“It’s been a bit more difficult than what we thought at the beginning of the season,” is the honest appraisal from Franco Colapinto. “I knew it was gonna be competitive with MP, we were thinking we had a great package since the start, and maybe we’ve struggled a little bit more since the start of the season.”
The Argentinian has been a conspicuous absence from the Drivers’ Championship fight so far this year. Joining MP Motorsport for 2023, this was supposed to be a strong year for Colapinto, but things haven’t gone his way so far.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been quick. Round 4 and P2 in the Barcelona Feature Race is evidence of improved form, but the difficult start to the year has taken its toll. The recent bright spot has been a long time coming he says, but the season got off to a rocky start even before lights out in Sakhir. Interestingly though, he says that it wasn’t too big of a concern at the time due to a unique aspect of the circuit.
“We struggled from the start in Bahrain. Last year, I was on pole there with Van Amersfoort Racing and then we weren’t as strong for the remainder for the year. The same thing happened with a lot of others too both in F3 and Formula 2 – some would be strong in Bahrain and then not so much for the remaining races, some were slower in Bahrain but then really strong in the rest of the Championship.
“It's really strange and difficult to understand why things are happening and to see how the car reacts to setup changes and stuff like that. Mostly because it's a really different track to what we are used to in Europe, it’s a completely different tarmac, so much heat, and with the really abrasive surface, it makes life really, really tricky. Some cars have a really good setup and are quick, but we struggled to find the sweet spot and to extract all the potential of ours in the in the race weekend or in the pre-season test.
“But I was not too worried after that. I still got 10 points from the weekend, and I knew that this was not going to be like that all year. Bahrain is a specific track, Australia was too and then we were back in Europe, back to what we’re used to and what works for us more. It's more or less what we saw in Barcelona.”
Another unknown at the start of the season, Melbourne was actually more competitive for MP but Qualifying was where the weekend began to unravel. A late crash left Colapinto down the order in P6. A recovery on Saturday was still possible though, and he kept himself out of trouble and made his overtakes count to cross the line first and take victory, albeit only briefly. Disqualification for a technical infringement was a bitter outcome, and retirement the following day in the Feature Race capped off a painful weekend for the Dutch squad.
“We went to Melbourne and were looking good. We knew that the car was probably going to be strong there and it was really fast from the start. We were fast in FP and were in front in Qualifying almost throughout all the session. I was improving quite a lot in sector one and sector two, but people were going off ahead, causing yellow flags and then I crashed in the last corner.
“I think if I’d finished the second push I would have ended up on pole or at least on the front row. It was difficult to swallow having a car that could’ve been at the front but ending up down the order. So, we went into the Sprint Race, and it was looking good in terms of what we learned from the day before. The car was super-fast, I overtook a lot of cars, won the race, showing that we were really fast there which was what we saw the day before. I was happy with the car, happy with the balance, everything worked very well, and it was one of those easy days where nothing really went wrong in the race and the car was really nice to drive. Then unfortunately we got disqualified for a super small detail on the car.
“Because the front of the car was wearing a lot with the bottoming, it was a part that had been repaired before and that part was missing because it had worn down too much. It's just a tiny mistake that was not bringing any performance. So, it was a bit of a pity to lose those points from that race. Looking at the Championship now, we’d have been fighting for P2 with those points. But the team made a mistake and as was the case the day before when I made a mistake and they supported me, we supported each other in the difficult moments. It was a weekend for us that didn't go smoothly at all. It was looking like such a strong weekend to go home into a super long flight, it's not nice, but it is what it is. That’s racing.”
Monte Carlo was another track weekend in which points were left on the table according to Colapinto as he and the team struggled to identify an ideal setup window for him. This time though, he left with points and a confidence-boosting result after some unlucky moments earlier in the year. Reflecting on the tough triple threat that kicked off the year, the Argentinian says that small details have ultimately proved costly, but he has been as consistent as he can be. Heading into the European heart of the season, battling through such a tough phase of the year early on and coming through it has lifted his expectations now for the remainder of the year.
“I don’t think it is down to my driving that we don’t have more points. In Bahrain we had a podium and in Melbourne we were leading having been in P7. After every Safety Car restart, I was much faster than the others, but it was more a factor of not putting things together. It wasn’t our weekend, but we had the pace and were super-fast. In Monaco, we were struggling a bit in the low-speed and with the balance. We tried to make it better but didn’t get much dry track time until Qualifying. The car wasn’t perfect, but we were only a few tenths off. That is a lot of positions though with the group Qualifying system. In the race, I tried to push as much as possible and take any opportunity coming.
"Fortunately, there were a few and I could overtake so in the end, recovering a bit of ground is always good. To leave Monaco with 15 points after a tricky Qualifying, it was not bad for the upcoming races. Together, they weren’t ideal races and when things aren’t really going your way for a couple of events, things start to get trickier, which is why I think Barcelona was so important and now we’re looking much more confident for the future.”
Barcelona was arguably Colapinto’s strongest weekend of the 2023 season yet, and one he and the team were much more satisfied with.
MP was looking stronger around a more traditional circuit and while the revamped final sector placed extra strain on the tyres, the team was managing the issues just fine. It gave the Argentinian plenty of confidence heading into the Sprint Race. A smoother experience from Friday through to Sunday made a big difference.
“I was confident in the car and the team, everyone did a good job. We were strong in FP and Qualifying, already at the front and looking good. Then in the races, again, it was quite tricky to overtake. Through the final two corners we were losing a lot of downforce, but we managed a P6 in the Sprint Race, so that was really positive from P10 on the grid, overtaking four cars.
“Sunday was really difficult in terms of degradation because of so many high-speed corners to the right. Adding those last two super-fast corners to Turns 3, 4 and 9, it was tricky for the tyres. We did the best we could in the race. I was happy with the car, and we had a decent balance, but I think there was another team that was just stronger than us that weekend. We didn't have enough pace to fight for the win, but of course, P2 and 18 points from was super positive.”
So far in 2023 then, it can be said that three of the four Rounds so far have come around unique tracks each with their own set of demands. As F3 gears up for the traditional European races, MP and Colapinto might just have found form at the perfect moment.
Colapinto was on the podium last year in Spielberg in the Sprint Race and he secured sixth in what was a tricky Feature Race. Arriving in Austria on the back of more competitive results in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the confidence levels are beginning to rise once again.
“A first podium in a Feature Race this year means it’s been a positive last few rounds. I think it's like we are finding our way and we are starting to climb those stairs that we struggled with a bit at the beginning of the year. It's still a long way to go and a lot of things can happen. We're still working super hard to try and understand what we are doing right, understand what we are doing wrong and it's now about looking to be better and starting to get those points that we deserve. We are looking forward to the next few races, there are a few races in a row which is going to be really important. We are working super hard to be in a winning position.
“It gives us a lot of confidence. I think we are going in the right direction. Of course, this hasn’t been the year we were expecting, but we are still turning things around. Every weekend we are scoring more points than the weekend before and I think there are some good tracks coming up for us.”