Esteban Ocon replied in the best way possible to the recent dominance of Max Verstappen by completing the perfect weekend in race 21 of the FIA Formula 3 European Championship in Moscow on Sunday. The young Frenchman took the first two victories in convincing fashion before rounding off the weekend with victory in a thrilling battle with Verstappen in the final race.
Already the favourite to pull off the hat-trick, Ocon made a perfect start as the lights went out. He led away from Carlin’s Tom Blomqvist and Verstappen. While it was all clear at the front, carnage ensued behind. Félix Serrallés ran into the back of Roy Nissany, both retiring as a result of heavy damage. The incident brought out the safety car to recover both Serrallés’ car and the debris strewn over the track. Elsewhere, Gustavo Menezes came into the pits for damage reapir at the end of the opening lap as well.
After suffering a potentially championship ending retirement in race two, Dutchman Verstappen knew that he would need to make progress to stand a chance of beating Ocon. Starting in third place, he slotted in behind Blomqvist. He would almost immediately inherit second place as the Brit in front was given a drive through penalty due to a jump start (one of many throughout the weekend). Now it was the fair fight between Ocon and Verstappen that had, until this point failed to ignite in the Russian capital.
After the safety car came in on lap 5, Ocon sped away once more, showing off his ultimate dominance. Scrambling behind and desperately trying to keep up was Verstappen who never seemed to be more than a few feet ahead of Antonio Fuoco at any given time. The order at halfway remained: Ocon, Verstappen, Fuoco and Carlin duo of Jordan King and Jake Dennis. The latter pair had enjoyed an encouraging opening to the race, albeit at the expense of their team-mate Blomqvist.
The middle of the race was largely processional although the gap between Ocon and Verstappen did ebb and flow. The Dutchman impressively closed down the leader shortly after half-distance – a feat seldom achieved by any other driver all weekend – and in the closing stages, was a mere 1.4 seconds in arrears. It would come down even further with just a lap to go.
Lucas Auer in the Mücke Motorsport entry dived down the inside of Jordan King. King, trying to retaliate immediately forced his way down the inside of the Austrian, but got squeezed too much and the pair collided. Both were out and both felt aggrieved over the incident. It had bigger implications for the rest of the pack as the safety car was called out again; this time with the clock almost up.
With the field bunched up with scarcely a minute remaining, Ocon came under intense pressure from Verstappen. The son of former F1 driver Jos, bolted his car to the apex of the first corner and barged his way through into what was almost universally agreed upon as a shock lead – Verstappen had up till now struggled to keep pace with Ocon and Fuoco. However, his lead lasted a handful of corners as he ran wide. Ocon, an F1 prospect of the future didn’t need asking twice and re-took the lead. He would then keep that lead to the flag as a frantic and ultimately thrilling race came to a grandstand finish. Behind the top two came Fuoco and Jake Dennis. Dennis salvaged some points for Carlin in an otherwise difficult race where two of their drivers missed out on a potential podium finish (Blomqvist and King). Behind them was Felix Rosenqvist who pushed past Dennis van de Laar to round out the top five.
Ocon, thanks to his perfect weekend in Russia, now leads Verstappen in the championship by 118 points. Verstappen will rue his second race retirement heading into the final part of the season while the closest chasers Auer, Blomqvist and Fuoco will have to battle for third place; a feat that showcases the talent of this year’s Formula 3 European Championship season.
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