Zeta Corse racer Roberto Merhi completely destroyed the Formula Renault 3.5 field in a stellar display at wet/dry Hungaroring this afternoon.
Pierre Gasly stole 2nd place from early leader Oliver Rowland as they exited the final corner, while championship leader Carlos Sainz Jr rose to 4th to keep his series charge in check.
Starting 7th, the Spaniard ramped his way up to 3rd by the opening corner, before sweeping into 2nd place around Pierre Gasly by the exit of turn two.
Thereafter the ultra aggressive Merhi hounded Rowland until forcing a mistake from the Briton on the seventh lap and taking the lead. Recovering from his momentary wobble, Rowland angled his Fortec machine to take a straighter exit from turn one, but Merhi had the inside line into the slow unwinding second bend, ensuring he stayed ahead as emerged into the quick turn 3 / 4 complex.
Up until that point, Merhi had also been sideways at several corners, most notably at the exit of turn two, although the much wider lines he took into the opening corner, also saw him fall slightly outside the track limits on occasion.
Once out in the open, Merhi ran away with the race and was at several points some three-to-four seconds per lap faster than the rest of the field. Come the halfway point on lap 11, the Zeta Corse driver was already over ten seconds ahead, but by the chequered flag that had extended to almost half a minute.
With his third win in four races, Merhi has pulled further away from the Gasly / Rowland duo, while also having taken a significant chunk out of Sainz Jr’s lead.
For Rowland, the second half of the race was always going to be something of a struggle. Having lost the best of his rear tyres battling Merhi, the Fortec racer began to drop toward Gasly, just as the Frenchman upped his pace.
In three of the last four tours, Gasly set the quickest lap overall and closed to less than one second of Rowland as they completed the final tour. While the Arden could not find a way past around the Hungaroring’s twisting turns, Rowland was losing more and more time as he struggled to get any speed exiting corners.
A sluggish last few turns allowed Gasly to close right in and when Rowland ran helplessly wide into the final corner, Gasly pounced and out-accelerated his British rival to the line to take the runner-up spot by 0.26s.
Sainz Jr’s early charged brought him up to 4th, but his progress stopped there as the track began to dry out. Starting 14th, the Spaniard claimed five positions by turn one and then scalped another three over the course of the opening lap.
Thereafter a brief battle with Marco Sørensen ensued, with the Dane retaking 6th on the second lap, before Sainz Jr eventually nailed the Dane on lap three. There would be a repeat performance with Matthieu Vaxivière over laps four and five, with Sainz Jr again winning out.
The next place would be less troublesome as a struggling Will Stevens – who had made a marvellous start – dropped back into the pack and behind Sainz Jr and Vaxivière.
As for Vaxivière, he had a quiet race and took home a solid 5th, some ten seconds up on Stevens (6th) and another seven ahead of Sørensen (7th).
Norman Nato finished 8th after he lost a brief battle with Sørensen. The Monaco winner dropped back toward FR3.5 debutante Esteban Ocon toward the end; however Ocon had his eyes more on his mirrors for the most part, as attempted to keep Jazeman Jaafar at bay.
Jaafar did get by Ocon, but only for a moment into the turn six/seven chicane, when the Malaysian ran side-by-side with Ocon, the latter of who was forced to take to the run off area to avoid a clash.
The stewards are currently investigating the incident.