Formula Renault 3.5 returned this weekend, heading to “the temple of speed” in Monza. Once again, the classic Italian track did not disappoint. Three favourites emerged from pre season testing; all eyes were on Antonio Felix da Costa, Stoffel Vandoorne and Kevin Magnussen as they began their title charge.
It was the Belgian, Vandoorne who pushed his Fortec Motorsport on pole for his debut race of the series. The Formula 2.0 champion was positioned in front Sergey Sirotkin and Christopher Zanella (both racing for the Czech team ISR) and Portugese favourite, Antonio Felix da Costa who completed the front two rows.
The Dane, Kevin Magnussen (DAMS) qualified seventh with Andre Negaro (International Draco Racing), Will Stevens (P1 Motorsport) and Oliver Webb (Vandoorne’s team mate) rounding off the top ten.
As the race loomed, changing weather conditions cast doubts over tyre choices. In his first race, Vandoorne seemed untroubled and maintained his position to lead by the first chicane. The promise that Sirotkin had shown in qualifying could not convert into a podium; the Russian was caught out at the start as the cars fought on the narrow circuit.
His compatriot Nikolay Martsenko (Pons Racing) also found himself in some difficulty as him and Will Stevens collided. This brought a sudden end to the Russian’s race but did allow Felix da Costa to make up valuable positions. The Portuguese driver, now a member of the Red Bull Junior Team, held his nerve to halve the gap between himself and the race leader Vandoorne. However Felix da Costa’s fortunes would change; a puncture forced him to retire losing him points to his championship rivals.
Kevin Magnussen capitalised on this misfortune to finish second. The Dane was unable to catch his Mclaren Young Driver Programme colleague, Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian enjoyed a dream start as he successfully converted his pole into a race win; he is the first rookie to achieve this fate. Christopher Zanella maintained his position – the Swiss driver was chased to end by Oliver Webb who closed the gap to four-tenths-of-a-second to finish strongly.
It was Arthur Pic who gained the most positions during race one. The Frenchman used his DRS efficiently to improve by sixteen places to finish sixth. Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin), Mihai Marinescu (Zeta Corse), Matias Laine (P1 Motorsport) and Norman Nato (DAMS) completed the top ten.
Speaking after the race, Vandoorne expressed his joy and slight surprise at his race day victory. In a press release, the Belgian stated, “My head is still spinning! I built a big lead at the start, from there I simply had to manage it”.
By Sunday, the pressure was on Felix da Costa to close the gap to his championship rivals. Finishing the second qualifying day on pole, the Red Bull Junior proved why he is a favourite for the title. Once again, his rivals were not far behind – Vandoorne and Magnussen were second and third respectively. Oliver Webb qualified nine places behind his team mate in eleventh whilst defending team championship Tech 1 Racing could only manage thirteenth and fourteenth. Marco Sorensen started from the pit lane.
The second race brought as much drama as its predecessor. Eight cars fought hard to the first corner, the drivers providing enough room to ensure fair racing. Matias Laine and Lucas Foresti were early retirements.
Vandoorne gained an early lead, out manoeuvring Felix da Costa at the start. However he was unable to maintain this lead as electrical problems that halted his progress in qualifying slowed him down. The Belgian could not fulfil his potential despite his mechanics best efforts to restore his car. Vandoorne ultimately finished third. Costa was victorious on Sunday, “it was like completing 30 qualifying laps, I tried to preserve my tyres but I had to push hard” he explained.
Nikolay Martsenko’s bad luck continued, a collision forced him to retire on lap 17. The Russian vowed to stay positive in spite of this. Danlil Move, Lucas Foresti (both racing the SMP Racing by Comtec), Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin), Matias Laine (P1 Motorsport) all retired. The biggest name faller was Will Stevens whose disappointing weekend continued as reliability issues halted his running.
Arthur Pic, brother of Caterham F1 driver Charles, was chasing down Stoffel Vandoorne in the closing stage. The Frenchman secured the fastest lap of the race on lap 22, a 1:34.994. The Belgian did just enough to hold off the DAMS car.
Kevin Magnussen improved on his starting position, finishing second and concluding a positive weekend for the Dane. Oliver Webb looked strong during the race, until a puncture picked up on the penultimate corner pushed him down from sixth to ninth overall. Webb’s fortunes on the race weekend were ultimately mixed.
Stoffel Vandoorne’s consistent performances and double podium means he is now leading the championship with 40 points, 4 ahead of fellow McLaren prodigy Kevin Magnussen. Antonio Felix da Costa is third with 25. Just one point separates Arthur Pic and Christopher Zanella for fourth and fifth place respectively. Vandoorne himself has admitted that he “could not have hoped for a better start”.
His team Fortec Motorsport, who gifted 2012 champion Robin Frijns with his winning car, are leading the team championship with 54 points. DAMS are second on 45 whilst Felix da Costa’s lost podium on the Saturday has placed them third on 31 points.
Eight race weekends remain, during this time the championship standings will change. Next stop is Aragon Motorland in Spain; the cars will return to this iconic circuit for the first time since testing. Antonio Felix da Costa will hope that his reliability issues on the Saturday will not affect his chances of championship victory.
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