As the 2011 F3 Euroseries circus arrived in Valencia there was only one question on everyone’s lips: could Roberto Merhi clinch the 2011 title at his only home race, and with 1 meeting to spare?
Merhi boosted his cause by claiming pole position for Race 3, though the young Spaniard was admittedly disappointed to have lost a potential double pole position to Dutch rival Nigel Melker. The news was far from bad for Merhi though, as main championship rival Marco Wittmann could only manage 5th and 6th on the grid for Races 1 and 3 – with his closest rival on the backfoot and only 16 points required for Merhi to clinch the 2011 crown, Roberto was firmly in the driving seat.
Race 1 – Round 22
Pole-sitter Melker led away well off the start-line, with Merhi and MÃ¼cke Motorsport team-mate Felix Rosenqvist in tow. A reserved opening lap from Merhi saw the Spaniard settle behind Rosenqvist, whilst Melker pulled away at the front.
The Dutchman couldn’t be matched throughout, and eased off in the final laps to cross the line 0.7s ahead of his team-mate, with Merhi another second down the road. Fellow Spaniard Daniel Juncadella finished 4th ahead of Carlos Munoz, whilst Wittmann did little to stifle Merhi’s championship bid by finishing where he started – 6th.
3rd place earned Merhi 15 points, but with Wittmann’s tepid result his points target was now down to 12 from the remaining 2 races of the weekend.
Race 2 – Round 23
With the top 8 reversed for the 2nd race, pole position was handed to MotoPark’s Kimiya Sato with Gianmarco Raimondo alongside on the front row. Wittmann lined up in 3rd, but wasted no time in snatching the lead after an electric start from the 2nd row. Wittmann overhauled Sato on the outside of Turn 1 and never looked back, steadily gapping the Japanese driver in the opening laps.
Merhi quickly fought his way through the field from 6th before finding himself on Juncadella’s gearbox – his team-mate having climbed up to 3rd. The twisting Ricardo Tormo circuit offered few opportunities to pass, as Merhi was soon to discover. As time ran out and Merhi’s patience worn thin, a move into Turn 7 saw contact between the pair with Merhi coming off 2nd best – a trip through the gravel dropped him back to 6th behind Raimondo and Rosenqvist.
Rosenqvist also gave stiff resistance to Merhi, as the current F3 Masters winner held off the champion elect in an increasingly exciting tussle for 5th. Rosenqvist made his own efforts to pass 4th placed Raimondo, but an aborted effort allowed Merhi alongside. The pair ran side-by-side for the best part of 3 corners before the Swede came out on top, with Merhi showing no interest in simply picking up points for his championship cause. Rosenqvist’s work was quickly undone however, as the Swede ran wide only a few laps later, allowing Merhi into 5th.
At the front meanwhile, Wittmann wound down his pace to finish 6 seconds ahead of Sato and Juncadella and kept his slim championship prospects alive in the process. Raimondo just pipped Merhi to 4th place, with Rosenqvist in 6th followed by Munoz, Melker, Jimmy Eriksson and Daniel Abt.
With another points finish, albeit a clumsy one, Merhi only needed to place 5th or higher in the 3rd and final race of the weekend to claim the 2011 crown, and with the Spaniard on pole for Round 24, he couldn’t have been better placed.
Race 3 – Round 24
With one final chance to take the championship in front of his home crowd, and to be the 1st Spaniard to ever claim the F3 Euroseries title, the pressure didn’t appear to be an issue for the pole-sitter as a clean and controlled getaway saw Merhi keep his lead from Melker and Rosenqvist.
Further behind, Juncadella enjoyed a searing opening lap from 4th on the grid, as the Prema runner dispatched Rosenqvist around the outside and then Melker in a matter of a few corners. He could do little against Merhi though, who eased away from the pack to establish a dominant lead.
Wittmann meanwhile, couldn’t make any ground from 5th place and eventually found himself losing touch with the leading quartet. Melker found some added pace in the final phase of the race though, harrying Juncadella for several laps, but couldn’t find a way through and was forced to settle for 3rd.
After what must have been the longest 40 minutes of Merhi’s racing career so far, he finally saw the chequered flag 17 seconds ahead of Juncadella, Melker and Rosenqvist respectively. It was a victory familiar to his rivals all season – disappearing from the front without a single glance over his shoulder.
Wittmann finished where he started, a disconsolate 5th ahead of Laurens Vanthoor and Daniel Abt. Gianmarco finished 8th from Sato with Munoz rounding out the final Valencia top 10.
With his 9th victory of the season, Merhi collected more than enough points to seal the title, now with a insurmountable 92 point lead with only 60 left on the table.
An elated Merhi said afterwards: “I am really happy having wrapped up the title in my home race at Valencia and with a victory on top of that. This is a very important step in my career and together with my title in the FIA Formula 3 International Trophy, it has been a fantastic year for me. In today’s race, I was particularly nervous in the last couple of laps, although I was undisputedly in the lead.”
His rivals also gave their congratulations: “Congratulations to Roberto for having won the title, he has absolutely deserved it.” said Juncadella. “I am very happy with second place in this race, that was all I could do today.”
Melker added: “Roberto has always been quick and he only has made very few mistakes. Therefore, he has deserved the title.”
Though the championship was sealed, the scrap for championship runner-up became closer still thanks to an average weekend for Wittmann – who is now tied on points with Juncadella for 2nd place overall. Melker has gained ground on the pair but is still 35 points adrift, though with 60 points up for grabs the order can still change at the season finale in Hockenheim in 3 weeks’ time.
The final 3 rounds of the 2011 F3 Euroseries season will take place on 21-23 October at Germany’s Hockenheimring.