The Macau Grand Prix F3 race is always an eagerly-awaited end-of-season spectacular, with the unique setting and challenging circuit making it worth a watch regardless of who is competing. But in 2014, it brings the curtain down on a thrilling season in F3, and sees all the star names from the European series making the trip.
Combing a naturally twisty street circuit like Monaco or Pau, a Monza-style flat-out section and some serious elevation, the Macau course is a bit like Spa-Francorchamps between walls. The perfect arena then for round 34 of Esteban Ocon vs Max Verstappen in 2014. The teenage pair have been the two biggest stars on the junior single-seater scene this season, and will see out their one-year F3 careers in the most famous junior single-seater race on the calendar.
The Grand Prix could be a one-on-one scrap between Ocon and Verstappen, but they will have plenty of competition, as they have had all season. Predicting a winner is never easy, and this year will be no different, but these are the leading contenders.
Ocon has to start as the favourite courtesy of his impressive European Championship triumph. 12 months ago he made his F3 debut in Macau and finished tenth in the main race after stalling and dropping to the back of the pack. Not only does he now have a year’s experience, but he’s also got a bit of an ace card in his Prema engineer Jean-Francois Levere, who won with Alex Lynn last year. He was the quickest man at the Pau Grand Prix, the European event that bears the most resemblance to Macau.
In relative terms, he ended his campaign with a bit of a whimper – winning just one of the last 12 races compared to five of the first 12. But if the package underneath him is on the pace, he should be right up there, with the motivation of ending the year with bragging rights and taking that momentum through the winter. His style generally appears to be error-free, which should keep him out of the barriers, although there were a few incidents in wheel-to-wheel combat during the year, including a couple with Verstappen.
In many ways, Verstapen arrived in Macau with nothing to lose, Formula 1 race seat in the bag. But there is still pressure to prove that he warrants that opportunity and that he’s ready. And perhaps to get a major single-seater title to his name. His driving style will mean that he will impress in Macau regardless of the end result, but his reputation would set him up for a win-or-bust approach that would end in either spectacular glory or panel-crunching failure. This is what happened to him in Pau, where he twice crashed out. But an awful lot has happened to Verstappen since then, and a more circumspect approach may well follow.
There’s plenty up against Verstappen – not only does he not have experience of Macau, but his team’s only recent visit was in a crash-strewn trip in 2012. But on the plus side, his VW engine may perform better on the straights and he too has applicable form earlier in the year in his six wins in nine days. He was unbeatable at the European series’ second street track the Norisring, which is perhaps at least as relevant at Pau thanks to consisting mostly of barrier-lined straights and hairpins, and also a week earlier at Spa, where he was fast in both a straight line and in the twisty bits.
Blomqvist may not be able to rival Ocon or Verstappen when at their absolute terrifying best, but he has beaten them plenty of times this year – winning six times to be precise. He’s a relative Macau expert, first competing there in Formula BMW in 2010 and doing the F3 race for the past two years, finishing eighth last year after a first-lap qualifying race incident put him to the back of the grid.
This year he’s leading the Carlin team – winners in 2012 – and so Blomqvist will be very well placed to capitalise if they or their VW engines give them the quickest package. Even if he doesn’t match some of the stars for pace, his maturity and experience will keep him out of trouble, and put him in a position to capitalise on others’ errors. A Macau win would be a deserved reward for a strong season, and really give his career the kick that it needs.
Lucas Auer was best of the rest behind the top three in European F3 this year so starts as another contender for his third Macau. His previous two attempts were full of incident, but he was fourth quickest in qualifying last year with Prema.
Auer’s Mucke team-mate Felix Rosenqvist will be contesting the Macau F3 race for the fifth consecutive time. He was second to Antonio Felix da Costa in 2012, and second on the grid to Lynn last year but retired after first-lap contact. His European campaign has been very disappointing this year, but will hope to recapture the form that saw him take his sole 2014 win in the main Pau Grand Prix race.
Antonio Fuoco has matched rival rookies Ocon and Verstappen at times this year, but the Ferrari protege has been otherwise been in plenty of incidents. If he can stay out of the walls on his first Macau visit, he’s quick enough to be a frontrunner.
Fellow Italian Antonio Giovinazzi has been a match for Jagonya Ayam stable-mate Blomqvist during the second half of the season, but lacks the same kind of Macau experience. Another second-time Macau driver in the Carlin garage is Jordan King, who had an impressive run to fifth last year as top rookie, although he’s failed to make the step to race-winner in Europe.
It’s fashionable for drivers to return to F3 for Macau from other categories, and Formula Renault 3.5 title contender Roberto Merhi will aim to put the memories of his 2011 stall behind him with Double R. GP2 veteran Stefano Coletti is also there with EuroInternational, but he and the team weren’t at the sharp end last year.
2009-10 winners Signature return with F3 veteran Will Buller – who’s on his sixth Macau visit including his FBMW win in 2009 – and will run in the top ten if they can repeat their form from Imola.
German F3 champion Markus Pommer lines up with his Motopark team, while British winner Martin Cao is at Fortec – who have had a tough 2014 but were Macau podium finishers in 2012-13 – alongside American teen Santino Ferrucci and top Euroformula Open rookie Alex Palou. Japan is represented by five-time winners Tom’s with Kenta Yamashita and Sam MacLeod and by Nissan’s Mitsunori Takaboshi.
Other stories of interest are Mucke’s third driver Tatiana Calderon – the first woman to do the F3 race since the very first running in 1983 – and a local driver in Andy Chang at West-Tec.