The GP3 Series offered something of a mixed bag in 2017, with a collection of truly wonderful performers and performances.
However, it was difficult to ignore the number of drivers who appeared to be desperately out of their depth.
Live European Formula 3, the GP3 Series has struggled for drivers and teams in recent seasons, but despite a shrinking field (averaging nineteen-to-twenty drivers) the series had plenty to offer up front.
Talented pilots, such as champion George Russell and ART Grand Prix teammates Jack Aitken and Nirei Fukuzumi showcased some superb skill, with the trio taking every ‘Race 1’ victory, apart from the final running in Abu Dhabi.
Despite this, ART Grand Prix were also in a different league – indeed the team have scored every Race 1 pole position since Spain 2016. There is no doubt that ART Grand Prix is a great team, but that level of dominance in a single-make formula is brutal and astonishing, although not completely unheard of.
Giuliano Alesi displayed a decent level of skill up front; taking three wins in the lesser-valued reverse grid ‘Race 2’ events, while Dorian Boccolacci, Alessio Lorandi, Arjun Maini and Raoul Hyman also took Sunday morning honours.
This season also introduced new high degradation tyres to the GP3 format, while the series also utilised DRS for the first time with mixed results – too effective in Barcelona, virtually non-existent at the Red Bull Ring for example.
After a move from F3 to GP3, Russell seemed a bit lost at the season opener in Barcelona, as he struggled to get his head around the GP3/16 Dallara and its new Pirelli tyres, but following a test in the gap between the opening two meetings, the Englishman was on a roll.
Following a win at the Red Bull Ring, Russell hammered home his championship challenge a week later in Silverstone, only for mechanical gremlins to slow his charge at the midway point in Hungary. However two wins and a 2nd place in the three races that followed did much to kill off the challenge from Aitken and Fukuzumi.
The title came in the penultimate round in Jerez, but rather than sit back and take points for the crown, he showed his ruthlessness to twice force his way past Aitken to seal the deal.
Russel scored 220 points out of a possible 384 and was still some 79 points ahead of the next-placed Aitken. That in fourteen races, he only finished outside of the top four on three occasions tels you everything you need to know about his season.
There were times when Aitken was excellent. His Race 1 win at Hungary was superb, whilst his battle with Fukuzumi in Spa and with Russell and Anthoine Hubert in Monza was astonishing in its cleanliness and briliance. Retiring from the season opener with a mechanical issue while in 2nd place killed his opening weekend.
On the other hand one can’t help but think that his sweeping collision on the Kemmel Straight during Spa Race 2 was clumsy; he lacked aggression against Russell in Jerez and endured an anonymous weekend in Abu Dhabi – all of these things helped to nullify his championship challenge.
After a solid debut season in the category last year, Fukuzumi stepped up his performances in 2017 and made his mark with a win and two podiums in the opening two rounds. Yet his title aspirations died almost as quickly with a non-score in Silverstone and a retirement in Hungary, followed by a non-start from pole in Monza. Victory in Jerez offered him an opportunity to take the runner-up spot from Aitken, but Fukuzumi fell short in the finale.
Hubert was the only ART Grand Prix driver to not win a race, but he still made it 4th in the standinsg through sheer will and consistency. The French driver is not the most monied of racer’s and performed well despite being 4th of the four at the French squad. If he can turn that consistency into race wins in 2018, he could be a good shout for title honours.
On paper, Alesi is recorded to have taken three GP3 wins in 2017, yet the fact that they were all reverse grid races takes a huge shine off of them. Of them all, his performance at Spa was a masterstroke – holding a quick pace out front, while maintaining enough tyre life to keep Russell at bay was wonderful to watch, but when these successes come about due to indifferent performances in qualifying and Race 1, then it is somewhat less impressive.
Boccolacci moved to GP3 having stepped back from F3 to Formula Renault 2.0 litres in 2016 and one wonders how much the French teen is taking in. The Trident racer may have won the reverse grid finale in Abu Dhabi in great style and will be remembered for his inspired pass on Aitken through Copse at Silverstone, but in Austria he was lost out when caught napping as the virtual sfaety car ended in Race 1 and then was involved in a supid and violent crash with Lorandi the following morning. His apparent struggles with making the Pirelli’s last often killed his pace three-quarters through Race 1, too often rendering his challenge mute.
Former Pau Grand Prix winner Lorandi, meanwhile, started the season well with three podiums in the opneing three rounds – and then dropped off the face of the earth for the next three meetings. The Italian took a smart reverse grid win at Jerez, only to dullen his reputation with a silly, misjudged collision with Stein Schothorst in Abu Dhabi.
Ryan Tveter (Trident) did well to score three reverse grid podiums to secure 8th in the series, but beyond that rarely looked like escaping the midfield mire, while Arjun Maini (Jenzer) scored a well crafted reverse grid win in Barcelona and then settled into the role of consistent low-points scorer until a late podium elevated his position somewhat. It is quite incredible that Maini didn’t get a black and orange flag at Monza when his rear wing was collapsing and spewing debris for several laps – how Maini did not pit of his own accord is beyond me.
It is difficult to class Niko Kari’s season. From a dire start to mid-season consistency to becoming the only non-ART Grand Prix driver to win a ‘Race 1’ in the season. Amidst this, he misjudged the VSC restart in Silverstone, stupidly took out Dan Ticktum in Jerez Race 2, before doing the same to teammate Schothorst in Abu Dhabi. His sole defensive ability and knowledge amounts to violently chopping across the front of rivals at the circuit, including squeezing a competitor off the road on the Kemmel Straight. Kari has speed, but he is also an accident waiting to happen and it was no surprise that Red Bull cut their ties with him.
Ticktum did very well in his few short appearances and in Abu Dhabi became DAMS sole podium scorer, despite a penalty. Kevin Jörg took a nice reverse grid podium at Silverstone, but rarely troubled the siginificant positions beyond that, while Raoul Hyman’s reverse grid win at the Red Bull Ring was a single high-point in what was a poor season for the South African.
Leo Pulcini drove superbly to take a podium in the opener in Barcelona, but then scored no points for the rest of the season, apart from two for setting the fastest lap in Hungary. The Italian was so unfortunate to lose 3rd place in Abu Dhabi Race 1 through a puncture, but other than that, the only time his presence was noted was when he crashed over and onto the top of Lorandi at Monza.
Beyond Pulcini, many of the remaining full-season entries were utterly anonymous. Bruno Baptista gets desperate when things aren’t going his way and his two accidents with DAMS teammate Tatiana Calderon at Spa and Abu Dhabi could have easily avoided by both. Amidst this, Baptista was lucky not to seriously injure his back when airborne at Red Bull Ring; had a wheel-to-wheel banging session with Kari at Silverstone, while his unwillingness to give places back to Maini and Kari after skipping a chicane in Abu Dhabi was dimwitted. Calderon had a pretty awful year, although the nadir came at both the Silverstone and Spa weekends.
Santino Ferrucci gave up the DAMS ghost after three meetings and moved (prematurely) to Formula 2, with Matthieu Vaxivière and Ticktum filling his seat.
Lastly, the inability of large portions of the field to handle racing at Monza was utterly shameful. For their petulant efforts Kari, Marcos Siebert and Schothorst should probably think about new careers after their respective performances in that round, while Juan Manuel Correa should have had his racing licence ripped up on the spot.