Home Featured Who was really fastest in FIA F3 in 2020, and why?

Who was really fastest in FIA F3 in 2020, and why?

by Elliot Wood

Photos: Getty Images

The FIA Formula 3 Championship season has already been and gone, and the data left behind tells an interesting story on how a title destined for a driver from one team almost ended up with one from another

By consensus, Prema was expected to win both of the titles available in FIA F3 this year, and that’s exactly what it did. In the inaugural season it had a clear pace advantage not only with its trio of quality drivers, but because the team itself had got on top of the Dallara F3 2019 quicker than anyone else. This wasn’t a small advantage either, and there was only one circuit where it didn’t look like the team to beat. To the gratitude of its opposition, that same circuit stood as its weakness this year.

And despite its drivers filling three of the top four places in the final championship standings, and winning the teams title by 209 points (a points tally that only two other teams even reached), Prema was not the fastest team this year.

The most obvious method of pace comparison is looking at each team’s gap to the absolute pace set at each round. And more often than not, Prema was not the fastest team.

Logan Sargeant took three consecutive poles for the team in the middle of the year, but two of these came at Silverstone and therefore there was only two circuits out of seven where a Prema driver set the fastest lap. It did that four times out of a possible nine in 2019 (if the non-championship Macau Grand Prix is included), which is what Trident achieved this year.

The Italian neighbour of Prema set the pace in qualifying at Spa-Francorchamps and Mugello with Lirim Zendeli, who was second fastest overall across the two Red Bull Ring rounds but the quickest of all on the second visit, and his team-mate David Beckmann was the best at the Hungaroring.

That only translated to two poles though, a loss of crucial track position in a grid of wide high-downforce cars, and that’s because Hungaroring qualifying took place in the wet (leaving Beckmann 14th on the grid) and the second Red Bull Ring session was so stop-start that laptimes didn’t get back up to the level reached in free practice by Zendeli.

Prema’s Frederik Vesti was the driver who benefitted to take pole at the Red Bull Ring, which he converted into a win in a rain-shortened race. That only awarded half-points though, which punished Trident in the standings. Had it counted for full points, then Beckmann would have been up a spot to fifth, and Zendeli up a spot to seventh come the end of the year.

Sargeant would have overtaken ART Grand Prix’s Theo Pourchaire as well to be title runner-up, and while they had a pace advantage over eventual champion Oscar Piastri, it was the latter’s consistency that earned him the title.

Taking the best times of each driver and expressing them as a percentage of the absolute pace means an average of that absolute pace can be calculated across the nine rounds. The performance of Trident in those two early season practice sessions helps put it on top, with Zendeli leading the way with a pace that was on average 0.263% away from the fastest lap at any given round. Or on a lap with a 1m40s pole lap, he was on average 0.263 seconds away.

Beckmann is second best and just 0.029% off his team-mate, with Sargeant and Pourchaire third and fourth fastest on average. HWA Racelab’s Jake Hughes and Liam Lawson are next up, both within 0.5% of the pace, while champion Piastri was only 10th fastest of the 35 drivers to compete this season. In fact, he recorded a rare feat of winning a title without ever making the front row.

There is a caveat to this data though, as using fastest laps from free practice rather than qualifying isn’t totally representative. Track conditions in FIA F3’s single practice session on a Friday morning is a world away from the grip level available later in the day in qualifying, after several Formula 1 and Formula 2 sessions have taken place, and the tyres used in those sessions aren’t always the same set that end up in use for qualifying.

To complicate matters further, practice is also used for bedding in brakes as well as tyres, and the two Red Bull Ring rounds used completely different compounds of tyre from Pirelli. The medium compound was used for round one, and practice for round two was the first time the teams even saw the hard compound they were to use.

Single-lap ‘supertimes’

Pos Driver Team Race pace Pos Driver Team Pace
1 L Zendeli Trident 100.263% 18 C Novalak Carlin 100.997%
2 D Beckmann Trident 100.292% 19 D Hauger Hitech 101.033%
3 L Sargeant Prema 100.382% 20 O Caldwell Trident 101.038%
4 T Pourchaire ART GP 100.410% 21 B Viscaal MP 101.039%
5 J Hughes HWA 100.448% 22 E Fittipaldi HWA 101.092%
6 L Lawson Hitech 100.477% 23 D Schumacher Carlin 101.099%
7 S Fernandez ART GP 100.554% 24 C Williams Jenzer 101.133%
8 A Smolyar ART GP 100.584% 25 R Stanek Charouz 101.201%
9 A Peroni Campos 100.609% 26 C Das Carlin 101.217%
10 O Piastri Prema 100.651% 27 I Fraga Charouz 101.245%
11 F Vesti Prema 100.658% 28 F Malvestiti Jenzer 101.306%
12 L Pulcini Carlin 100.660% 29 M Belov Charouz 101.387%
13 R Verschoor MP 100.728% 30 L Dunner MP 101.468%
14 J Doohan HWA 100.792% 31 S Floersch Campos 101.506%
15 B Barnicoat Carlin 100.901% 32 E Ahmed Carlin 101.582%
16 M Nannini Jenzer 100.903% 33 A Estner Campos 101.688%
17 M Fewtrell Hitech 100.906% 34 P-L Chovet Hitech 101.712%

By removing the Hungaroring round from the equation, given there wasn’t even a dry qualifying session there to compare to the free practice times, then it’s Sargeant who was fastest on average at 100.253% of the absolute pace.

Zendeli is just behind in second, followed by Beckmann and Pourchaire, while Piastri is now the fifth fastest driver. While quite a leap up the order, it makes sense as Piastri spent much of Hungaroring free practice in the garage and when he did take to track he ran shorter stints than the rest of the grid and set significantly fewer laps than the pacesetters.

Piastri wasn’t lacking in one-lap pace across the season, as by applying the same calculations to the fastest laps from races then he was second best on average. The driver to beat on this front, even before HWA’s change in set-up direction that turned around the fortunes of all three of its cars, was Hughes.

It was the same names filling the next spots behind these two, with Carlin’s Ben Barnicoat up in 10th from his two-round Silverstone cameo that marked a return to single-seaters for the Briton after moving to sportscar racing in 2017.

Clement Novalak actually set fastest lap on two occasions for Carlin, but the team was hugely inconsistent and had swings of 2% between races in its gap to the front. As a result, Novalak was 16th fastest on average and 0.97% off the pace.

The opposite of Novalak’s picture was Hughes’ team-mate Enzo Fittipaldi, who made the most of HWA’s mid-season fix to score four times in the last seven races and kept arguably a more level pace than anyone on long runs, even as tyre life decreased.

Admittedly Fittipaldi was only 13th fastest on what Formula Scout would consider ‘race pace’; the best 10-lap rolling average achieved by a driver in races where that was achievable without safety car interruptions or anomalous laps (where a single laptime is disproportionately slower than the stint average due to traffic, an off or yellow flags).

Only 11 of the 18 races fitted this criteria, but it did include at least one race at every circuit and showed just how close FIA F3 is when one team isn’t dominating. The top 19 were covered by just one percent on race pace, with the remaining 16 drivers all within the 102% mark.

While Prema did start the season as the top team on race pace, improvements by ART, Hitech and HWA meant drivers from those teams got closer to the front. ART and HWA matched Prema in being the fastest team at two different circuits, and the improvements by ART propelled Pourchaire into title contention.

Piastri was down in eighth, only narrowly ahead of old Formula Renault Eurocup rival and Monza race two pacesetter Alexander Smolyar. The race pace gap between Piastri and his team-mate Vesti at the top, whose own title hopes were undone by two retirements in the higher-scoring Saturday races and a qualifying deficit that was similar to Piastri’s, was larger than what covered Piastri down to Fittipaldi.

Were it not for Barnicoat’s starring cameo, then Alex Peroni would have got Campos Racing into the top 10 on qualifying pace, race pace and peak race pace on the season averages.

Beyond the drivers usually fighting for wins, it was the Australian’s abilities that stood out the most when his team-mates were usually back row prospects. Peroni claimed two fastest laps and three podiums, but his team just got slower and slower as the season went on.

Over the first rounds he was only 0.2% off the front in qualifying, but that gap had more than quadrupled by the final rounds in Italy. Only once did one of his team-mates get within 0.5% of him though, and he ended up contributing the entirety of Campos’s points haul – enough to put it ahead of Carlin, Jenzer Motorsport and Charouz Racing System in the standings.

FIA F3’s rolling race pace average

Pos Driver Race pace Pos Driver Pace Pos Driver Pace
1 Vesti 100.197% 2 Pourchaire 100.367% 3 Lawson 100.399%
4 Sargeant 100.404% 5 Hughes 100.417% 6 Zendeli 100.440%
7 Barnicoat 100.450% 8 Piastri 100.506% 9 Smolyar 100.511%
10 Beckmann 100.521% 11 Peroni 101.521% 12 Verschoor 101.746%
13 Fittipaldi 100.762% 14 Fernandez 100.837% 15 Novalak 100.865%
16 Williams 100.936% 17 Viscaal 100.947% 18 Doohan 100.953%
19 Caldwell 100.973% 20 Belov 101.013% 21 Pulcini 101.064%
22 Fewtrell 101.084% 23 Chovet 101.153% 24 Nannini 101.190%
25 Hauger 101.228% 26 Dunner 101.235% 27 Fraga 101.277%
28 Schumacher 101.286% 29 Floersch 101.358% 30 Ahmed 101.369%
31 Stanek 101.446% 32 Malvestiti 101.479% 33 Das 101.533%
34 Estner 101.645% 35 Deledda 101.918%