British powerhouse team Carlin Motorsport has won its second consecutive British F3 International title, sending another of its alumni in the direction of F1.
Daniel Ricciardo, the 20-year-old Australian who has just secured the 2009 championship – and an F1 superlicence – is backed by Red Bull. Team boss Christian Horner promised recently to watch his progress and consider him for a test as part of its young driver assessments.
If so, he would follow a very similar route to two of last year’s top performers, winner Jaime Alguersuari and third-placed Brendon Hartley, who both drove for Carlin and then graduated to reserve driver roles for the Red Bull F1 teams.
Alguersuari, of course, received a call-up to the top-flight racing series after B-team Toro Rosso parted company with Sebastian Bourdais. He has gone on to put in several sensible and untroubled drives since his debut at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Ricciardo secured the British F3 International title at The Algarve this weekend, with the Brands Hatch season finale still to come. Here’s how the weekend, which featured seven invitational drivers including F3 Euro Series leader Jules Bianchi and Brit Sam Bird, played out:
Ricciardo put down a marker for the weekend by running fastest in free practice. His 1:38.121 was more than a quarter of a second faster than his closest challenger, Valtteri Bottas from F3 Euro Series. Walter Grubmuller, Ricciardo’s main rival in the British F3 standings, could manage only ninth.
Renger van der Zande took pole position for the first race ahead of Max Chilton, who responded by going one better in the next qualifying session and taking the race two pole.
“That was my best-ever qualifying lap, I think,” said van der Zande abut the first session. “Max Chilton was quick early on in the session and I did not think I could get close to his time – but then I got a fantastic tow from Roberto Merhi around the whole lap and got the pole.”
Ominously, Euro Series leader Bianchi set the third-fastest time in the first session.
Chilton’s pole was his fourth of the season: “This morning’s experience helped me,” he said. “In the first session I hadn’t expected the tyres to come in so quickly. This time I was ready for it and my second flying lap was my best.”
Van der Zande’s hopes of victory deflated along with his rear tyre as he led for 12 of the 16 laps but ended up fourth behind Bianchi, Euro Series guest Esteban GutiÃ©rrez, and Ricciardo who overtook him on the final lap.
“I didn’t even realise it was the last lap,” said Ricciardo. “I got the run on Renger and pipped him on the line. It was pretty fortunate but you have to take what you can, when you can.”
A multiple-car accident on lap three ended the race for several drivers, including Bird, and brought out the safety car for three laps. Van der Zande protected his lead from Bianchi on the restart but later suffered a puncture on debris from the accident.
Chilton, Riki Christodoulou and Hywel Lloyd were sixth, seventh and 10th in the race, which translated to fourth, fifth and sixth among the regular British F3 runners. Jay Bridger was 13th overall and Wayne Boyd and Henry Arundel failed to finish.
In the National class, Daniel McKenzie took his 10th win of the season to leave him, like International class leader Ricciardo, a few points shy of clinching the title going into the second race.
Bianchi and Ricciardo clashed on the first lap of the second race, but both survived the experience and went on to victory – Bianchi in the race and Ricciardo in the championship.
The Australian said: “This is everything I’ve wanted since the start of the season and for it to come around a bit early makes it a bit sweeter. It still hasn’t quite sunk in but I’m sure that by the end of tonight I’ll realise it and party hard. If I can now follow in Jaime Alguersuari’s footsteps that would be great – I’m not saying I’ll be in F1 next year, but I’d like to be there in the near future. That’s my dream.”
Ricciardo’s title was won despite only finishing seventh in the race and fourth among points-scoring drivers. The ‘winner’ among British Formula Three International Series drivers was Chilton who finished in third overall, behind Bianchi and Bird.
Bird struck from fourth on the grid to take the lead at the start, but could not hold off Bianchi at the restart following a two-lap safety car period caused by a clash between Christodoulou and Merhi that caused the Englishman to retire. He was also overtaken by van der Zande, but the Dutchman suffered a second rear puncture and, just in the first race, faded down the field.
Chilton said: “It’s good to do it at last, although it’s a shame it’s not an outright win. My start wasn’t shocking but I got forced wide and several got past me. I knew Dan had a problem and then Renger had a puncture, and there I was.”
Arundel, Lloyd and Bridger took eighth, ninth and 11th in the race, for fifth, sixth and seventh among Britsh F3 drivers, with Boyd 17th overall.
McKenzie also won his title and is already looking for fresh challenges. He said: “This is my first championship win and it’s been a long time coming. It’s a great feeling. I hope very much we can sort a deal to join the International class next weekend, and then use that to launch into a full championship bid in 2010. The National class is a great stepping stone, very competitive and with some great drivers. It’s been a good experience.”