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The statistical rarity Piastri matched with his FIA F3 title

by Elliot Wood

Photo: Getty Images

When Oscar Piastri crossed the finish line at Mugello to win the 2020 FIA Formula 3 Championship title, he joined a list of drivers with a rather undesirable asterisk next to their junior single-seater title wins

The compression of motorsport calendars this year due to the coronavirus pandemic has lost drivers valuable learning time away from race weekends, and nowhere is this more evident than Formula 1’s newest support: FIA Formula 3 Championship.

The competitive order was pretty much set after the first round, little over two months ago, and was where Prema’s Oscar Piastri laid down his title credentials in the battle with his team-mates by qualifying third for the season-opening Red Bull Ring race. Little did the Australian know that he would do no better than that performance on a Friday, only matching it once at Silverstone and being marginally closer to pole by 0.009 seconds.

It was the races where Piastri proved his worth, and if you take away the four additional points earned for pole at each round, then his advantage over the closest of his team-mate would have been a considerably more comfortable 16 points rather than the four it ended up being. Admittedly Piastri also got a sizeable amount of points by either taking fastest lap in the races, or having the set the fastest of the drivers who finished in the top 10.

The Mark Webber protege and Renault junior isn’t alone in winning a title without ever visiting the front row after qualifying, in fact there’s been a handful of drivers who have done the same over the last 50 years…

Vincenzo Sospiri Super Nova 1995 International F3000
Best qualifying: 3rd (Pau, Spa-Francorchamps)   Wins: 3

It took four full seasons for Vincenzo Sospiri to become champion in International Formula 3000, the predecessor to Formula 2 today, and he did so in what was a fairly messy season.

The Italian, now a successful team boss in GT racing and previously involved in running and helping young drivers in junior single-seaters, was in his second season with the Super Nova outfit run by David Sears and had an easier job developing the team’s Reynard-Cosworth than the year before as the out of his depth Taki Inoue (a great friend of Sears and Sospiri to this day) had been replaced by British Formula 3 race-winner Ricardo Rosset.

The combination got off to a brilliant start as Rosset took pole on his debut at Silverstone. Sospiri was only three places further back in fourth, but 0.865s off the pace. The race should have been a different matter, but Rosset dominated to take a breakthrough win for himself and the team, and Sospiri had to make do with second place 7.77s behind.

Round two at Barcelona, another circuit that suited the Cosworth-powered cars over the ones using Zytek Judd engines, was immediately earmarked as a place where the Super Nova drivers would perform well again. Rosset made it two-nil in qualifying, only by 0.001s, but the pair ended up down in fifth and sixth on the grid.

The top two on the grid spun off in the race, one of whom actually clashed with Sospiri in a contentious incident, but Super Nova took another win as Sospiri claimed his first in the series. A boost in confidence from that result led to Sospiri’s best qualifying of the session at the Pau Grand Prix, which he then went on to win to mark the best ever start to a F3000 season.

Rosset struck back with another dominant success at the Mediterranean GP, where Sospiri was again off the pace in qualifying but recovered to finish second. The qualifying pace got even worse at Hockenheim, where Sospiri didn’t finish the race, and he was 1.174s off pole at Spa-Francorchamps even though he started third. That got converted into a third win of the year, and despite even worse qualifying form in the final two races he won the title by a huge margin over Rosset.

Giorgio Vinella Team Martello 1999 Italian F3000
Best qualifying: 4th (Monza, Enna-Pergusa, Donington Park, Misano)   Wins: 2

The series that later became known as Auto GP started off as Italian F3000 in 1999, and the inaugural champion was 26-year-old Giorgio Vinella.

Second place in the 1995 Formula Ford Festival put Vinella on the map, but he didn’t truly follow up on that promise for some time. He spent two years in Formula Renault UK, the second at Team Martello and with future Fortec Motorsports team boss Mick Kouros as his engineer, and scored several podiums to finish fifth in the 1997 standings.

An unusual leap was then made to International F3000 for 1998, with struggling team Scuderia Coloni. He had to complete a special test organised by Italy’s motorsport governing body to ensure he was fast enough to race in the series, having decided against moving to F3 with Carlin, and his season ended up being a disaster in terms of results as out of 11 races he failed to qualify on four occasions and had a best finish of 15th.

That experience warned him off joining another backmarker for 1999, and he instead reunited with Martello and Kouros in the new Italian series. Knowing the car already, as well as the team, gave Vinella an advantage over much of his opposition in Italy, although there were some standout names including 1994 Super Formula champion Marco Apicella.

Fourth in the season opener, which Apicella won, was followed by a run of four races in a row where Vinella qualified fourth. At Monza he made the podium for the first time, then won the Mediterranean GP after crashing in free practice.

Vinella aquaplained off the road at Donington Park, then finished fifth in a procession at Misano. This put him one point ahead of Apicella and South African Werner Lupberger with two races to go. The second trip to Misano had him qualifying in fifth, but a great start and a crash ahead enabled him to get through into the lead and ultimately win.

Qualifying for the title decider took place in heavy rain, and Vinella ended up dislocating his spine in a nasty crash. He ended up 20th and last on the grid, but rose to ninth in a totally rebuilt car in the race and claimed the title and a prize Minardi Formula 1 testing role.

Jan Charouz Charouz Racing System 2006 F3000 International Masters
Best qualifying: 3rd (Brands Hatch)   Wins: 2

Photo: Pirelli

The son of Charouz Racing System founder and team boss Antonin Charouz, Jan is best known for driving for HRT in free practice for the 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix. The Czech spent most of his career with his father’s team, including when won the Le Mans Series title in 2009 in a Aston Martin LMP1 car.

His only other title success in car racing was the 2006 F3000 International Master crown, which used F3000 cars built in 1999 before it became International Formul Master with a bespoke car the following season.

While Charouz scored podiums from the off, a surprise given he had been underwhelming in Formula BMW ADAC and Auto GP prior, he didn’t look like a title contender as Czech team-mate Jaroslav Janis won four of the first six races. He didn’t appear again after that, concentrating on FIA GT instead, and only four drivers aside from Charouz entered the season in full.

Only once in eight sessions did Charouz get within a second of pole, but the rotating line-ups across the grid meant he rarely dropped points to his key rivals and he claimed a win and second place on home turn at Brno.

In the three-race Estoril season finale he retired twice, but already pretty much had the title in the bag. Despite competing in less than half of the season, Janis ended up with almost three quarters of the points that Charouz scored.

Charouz went into sportscars and won there too, but then returned to single-seaters for two seasons in FR3.5 – joining Charouz Racing System there for his second year – and scored points rarely.

Michael Benyahia R-ace GP 2017 FRenault Northern European Cup
Best qualifying: 7th (Assen)   Best finish: 3rd (Monza)

Photo: Greogry Eyckmans/NEC Media

A combination of drivers being registered for points in a different series, missed rounds by the fastest on the grid and a lengthening of the Formula Renault Eurocup calendar meant that FR Northern European Cup’s final two years had odd title battles.

In 2018, the final year of the series, it was a total embarrassment as it ran in the same races as the Eurocup for four of its six rounds, albeit with Pau and Monza as the two standalones, and crowned a champion whose best finish was eighth but was awarded five wins and three poles on the basis that the drivers at the front could only be registered for Eurocup points.

The year before wasn’t as bad, with only one round where running with Eurocup meant NEC basically counted as a class win, and a top two in the standings who actually did a decent job.

R-ace GP’s Michael Benyahia (the eventual champion) started his season at Monza with a podium (his only one of the year), and the drivers he finished behind were Renault junior Max Fewtrell and future sportscar star Gabriel Aubry.

Local knowledge at Assen meant it was the Dutch part-timers that set the pace, but Benyahia outclassed the drivers of equivalent experience around him for two top-six finishes. That was followed by top-10 pace again against a larger field at the Nurburgring, before he dipped massively at Spa. In the Hockenheim season finale he was back in the top 10 again, which earned him the title by two points.

It was a rare title for an African driver, as Benyahia is from Morocco, and it was followed up a shortlived stint in Euroformula before signing a development deal with Carlin and then moving into sportscars with McLaren.

Florian Schnitzenbaumer Franz Woss Racing 2005 Austrian F3 Cup
Best qualifying: 5th (Salzburgring)   Best finish: 4th (Salzburgring)

While not as illustrious as other international F3 series, the currrently Drexler Automotive-branded Austria-based championship is one of the longest standing after first running in 1982. Sharing a bill with the now-defunct German championship used to bring in big names, but it’s not totally ignored on the road to F1 now as Andrea Cola has graduated from the series to race in Formula Regional European Championship.

Schnitzenbaumer however was no young driver when he won the Austrian F3 Cup in 2005, already into his mid-30s, and he wasn’t on the pace either for much of that season. His best qualifying result came at a round that was very light on numbers.

He’s since moved on to BOSS GP after failing to replicate his F3 title, where he’s raced against former rival Ingo Gerstl.

Willi Deutsch privateer 1974 German F3
Best qualifying: 4th (Mainz)   Wins: 1

Wilhelm Deutsch is a name scantly known in motorsport beyond being a loyal buyer of March chassis during his racing career.

He raced in F3 in France and the United Kingdom before eventually returning to his home country, and while immediately up front he wasn’t usually fighting for the wins in the German championship due to the form of guesting foreigners.

Their arrival still got more out of Deutsch, and he qualified fourth on merit on the Mainz airport circuit late in the season. After winning the title, Deutsch progressed into European F2 but could not take his career momentum any further.

Winter series champions

A grid that included Valtteri Bottas and Alexander Sims, who would go on to be rivals in F3 Euro Series, didn’t have a huge influence on the destination of the 2007 FR2.0 UK winter title, but meant Richard Singleton was crowned champion without either a win or a pole.

Bottas beat Singleton to victory in the season-opening Donington Park race by a tiny 0.169s, and denied the FR BARC champion a podium at Croft too.

The size of the entry list for the series four years prior meant racing had to be completed in a heat format. Jay Howard won his heat in round one at Donington, but couldn’t match future Renault F1 driver Vitaly Petrov in the final. Weak qualifying at Croft the week after meant he had too much work to do to earn a top result, but fifth place in his heat and the final put him ahead of Westley Barber at the top of the standings.