyar quickly enough to steal an astonishing win.

It didn’t quite come off, but O’Sullivan crossed the line fourth, just 7.3 seconds off the lead by the end and lapping at least that much quicker than those in front of him. Had the race been one lap longer, it’s likely we would have seen Carlin’s maiden FIA F3 victory unfold under the most surreal of circumstances.

Just how much does Euroformula experience help?

Two Euroformula Open front-runners made their FIA F3 débuts this weekend: championship leader Oliver Goethe raced for Campos in place of the injured Hunter Yeany, while second-placed Christian Mansell appeared in the #15 Charouz car as its fifth occupant in six rounds. Their results over the weekend would reflect not only their preparation for F3 but also the level of competition in Euroformula, a series often maligned for its dwindling grid size.

Euroformula had raced at the Hungaroring just three weeks before, and Goethe and Mansell had taken one win each on that occasion. Track experience appeared to help Goethe in particular for F3 as his 12th place in qualifying gave him reverse-grid pole for the Sprint Race.

He didn’t last long in the lead, running wide at the last turn before the rolling start and dropping down to fourth by the end of the opening lap. The Bullet Sports Management team that oversees Goethe’s career watched nervously as he fell to tenth, but the last-lap clash between Prema teammates Arthur Leclerc and Jak Crawford elevated him to eighth, giving him three points from the afternoon. His Feature Race, however, unravelled with a poor start and two spins, and he came home a lowly 28th.

Mansell’s début weekend was quieter, but he still made a strong impression, finishing as the lead Charouz car in Qualifying and in the Feature Race and just one position behind teammate Francesco Pizzi in the Sprint Race. The Feature Race result – 23rd – might have been higher had he made the switch from wet to dry tyres late in the race, but Mansell most importantly kept his car pointing in the right direction in what was a learning weekend for the young Australian.

Christian Mansell, Charouz Racing System | Credit: Dutch Photo Agency

The attractiveness of Euroformula Open is its use of the Dallara 320 chassis, adapted from the Dallara F317 and F312 formerly used in the FIA European Formula 3 Championship. The car is lighter and nimbler than most other single-seaters at this level, and around the Hungaroring it’s about four seconds faster than the Tatuus F-318 used in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA), which occupies a similar place on the feeder series ladder. Smolyar’s best lap in F3 Qualifying was only about a second faster than the Euroformula pole time.

FRECA’s tight competition, shared teams with F3, and greater number of Super Licence points on offer has enshrined it as the standard step before F3, but Goethe and Mansell proved this weekend that Euroformula Open also offers a helpful platform for driver development.

A tight title fight – but not too tight

With three rounds to go, FIA F3 has a tie at the top of the standings between rookie Isack Hadjar and second-year driver Victor Martins, who both sit on 104 points. Those within a race weekend’s worth of points of the leaders are Leclerc on 95, Crawford and Bearman on 80 each, and Staněk on 69.

No one driver has run away with the lead as eventual 2021 champion Dennis Hauger did, which leaves open the door for someone else to come through on a late surge. One driver performing well the past couple of rounds is Franco Colapinto, who’s taken consecutive Sprint Race podiums to sit ninth in the standings on 51 points.

We asked him after his Sprint Race podium this weekend if he believed the championship was still within reach.

“Looks tricky to be honest, but I think that there are some good races to come for us where our car can be quite strong. I’m really looking forward to it; I’m not thinking about the points, to be honest, just thinking about each weekend and each race. Doing the best that we can and maximising the package that we have each weekend is going to be the key to keep getting good results and end in a good position in the championship.”

Collet – currently in eighth, one point ahead of the young Argentinian – echoed Colapinto’s sentiment, so perhaps there’s an unofficial cut-off point at which drivers’ realistic chances go from ‘difficult’ to ‘impossible’. Nevertheless, the closeness of the championship battle and the action on track makes the season-ending triple-header all the more enticing.

Header photo credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

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