ART Grand Prix are one of the most recognisable names on the Road to F1. Yet, in spite of all their success, one piece of silverware still remains elusive – the FIA Formula 3 Championship trophy. In the third tier’s modern era, the French team have yet to claim either the Drivers’ or Teams’ titles, but 2022 has given them another shot at glory and one that they intend to seize.
Having led the way since the opening round in Sakhir, Victor Martins sits at the top of the Drivers’ Standings. However, Hitech Grand Prix rookie Isack Hadjar has slashed the ART driver’s advantage to a single point, with four rounds remaining. Meanwhile, rookie Grégoire Saucy and the returning Juan Manuel Correa’s growing confidence have enabled ART to hold firm in second. However, with an 85-point gap to close, they’ll have a task on their hands to catch up to PREMA Racing and hold off a resurging Hitech.
While their Team Principal Sébastien Philippe is content with how his trio has performed throughout the first five rounds, the Frenchman admits they’ve still got some progress to make to iron out those little errors, as the Championship heads into its crucial title-deciding second half.
“It’s not been too bad. I think the start of the season for sure could have been better but also could have been worse,” Philippe began. “We can see that it's quite close with the other drivers and other teams. We had some issues like the others have also had, but generally, I'm quite happy with the start of the season.
“When you manage a team, you're always looking more at where you could have been better. I think we have been facing some small mistakes on our side, we’ve had some mechanical issues too. Also, unfortunately, Correa missed one race weekend plus some testing, which had quite an impact for the team. All in all, when we look at all the little problems we’ve had, we are there at the moment, but I’m sure we can do much better.”
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From the moment the lights went out in Bahrain, Martins has been at the forefront of ART’s charge this season. While comparatively, his statistics from his maiden F3 campaign to this year don’t look worlds away from one another – he currently has two wins and five podiums to his name compared to one win and six podiums in 2021 – it's perhaps his consistency that has demonstrated how far the 21-year-old has come.
Out of the 10 races so far, he’s scored points in all but two: the Sakhir Sprint Race, where he and teammate Saucy collided, and the Barcelona Sprint Race, where Martins was forced to retire with an issue. Thankfully for the Frenchman, he seems to have shrugged off the five-race non-points scoring streak that plagued the middle part of his campaign last year.
It’s that run of form that has impressed Philippe the most. However, the team boss also stressed that there are still plenty of areas that Martins needs to address, especially during a busy July, which culminates in the sixth round in Budapest at the end of the month.
“I think he’s showed that he has the pace, that he can manage races well by winning two out of the first three Feature Races. It’s a bit of a shame that a small mistake on Lap 1 in Imola’s Feature Race gave us almost no points in P9. He’s doing a good job, but we could have scored more points without his mistake in Imola and without the engine failure in the Barcelona Sprint Race. I’m happy that we’re leading the Championship, considering that there are two races where we should have done much better.
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“You always have to work as a driver, you are never perfect. There are always small details that can make a big difference. So, for Martins and the others, there are a lot of things to develop in order to do an even better job. It’s important to be very focused and to deliver every single little part perfectly because we know that going from hero to zero is a very small line.”
While Martins’ focus moves towards what looks to be a closely fought battle for the title between him, Hadjar and Arthur Leclerc, it’s all about learning from experience for his teammate Saucy. The Swiss rookie has steadily moved up the single-seater ladder with ART – firstly, with his 2020 Formula Renault Eurocup campaign, before claiming the Formula Regional European Championship title last season, 68 points clear of his nearest rival.
While achieving his first F3 podium in only his second race in the Championship might have given him a boost of confidence, his results haven’t always replicated the pace he’s demonstrated. Since that third-place finish in the Sakhir Feature Race, Saucy has been unable to score a point and has dropped to 16th in the Drivers’ Championship.
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Nevertheless, despite those initial disappointments, Philippe is optimistic about the 22-year-old's chances of fighting in the points on a regular basis as the season progresses, noting that the lessons he has learned should allow him to go toe-to-toe with some of his more experienced rivals. However, he’s refusing to set any expectations for Saucy beyond each stage of a race weekend, prioritising his individual performances rather than letting him be weighed down by Championship targets so early on.
“I think he had a fantastic start to the season from the winter test until now. He’s shown that he’s able to fight for the wins. I’m very happy with his pace. We had some issues in Barcelona that didn’t allow him to show what he’s able to do. Of course, he still needs to learn a few little tricks for F3, but I’m pretty sure he is able to fight for wins.
“Clearly, even in his rookie season, I think he has the potential to do good things. He just needs to be consistent. Probably the place where he needs to improve the most at the moment is consistency, which he’ll get from the experience he’s earning.
“What makes me happy is that since the Valencia test last winter until now, he’s been on the pace straightaway. He just needs to improve on getting used to F3’s racing format - there’s a little bit of running time, not a lot – and to be a bit stronger fighting in the races. He’ll get used to it and understand this Pirelli tyre, when you need to push and when you need to save, when you follow drivers and where you need to attack. He will build this up during the year, but in terms of speed he’s already there.
“At the moment, we’re at a part of the season where I think we need to be focused more on a race-by-race basis to optimise and do the best job possible. It’s more important for him to spend 100% of his energy trying to do a better job and at the end of the day, we will see where he ends up at the conclusion of the Championship.
“This is a bit of an advantage for the rookies. They are more there to try to perform on a day-to-day basis, rather than trying to focus on what’s going on in the Championship and if he does a good job, he’ll automatically rank well.”
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Confidence is the key word for two of ART’s drivers, as Juan Manuel Correa’s remarkable return to racing continues following the tragic accident in Spa-Francorchamps in 2019. Bouncing back from several setbacks, including an injury which forced him to miss the second round in Imola, Correa has continued to go from strength to strength this season.
He’s already doubled his 2021 points haul and although he presently sits 13th in the Standings, he’s been on the fringes of the top 10 all season long, fighting to secure a maiden podium. The American driver has come close on several occasions already, finishing fifth in the Barcelona Sprint Race and retiring from the Spielberg Sprint Race just a couple of laps after a brilliant dive for the lead.
It’s that transformation over the past year and a half that has left Philippe with a smile, pleased with the progress Correa has and continues to make, and he’s got no doubt that there’s still more to come.
“We’ve made a huge step with Correa since last year. It was a big change from what we did with him last season and I think he took a bit of time, which his completely normal. He spent more than 500 days out of the car, and he had to cope with mainly some small issues. So, I was really happy with how we started the season from the test in Bahrain to the first weekend and we were in a good momentum.
“Unfortunately, he had his injury that ruled him completely out of the Barcelona test and the Imola weekend. I had a lot of question marks coming into Barcelona because first of all, we were not sure that he would be 100% okay. Secondly, when you miss training and the others are testing or racing, it is always difficult to come back. I was very happy with what he did there because he’s been able to deliver straightaway.
“I think he’s coming back from nowhere; we just need to keep focusing and with him, go weekend by weekend to bring him back to where he should be. We cannot forget what happened and it’s taking time. The good thing is that he’s 100% motivated and focused on doing his best out there and we give our maximum to help him with that.
“For me, the very positive thing is to bring Correa back into motorsport. I was so happy last year to help him to get back with this opportunity. I’m sure there is still a lot to come from him and the Correa we have this year is completely different to the one we had last year. We just need to give him a bit of time to come back. He’s putting 100% into it and I don’t want to put too big of an expectation on him at the moment, but he’s clearly on it and I’m sure we can fight for podiums on a regular basis now.
“The confidence for a driver always comes by his results. The more you get good results is the best tool to give them confidence. Sometimes you are quick, it’s good to validate this with your results. Now he’s arrived back at a level that brings him some results, which will give him more and more confidence. He still has some little physical things that don’t put him at 100% probably, but I’m sure that we are now at 98% and he just needs to drive.
“We don’t drive that much, so sometimes when we feel it is taking time, we should never forget that. The season goes by so quickly, there are only nine rounds. It takes time, but he’s already there.”
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The season does go by quickly with three rounds remaining in Budapest, Spa and Zandvoort before the season finale gets underway in Monza. Those rounds will be some of the most important of ART’s campaign as they try to end their title drought in F3’s modern era. Back in its GP3 days, they were an unstoppable force, claiming the top spot in eight out of nine Championship seasons – with 2014 proving to be the only year they did not claim glory in either the Drivers’ or Teams’ Championships.
Although they achieved the GP3 Drivers’ title four years in a row – making Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Anthoine Hubert champions in swift succession - Théo Pourchaire’s vice-Champion title in 2020 was the closest they’ve come to reigning victorious in F3. With Martins in prime position to fight for the title, Philippe says ART are hungry for success to turn the tide but aren’t going to be blindsided by the fight.
“When you’re in a Championship, it’s always with the target to win the Drivers’ or Teams’ titles. I’m not just focusing on that or focusing on PREMA; I’m focused on delivering the best job possible and when you do a good job, you have a reward at the end.
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“It’s always good to start thinking about the Championship when you are one or two rounds from the end to see what you’re capable of doing. Before that, many things can happen - you just try to get the best result and see where it brings you. Clearly, I would be lying if I wasn’t saying that I’m fighting for both Championships, as I think the other teams are.
"Every year we have the same focus. Clearly, I'm not happy with the situation of not having won it for many years now. I wouldn’t say it's frustration, but when you are a competitor, you are not happy with that, but it doesn’t change the approach. We were fighting hard last year, we are fighting hard this year and whatever happens at the end of this Championship, we will be fighting on next year. Each year is a new year and I’m always focused on the present and the future – the past is the past no matter what happened.”