F3 Spa preview: can anyone stop Hauger’s runaway title challenge?

After taking several weeks off over the summer break, the 2021 Formula 3 season is back this weekend, with another trio of races around the Circuit Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.

There are only three rounds left to go this season — at Spa, Zandvoort and the Circuit of the Americas — and at this point it’s hard to imagine anyone toppling Prema’s Dennis Hauger from the position of title favourite.

Hauger took his third win of the season in the Hungaroring feature race before the summer break and earned himself a 63-point lead over Trident’s Jack Doohan in the standings. That means that Hauger will leave Spa still at the top of the table, unless he fails to score a single point and Doohan performs a clean sweep of wins, fastest laps and pole position in all three races this weekend.

But although Hauger has become something of a runaway train, the positions behind him in the standings are still in flux. Doohan is second for now on 89 points, but Prema’s Olli Caldwell and ART’s Frederik Vesti are within just nine points of the Trident, with all three drivers having shown great pace throughout the season so far.

Doohan will be one to watch at Spa, as it was there that he recorded one of the best results of his debut season last year. But Vesti also has fond memories of the circuit, having finished on the podium in last year’s sprint race while driving for Prema.

The midpack is as tight as ever

Alex Smolyar (Dan Istitene, Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images / FIA F3)

Behind the top four in the championship, there are two incredibly fierce battles brewing in the final positions of the top ten. The first is between Aleksandr Smolyar (P5), Clement Novalak (P6) and Victor Martins (P7), who are only separated by seven points.

Smolyar arguably should be in the mix with those ahead of him in the standings, given that he’s won two races this year compared to one each for Doohan, Caldwell and Vesti. But despite scoring points in most races — including two fourth places — Smolyar hasn’t stood on the podium since his second win at Paul Ricard in Round 2. That’s something he’ll need to change if he’s going to break away and join what’s realistically the fight to be this year’s vice-champion.

With Novalak and Martins, their goal for the latter half of the season is straightforward: win races. They’re currently the highest-placed drivers in the championship yet to record a victory. In Novalak’s case, he also hasn’t been on the podium since his second-place finish in the opening round in Barcelona — something not helped by being eliminated from strong positions in two of the Red Bull Ring rounds through no fault of his own.

As for Martins, what felt like an inevitable run to a maiden win after three podiums in the opening two rounds has soured recently. Between the second Red Bull Ring race and the summer break, Martins recorded a run of five races well outside the points. Bouncing back from that in a rookie season is hard, but it’s what he’ll need to do to keep up with the drivers around him.

Clement Novalak, Trident (Eric Alonso, Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images / FIA F3)

The second of the two midfield fights involves Arthur Leclerc, Matteo Nannini and Caio Collet, who are on 44, 42 and 41 points respectively. Nannini catapulted himself into that group by taking his first F3 win in the second race at the Hungaroring. Leclerc, who has a win and a second place but only one other points finish so far this year, will surely be looking over his shoulder in case Nannini’s maiden win turns out to be a breakthrough moment.

And while Collet hasn’t quite been the match of his MP Motorsport and Alpine academy teammate Martins, he’s still been able to get great results — including two podiums — out of his car, and should be just as much a threat to Leclerc and Nannini in the remaining races.

New Charouz lineup, and Frederick to miss Spa

Lastly, the grid will look a little different this weekend for a few reasons. The first is that Charouz Racing System has refreshed its lineup. In place of Enzo Fittipaldi and Reshad de Gerus, the team will run 2020 US F4 champion Hunter Yeany and Euroformula Open driver Zdenek Chovanec in the #30 and #31 cars respectively. They’ll join Logan Sargeant for the remainder of the season.

The second change is that Carlin will only field two cars this weekend, as Kaylen Frederick has tested positive for Covid-19 and will therefore not take part in the event. Given the late timing, Carlin will not replace Frederick for the weekend.

F3 Paul Ricard: Doohan storms to maiden win in wet/ dry feature race

Jack Doohan took his first Formula 3 victory in the Paul Ricard feature race, making the most of the changing conditions to overhaul longtime leader Dennis Hauger.

Doohan had a slow getaway from fourth on the grid and dropped behind Trident teammate Clement Novalak. On the front row, Hauger jumped polesitter Frederik Vesti for the lead into the first corner.

In the opening laps, Novalak looked the fastest car on track. He passed Victor Martins for third on lap 2, then kept up the pressure on second-placed Vesti. The ART driver was visibly struggling on his wet tyres, as Hauger was able to open up a three-second lead by the end of the first lap. But when Novalak made a move on Vesti on lap 6 he instead ran wide and fell to fifth behind Martins and Doohan.

Jack Doohan, Trident (Bryn Lennon, Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images / FIA Formula 3)

By this point the rain had stopped, and as the track started to dry Doohan found pace in the conditions. He passed Martins for third on lap 7, then took second from Vesti on lap 10 when Vesti ran wide through Turn 3.

Doohan then started closing up the gap to Hauger, whose wet tyres were rapidly losing grip on the drying track. By lap 12 Hauger’s lead had been halved, and Doohan was then close enough through lap 14 to try a move into the final corner.

After Doohan took the place in the corner, Hauger repassed him down the straight. They then went into Turn 1 side by side, and Doohan was able to get his Trident back ahead of the Prema and hold the lead on the run down to Turn 3.

Dennis Hauger, Prema (Clive Rose, Getty Images / FIA Formula 3)

Doohan couldn’t sprint clear of Hauger as his own tyres started to overheat in the latter stages of the race. But although Hauger got as close as half a second in the final laps, the Norwegian didn’t have enough grip of his own to try a move and Doohan held the lead to the chequered flag.

Vesti continued to struggle in the conditions after dropping behind Hauger and Doohan and wasn’t able to stay in the podium positions. On lap 11 he went wide at De Beausset and fell to fifth behind Martins and Caio Collet, who ended up settling the podium battle between themselves.

Martins at first looked the faster of the two MP Motorsport cars, but he started to lose pace in the second half of the race. After setting a fastest lap on lap 13, Collet then reeled in his teammate and passed him for third on lap 15 to take his second podium of the year.

Caio Collet, MP Motorsport (Rudy Carezzevoli, Getty Images / FIA Formula 3)

Martins came home fourth ahead of Novalak in fifth and Vesti in sixth. Seventh place went to Ayumu Iwasa who led the remaining ARTs of Alex Smolyar and Juan Manuel Correa, and Jak Crawford took the final point in tenth place.

Charouz’s Reshad de Gerus was the only driver to gamble on a tyre change, despite most of the field battling against their wet tyres as the track dried. But despite being five seconds quicker than the leaders and setting a late fastest lap, De Gerus ultimately didn’t have enough time to reach the points and only finished 21st.

Doohan’s win has propelled him up to third in the championship. Hauger remains the points leader, although Martins is now just six points behind him in second. Olli Caldwell, who entered the weekend second in the standings, retired from the feature race with suspension damage and is now fifth in the championship between Novalak and Smolyar.

Formula 3 returns in two weeks’ time at the Red Bull Ring in support of the Austrian Grand Prix.