Ocon wins a GP3 title that goes down to the wire in Abu Dhabi: tyre strategy at the forefront of GP2 once more
The last GP2 and GP3 rounds of the season at Abu Dhabi formed a thrilling finale to both series, with the GP3 title going to ART Grand Prix driver Esteban Ocon on Sunday, while the unique conditions of Yas Marina made tyre management a key factor in GP2. For GP2 the P Zero White medium and P Zero Red supersoft tyres were nominated, leading to a significant performance gap between the two compounds, while GP3 had the medium compound only. At Abu Dhabi, some of the sessions were held during the heat of the day, while others took place in the evening. This meant that the practice and qualifying sessions were not necessarily relevant to the races, with the drivers having to adapt to changing conditions on each occasion. Finding the right window of track temperature was key to getting the most out of the tyres throughout the weekend, with falling temperatures during the sessions run in the evening. The extra speed of the supersoft tyre, which was more than a second faster than the medium at Abu Dhabi, made this the default qualifying choice – but how long would it last during the race? In GP2, the drivers can choose the tyres on which they start the race, adding an extra dimension to the strategy that is not seen even in Formula One. During the GP2 feature race, the top four of the grid all started on the supersoft tyre, meaning that they had a speed advantage in the early stages. ART Grand Prix’s Stoffel Vandoorne managed to squeeze past polesitter Pierre Gasly (DAMS) on lap four as his tyres started to go off. Most of the supersoft drivers stopped as soon as the pit window opened on lap six, which was quickly followed by a virtual safety car that affected a number of strategies. Those who had started on the medium tyre carried out the opposite strategy, with a long first stint and a pit stop onto the supersoft at the very end – to take advantage of the faster tyre in cool conditions. Trident driver Raffaele Marciello was the top driver on the grid to start with the medium, in fifth, and finished the race second after stopping on lap 25: pushing Vandoorne hard to the end before the supersofts started to degrade. Vandoorne’s seventh win of the season is the most that any driver has accumulated during the course of a GP2 season. It was also the 11th GP2 win of his career, beating the all-time GP2 record held by Lotus F1 Team driver Pastor Maldonado. The 2015 GP2 champion said: “I knew on my strategy I had to clear some traffic. That was always going to be the case. Then it was all about managing the pace with the prime tyres. I knew Marciello could maybe be a threat but in the end, it was the right strategy. It was the one I had also last season and I won on it. It worked perfectly again this season. I put a lot of pressure on Pierre at the beginning. I really wanted to get my way past him as early as possible because I had a feeling he would have more degradation than I had. It was important to get a little bit of margin before the pitstop.” This turned out to be the final GP2 race of the year, as Sunday’s sprint race – where all the teams would have run the medium tyre – was cancelled as a result of barrier damage following an accident on lap one. ART’s Marvin Kirchhofer won the GP3 feature race (as he did in Bahrain) following a five-second penalty for his team mate and eventual title winner Esteban Ocon, who the stewards thought had gained an advantage after running wide. This dropped Ocon from pole to fourth at the finish, but still in the driving seat for the title race, as Trident’s Luca Ghiotto finished behind him in fifth. The Italian made a poor start and was not able to recover, during a long race where tyre management was critical. Ocon claimed the title on Sunday, by finishing on the podium for the 14th time this year despite making contact with his title rival as they got away. Ghiotto bravely fought back to fourth – just one place behind Ocon at the flag – but this was not enough to haul back the points different he needed. Ocon, a Mercedes junior driver, said: “I was managing my tyres well, so there was no pressure. We did a good job, it was important to finish in front of Luca for the championship.” Pirelli’s racing manager Mario Isola concluded: “As usual, Abu Dhabi was a tough race, with the GP2 and GP3 drivers both having to deal with variable track conditions and temperatures over the course of the weekend, as well as the pressure of a title shoot-out in GP3. The GP2 feature race was all about maximising the life of the supersoft while taking the advantage of its extra speed: an accomplishment that was achieved perfectly by Stoffel Vandoorne. An even more profitable strategy was employed by Raffaele Marciello, who was able to gain some important positions. In GP3, we saw a thrilling fight for the title where tyre management was paramount: Ocon capitalised on every opportunity that presented itself, while extracting the best from the tyres, and as a result he became champion at the very last race – another sign of the close competition in this category.”
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