Despite having only been in existence for seven years, the GP3 Series has become arguably the best place to spot the next F1 superstar – this is the field of 2016 at the start of the feature race in Germany – and, with so many already having gone on to bigger and better things…who’ll join the roll of honour this time around?
OK, so it might not be the most spectacular series around…but it certainly does the job, doesn’t it? I mean, whichever way you look at it, the world of motorsport is incredibly difficult to get into at the best of times, and, while any aspiring racing driver worth their salt will be looking to make it to the very top, the reality is that they have to spend time in the junior ranks to prove their worth, but, with the top brass of Formula One teams watching on from the sidelines, there could hardly be a better shop window than this. However, there might well be problems on the horizon, and it’s nothing to do with the concept – in fact, the amount of talented drivers that have been produced in recent years shows just how successful things have been – but the changes that have gone on further up the single-seater ladder means it now suddenly looks out of sync, and, with some questioning whether it’ll even be around in the near future or not…the pressure’s on to see if they can come up with the answers. Despite all this, though, the GP3 Series is still one of the most prestigious championships in open-wheel racing, and, as the 2017 season prepares to burst into life this weekend…there’s plenty to get excited about.
However, before we get into the specifics of the new campaign, there’s probably quite a few of you out there who don’t know a great deal about GP3 – which was introduced back in 2010 to help young drivers bridge the gap between the various national and regional series and the international stage – and the way things work, so, with that in mind, here’s a quick guide to the main rules and regulations, both in terms of the machinery on show and the format of a typical race weekend…
- Much like parent series FIA Formula 2 (the newly-renamed GP2), the cars themselves – which enter the second of their three-year cycle in 2017 – are built by legendary Italian chassis manufacturers Dallara, and are powered by a normally aspirated 3.4 litre V6 engine that develops around 400 brake horsepower, with a top speed in its fastest possible configuration of over 300km/h (180mph).
- In order to try and bring the cars even more in line with those in the higher categories, however, the new season sees the adoption of the Drag Reduction System (more commonly known simply as DRS) on the rear wing, but, in a slight change to the usual regulations, each driver will be restricted in the number of times they can use it during each particular race, with 6 deployments permitted in the longer feature race and 4 in the sprint race.
- In terms of the structure of a race weekend, the opening 45 minute free practice session is then followed by a half-hour qualifying session that forms the grid for the feature race – which must not exceed a duration of 40 minutes – on a Saturday evening, with 4 points being awarded to the driver that ends up on pole position, but, in direct contrast to F2, there is no mandatory pit stop to be made
- The finishing positions from the feature race then help to set the grid for the sprint race (which is only supposed to last for 30 minutes) that takes place on Sunday morning, with the eighth-placed driver being elevated onto pole position and those that finished in front slotting in behind, while the remaining runners slot into position according to where they finished.
- Points are awarded slightly differently for each race, with the feature race being scored according to the FIA’s conventional system that gives the winner 25 points and runs through 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 to a single point for the driver finishing in tenth. However, the sprint race only sees the top eight score, with the winner collecting 15 points and then passing down 12-10-8-6-4-2 to another 1 point for the eighth-placed finisher.
- Also on offer are two additional bonus points for setting the fastest lap in either race, but, slightly confusingly, these are only awarded if the driver in question finishes inside the top 10 – if this is not the case, the points pass back to whichever driver posts the fastest time of those that were in the top 10, even if their specific lap time was not the quickest overall during the race.
With all that taken care of, then, it’s probably time now to look ahead to what’s coming up in 2017, and where better to start than with the calendar, which – as it has since the inaugural season – will again follow the F1 circus (as well as the new-look Formula 2) for the majority of the European races during the year, with a couple of other events elsewhere bringing the completed schedule up to a respectable 16 races spread over 8 separate weekends.
After the season-opener in Spain, however, there’s a massive gap of the best part of two months (yes, you did read that right) before the cars fire back into action at the picturesque Red Bull Ring in the heart of Austria in early July, with the high-speed challenge of Silverstone then being followed by the tight, twisty confines Hungaroring in Budapest before the series takes another four-week hiatus. On the resumption at the end of August, the championship travels to perhaps two of the most revered and feared circuits anywhere in the world in the form of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and the iconic Monza in Italy before venturing back to Spain for a stand-alone round in support of F2 at Jerez – the first time the series has run at the circuit – in early October, with the championship battle (hopefully) then reaching its climax under the lights in Abu Dhabi at the end of November.
Here, then, is a more detailed look at exactly what faces the teams and drivers in 2017, with each event including both circuits and the individual race dates…
- Spain (Barcelona) – 13th/14th May (Rounds 1 and 2)
- Austria (Red Bull Ring, Spielberg) – 8th/9th July (Rounds 3 and 4)
- Great Britain (Silverstone) – 15th/16th July (Rounds 5 and 6)
- Hungary (Budapest) – 29th/30th July (Rounds 7 and 8)
- Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps) – 26th/27th August (Rounds 9 and 10)
- Italy (Monza) – 2nd/3rd September (Rounds 11 and 12)
- Spain (Jerez) – 7th/8th October (Rounds 13 and 14)
- Abu Dhabi (Abu Dhabi) – 25th/26th November (Rounds 15 and 16)
With the reigning champion not permitted to defend his title (and, to be honest, he probably wouldn’t have done even if he could) under series rules – this is Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc at Austria last year – who’s going to step up and succeed him?
THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
In an indication of just how tough things have become in the upper echelons of open-wheel motorsport, the departure of Finnish operation Koiranen GP from the series after four seasons having been unable to find drivers with the necessary budget to compete means that, despite now being allowed to field four cars (of which the top three finishers per race will score points), only six teams and 19 drivers will take to the track in 2017, but, while the grid may be somewhat on the small side, there’s certainly going to be plenty of talent on show once again, so, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of the runners and riders for the new campaign…
ART GRAND PRIX – One of the most famous and revered teams in junior single seater racing, the French team have been almost unstoppable ever since the inaugural season back in 2010, and, with as strong a driver line-up as any on the grid, it’s hard to argue against them being the ones to catch this time around as well. With Leclerc, Albon and De Vries all moving on to pastures new in F2, Japanese youngster Nirei Fukuzumi enters the new season as the team’s only returning driver after a solid debut year that saw him finish seventh overall, with Brit Jack Aitken moving over from Arden for his second GP3 campaign having won twice last year on his way to fifth in the points. Completing the team’s four-car attack – ART being one of only two teams to run a full quota of drivers – are a pair of highly-rated graduates from European F3, with Brit George Russell (now part of the Mercedes F1 junior programme) moving up after finishing third in 2016 alongside Frenchman and fellow race-winner Anthoine Hubert, who was a creditable eighth.
ARDEN INTERNATIONAL – Having been one of the only teams to have snatched the title from ART in the series’ short history when Russian Daniil Kvyat – now racing in Formula One with Toro Rosso, of course – clinched the crown back in 2013, the pedigree of the British team is already well established, and so hopes are high that they can be the ones to take the fight to the champions once again this time around. It’s an all-new line-up on the driver front, though, with Finland’s Niko Kari – who made his series debut towards the end of 2016 – stepping up from European Formula 3 to join second year driver Steijn Schothorst (the Dutchman switching over from Campos after producing some encouraging results at the back end of last season) and Italian newcomer Leonardo Pulcini, who arrives with a growing reputation after strolling to last season’s EuroFormula Open title in Spain.
TRIDENT – In contrast to their fortunes in GP2 (sorry, F2), the Italian team have been significantly more competitive in the lower formula, and, after coming within a whisker of snatching the title in 2015, there’s every chance they could be fighting at the front once again this season. Leading their attack this time around is Swiss racer Kevin Jorg, who switches from DAMS after an encouraging start to his maiden campaign last year ultimately delivered little in terms of points, while Giuliano Alesi – son of former Ferrai F1 driver and fan favourite Jean Alesi – will be looking to move further up the grid in his second season with the team. One to watch, however, could be series newcomer Dorion Boccolacci, with the Frenchman – who finished runner-up in the fiercely competitive Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup series in 2016 – being one of the few to topple the ART juggernaut in pre-season testing before securing a late deal, while American Ryan Tveter moves up from European Formula 3 to complete their line-up.
DAMS – Despite the occasional flashes of speed (including locking out the front row for their series debut in Barcelona), the 2016 campaign was something of a struggle at times for the French team, but, with a proven track record of success and a year now under their belts in the championship, it’d be a surprise if they weren’t campaigning for honours come season’s end. With both Jorg and Brit Jake Hughes moving on, American Santino Ferrucci – part of the Haas F1 team as a development driver – returns to lead their attack alongside Colombian female racer and ex-Arden driver Tatiana Calderon, with the third seat being filled by Brazilian rookie Bruno Baptista, who steps up after a relatively underwhelming season in 2016 in the Formula Renault Eurocup that saw him finish 14th overall.
JENZER MOTORSPORT – Having finished third in the championship with current BMW DTM driver Nico Muller back in 2010, it’s been slim pickings for the Swiss outfit in recent seasons, and, despite showing flashes of promise that have secured the odd surprise result, the fact that they only have two cars currently entered this time around means it could be another tough campaign. However, while their driver line-up may be small, there’s still potential for them to cause problems, with Indian Arjun Maini – recently announced along with Ferrucci as a Haas F1 development driver – moving up from European Formula 3 for his first full season in GP3 after finishing tenth last year despite missing the first two race weekends, while Italian Alessio Lorandi makes a similar switch after contesting the final few races of 2016.
CAMPOS RACING – Last season was generally one to forget for the Spanish operation as they failed to even score a point until the races at Silverstone, but some encouraging performances in the latter half of the year should help them to make another step forward this time around. With all three drivers from 2016 having moved on, there’s a set of entirely new faces behind the wheel of their cars this year, with Frenchman Julien Falchero stepping up from the Formula Renault Eurocup despite finishing a disappointing 15th overall, while South Aftican Raoul Hyman – yet another to come out of Formula 3 from last season – signed a late deal to join the team after impressing in pre-season testing along with reigning Italian Formula 4 champion Marcos Siebert from Argentina, who has tested with Jenzer in the past.
While it would be foolish to write anyone off before even a wheel has been turned in anger, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that, based on their previous record, the title is going to be ART’s to lose once again, but, while Aitken and Fukuzumi are perhaps the favourites on paper with a year of experience under their belts, Russell has been quick in almost every championship he’s entered – after all, you don’t get picked up by the best team in F1 unless you’re something a bit special – and could well be the one to take the fight to his team-mates.
In fact, such has been the level of dominance displayed by the French team in the past, it’s difficult, really, to see who’s capable of challenging them over the course of a season, but the Jenzer pairing of Maini and Lorandi look as though they could be a strong combination – particularly if the team can get a third driver in at some point during the year to support them – along with second year drivers Ferrucci, Schothorst and Jorg, while, of the other rookies on show, it’ll be interesting to see if the likes of Boccolacci, Hyman and Kari can reproduce their speed from pre-season testing and start to ruffle a few feathers at the sharp end as well.
That’s how I see the season unfolding, so now it’s time to hear from you as to where you think the championship title might be heading at the end of the year – will one of the returning faces be able to make their experience count and take home the glory, or can one of the many rookies on show sneak in and steal the crown from under their noses? As ever, vote in the poll below or comment (either here or on Facebook) with your thoughts, and it won’t be long before we start to find out what’s going to happen – the start of the new GP3 season is just around the corner…