Home Featured Why ‘Mr Consistent’ was too good at his strongest suit in F3

Why ‘Mr Consistent’ was too good at his strongest suit in F3

by Ida Wood

Photo: Formula Motorsport Limited

Since his 2019 BRDC British Formula 3 title, Clement Novalak has become known as ‘Mr Consistent’. The online moniker proved painfully accurate in 2021 as his strongest attribute undid his FIA F3 title hopes

With three poles out of seven and a fastest lap tally second to none, you would have expected that champion Dennis Hauger was the fastest driver on single-lap pace in FIA Formula 3 Championship this year. Instead it was a driver who only made the front row for the first time in his final qualifying session in the series and had an average starting spot of 5.2 for the Sunday races where the grid was set by the order of qualifying.

But in a super close field of 30 cars where on a hypothetical 1m40s lap the top 19 would be spread by less than a second and the whole grid would be just 1.767s apart, to be able to qualify no lower than seventh actually made this driver the third-best qualifier of the season. And Trident’s Clement Novalak was able to transform that statistic into third in the standings.

But he wasn’t able to turn that into a victory, and actually endured the longest podium drought of anyone in the top 17 in the standings. Only Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 Frederik Vesti appeared in the top 10 more than Novalak though, and he was second to Alpine junior Victor Martins when it came to points scored in reversed-grid races (which equated to 13 of the season’s 20 races). Conversely, Novalak was the only driver in the top six to retire more than once.

The Sunday races were worth more points than the Saturday ones for the top eight finishers, and Novalak was the fourth-highest scorer in these. He took home 56 points, one less than Vesti, but that was less than half of the 119 Hauger earned.

And despite Hauger’s advantage in the races, and the fact both of his Prema team-mates got into the top 10 in the standings, it was actually Trident that took the teams’ title by four points despite claiming five wins to Prema’s seven and with David Schumacher finishing a very distant 11th in the championship for the team. Clearly Novalak’s consistency was an asset, and he had a strong knack of being able to climb up the order to score points, but being consistently towards the bottom of the top five in qualifying hampered his victory hopes in both the Saturday and Sunday races.

Single-lap pace
Pos Driver Team Pace Pos Driver Team Pace
1 Clement Novalak Trident 100.250% 16 Lorenzo Colombo Campos 100.833%
2 Dennis Hauger Prema 100.270% 17 Oliver Rasmussen HWA 100.876%
3 Jack Doohan Trident 100.309% 18 Roman Stanek Hitech 100.940%
4 Frederik Vesti ART GP 100.431% 19 Enzo Fittipaldi Charouz 100.972%
5 Alex Smolyar ART GP 100.494% 20 Calan Williams Jenzer 101.014%
6 Victor Martins MP 100.565% 21 Johnathan Hoggard Jenzer 101.032%
7 Jake Hughes Carlin 100.622% 22 Juan Manuel Correa ART GP 101.088%
8 David Schumacher Trident 100.627% 23 Jonny Edgar Carlin 101.102%
9 Caio Collet MP 100.630% 24 Kaylen Frederick Carlin 101.283%
10 Logan Sargeant Charouz 100.686% 25 Tijmen van der Helm MP 101.379%
11 Olli Caldwell Prema 100.707% 26 Amaury Cordeel Campos 101.385%
12 Arthur Leclerc Prema 100.717% 27 Rafael Villagomez HWA 101.558%
13 Jak Crawford Hitech 100.748% 28 Reshad de Gerus Charouz 101.709%
14 Matteo Nannini HWA 100.763% 29 Ido Cohen Carlin 101.719%
15 Ayumu Iwasa Hitech 100.800% 30 Pierre-Louis Chovet Campos 101.767%

He was routinely one of the fastest on race pace (taken as a 10-lap rolling average from stints of that duration or beyond), and on average was only bettered by Hauger. And while Novalak did get his strongest results through some tough racecraft, namely at Barcelona and Zandvoort, in many of the post-race discussions he said he spent most of his time on race management mode rather than on the attack. It’s similar to what drivers were saying further down the order, although with cars that overheated their tyres far faster than Trident’s.

“The reason why I had a lot of pace at the end is when I got behind Caio [Collet] and Jonny [Edgar] I was just saving tyres the whole time and seeing if he [Edgar] made a mistake and I could try and take advantage of it,” Novalak said after starting the season with a runner-up spot in the first of the reversed-grid races at Barcelona. It proved to be his joint-best result of the year.

When he returned to the podium in the penultimate round at Zandvoort, it lifted him to fifth in the standings after falling to seventh at the halfway point of the season. And despite brushing off any thoughts of the title, Novalak knew playing the long game in races and the season was going to reward him in the long run.

“I think consistency has still paid off this year, even if I haven’t been on the podium that many times,” he said post-race.

Formula Scout then asked him what needed to change to win. It was an important question because Novalak had burst onto the single-seater scene in 2018 with two wins and a pole in the Toyota Racing Series, then had debuted in British F3 later that year with a pole. His year then unravelled though, despite excellent preparations, with an injury leading to him skipping races as he tried to combine British F3 with Formula Renault 2.0 after testing in the two cars while in karting.

When he had returned to British F3 for a second season he had everything needed to win, which he did, and his strongest suit was consistently getting high-scoring results in the reversed-grid races. He was rarely the driver to beat on pace, but over a season the consistency stacked up in his favour. The same in FIA F3. So what was Novalak’s answer to the question?

“Well I think firstly I’ve got to cross the line first, that’s the most important [thing]. But for sure, yeah, qualifying’s been our weak point this season, like I’ve said before, too consistent in our position, so hopefully we can move forward tomorrow and try to get a good result but otherwise full focus onto Sochi to really try to nail it there.”

Novalak lined up fifth for Sunday’s race at Zandvoort, having qualified behind both of his team-mates, but he profited from a clash ahead to finish second for the second race in a row and become only the fifth driver to take consecutive podiums in a race weekend in 2021. It being his first Sunday podium also meant his biggest points haul, and rising to third in the standings.

He headed to Sochi able to take the title runner-up spot from team-mate Jack Doohan, who had won three races and picked up three other podiums, but in such a closely-matched field there was also the possibility of plummeting to ninth.

That latter outcome was statistically unlikely not only because of how many points his rivals needed, but taking the two Red Bull Ring retirements out of the equation it meant Novalak had an average finishing position come season-end of 5.39. That was the highest of anyone, and the gap between himself and Vesti with the next best average of 6.68 was pretty much the biggest gap between any drivers in the field. Not only that, but if you take retirements into the equation (as two 28th places for Novalak), then his average would still be 7.60 which is higher than Vesti’s 7.80 average when his retirements are taken into account and also still above Hauger (7.80) and Doohan (8.00) who finished all 20 races of the year.

Other drivers to complete the year without a retirement were MP Motorsport’s Martins, Hitech GP’s Roman Stanek, ART GP’s Juan Manuel Correa and Jenzer Motorsport’s Filip Ugran who finished no higher than 19th.

Novalak’s average was boosted in Sochi with a fourth and a third, after feisty battles with Doohan, and for the first time in the season he was actually the fastest on race pace. His ability to preserve his tyres until on a lower fuel load meant he nabbed an extra two points for fastest lap in race one, he feat he should arguably have been achieving more often, and it helped Trident beat Prema to the teams’ title.

The rolling race pace average
Pos Driver Pace Pos Driver Pace Pos Driver Pace
1 Hauger 100.371% 13 Schumacher 100.862% 25 Hoggard 101.458%
2 Novalak 100.443% 14 Hughes 100.929% 26 v d Helm 101.543%
3 Sargeant 100.496% 15 Colombo 100.939% 27 Frederick 101.544%
4 Doohan 100.504% 16 Fittipaldi 101.052% 28 Chovet 101.547%
5 Martins 100.507% 17 de Gerus 101.071% 29 Villagomez 101.553%
6 Leclerc 100.546% 18 Correa 101.116% 30 Yeany 101.595%
7 Vesti 100.587% 19 Stanek 101.120% 31 Simmons 101.630%
8 Collet 100.614% 20 Nannini 101.211% 32 Cohen 101.633%
9 Smolyar 100.672% 21 Williams 101.295% 33 Toth 101.655%
10 Iwasa 100.790% 22 Rasmussen 101.300% 34 Ugran 101.782%
11 Caldwell 100.800% 23 Edgar 101.410% 35 Chovance 102.443%
12 Crawford 100.839% 24 Cordeel 101.450%

The first thing he told the press after finishing the season finale on the podium was that he was “trying to save tyres” through the race’s first half. That enabled him to fight Doohan in the second half, leaving his tyres “pretty much shot” after a battle that even had team intervention after Trident thought it was at risk of losing the title while the slower Doohan defended from Novalak and allowed Vesti to draw in. Doohan was asked to let Novalak through to win, but refused to back down.

After the trophy was secured, Novalak said he was trying to spread the virtue of consistency to his team-mates to end Prema’s dominance of the first two seasons of FIA F3. However he also realised the negative of consistent positioning.

“High point [of the season], I think getting off the third row in qualifying was definitely a good point for myself, because qualifying P5 and P6 was starting to get annoying after a few races,” he said of his Sochi front row.

Novalak’s place at the top of the one-lap pace average came about through exceptional circumstances, having been fastest by some way in free practice at Spa-Francorchamps. It ended up being the only dry session of the weekend, but in the wet Novalak took the race two fastest lap and was 0.154s off the front row in qualifying so his pace certainly was no fluke.

More importantly pace-wise, nearly everyone had an off-weekend pace-wise or messed up in a qualifying session but Novalak never did. Only Doohan can claim to have a worst qualifying result as high as his, and in the two Red Bull Ring races he retired from he was one of the fastest on track.

In race one there for example, he charged from seventh to third on the opening lap, and was then leading before an attempted move by HWA Racelab’s Matteo Nannini around the outside led to the pair making contact and Novalak retiring. In race three he was then wiped out of fifth by an out-of-control Arthur Leclerc.

It was rare to see HWA up front often, while Leclerc used the Prema package to win at Paul Ricard and Zandvoort, and ART GP started off strongly with wins in each of the first three rounds for Alexander Smolyar and Vesti but then trailed off.

MP was fast out of the blocks too but once others got up to speed in the packed midfield it was then a case of constantly being in battles, and its drivers didn’t always get out of those intact to score points.

Fifth in the teams standings was Charouz Racing System, where 2020 title contender Logan Sargeant was brought in to develop the set-up and soon turned the car into a winning one. At the end of the year he was picked up by the Williams F1 team and has now stepped up to F2. Novalak did the same, debuting in the penultimate round earlier this month ahead of a full 2022 campaign. Formula Scout understands Novalak was on course to drive for Virtuosi Racing in F2 next year, but after the F3 season his plans changed and he instead joined MP as he was able to make an end-of-year appearance.

One point behind Charouz in F3 was Hitech, which often had its fortunes hampered by traffic in the races and also went slightly wayward on set-up at Spa despite getting a double podium in race one.

HWA came seventh in the points courtesy of Nannini’s results, and Campos Racing was eighth after unlocking pace halfway through the year. The team had a hard off-season as its founder Adrian Campos died and his son Adrian took control.

“This year was the first year that we have also had an F4 team, on top of F2 and F3, which were on separate weekends this season,” Campos Jr said.

“I knew that it was going to be very challenging and very tough, but it was even more than I was expecting. We had some good results, winning one race and crossing the line first twice, but it was very hard. At some points, certain things didn’t go as we expected, but I think by the end of the season, we were getting there. I think we’re back to where we should be.”

The bottom two teams were Jenzer and Carlin, and the latter’s best result was a fifth for Edgar in the season opener. The issues these teams faced was not only a lack of pace, but rear tyre overheating.

The fastest drivers made a lot of their gains in laptime in usage of kerbs. Teams such as Prema which use simulator sessions to really train the drivers how to do very specific warm-up and cool-down procedures for the tyres reaped the rewards of this approach, while others floundered as when the tyre warm-up wasn’t right the surface temperature of the rubber would then get too high if they went over the abrasive exit kerbs too much.

This wasn’t just a qualifying issue, but also in races. The issue was more kerbs meant more heat, meaning more degradation, which ultimately meant going slower. But less kerbs also meant going slower. As soon as lap three of some races there were drivers already floundering with their rear tyres, and once the cycle of degradation begins there’s no going back.

It meant some drivers were simply not able to push for a better result when stuck outside of the top 20, and teams that really got it wrong saw others push and even slide more on the rear tyres yet still have less degradation than themselves.

As one driver put it: “I think one way of looking at it is if you’re 0.7 seconds off [per lap], to do the pace of another car in a race you’re so much more on the limit so then it makes much more deg”.

It doesn’t sound like fun being in the bottom half of the FIA F3 grid, but the likes of Hauger and Doohan were in that exact scenario in 2020 and after moving to a top team they were able to show their true abilities.

If the post-season testing line-ups are anything to go by, then watch out for Red Bull juniors Jak Crawford (Prema) and Edgar (Trident), Alpine’s Martins (ART GP) and Johnathan Hoggard (Hitech) in their sophomore seasons in 2022.

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Where Hauger made the difference in FIA F3’s short-lived three-race era