Blue car facing the camera with 3 cars behind it and rain and mist in the air.

‘It was everything’: How track position made the difference in wet-dry F3 Qualifying at Spa

The heavens opened over the Ardennes Forest on Friday afternoon shortly before Qualifying for Round 7 of the 2022 FIA Formula 3 Championship was to take place. What ensued thereafter at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps made for one of the most thrilling sessions in recent memory, one in which familiar names struggled and new faces broke through to earn their best chance of success yet.

By Michael McClure

Collet, Maloney, Pizzi, Goethe, Staněk, Edgar, Smolyar, Bearman, Colapinto, Benavides: So went the top 10 drivers at the end of F3’s Qualifying session. While these names were already surprising, having four of the top five in the championship – Leclerc, Hadjar, Martins and Crawford – no higher than 20th made for an even more baffling result.

The unforgiving Belgian weather sent the Qualifying session all the way down to the very last seconds, during which raw pace was almost secondary to being in the right place at the right time.

The Spa-Francorchamps circuit is, at 7.004 kilometres in length, the longest on the F3 calendar by a comfortable margin. Its sheer land area and the variability of the Ardennes microclimate mean that circuit conditions can vary greatly from one part of the track to another. With a wet track that was slowly drying, it was the inverse situation to last year, when Jack Doohan set pole position by getting an early banker in before the rain intensified.

The first 10 minutes of the session were clearly exploratory in nature, with drivers finding the limits of the circuit as they tiptoed around on wet tyres. Ollie Bearman had set the fastest banker, a 2:22.913, ahead of Arthur Leclerc as the Premas looked to make amends for their nightmare Qualifying last year, when all three of their drivers failed to make the top 12. Dry tyres, though inevitable at some point, still seemed too risky to be plausible.

The conditions proved their difficulty when the third Prema of Jak Crawford spun at Turn 12, bringing out a red flag and kicking off the qualifying chaos.

Searching for grip

The red flag delayed proceedings for about eight minutes – enough time for almost everyone to gamble on slicks as soon as the session resumed. To give their drivers the best chance at pole position, the teams scrambled to change set-ups under the red flag with limited time available.

We had front wings off and we had the car opened up.

Zane Maloney

Trident’s Zane Maloney had been visibly struggling to keep the car pointed in the right direction when conditions were at their wettest. Speaking to F1 Feeder Series after the session, Maloney alluded to the flurry of activity that took place throughout the pit lane during the red flag.

“When it was going from wet to dry, everyone just tried to [get] the car as dry as possible, like to the dry set-up. Obviously, it’s very difficult for the mechanics because I think there was only 4–5 minutes. We had front wings off and we had the car opened up, so it was tough for the mechanics. They did a great job.”

A similar situation took place at MP Motorsport, where the engineers could be seen raising the rear-wing mainplane on Caio Collet’s car to increase downforce. This subtle change would make the car much more stable in the corners, crucial for succeeding in such conditions.

Also crucial, Collet explained, was an open-mindedness in searching for the driest patches of racetrack, even if that meant venturing off the common line.

“You just search for the most dry line in the track. The back straight and also Sector 2 was quite wet. Sector 1 and 3 was basically fully dry, so it’s just Sector 2 you need to keep your mind open to search for different lines, to take some different approaches in some corners to see which one is the driest part.”

That second sector, the most technical of the three, proved to be the deciding factor of the lap. Championship leader Isack Hadjar complained vociferously over the radio about the decision to go onto slicks, but the Hitech team’s choice was proven right when Hadjar set a session-best Sector 2, resulting in a 2:18.666 with 12 minutes to go.

Perfect timing

Several names displaced Hadjar’s initial wet-weather benchmark. His championship rival Victor Martins usurped him by a few hundredths before Alpine Academy stablemate Collet did the same. William Alatalo in the Jenzer had a spell at the top before Martins retook top spot even though his lap was compromised by traffic at the final corner.

The rate of drying meant drivers could hardly afford a cool-down lap, meaning the laps continued to be pumped in. As names like Ollie Bearman, Alexander Smolyar, and Roman Staněk – the top three drivers in Saturday’s Sprint Race – took turns at the top of the timesheets, Charouz Racing System’s Francesco Pizzi capitalised on the unorthodox scenario by jumping up to fourth with three minutes to go.

That’s the only thing we did really – just took it steady…and waited for the right moment to do the lap.

Francesco Pizzi

“I think we took a risk at the start,” Pizzi explained to F1 Feeder Series. “We chose not to change the set-up because we thought it was just going to be a rain shower and the sun was going to come out back again, so we didn’t make many adjustments.

“We just tried to get the timing perfect and get out of the pits at a time when we knew we were in the window for the last minute/30 seconds. So that’s the only thing we did really – just took it steady then on the track and waited for the right moment to do the lap.”

Pizzi had done a similar wet-weather gamble in the Feature Race in Hungary by being the first driver to pit for slick tyres on a drying track. While the decision backfired on that occasion and he finished 27th, the timing and positioning of his car helped him reap the rewards this time around. He ended the session third, greatly improving upon his previous best of 19th.

“We had the perfect timing, but before the last lap already, we were in the top 12, I think, so let’s say we just [got] the timing perfect. But I think it would have been still one of our best Qualifyings of the season, so it’s up to the timing let’s say half, and half the pace.”

The never-ending ending

Staněk had improved on his best time shortly before the chequered flag signaled the end of the session and eked out a bigger advantage at the top, but team-mate Maloney was 46 seconds back and setting fast sector times of his own. When Maloney eventually crossed the line, he was more than half a second clear of anyone else.

In the end in this championship, the people in the front are always the quickest on the day.

Zane Maloney

“To qualify on pole, you have to be quick because you beat 29 others, so you have to do a good job. Maybe a little bit of luck [helps], but in the end in this championship, the people in the front are always the quickest on the day,” Maloney said.

The driver who denied Maloney pole position was Collet, who became the seventh different pole-sitter in seven races. Hot off the back of a maiden victory in wet conditions at the Hungaroring, the MP Motorsport driver appeared to have found a new level of confidence during the tricky session. The pole was sealed when Hadjar’s Hitech broke down right behind him and stopped on the inside of Turn 1, bringing out the yellow flags and forcing the drivers behind Collet to slow and forfeit their potential lap times.

It was everything,” Collet said about the difference that track position made. “When you open the last lap and you are the last to open the last lap, I think you have the best track ahead of you, so it makes a big difference. So me and the team, we managed really well that. And big thanks to them, to be honest.”

The forecast for the Feature Race is dry, and the already jumbled starting grid only looks to be shaken up even further. As F3 and F2’s Saturday action showed, the slipstream is of critical importance at Spa, and so those who lost out on Friday will be focused on finding the perfect track position for clawing back through the field before the laps run out.

Header Photo Credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

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