Now in his third year in the Formula 3 Euroseries, the pressure is on for Daniel Juncadella to deliver the title. The consummate Spaniard has the right mix of experience and speed, the right backing and has the best possible equipment run by Prema Powerteam with which to get the job done and currently leads the standings, despite a run of bad form which has masked his true pace.
At the Norisring, Juncadella was disqualified for incidents with Pascal Wehrlein and team-mate Raffaele Marciello, leaving him at the back of the 28 car grid for Race 2. Despite being engulfed in traffic for the entire race, the 21 year old set the second fastest lap-time and finished 11th, just 14 seconds off leader Harry Tincknell. This storming drive through the field – in contrast to Marciello, who made little progress from the back and finished 17th – underlines Juncadella's fighting spirit: nothing is a lost cause. When placed in the grand scheme of things, this attitude will stand him in good stead on the slippery slope to Formula 1 stardom.
For a youngster with the world before him, Juncadella's head is refreshingly screwed-on, a fact clearly demonstrated by his calculated risk to remain in F3 – with a chance at the title – rather than succumb to expectation and make the leap to GP2 before he was fully prepared, as many before him have done.
“My decision was really between GP2, World Series and maybe DTM if I had the chance,” Juncadella said. “I think overall doing F3 again was the right decision because Mercedes is supporting me here, and they are really pushing for this.
“I think this is a good chance for me for the future, because to reach F1 you always need the money, the big sponsors – which is what I have – but for the near future, being in GP2 and all these championships where you pay millions of Euros for one season is a bit crazy.”
Juncadella came into the season with the heavy weight of expectation hanging over his shoulders. After becoming the first Spaniard to win the historic Macau GP, beating season-long rivals Roberto Merhi and Marco Wittman, as well as British champion Felipe Nasr and GP3 champion Valtteri Bottas, anything less than success would be considered as failure.
“I really don't think about it too much,” Juncadella says dismissively of the favourite tag. “I think it's better to put pressure on yourself. But actually being the favourite is quite hard because although at the moment I am leading, the others are really close.
“We are really competitive, but still haven't managed to get a good gap in the championship. But its not something that you should let drive you crazy: at the moment I am thinking 'I could have a bigger gap' but it is how it is.”
An additional challenge facing Juncadella this year was the introduction of a new Dallara chassis for 2012, which despite its initial problems, Juncadella has quickly become accustomed to.
“I struggled a little bit in the beginning with the new car. There is a lot more weight, especially over the rear. The car is a bit harder this year: the Hankooks weigh around 8 kilos more than the Kumhos, so it's very different to drive. I got used to the old car for two years, but it's still the same category.
“It actually grips much better,” he continued. “The speed in a straight line is slower, because there is more aerodynamics and more drag, but the car in the corners is really, really quick!”
The Macau victory was a huge boost to Juncadella's confidence coming into 2012, and has significantly helped his profile. Even so, nothing would mean more to Juncadella than wrapping up the Euroseries title and delivering on his promising junior category record.
“Actually to be known a bit more in Spain was nice but in terms of my future it didn't really do much, because having won Macau I'm still in F3!” Juncadella smiled. “It sounds a bit like what [Edoardo] Mortara did. I hope it doesn't mean my doors to Formula 1 are closed, I don't think so anyway! Especially for myself, I think winning this race was a good thing because, everyone knows it and everyone wants to win there.”
“You know, Merhi had been there several times and he really wanted to win. Before the weekend he told me 'I win or nothing'. So beating him is nice! Also, Nasr was my team-mate in Formula BMW years ago and he beat me in the championship, so it was a nice payback!”
Macau being a non-championship race, Juncadella is “not completely sure, maybe 90%” certain of going back to defend his title, as Mortara did. For the Italian, the considerable risk paid off as he landed a seat with Audi in the DTM, a series Juncadella hopes to join next year.
“A good programme for me would be as a DTM driver and Formula 1 test driver,” the Spaniard said. “That's a good chance for the future because not only racing in the DTM but testing Formula 1 for a competitive team would be really interesting for me and that would give me good options for the future.
However Juncadella knows that this will be largely dependant on his results.
“Not winning the championship would be a failureâ€¦ well actually not winning the championship would be a complete failure,” he laughs. “So I have to get it done.”
In recent weeks, Juncadella's challenge has faltered slightly. After a near-perfect opening round at Hockenheim with a double victory, since then Juncadella has found the top step of the podium only once. Some problems have been of his own making, such as the penalty in Race 3 at Brands Hatch applied for positioning his car narrowly over his grid slot, which cost him a certain win, while his sheepish acceptance of being disqualified from the opening race at the Norisring told of a man fully expecting to be stripped of his on-the-road win. But as is common in racing, many have simply been the result of plain bad luck, Juncadella suffering clutch problems on several occasions and becoming one of many to be penalised in Austria for improving a split-time under yellow flags, despite lifting off.
Juncadella was even willing to accept a portion of the blame for being harpooned by an optimistic Wehrlein on the streets of Pau. Such refreshing honesty will only serve him well in future.
“I think he shouldn't have been overtaking there. But I also left a space for him, so that was a bit of a mistake from myself. I tried to give him some space but he just couldn't turn, hit the curb and it stayed there. But the first initial mistake was mine in leaving him a gap,” he said humbly. “Being a rookie and a really aggressive driver I should have thought that he would go for the gap.
“You have to deal with it in the best way possible because you can become a bit crazy.”
As a result, Marciello now leads the F3 International Trophy, which discounts Race 2 of every Euroseries weekend. Speaking to The Checkered Flag back in May, Juncadella was full of praise for his young team-mate, but had no idea of the threat he was to become.
“I think he is really strong now and he is feeling really good,” Juncadella said of the Ferrari Academy driver. “He is confident and strong, but my main rivals this year I've always thought have been [Felix] Rosenqvist and [Carlos] Sainz. So to have the quickest or second quickest guy inside the team is great because we can compare data and everything. For sure when the fight just stays within the team, it's much better.”
“When your main rivals are not scoring good results it's better for you,” he added, referring to the tough weekends being endured by both Rosenqvist and Sainz. “[Marciello] is not my biggest rival of the year, although I think maybe now he is, but he was not at first!”
Before the Norisring, the closest the team-mates had come to making contact was off the start-line at Brands Hatch. Juncadella had won pole for Race 1, but got a poor start, which allowed Marciello to pull alongside. The Italian then launched an audacious, yet successful pass around the outside of Paddock Hill Bend, a move which rarely pays dividends unless the driver on the inside is willing to concede the position.
“I've learned a lot in these two years, and some drivers – like Merhi – would have probably crashed there in my position because he wouldn't have accepted loosing the place. For me, I am fair. [Marciello] made a better start.
“We cannot crash because we are team-mates, so we need to bring the cars back, bring points,” Juncadella said, with a touch of irony.
The Zandvoort F3 Masters invitational race on July 15th is one that Juncadella is eager to win, as it represents the one of few notable gaps in his stellar F3 repertoire. Having qualified on the front row last year, the Spaniard was squeezed into the wall by fellow-countryman Merhi, allowing Felix Rosenqvist to steal an unlikely victory. Having missed out on success atPau, the personal importance of Zandvoort, one of the marquee events on the F3 calendar, for Juncadella has only been elevated further.
“This year, my biggest event which I was really looking forward to was Pau, which was a bit of a shame. Now I'm really looking forward to Zandvoort for the Masters – I really want to win that race! Then Macau.
“Maybe I need to stay calm, because the first really great event was Pau and I didn't manage to get a good result.”