DAMS racer Norman Nato took his second Formula Renault 3.5 Series victory of the season at the Hungaroring today.
In an assured and confident fashion, Nato held a charging Roberto Merhi home for the duration, with Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly less than three seconds down the road.
It was Nato’s first top result since taking the chequered flag first at Monte Carlo in May – a result reflected in both the joy and relief of his post-race celebrations with his crew in Parc Fermé.
In one sense, Nato made a wonderful start from 3rd on the grid, but in another way he made the most of the conditions, with the Frenchman launching between front row pairing Merhi and Carlos Sainz Jr.
This was also the first dry start of the weekend and while Sainz Jr’s side of the grid was not wet, the conditions were far from optimum. Signs of growing pressure may also beginning to tell on the championship leader.
Out front, the Cannes-born Nato drew ahead of Merhi, whose start, while good, was no match for the Nato juggernaut, ensuring the Spaniard could do no better than slip into 2nd place as turn one unraveled.
Almost as the race had started, it was neutralised again following a clash between Oscar Tunjo, Will Buller, Sergey Sirotkin and Nicholas Latifi which brought out the safety car.
As the quartet filtered into the first corner, Latifi was squeezed between Buller and Sirotkin, which in turn pushed Buller into Tunjo, turning the Colombian over onto his lid. Both Sirotkin and Buller were damaged in the collision, causing both to retire, while Latifi recovered to drive around at the rear of the field.
Nato immediately forged a gap of one second after the lap seven restart, only for Merhi to close back to within half-a-second as the pitstops began in earnest. With Merhi stopping on lap ten, Nato reacted immediately, emerging just ahead of the Zeta Corse driver as strategies filtered out.
Thereafter Merhi continued to push, but Nato was back in his Monte Carlo prime – on this occasion, there was no chance for Merhi to force a way by his French rival. Nato was able to build a gap of two seconds to Merhi as the final tours elapsed, but let this elapse somewhat on the final lap as he cruised to the chequered flag.
For Merhi, the runner-up position remained a positive one, as he closes to with 16 points of championship leader Sainz Jr with only four races remaining.
Gasly drew to within three seconds of the lead, but was realistically not looking at the top two positions. It did mark a solid improvement for the Red Bull man, who was 6th following the opening lap, having started on the fourth row.
Stopping almost straight away proved to be pivotal, as it allowed Gasly to jump Oliver Rowland and Meindert van Buuren; however the big move was when Gasly took Sainz Jr when the Spaniard made a mistake into the first turn on lap nine. Thereafter Gasly drove away from Rowland, securing his sixth podium of the season, bringing to a clear 3rd in the championship.
Rowland secured another 4th ahead of the surprising van Buuren (5th) – the latter of whom securing what was by far his best result of the season, with the Dutch racer having even led a lap as the stops unraveled.
Sainz Jr came home a disappointing 6th having held Matthieu Vaxivière (7th) at bay for much of the second half of the race. Although starting slowly, Sainz Jr lost out badly as the few corners blended outward, dropping to 5th when the safety car emerged.
Jazeman Jaafar took more points with an 8th place finish, while Marco Sørensen and Will Stevens rounded out the top ten.
Esteban Ocon did not start the race following a heavy crash during the morning qualifying session that destroyed the front end of his Comtec machine. The teenager is, however, fine, if a little sore.