The Formula Renault 3.5 championship will go down to the wire in Barcelona next month following a controversy-tinged weekend of racing at Silverstone.
The series’ form driver Esteban Guerrieri (ISR) endured a bittersweet event. The Argentine recovered from a huge qualifying shunt to win race one, only to be disqualified on a technicality following a harsh protest from a rival team. However he then went on to win race two, meaning he goes to Spain with a realistic shot at the title.
Daniel Ricciardo (Tech 1) also endured a mixed weekend. The Australian was tipped in to a barrel roll off the line in race one, requiring a huge rebuild job over Saturday night. He recovered to take pole for race two, and led until Guerrieri fought his way past on the final lap.
Nevertheless Ricciardo closed right up on championship leader Mikhail Aleshin this weekend, the Russian making little impression in his Carlin-prepared machine to register just five points over the two races. His advantage at the top of the standings has been slashed by both Ricciardo and Guerrieri, meaning the season will conclude with a three-way battle for this year’s drivers’ crown.
The weekend began in chaotic fashion, with Daniele Zampieri excluded from race for an altercation with ISR boss Igor Salaquadra. The Italian felt Salaquadra's driver - son Filip - had blocked him during qualifying, and made his feelings known to the Czech. The resulting argument also saw Salaquadra Snr banned from the remainder of the meeting.
In front of a bumper Silverstone crowd Brit Jon Lancaster (Fortec) lined up on pole position for race one, having edged out title contenders Guerrieri and Ricciardo in qualifying. Meanwhile points leader Aleshin started a disappointing tenth.
Guerrieri was lucky to make the start, a huge qualifying crash having left his car in need of extensive repairs. His crew somehow got the #25 machine ready with just three minutes to spare, though this would prove crucial later in the day.
At the start things quickly went wrong for both Lancaster and Ricciardo. When the lights went out the Fortec driver veered right to block off the fast-starting Guerrieri, but lost control of his car. As the back end stepped out Lancaster's machine snapped left, pitching him in to the side of Ricciardo. The contact sent the Australian in to a series of barrel rolls from which he was lucky to escape unhurt.
With Ricciardo out and Lancaster limping back to the pits Guerrieri had been handed the race on a platter. He now led from Jean-Eric Vergne (Tech 1), the recently-crowned British F3 champion continuing to make good early impressions in the series.
Guerrieri and Vergne immediately began to drop the remainder of the field, the Frenchman keeping the pace but never threatening a pass. Behind them were Albert Costa (Epsilon Euskadi), Nelson Panciatici (Junior Lotus Racing) and Stefano Coletti (Comtec Racing), the trio all in contention for the final podium spot.
With Guerrieri romping away at the front Mikhail Aleshin's title lead was under threat of further reduction, but the Russian could do little more than dispute sixth place with Filip Salaquadra. Aleshin also faced pressure from behind, as countryman Anton Nebylitskiy (KMP) filled his mirrors, the Carlin man once again struggling to match his early season form.
But despite several close battles the only change in the leading positions came from Coletti, who passed Panciatici to move up into fourth place late on. Out front Vergne had remained with Guerrieri without ever challenging him, and it was the ISR driver who took the flag 1.5s clear. There was then an 11 second gap to third placed Costa, with Coletti, Panciatici, Salaquadra and Aleshin a further ten seconds in arrears.
Guerrieri's win, coupled with Ricciardo's non-finish and Aleshin's seventh place, appeared to have vaulted the Argentine in to the driving seat in the title battle. But, within hours, his joy had turned to despair. A protest was launched by a rival team that Guerrieri had raced with a small piece of white tape across one side of the nose box and the bodywork covering the dampers of his car. This was no doubt linked to his team’s frantic efforts to get the car ready for the race following his qualifying shunt. Guerrieri was excluded from the race, handing victory to Vergne.
Daniel Ricciardo’s mechanics endured a sleepless Saturday night as they worked to repair his car following race one.
With their job done Ricciardo then delivered his side of the bargain, taking his seventh pole of the season in qualifying for race two. Second fastest was Jon Lancaster, but he was forced to start from the pits after receiving a penalty for his actions off the line in race one. That promoted Brendon Hartley – who was making his series return with P1 Motorsport - in to second. Row two was shared by Jean-Éric Vergne and Esteban Guerrieri, with Mikhail Aleshin fifth.
Ricciardo made a strong start and led in to turn one from former teammate Hartley. Guerrieri also got a good launch to beat Vergne in to third, and quickly set about disposing of the P1 man and putting Ricciardo under pressure. Hartley proved no match for the ISR driver, and having lost second quickly tumbled down the order. He soon found himself contending with Aleshin, and did Ricciardo and Guerrieri a huge favour by tangling with the Russian. Hartley was able to maintain a place in the top ten but Aleshin dropped to the very back of the pack.
From here the front two began to drop the field, setting consistent lap times as Guerrieri shadowed Ricciardo. In third, Vergne was kept busy by Filip Salaquarda, the Czech excelling despite his father’s enforced absence from the meeting.
Meanwhile Aleshin’s day was going from bad to worse. Following his pitstop he rejoined behind Walter Grubmuller (P1 Motorsport) and Victor Garcia (KMP), but tried to put a move on the Spaniard too quickly. He spun, lost yet more time, and all the while his two championship rivals were extending their lead at the front of the race.
As proceedings drew to a close Guerrieri seemed to have gained the edge, with Ricciardo appearing to struggle with his car. However they began the final lap with The Australian still leading.
But Guerrieri was clearly in no mood to leave Silverstone without a winner’s trophy, and put a move on Ricciardo. The Tech 1 driver fought him all the way, and they were side-by-side for several corners before Guerrieri eventually triumphed. He took his fifth win of the season 0.5s clear of Ricciardo, with Vergne completing a superb weekend with another trip to the podium.
Filip Salaquadra and Anton Nebylitskiy both took solid results, crossing the line fourth and fifth respectively, with the back-in-action Daniele Zampieri sixth. A recovering Hartley was seventh, with Sten Pentus (Fortec), Albert Costa and Nelson Panciatici completing the points. Aleshin fought his way back to 12th but will take little comfort from that with his two rivals finishing one-two.
The Silverstone meeting leaves the championship finely poised with just one weekend left this season. Aleshin leads, but has Ricciardo just three points behind him entering the final race, and the Carlin driver’s recent form suggests he’ll struggle to maintain that gap in Spain. Guerrieri meanwhile is 13 behind the Australian and 16 behind the Russian – a gap his recent pace suggests he’s more than capable of overturning in Barcelona. As such it’s still all to play for when the series concludes on October 9/10.
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