GP3 headed to the penultimate round of the championship at Sochi Autodrom on the 28-30 September.
Joey Mawson and Gabriel Aubry were joined by new team member, Renault Sport Academy driver Sacha Fenestraz for the weekend, as the team headed into qualifying on Friday evening with fading light.
Mawson headed the Arden trio in qualifying, setting the 9th fastest lap, after being inside the Top 6 for the vast majority of the session. Fenestraz claimed a very solid 13th in only his second session in the car following Free Practice, with Aubry rounding out the Arden drivers with the 17th fastest time.
Race One started early Saturday morning as the race got underway. Mawson made a good start, but was boxed in by his rivals to prevent him making inroads into the pack, as the field navigated Turn 2-5 before settling into the race rhythm. Fenestraz made his first grid start in GP3 machinery, emerging in 14th position at the end of the opening lap, with Aubry making up good progress to 13th position as all Arden’s navigated the manic start to the race.
From early on in the race, tyre management was key and keeping the rear tyres in check was vital. A number of the leading pack began to struggle early on, dropping down the field, whilst Mawson managed his tyres well to get past the ART’s of Callum Illot and Jake Hughes not long after half distance, putting himself in contention for 8th position and Reverse-Grid pole position for race two.
After a three-way battle with Illot and Juan Manuel Correa, Mawson emerged in 8th after managing his tyres well, building a gap to his rivals at the chequered flag, banking 4 points and the critical pole position for tomorrow’s race.
Aubry was also able to manage his tyres well, moving himself up six positions in the race to finish just outside the points in 11th position, just 0.4s away!
Fenestraz endured a baptism of fire on his GP3 Series debut, where he demonstrated front-running pace throughout the race which rivalled teammate Mawson’s, however new experience of the tyre degradation on the Pirelli tyres saw him finish the race in 16th position.
Mawson got away well from pole position, maintain his place at the head of the field heading into Turn 2. Behind the Australian, an incident in the battle for second place saw multiple drivers head to the run-off area and causing chaos and confusion throughout the order. The Australian pulled out a 1.4s lead on the rest of the field to establish a buffer out front.
Aubry took full advantage of this to gain position and into the battle for the Top 6 early on, with Fenestraz also making up ground early on from his 16th place starting position.
Mawson continued to lead, despite having the Trident of David Beckmann within DRS range on occasions over the race duration. Despite the pressure, Mawson defending brilliantly from the DRS equipped rival behind, placing his car in all the correct places to hold onto the lead and survive the DRS assisted attempts by Beckmann.
Aubry had used his DRS usage to great effect to move himself into 6th position, holding off the advances of Tatiana Calderon and opening race winner Leonardo Pulcini. Fenestraz was continuing to make progress and learn more and more about the GP3 machinery and tyre management in the race.
Into the closing stages, Mawson was able to break out of DRS range of Beckmann and now managing the lead and his tyres out in front. This was until Nikita Mazepin crashed with 5 laps to go, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car while his car was recovered.
The race resumed on the final lap, where the ‘quirk’ of the timing of the VSC restart meant Beckmann was now inside DRS range, despite being more than a second behind before-hand. This allowed him to launch an attack on Mawson. The Arden driver defended valiantly and as hard as he could to maintain the lead, but Beckmann found a way through past Mawson’s stern defence at Turn 13 with DRS assistance, sneaking through and demoting the Australian to 2nd position.
Nevertheless Mawson crossed the line to bank his best result in GP3 so far to take 2nd on the podium, with teammate Aubry also taking his best result of the season by finishing in 6th position. Fenestraz rounded out the Arden trio and his maiden weekend in the series with a solid 13th position.
The team now prepares for the GP3 Series finale at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on the 23-25 November, where the 2018 season will draw to a close.
Photos: Dutch Photo Agency