Celebration, controversy and a worthy champion: 5 takeaways from FIA F3 at Monza

Nine rounds, seven contenders, a five-second penalty, a fall from third place and one eventual winner later, the 2022 FIA Formula 3 Championship concluded at Monza last weekend in strange fashion. A late red flag meant the results of the season’s final race were determined on count-back and the titles wrapped up in the pit lane, with no cars running on track.

By Michael McClure

While Prema Racing clinched the teams’ championship by 54 points over Trident, there was an agonising wait to see who would triumph in the hotly contested drivers’ championship. In the end, Victor Martins won the title despite earning a five-second track-limits penalty shortly before the race was declared prematurely under red flag conditions.

Because the results were taken from Lap 15 instead of Lap 17 or the originally scheduled Lap 22, Martins only dropped from third on the road to fourth, meaning he remained five points ahead of surprise runner-up and Feature Race winner Zane Maloney.

The summer’s greatest success

Across the second two-thirds of the season in July and September, Maloney scored 119 points. He outscored eventual champion Martins by 42 points during that stretch and faced his most significant challenge from fellow rookie Ollie Bearman, who also took him down to the wire in that fateful race where Maloney won the day but lost the title.

Three wins in three Feature Races is a streak never seen in the four years of FIA Formula 3. It last happened in the previous iteration of the championship in 2013, when Daniil Kvyat won the final three regular races en route to the GP3 Series title and F1 the following year. Nine years later, Maloney didn’t luck into any of his victories, having qualified second, first and second in those last three races and leading the majority of each race.

Maloney beat pole-sitter Alexander Smolyar off the line, dipping into the asphalt beyond the white line to take the lead into Turn 1. But without the aid of the slipstream on the safety car restart at the end of Lap 4, Maloney lost the lead to Smolyar, who also took Martins with him into the opening chicane.

Zane Maloney (Trident) takes the FIA F3 Feature Race win at Monza | Credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

The Trident’s superior race pace ultimately won out on Lap 9, when Maloney overtook Martins for the lead after nabbing Smolyar the lap before. As the Barbadian driver completed the move, Smolyar, Roman Staněk and Arthur Leclerc made contact and collectively dropped back, bringing Bearman into the picture. The British driver closed on Martins for second and took the position on Lap 12, but a challenge for victory never materialised.

We will never know how the complexion of the race and the championship might have changed if the final five laps had been run as planned. In any case, Maloney can be proud of the fight he put up at the end of the season, one that marked him out as a blisteringly quick driver among an already exceptional field.

The winner many overlooked

The events of the Feature Race and the tense conclusion to the championship led many to forget the Sprint Race, which Franco Colapinto won. It was not an easy race for the Van Amersfoort Racing rookie, who managed to lead from start to finish on a circuit where the effect of slipstreaming and DRS puts the leader in a disadvantaged position relative to those behind.

Colapinto got a strong launch off the line to counter the advances of Caio Collet, who has been his rival many a time in Sprint Races this season. Collet was just half a second away when the safety car came out on Lap 4 for Zak O’Sullivan’s stricken Carlin, but the MP Motorsport driver opted not to fight too hard for the lead on the safety car restart or thereafter, instead deciding to ‘play the long game’.

Caio Collet (MP Motorsport), Franco Colapinto (VAR) & Ollie Bearman (Prema) – FIA F3 Monza Sprint Race Podium | Credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Collet kept the pressure on Colapinto until Lap 15, when Bearman surprised him and Jonny Edgar with a double overtake. That enabled the Ferrari junior to close on the race leader, and while he lunged to Colapinto’s outside at the final corner of Lap 18, he held back under the incorrect assumption that there was still another lap to come.

That misunderstanding might have saved Colapinto’s win, but it was still a fine drive from the Argentine driver, who has impressed this year as the lead driver of a brand-new FIA F3 team. His speed and composure this year makes him an easy candidate for the 2023 title should he continue in the category.

The star that burned too bright

Isack Hadjar entered Monza five points off the championship lead and comfortably as its top rookie, but he left the weekend fourth and third of the rookies below Maloney and Bearman. It wasn’t quite an utter disaster for Hadjar, who still salvaged two points from Sunday’s Feature Race, but it was not the weekend that many expected of the young Frenchman.

Hadjar was the second-fastest car in practice and looked poised for a strong result in Qualifying until he got a snap of overseer at Turn 11 and ran wide. With his left-side wheels in the gravel, Hadjar lost control of his car and bounced across the gravel and into the wall rear-first. This ended his session with more than half of Qualifying left to run and forced him to watch from the sidelines as one by one his rivals usurped his best time.

Isack Hadjar (Hitech GP) during round 9 of the FIA F3 Championship at Monza | Credit: Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool

He ended up 16th, mired in the midfield for both races. While attempting to regain ground in the Sprint Race, he crashed into Kush Maini while attempting an overtake into Ascari and broke his front wing, which required a pit stop. Sunday his race went better as he fought his way up to ninth, but the two points he scored in that recovery drive weren’t enough to salvage his fading title hopes.

After surging to a joint championship lead into the summer break, things just haven’t gone right for Hadjar, who failed to end up on the podium in all of the last four races after taking one in each of the first five. As with Martins, Hadjar’s early pace and relentless opportunism sustained him, but the immense pressure upon the 17-year-old Red Bull junior’s shoulders heading into Monza might just have been a bit too much to bear.

The team that nabbed its third title

With the measly total of one Feature Race win, two Sprint Race wins and zero pole positions, Prema Racing won the 2022 teams’ championship by 54 points over Trident. That’s a slimmer margin of victory than what they accomplished previously – a whopping 304 over Hitech in 2019 and 209 over Trident in 2020. And there’s a very good reason: the Prema of 2022 has operated differently to what we saw in years past.

For one, none of its three drivers – Bearman, Leclerc and Jak Crawford took the crown even though all three were in mathematical contention for the title until the last round. As on Sunday, the top two drivers, Martins and Maloney, took the big wins this year, but the Prema trio quietly racked up podiums and delivered consistent results all season to keep themselves at the sharp end if not in the lead.

Oliver Bearman (Prema Racing) during practice of FIA F3 Round 9 at Monza | Credit: Formula Motorsport Limited

That approach was borne out this weekend, with all three cars scoring points in both races. Leading the group was Bearman on a pair of second places that could both have been wins with a few extra laps. Crawford ran a quiet race to seventh in the Sprint Race before benefitting from Martins’ and William Alatalo’s track-limits penalties to end up third in the Feature Race. The scrappiest weekend came from Leclerc, whose contact Martins at the beginning of the Sprint Race sent the ART driver into the gravel at Curva Grande; Leclerc survived the touch to finish that race eighth and enjoyed a smoother ride to fifth in the Feature Race.

There have been clumsy incidents for all three Prema drivers this year – Bearman at Imola, Leclerc at the Hungaroring, Crawford at Spa – that have made them haemorrhage points. Those did not, however, disrupt an astounding statistic: that each Prema F3 driver completed every lap of every race this year, a level of consistency that is unlikely to be replicated in such a chaotic series.

The emotions on the ground

Watching the Formula 3 title decider on television is an intense experience. Watching it on the ground, however, introduces a whole other level of tension, which was palpable this weekend even after the 20-minute wait for Martins to be officially crowned champion had ended.

The build-up to the weekend was already more intense for the championship contenders, who had to balance their regular preparation with external obligations. There were extra interviews to do with the FIA F3 media team as well as the independent journalists in both the support paddock and the Formula 1 paddock. And unlike in Zandvoort, where overtaking is tricky, Friday’s Qualifying would hardly dictate the finishing order in the races, meaning nobody could truly put one hand on the trophy before Sunday’s race began.

In the three race weekends that I have spent in the paddock this year, I have watched every qualifying session and race from the hospitality unit alongside team members, family members, VIP guests and even drivers from the opposite series. Together we sit and feel the race. Sometimes there’s a gasp and a few onlookers jump out of their seats, clasping their cheeks. Sometimes entire races pass in relative silence as people sip coffee and text relatives on their phones.

Sunday’s atmosphere had much more of the former, though confusion over the ending festered as soon as the red flag came out for Maini and Brad Benavides’ accident on Lap 17. Without being able to hear the commentary, everyone eyed the screens for updates from race control and the refreshing of the timing page. Viewers with varying levels of agitation tossed out comparisons to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in between the idle chatter and live calculations.

Sweet relief for Victor Martins (ART Grand Prix) after an intense period of confusion | Credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Then came the relief as Martins was finally declared champion. ART and the Martins entourage celebrated and drank beer as they packed up their equipment, and people from all across the paddock congratulated them on the victory. There was sadness, too – Bearman returned to the pit lane with a polite smile that masked disappointment and resignation, and Maloney’s relaxed attitude seemed heavier as he chatted with us after the race. Above all, some knew that this was their last race weekend with their teams and in the Dallara F319. For others yet, it’s the last time they’ll set foot in a single-seater this year, if not in their career.

The paddock normally clears out in a hurry by the early afternoon, but on this clear afternoon, some teams and drivers lingered a bit longer, even until the end of the Formula 1 grand prix. The warm Italian sun smiled down on them for a few extra moments as if to thank them for putting on such a memorable 2022 season – rewritten endings and all.

Header photo credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

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