Nineteen-year-old Esteban Ocon overcame the serious challenge set out by Luca Ghiotto to win the 2015 GP3 Series title, his second championship in two years.
Ocon only led the championship twice throughout the year: at the end of the first race weekend of the season in Spain, and after the final race in Abu Dhabi, with the gap to Ghiotto at times looking insurmountable for the young Frenchman.
Down to level of tremendous consistency showcased by former Lotus F1 Team test driver Ocon, it is easy to forget that the ART Grand Prix driver only actually won one race the entire season – the opening race in Spain.
However, he was denied victory on two additional occasions due to time penalties – in Spa-Francorchamps, for exceeding the Virtual Safety Car speed limit, and in Abu Dhabi, for leaving the track on the opening lap and appearing to gain an advantage.
The key to Ocon winning the title was the run of nine straight second place finishes which started with the Silverstone Sprint Race and ended with the Sochi Sprint Race.
Over the course of the 2015 season, eight different drivers saw the chequered flag first, including rookies Ocon, Oscar Tunjo and Alex Palou, with series returnees Ghiotto and Kevin Ceccon making their first appearances on the top step of the rostrum. Marvin Kirchhöfer, Emil Bernstorff and Jimmy Eriksson all returned to the top step following victories in 2014.
Although, the entire season was not just about the titanic battle between Ghiotto and Ocon, the battle for the third spot in the championship was closely fought out by Kirchhöfer and Bernstorff with the former ultimately coming out on top in that battle.
Having been added to the Mercedes junior programme at the start of this year following winning the FIA European Formula 3 Championship title last year, Ocon started the year in the best way possible by taking the first win of the season with rival Ghiotto alongside him in second place after starting from pole position, with the podium being completed by Bernstorff.
All eyes were upon Kirchhöfer in the Sprint Race, who made a lighting get away from fourth on the grid to find himself in second place, before easily getting past reverse grid pole-sitter Antonio Fuoco. The Italian driver made an error causing him to run wide, which allowed Kirchhöfer to pass and take the victory. Ocon and Ghiotto both had pretty anonymous races and took the chequered flag down in seventh and eighth respectively.
It was Ghiotto’s time to shine in the second round at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, by taking pole position, Feature Race victory and the fastest lap. The Italian had originally lost the lead of the race to Ocon going into turn one but a less than stellar safety car restart from the Frenchman saw Ghiotto claw Ocon back in before passing him on lap six and disappearing down the road.
It did not get any better from there for Ocon when was then passed by his former European Formula 3 team-mate Fuoco, who had gone from sixth to second in five laps, and resigned the Frenchman to the third place on the podium.
If Ocon held any hopes of the Sprint Race being any better for him were swiftly dashed as he was eventually disqualified due to a technical infringement, which meant he lost the vital points that came with finishing in third place.
Although, there was delight for some as Tunjo claimed his maiden victory for Trident after making a brilliant restart after a safety car period, which had been caused by Fuoco losing his car under braking and going into the back of Carlin team-mate Jann Mardenborough.
It was Kirchhöfer’s time to take victory once again in race one at Silverstone, having started from pole position to come home with rival for third in the championship Bernstorff in second place, with Matt Parry third to take his maiden podium for Koiranen GP.
It was not all plain sailing for Kirchhöfer though, as Bernstorff set about closing the gap to the leader by recording fastest lap after fastest lap to get the gap down to 0.2s on the penultimate lap, but the German was able to hang on despite a serious lack of grip to take the victory.
The Silverstone Sprint race victory went to Ceccon as he took his maiden series victory, withstanding pressure from Ocon in the opening stages before the Italian took victory by 1.5s. This race was also a turning point in the championship challenge for Ocon as it was where he started his mighty run of nine consecutive second place finishes.
There was no such luck for Ghiotto however, after making a poor get away from fifth on the grid the Trident driver had to fight his way back through the pack ultimately finished in seventh place and what was most important for Ghiotto, he maintained the championship lead.
As GP3 headed to Hungary it was with heavy hearts following the passing of Jules Bianchi the week before, with an emotional weekend in store for the drivers as many of them saw Bianchi as a friend and someone to look up to.
With thoughts of what happened to someone so near and dear pushed aside, the drivers took to the track with Ghiotto taking maximum points from the Feature Race by taking pole position, the win and the fastest lap as he held off the challenge from Ocon, which was halted when the safety car was brought out following an incident between Zaid Ashkanani and Mardenborough.
As the race restarted Ghiotto was able to hold on to the lead and set about building a gap over Ocon, which he did with ease.
On the Sunday, Ceccon claimed his second consecutive Sprint Race victory as he saw off the challenge from the ever-present Ocon. At the midway point of the race held a 1.2s advantage over Ocon, and the entire top five covered by 3.4s, although in the closing stages the gap did close but Ceccon responded by posting the fastest lap, although this was soon snatched away by Ocon who crossed the line a mere 0.7s behind.
At the return to racing following the summer break, Ghiotto took pole at Spa-Francorchamps as he did twelve months before, but just like the year before the Italian was not able to make the most of it and following contact with Ceccon, which the stewards deemed Ghiotto’s fault, a five second time penalty was imposed to his final time that meant his third place became sixth.
Despite it looking all looking well and good for Ocon out front, it did not end that way. Having crossed the line in what was the second win of his GP3 career, Ocon was later found to have breached the Virtual Safety Car speed limit at turns 15 and 16.
The stewards found that the ART Grand Prix driver had exceed the VSC speed limit before the green lights were shown and as a result, the Frenchman was handed a five-second penalty that demoted him to second place, with the victory ultimately being handed to Bernstorff.
Bernstorff then had in a flip of fortune with an early retirement from the Sprint Race as he brought his car into the pit lane with a broken suspension following contact with another driver.
After a disappointing Saturday, Ghiotto and Ocon were both looking to have a more positive race. Ghiotto produced a stunning performance to take victory from fourth on the grid and had to do it the hard way by being made to pass his title rivals.
The Italian passed Alfonso Celis Jr for third after a super restart that was brought about after Aleksander Bosak ran wide with a sudden front-right puncture that ended his race in the barrier at Blanchimont.
A loose wheel from his Arden International machine made contact with Parry’s car, luckily both drivers were able to walk away unharmed but the safety car was called upon to allow the two cars to be removed.
Soon after the safety car was called upon again following an incident between Kirchhöfer and Fuoco: the German had tried to pass the Italian but contact was made, Fuoco spun in front of the remainder of the field and was then collected again by the ART Grand Prix driver who was unable to avoid him.
Once all the debris had been removed and racing was back underway, Ghiotto made a bold move to get past Ocon to hunt down race leader Palou, who the Italian passed just one lap later and managed to stretch out a small lead.
Ocon quickly made his move on Palou to retake second place and set off to hunt down Ghiotto but fell 0.8s short.
In Monza it seemed as though it was all going Ghiotto’s way, after he took pole position by over a second, but the Italian stalled on the grid and the Trident car was unable to get going again and was rolled into the pit lane as an early retirement. This allowed Ocon to come through and lead for the majority of the race.
Bernstorff managed to fight his way up and all it took was a spectacular move on the outside of Ocon on the penultimate lap to secure to Brit a brilliant victory.
Kirchhöfer claimed his third win of the season in the Sprint Race after Koiranen GP‘s Eriksson, who had led almost the entire race, suffered technical gremlins on the penultimate lap of the race.
Eriksson’s retirement elevated Ocon to his customary second place, with Ghiotto finishing third despite starting down in nineteenth – damage limitation had been the main aim for the Italian, but he drove superbly to claim the podium finish.
Ghiotto was back on top in Russia, despite a difficult qualifying which saw him start the Feature Race down in sixth place, with the Italian making an unbelievable start to be in second place by turn one and quickly on the tail of Ocon, who had to concede the lead of the race at turn 13. A series of rapid laps by Ghiotto saw him get out of the clutches of Ocon, who even ran wide at one point in his attempts to close the gap.
Eriksson returned to the top step of the podium in the second race of the weekend, as he led a calm and confident race to the flag – which was much needed after the events of Monza. Once again Ocon was in second, with Mardenborough completing the podium.
Ghiotto had a difficult race which included being forced out wide over the kerbs and subsequently lost three places and found himself out of the points. He managed to recover some ground and on the final lap overtook Palou for the final points scoring position.
In the desert of Bahrain Kirchhöfer took his fourth win of the season, and his victory, coupled with both of his team-mates finishing inside the top eight, was enough to seal the GP3 Teams’ Championship for ART Grand Prix for the fifth time in six seasons.
Bernstorff brought an end to Ocon’s nine race consecutive races in which he finished in second place when he passed the Frenchman for position, restricting him to third just ahead of Ghiotto.
In the Sprint Race, Ghiotto once again demonstrated his talent by taking a commanding victory from fourth on grid – after the championship swung in favour of Ocon following the Feature Race to bring it back to his side. He took victory by a comfortable two-second margin over Ocon to take the title down to the wire in Abu Dhabi.
It was business as usual for Ocon who found himself in his familiar second place, with Parry completing the podium.
As the final Feature Race of the season had come to a close it seemed as though it had been all been plain sailing for Ocon who had led from start from finish, but the Frenchman had been given a five-second time penalty for exceeding track limits and gaining an unfair advantage on the opening lap. This dropped him to fourth as a result, one place ahead of Ghiotto.
Ghiotto had been pushing to try and close the gap to the leading pack out front, however he kept running off track, which meant to lost time and was warned about the possibility of being penalised himself.
In the Sprint Race Palou won the race in a dominant fashion, not only to take his but also Campos Racing‘s first ever GP3 victory by a margin of 4.429s ahead of Fuoco, however all eyes were on the title contenders Ocon and Ghiotto.
Ghiotto knew that a win was a must if Ocon was to finish on the podium, however the battle was probably over rather quickly as after another lighting get away from Ocon he found himself sandwiched between Ghiotto and Parry, making light contact with both.
Ghiotto could not keep up with the pace that Ocon had ahead of him and eventually finished in fourth place with Ocon becoming the series champion ahead of him in third.
Ocon ended the hard fought season as champion with 253 points to Ghiotto’s 245, while Kirchhöfer edged out Bernstorff for third in the championship by just six points (200 points to 194). Ocon’s level of consistency is most apparent, as he becomes the first driver to win the title by winning just the one race.
ART Grand Prix undisputedly dominated the Constructors’ title, outscoring their nearest rivals Trident by a momentous 195 points to take their fifth title in the sixth season of the series.