Barring a major upheaval in the performance of the respective teams, it’s hard to see anybody other than an ART Grand Prix driver winning this year’s GP3 title. In what is set to be the ninth and final year of GP3 – before it is merged with the FIA’s Formula 3 European Championship and ART are joined on the grid by the likes of Prema and Carlin – a sixth drivers’ title and eighth teams’ title seems highly likely.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a title fight – far from it. ART owes its current position of dominance to the strength of its driver line-ups over recent seasons as much as its engineering might, and while its 2018 line-up might not be quite as complete across all four cars as it was in 2016 or 2017, it does field three lead drivers who all possess a considerable combination of talent and experience, and who are near impossible to split on the eve of the season.
In many ways it’s not dissimilar to how things looked 12 months ago. In Callum Ilott and Jake Hughes, there could be another battle of Britain in store, and as explained below, there are plenty of parallels between them and their predecessors George Russell and Jack Aitken.
Having been very much fourth-best last year, Anthoine Hubert now perhaps steps into the Nirei Fukuzumi role as the man remaining within the ART fold for a second season, yet on paper looks even stronger than the Japanese driver did this time last year. Therefore, don’t discount the Frenchman from coming out on top.
Ilott: The exciting newcomer
If we’re comparing Ilott vs Hughes to Russell vs Aitken, then Ilott starts in the Russell role. The links between them are numerous. For starters, they know each other well, dating back to their days at the front of European karting, and were later team-mates at Carlin in their rookie European F3 seasons.
Now Ilott comes into GP3 in a similar position to that of Russell 12 months ago. Like Russell, his F3 stint contained plenty of promise, but the final results didn’t live up to expectations. Fourth in the standings in his third season in 2017, while driving for Prema, was a disappointment.
At his best though, he was very good, taking 10 poles and six wins. And just like Russell did enough to earn the support of Mercedes as his time in F3 came to a close, Ilott was able to convince the Ferrari Driver Academy to take him on, with a deal announced just days after the 2017 European F3 season concluded.
The benefit of getting F1 backing for Russell was clear to see last season, when he stepped up another gear and delivered perhaps the most convincing GP3 title win to date. The pressure will now be on Ilott to do the same when presented with a similar opportunity. He will also have to live up to what Charles Leclerc did in his first year with the FDA in 2016, when he turned his potential from F3 into a mature title-winning campaign in GP3 with ART.
Ilott?s greatest strength this year ought to be his qualifying speed, something that is usually particularly valuable in GP3 where many races are won from the front. What he needs to get a handle on will be the management the Pirelli tyres, which his main rivals have already got experience of. It normally goes that the most talented drivers turn out to be best at this skill, but it’s something that seems theoretically at odds with Ilott’s naturally spectacular driving style.
Hughes: The under-rated veteran
There are plenty of similarities too between Hughes and Aitken, who got to know each other well as Formula Renault team-mates in 2015. Both are under-rated relative to some of their big-name peers: perhaps a symptom of their more modest, domestically-focused karting careers, as well as some of the growing pains they experienced in their early years in single-seaters.
Twenty-four at the end of the month, he’s older than his rivals, like Aitken was in 2017. In Hughes? case, that’s partly the result of a late start in motorsport (he didn’t even start karting until he was 14), and partly the effect of his back-and-forth career path in the past few seasons, as dictated by the opportunities that have existed for him. Age might be a disadvantage when trying to tempt F1 teams, but it can only help in the cut and thrust of a title fight.
Just like Aitken 12 months ago, Hughes has a season?s experience in GP3 in which he showed strongly outside of the ART bubble (in his case at DAMS). His pole position on debut in Barcelona two years ago remains the last time a driver from outside ART claimed a GP3 pole position.
Although he has spoken of not being a fan of the type of racing that GP3?s tyre management requires, like Aitken he mastered the technique well in 2016.
For Hughes, the main challenge this year will be to improve his consistency: a fault in both his rookie GP3 campaign and his F3 stint last year. In both instances, some of that inconsistency can be put down to his machinery, which will be more reliably quick now he’s at ART. But he also has a knack of attracting what could sometimes be dismissed as bad luck. With the strength of the competition, he is going to have to banish that in order to win the championship.
Hubert: The improved sophomore
It has been a quirk of GP3 that experience has counted for very little. The history books are against Hubert’s title chances: only Mitch Evans has ever used past experience of the series to win a title, and even he could consider himself fortunate in the end to beat his rookie rival Daniel Abt.
In many ways, Hubert struggled to keep up with his team-mates at ART last year. There were no wins, no pole positions and ‘only’ four podiums. But on his day, he was capable of taking the fight to them, leading Russell at Silverstone and battling both Brits for the win at Monza.
With last year’s top three now out of the way, and the potential to make progress with a year’s experience it stands to reason that Hubert can be a very strong factor indeed. In Ilott and Hughes he has two strong rivals that were not around last year, but on the basis of pre-season testing, he has looked every bit a match for them.
It would be easy to overlook Hubert on the basis of last year and because of the reputation of his team-mates, but you may do so at your peril.
The fourth ART driver Nikita Mazepin is no slouch, as podiums in European F3 and competent Force India F1 outings have proven. He simply won’t be on the same level as his team-mates however, and will instead be battling the rest of the grid for best of the rest honours.
Trident has been closest to ART for the past two seasons, and that could well be the case again this year by the strength across what is again the only other four-car driver line-up. New signing Alessio Lorandi ought to be strongest on paper, having raced his way on to the race one podiums in Barcelona and Silverstone last year before his and Jenzer’s challenge faded.
Giuliano Alesi was flattered by his success in reversed-grid races last summer, but ought to find a step forward in qualifying performance in his third season at this level.?Ryan Tveter?can also build upon a strong rookie season, while?Pedro Piquet moves across from a lacklustre two-year stint in European F3 having shown promising testing speed.
Joining Lorandi as the most likely to ruffle ART feathers will be MP Motorsport’s two lead drivers, with the Dutch squad coming out all guns blazing for its first season in GP3.?Dorian Boccolacci was on the whole the quickest non-ART driver in qualifying trim last year and just needs to refine some of the rough edges.?Niko Kari seemed to flounder under the pressure of the Red Bull junior scheme last year, but proved his class with his win in Abu Dhabi once he knew his future was elsewhere.
Will Palmer signed a late deal to complete the MP trio. The Formula Renault Eurocup runner-up may struggle to adapt to GP3 in one season, but with a year learning the Pirelli tyres and the other quirks of GP3, he could head into 2019 in a better position than many of his former rivals who have headed to F3.
Leonardo Pulcini struggled to build on early promise alongside Kari at Arden last year, but is now reunited with Campos Racing, the team with which he won the Euroformula Open title in 2016. Like 12 months ago, the Italian has looked quick in testing, but it remains to be seen whether the Spanish squad has taken the step forward that it needs.?Simo Laaksonen has looked solid alongside Pulcini in pre-season, former Formula V8 3.5 racer Diego Menchaca less so.
Arden took a backwards step last season, but Abu Dhabi was evidence that the team hadn’t completely lost its touch. Signing the very talented Joey Mawson alongside French pair Gabriel Aubry and Julien Falchero ought to give it a fighting chance this year, but it will need to hope its form is stronger than it looked in pre-season.
Like Mawson, the once extremely promising?David Beckmann needs a good first year in GP3 at Jenzer to regain some of the momentum lost when his time in F3 turned sour.?Tatiana Calderon has looked much improved ahead of what will be her third year at this level, while?Juan Manuel Correa should also capable of more after his leap up from Formula 4 in the middle of last year.