Home Featured Has juggernaut Prema seen off an unlikely F3 crisis?

Has juggernaut Prema seen off an unlikely F3 crisis?

by Craig Woollard

Photo: Joe Portlock / Formula Motorsport Limited

No wins and no poles from the first seven races for the team associated heavily with its dominant form in FIA F3 is a poor return. But as Prema led the points before its first 2022 win, was there actually a dip in form?

This is the team that obliterates the opposition in F3. It last went title-free in the category in 2010 (while competing in the Italian and Euro Series), but in 2022 it took a long time to get off the mark.

It came come close a couple of times prior to Arthur Leclerc’s feature race win at Silverstone last weekend. Ollie Bearman nearly won the season opener at Bahrain but was penalised, and Leclerc and Jak Crawford came second in the first two feature races of the year. Prema had a 22-point margin at the top of the teams’ standings with its three drivers in the top seven in the championship. Fast forward seven days and now Leclerc is six points off the top and Prema is now 62 points clear.

It would, therefore, be a bit daft to call it a crisis as such, but the results had not been quite there before last weekend.

It was something that MP Motorsport’s third-year driver Alexander Smolyar picked up on in the preceding round at Barcelona.

“F3 is a very, very competitive series. For sure when they changed the car [from GP3], it was like maybe three or two teams which were able to fight for pole.

“Now, I think this year we can agree that we moved much more closer to Prema, at least in terms of qualifying pace. So now, it’s really if you ask before the qualifying who is going to take pole it’s really hard to answer.”

Qualifying has proven to be very important in FIA F3 since it and the introduction of the Dallara F3 2019 car with its up-and-down raceability. Prema’s Robert Shwartzman and Dennis Hauger made a habit of being great in qualifying (although Oscar Piastri never could quite get the one-lap pace nailed) and it proved pivotal to their title campaigns.

Hauger and Leclerc in 2021

Roman Stanek, who claimed the Trident team’s second pole in a row at Barcelona, agreed F3 is highly competitive in 2022.

“You can really see how the championship is competitive. All of the teams basically are very competitive, and everything can happen in quali or in the race. So that’s why you can see different teams win every race, and that’s what is the most exciting about the FIA F3 championship.”

ART Grand Prix’s points leader Victor Martins had more to add last month, saying: “I think since a lot of years now F3 has been really competitive. For sure in some seasons one team can take the most out of all of the situations, but I think this year it’s really consistent, and you can see when drivers switch to another team they can really still manage to get points and some wins and podiums.

“Let’s see what’s going to happen in the middle and the end of the season, since the beginning we have had three polesitters I think, three different ones. You never know who is going to be on pole before the session.”

It’s now been four different drivers on pole in four weekends, with just one front row appearance for Prema and an average qualifying position of ninth, but as the points table shows it is still the Italian outfit that is outscoring everyone else.

“For sure they are there on the race pace, we could see that with Leclerc in the races in Bahrain, in Imola with Crawford also. But I think with the one-lap push we got everyone just a lot closer to them, or maybe in front,” Martins said.

“Trident has been good since the beginning of the season, I don’t know if they are the best package but they make the most out of qualifying better than the others. I am happy with my car, and what we have done since the beginning of this year with ART.”

Smolyar, who later had to miss Silverstone due to the restrictions on Russian athletes, reflected on Prema’s qualifying form: “I was surprised in Bahrain that they were quite far [back] in qualifying. I thought they did some kind of mistake, but I think now we can see we are finally probably on the same level with them.

“As Victor said, still in the races they are very quick. We can see it with Leclerc doing mega comebacks and seeing a Prema car in your mirror during the race is not a good thing for sure. So still have a lot to catch, a lot to learn for the races, and hopefully we will do it quite soon.”

So what do Prema’s own drivers make of the season start, and the results breakthrough last weekend as Leclerc qualified second and finished first, Crawford nabbed fastest lap and Bearman claimed his first feature race podium on Sunday?

“None of us have had any poles yet. I think we’ve been quick in the qualifying. Bahrain we struggled a bit, and then Imola there was a chance to be on pole there and then I think [at Barcelona] there was a chance as well,” said Crawford.

“It all comes down to circumstances and getting the lap in at the right time. I think we’re still there on the qualifying pace.”

After his Silverstone win, Leclerc spoke to Formula Scout about the achievement.

“We did a really strong job all the weekend, in qualifying and in race the pace was great in the sprint.

“In the feature race it was completely different, and it wasn’t easy to keep it in front with the DRS really powerful in this track, so it was really hard to create a gap.

“Of course, I think we have the pace to win the championship, but I think three other teams have the pace to win as well. We are all really close this year as you can see in the classification, and every single details count. So nothing is won for anyone, we still have a long way to go.”

His team-mate Bearman added to that after finishing third:

Photo: Prema

“In terms of race pace, I think we’ve always had pretty strong race pace this year. I don’t think we’ve made a step so to speak.

“But this track is slightly better for overtaking than Barcelona because the tyres don’t overheat as easily and also the fact that I can – I mean yesterday you would say that my race pace was not great, but actually I would say that we were strong again, just that when you’re stuck in the DRS train you can’t really show the pace very well. I would say that we’re still pretty strong and looking forward to Red Bull Ring.”

All three are probably right. Prema is still ‘there’, or thereabouts at least, but the advantage has certainly disappeared.

It’s certainly no crisis, but Prema has its work cut out this year to secure either title, let alone the crushing levels of performances we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the past.

For a full analysis of the competitive order in FIA F3, check out Formulascout.com following the Austrian Grand Prix this weekend for a mid-season data review