Title dreams were on the line as the Formula 3 field headed to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps for the penultimate round of the 2023 campaign. A topsy-turvy weekend for the leading contenders meant the Championship pendulum swung back and forth all the way to the nail-biting final few corners.
Suffering his only point-less weekend of the campaign, Gabriel Bortoleto fell just short of snatching the title on Sunday. Last-gasp efforts from Paul Aron and Josep María Martí kept their chase alive, but it was Jenzer Motorsport and Taylor Barnard who made all the right calls, defying expectations to bring home the Briton’s maiden victory.
Sitting 44 points adrift of long-time leader Bortoleto heading into the weekend, Martí knew he’d have a mountain to climb to claw back that deficit but got off to the perfect start in Qualifying.
As the order constantly chopped and changed around the drying Belgian circuit, it seemed like the PREMA Racing trio were the team to beat. Rebounding after a laptime deletion, Zak O’Sullivan rocketed up to provisional pole ahead of his teammates, but the session would go down to beyond the chequered flag.
Hitech Pulse-Eight’s Gabriele Minì usurped the Williams junior’s hold on P1, but nobody could deny Martí’s charge for his second pole of the season as the Campos Racing driver posted a 2:22.160 to go top. Last to cross the line, Leonardo Fornaroli squeezed into second, just 0.016s down, whilst O’Sullivan found himself demoted to sixth.
Over at the other side of the Trident garage, disaster struck for Bortoleto. The run of last second improvements knocked the Brazilian off reverse grid pole, forcing him to line up in P15. Hugh Barter found himself in the vital P12 spot, having Aron for company on the Sprint Race front row.
The Campos driver kicked things off strongly, acing his start to hold the lead. Aron, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky as wheelspin cost him valuable time, allowing Barnard and Caio Collet to sneak through before they reach Les Combes.
Disadvantaged by the lack of slipstream, Barter couldn’t keep the pair at bay as they swept past down the Kemmel Straight, with Aron and Jonny Edgar following through on the Australian by the end of the opening lap.
Collet had his sights set on victory, skirting around the outside of Barnard through Blanchimont. The move for the lead came not a moment too soon for the Van Amersfoort Racing driver, with Sebastián Montoya’s Hitech car stranded at Turn 9 bringing out the Safety Car following contact with Rafael Villagómez.
Returning to racing conditions on Lap 4, PREMA’s Dino Beganovic and O’Sullivan squabbled over sixth into La Source. The Williams junior came out on top, dispatching his rookie teammate before getting through on Barter for fifth.
Martí found himself unable to capitalise on Bortoleto’s difficult Qualifying. Dicing with Minì over 10th, the pair were sent spinning after contact at Pouhon with the Alpine junior beached in the gravel. Martí attempted to rejoin, but collected Rodin Carlin’s Ido Cohen in the process, triggering the Safety Car once more.
Taking advantage of the Lap 8 restart, O’Sullivan pressured fellow Briton Edgar into a lock-up at Turn 1, seizing his chance to move up to fourth.
Bortoleto’s fightback had him up to ninth, but his efforts were for nought. Whilst passing Beganovic, the Ferrari junior lock-up and tagged the Trident’s rear left tyre, leaving the Brazilian to park up on track and bringing his run of 13 consecutive points finishes to an end.
A lengthy recovery ensued until the end of the end of the penultimate lap, leaving no time to resume Green Flag conditions. Concluding in procession behind the Safety Car, Collet took his third Formula 3 victory, whilst Barnard was elated to claim his maiden podium in second ahead of Aron.
Meanwhile, fourth-placed O’Sullivan was handed a five-second time penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage moments prior to overtaking Barter, demoting him to 15th. This meant that the title was there for the taking for Bortoleto, if only he could secure a 40-point or more lead after the Feature Race.
To do that though was far from a straightforward affair. A pre-race downpour left the teams with a dilemma – go for slicks and hope that the circuit dried quickly or gamble on it still being slippery enough for wet tyres.
Most opted for the mediums, including polesitter Martí who got racing underway with a rolling start. Aron bucked the trend from P11 on the wets, surging forward into the lead by the end of the opening lap as those around him struggled for grip.
Barnard too was making headway on the blue-walled Pirellis, moving up to second ahead of Mari Boya. Christian Mansell also made light work of overtaking the slick runners, going from 23rd to fourth by the time the Safety Car was deployed on Lap 4 after Oliver Goethe crashed at Eau Rouge.
PREMA opted for an unconventional gamble, pitting Aron for slicks and sacrificing his nine-second lead, joined by Boya. This promoted Barnard to the lead ahead of Mansell, with all three Jenzer’s inside the top four, whilst Aron filtered back out in P7.
Roberto Faria had also made the jump to the mediums but spun off into the gravel at Les Combes and extending the Safety Car stint.
Once racing resumed, Aron couldn’t keep up and the wet tyre runners broke clear. Those who had started on mediums gradually came into their own, with Collet dispatching Boya and Aron after the Estonian’s went off at Turn 8.
With only five laps to go, it was a two-car shootout for the win as Mansell closed to within three tenths of Barnard. The Australian tried to find his way through into Les Combes, but made contact, sending him across the escape road and forcing him to yield the place back to the Briton.
However, nobody would deny Jenzer Motorsport their first F3 win since 2019 as Barnard brought home back-to-back podiums. The Swiss team’s trio all benefitted from the call for wet tyres, as Nikita Bedrin joined his teammate on the rostrum in third and Alejandro García capped off the day with his maiden points in fourth.
Having been as low as 20th early on, Bortoleto had been steadily chasing down those ahead. Being crowned Champion was almost within his grasp as he dispatched O’Sullivan for 11th on the penultimate lap. With Aron in eighth, the Trident driver needed two more places, but it wasn’t to be. Franco Colapinto’s hold on 10th was unshakeable and Bortoleto fell short of the title by only two points.
Entering the summer break with a 38-point lead over the Mercedes junior, there was no denying that the title was his to lose, but Bortoleto would have work to do to help Trident bridge their 25-point gap to PREMA Racing in the Teams’ Championship.