When it was announced at the start of the year Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc would be joining ART Grand Prix for the 2016 GP3 Series many thought straight away he would be the one to beat. They were not proved wrong.
The route to his GP3 crown saw Leclerc take three victories over the season, less than second placed man in the championship Alexander Albon who ended the season with four victories, but by making more appearances on the podium and being in the points more often than the Thai driver Leclerc done enough to be champion by 25 points.
ART were once again the team to beat in the Series as they won the Teams’ title for the sixth time out of seven seasons and won their fourth Drivers’ championship since the inaugural season back in 2010.
A Champion’s Drive
Prior to the start of the season Leclerc was announced as part of the Ferrari Drivers Academy along with fellow GP3 drivers Giuliano Alesi and Antonio Fuoco, and that he would take part in a number of Formula One practice sessions for Haas. In addition to this, the Monegasque driver took part in the F1 test at Silverstone for Scuderia Ferrari.
Leclerc’s dedication to this championship was best demonstrated when he decided not to take part in the FP1 session at Yas Marina to focus on his title chase.
The ART driver started the season off in the best possible way by dominating the opening race at Barcelona to take the victory by over six seconds. He carried this form over into the second round in Spielberg where he took his maiden pole position and victory once again in the Feature Race. Leclerc then remained winless until after the summer break at Spa-Francorchamps but by finishing in the top six in every race, except the Sprint Race at Austria where he had to retire, kept him very much in title contention.
Despite winning the title before the last race of the year, it possibly was not in the manner he would have liked. Having had a 25 point advantage at the start of the Feature Race at Abu Dhabi, the ART-man’s closest rival was that of his team-mate Albon – who whilst battling for the lead with Jack Aitken ran over a kerb and made contact with the Brit. Ending his race and his title chances. Leclerc himself then retired after contact from Santino Ferrucci but his advantage was insurmountable and thus he was crowned champion.
Speaking to GP3Series.com the newly named champion commented: “They told me that Alex had crashed. I tried to stay calm and not yell “Yeah!” which was hard as well.
“Then they told me that I was champion no matter what so I was allowed to take risks to try and finish on the podium. I would have never taken that risk had Alex still been in the race. But since I knew I was already champion I decided to go for it.
“Ferrucci didn’t really leave me enough space on the outside which I don’t really understand to be honest, but it’s what it is. We finished in the wall which is a shame, but we have achieved the most important thing today: we grabbed the title.”
The champion has already confirmed that he will be competing in the GP3 Series’ sister category the GP2 Series in 2017 for PREMA with third placed man in the championship Fuoco stepping up as well to be his team-mate.
The Chasing Pack
In what was another very competitive year for GP3, that saw nine different drivers take to the top step of the rostrum (Leclerc, Albon, Fuoco, Jake Dennis, Aitken, Nyck de Vries, Jake Hughes, Matt Parry and Ralph Boschung) and a further five to have podium finishes (Nirei Fukuzumi, Arjun Maini, Ferrucci, Alex Palou and Oscar Tunjo) and 22 of the 27 that competed in the Series scored points.
Fukuzumi ended the season as the highest placed driver without a win, in seventh place ahead of three drivers who did take victory during the season – this clearly demonstrates the level of superiority that has been held by ART since the Series was founded.
All four of the ART drivers featured in the top 10 of the standings after the final race, and the team ended the season 291 points ahead of their nearest rival – Arden International – further demonstrating the dominate force which is the French team. Furthermore, it shows the grid was not just trying to catch Leclerc but the rampant ART in general.
Series newcomers DAMS ended the year fourth in the Teams’ standings with two victories and one pole position courtesy of Hughes. Many had high hopes for the French outfit due to their historic success in every Series that they have competed in since their establishment in 1988.
Tatiana Calderon ended the year with the most points for a female driver in the short history of the Series – having taken two tenth places meaning she had two points to her name. Although Calderon’s best finish was actually ninth in the Hockenheimring Sprint Race, points are only awarded to the top eight finishers.
De Vries and Aitken were the only drivers that saw the chequered flag at every race of the year – however, Palou is classified as finishing every race but did not take the finish in all of them.
Leclerc also held an advantage over the others when it came to qualifying. Over the course of the year the Monegasque driver claimed four of the nine pole positions on offer with: three going to Albon, one to de Vries and one to Hughes. These four bonus points for pole are often decisive in the title hunt. Leclerc also took the two bonus points for fastest lap on four occasions, these too have been decisive in the final championship standings in the past.
Though this does raise the question of whether these bonus points should be scrapped so that do not play such an involved role in the championship standings.
What Next for GP3?
As the Series heads into its second season of the GP3/16 cars teams will have a better understanding of how the cars work and also the best way in which to set them up. In addition the Series will be introducing the Drag Reduction System (DRS) which is seen in GP2 and F1 to bring the technology more in line with the Series’ above it to ease progression and also to improve overtaking.
ART will be looking to claim their seventh Teams’ title in the Series, post-season testing was a positive start for the team as they lead two of the three days testing with Fukuzumi and George Russell and Alessio Lorandi was on top on the second day for Jenzer Motorsport.
Along with Leclerc and Fuoco, Palou, Albon, Mahaveer Raghunathan and de Vries all took part in the end of season test for GP2 as they all aim to make the step up into the F1 feeder series – with Albon topping the timings at the end of the second day.
Leclerc’s step up as champion is made easier as a result of Pirelli gifting the winner of the GP3 Series 200,000€ to go towards a seat in GP2.
This means that a number of drivers will be able to join the Series as GP3 hopes to boost yet another strong and competitive field in 2017.