European single-seater championships quite often see one driver lead the way all season long. Or maybe there will be two or three drivers battling it out for the title during the course of the year.
But the second season of the GP3 Series was something quite different.
From 16 races it saw 12 different victors, with in fact ten different faces on top of the podium after each of the first ten races.
Eventual champion Valtteri Bottas hadn't won a race at the half way mark, in fact he had just a single podium finish from the first eight races. He was tenth in the standings, with just 12 points compared to leader Alexander Sims' 29.
However, the fifth meeting of the year at the Nurburgring sparked a run of five podium finishes for the Finn. His victory in the first race at the season finale in Monza was fourth in the space of six races – and it was enough for him to wrap up the title.
In the same amount of time that Bottas had accumulated 50 points to bring his total up from 12 to 62 points, Sims managed to pick up just five.
It was a season where the sheer competitiveness of the grid and the level playing field between so many of teams almost prevented anyone from getting a run of consistently good results together. In the end though, Bottas would manage to do so in fine style.
As would be expected for a series of its nature, pre-season saw a number of drivers leaving the series and a number of drivers joining in. Of the 30 drivers on the grid for the season opener in Turkey, 11 were staying on for a second full season in the category. Amongst these were Nico Muller, Rio Haryanto, Dean Smith, Adrian Quaife-Hobbs and Nigel Melker.
Of the 20 newcomers, nine made the switch from Formula 3. Euro Series converts Bottas, Sims and Antonio Felix da Costa looked like the favourites, but were also joined by British F3 runner-up James Calado.
Nine were making the step up from Formula Renault, including McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner Lewis Williamson, who had been quick from the moment he first tested the car in the autumn.
The 30th and final driver was Conor Daly, the Indianapolis-born son of Irish former F1 driver Derek Daly. He made the move across the Atlantic after winning the Star Mazda Championship in the States.
When the season got underway in Istanbul it was GP3 rookies that locked-out the front two rows in qualifying, with German F3 champion Tom Dillmann on pole for Carlin ahead of the British duo of Sims and Williamson, with Italian F3 graduate Andrea Caldarelli in fourth.
The winner of the first race would be neither of those however. Sims and Williamson both received grid penalties, with second-year driver Melker benefiting to come through from third on the grid to lead by the end of the first lap – going on to take his maiden GP3 victory just six tenths ahead of Caldarelli.
Sims finished in eighth despite his penalty for using more of the track than he was allowed to on his fastest qualifying lap. This result gave him pole for the second race courtesy of the reverse grid, and the Peterborough-based racer duly converted that into victory. Another podium finish for Melker in third place ensured that he arrived for Round 2 in Barcelona at the head of the standings.
Barcelona would all be about the discovery of a new young talent from New Zealand – as 16-year-old Mitch Evans, a protÃ©gÃ© of Mark Webber, scooped pole position and then a race win at only his second European race meeting. He would leave the weekend third in the standings and just five points behind Melker. Sims meanwhile failed to complete a single racing lap of the Circuit de Catalunya, after being involved in opening lap crashes in both races. The Sunday morning race win went to Hungarian Tamas Pal Kiss from pole position.
Caldarelli was just two points behind Melker after the opening two rounds, but that would be the end of his season as he took up a drive in Formula Nippon with long-term backer Toyota. And when Melker failed to score any points at round three in Valencia, the door was left open for Evans to take the points lead, with third and fourth place finishes around the harbour venue.
Williamson had taken pole for the Saturday race, but would be beaten off the line and to the victory by another Brit – Quaife-Hobbs of Manor. It was a very good weekend for the British contingent, with Calado claiming his maiden win on Sunday morning ahead of Sims and Bottas.
Silverstone hosted the fourth round, where the first race threw up one of the most interesting scenarios of the season. The British summer decided it wanted to join the race as the cars were on their warmup lap, with the majority of the field opting to dive into the pits for wets. Muller already had wet tyres fitted to his car on the grid, thus effectively inheriting pole position after being set to start sixth.
Quaife-Hobbs and Sims carved their way through the field, with Sims eventually overhauling Quaife-Hobbs and wets-starter Nick Yelloly to finish second. The seven Brits on the grid would in fact fill all of the points positions behind Muller, with Luciano Bacheta fifth ahead of Calado, Williamson and Smith.
Williamson would take his first GP3 win on the Sunday morning, leading home compatriots Smith and Sims in front of the British Grand Prix crowd. A poor weekend for Evans saw Sims inherit the points lead.
Next it was onto the Nurburgring, with the predictably-unpredictable Eifel weather serving up the most exciting of finishes to the Saturday race. Williamson had inherited the race lead after teammate Evans was penalised for not having his tyres fitted early enough before the race. He looked set to win until the rain started coming down with a few laps to go.
The Scot was quickly caught by Haryanto, who then took the lead. The lead changed hands a couple of times between the duo within the space of a few corners, before Williamson was caught and passed by Bottas. Williamson would regain second again before the checkered flag, but couldn't catch Haryanto.
Sunday's race was another wet one, but this didn't stop Bottas from storming through from sixth on the grid to take the lead of the race on the opening lap. The Finn was later chased down by Sims, but maintained his lead to score his first win of the year.
Bottas continued in Hungary where he left off in Germany, taking a lights-to-flag victory in the first race from pole position, keeping Michael Christensen at bay to become the first two-time winner of 2011. Quaife-Hobbs and Sims finished third and fourth, but the latter would lose his points lead to Bottas after the race when he was excluded for a technical infringement.
On Sunday Haryanto repeated his performance from the Nurburgring, again in wet conditions. Starting from ninth he fought his way up to second, and then benefited from a late safety car that wiped out Melker's race-long lead. After the restart he duly took the lead, with Bottas and Calado also following him through before the flag to complete the podium.
Arriving at the penultimate race weekend of the year at Spa the title race was still wide open, with seven drivers covered by 13 points – even if leader Bottas was the form man. He would make life harder for the rest of them in Race 1 however, passing Calado for the lead at the start and taking a commanding win.
Race 2 saw Richie Stanaway, making his GP3 debut alongside Bottas and Calado at ART, start from pole – and the promising young Kiwi promptly delivered his maiden win with an assured performance. Calado made his way through to second to leave him just five points behind Bottas (who finished down in 19th with mechanical gremlins) going into the season finale at Monza.
The title would be settled in a Race 1 thriller at Monza, where Bottas and Calado started from the third row of the grid. They would fight their way to the front in a classic slipstreaming race, with Bottas keeping Calado at bay to put himself just out of reach in the title battle.
So with the destination of the crown decided, the final race was all about pride. It was perhaps fitting then that it would be won by Felix da Costa, who had failed to live up to his pre-season billing as one of the favourites – with this being his first trip to the podium all year. It was a bad day meanwhile for Bottas and Calado. The champion ran into the back of Daly on the opening lap and received a drive-through, and although Calado crossed the line in second he would be handed a 20 second penalty for knocking Evans out of the lead.
To finish off, here are our top five drivers of the season, in reverse order:
5. Rio Haryanto – Indonesian delivered two stunning performances in the rain at the Nurburgring and Hungaroring, though he will ultimately be disappointed with his sophomore season. Set to move on up to GP2 next year.
4. Mitch Evans – His achievement in Barcelona as a 16-year-old newcomer to European racing was phenomenal. Unfortunately his season fell apart not long afterwards, despite showing good pace on occasions. Likely to return for another shot in 2012, and will begin as the favourite.
3. Lewis Williamson – The Scot's final position of eighth may not look like much on paper, but as a Formula Renault graduate was able to mix it all season long with drivers with prior F3/GP3 experience. FR3.5 awaits in 2012, as an official member of the Red Bull Junior Team.
2. James Calado – Racing Steps Foundation driver didn't necessarily begin the year as one of the favourites due to a lack of continental experience against his rivals, but he impressed with his pace and consistency. Perhaps even more impressive on his GP2 debut in November.
1. Valtteri Bottas – Began the year as the favourite and delivered with the title. Appeared to take a while to adapt from F3 with a lacklustre first half to the year, but was simply sublime in the second half. Looking good for a Williams F1 race seat in 2013.
Final 2011 GP3 Series drivers' standings:
|1||Valtteri Bottas||Lotus ART||62|
|2||James Calado||Lotus ART||55|
|3||Nigel Melker||RSC Mucke Motorsport||38|
|4||Nico Muller||Jenzer Motorsport||36|
|5||Adrian Quaife-Hobbs||Marussia Manor Racing||36|
|6||Alexander Sims||Status Grand Prix||34|
|7||Rio Haryanto||Marussia Manor Racing||31|
|8||Lewis Williamson||MW Arden||31|
|9||Mitch Evans||MW Arden||29|
|10||Andrea Caldarelli||Tech 1 Racing||20|
|11||Michael Christensen||RSC Mucke Motorsport||19|
|12||Dean Smith||Addax Team||18|
|13||Antonio Felix da Costa||Status Grand Prix||16|
|14||Tom Dillmann||Carlin/Addax Team||15|
|15||Aaro Vainio||Tech 1 Racing||12|
|16||Tamas Pal Kiss||Tech 1 Racing||11|
|18||Simon Trummer||MW Arden||9|
|19||Gabby Chaves||Addax Team||8|
|20||Richie Stanaway||Lotus ART||7|
|21||Nick Yelloly||Atech CRS GP||7|
|22||Luciano Bacheta||RSC Mucke Motorsport||4|
|24||Alex Fontana||Jenzer Motorsport||1|
|25||Vittorio Ghirelli||Jenzer Motorsport/Addax Team||0|
|26||Ivan Lukashevich||Status Grand Prix||0|
|27||Maxim Zimin||Jenzer Motorsport||0|
|28||Zoel Amberg||Atech CRS GP||0|
|29||Marlon Stockinger||Atech CRS GP||0|
|31||Matias Laine||Marussia Manor Racing||0|
|32||Pedro Nunes||Lotus ART||0|
|34||Thomas Hylkema||Tech 1 Racing||0|
|35||Daniel Mancinelli||RSC Mucke Motorsport||0|
|36||Christophe Hurni||Jenzer Motorsport||0|
|37||Dominic Storey||Addax Team||0|