Throwing his hat into the ring of title contenders early on, Gabriele Minì’s rookie campaign has propelled him to the highest heights but has also given him a firm reality check as to the challenges of competing in the third tier.
Whilst the Hitech Pulse-Eight driver’s dreams of being crowned the 2023 FIA Formula 3 Champion faded away in the latter half of the season, Minì isn’t taking his foot off the gas going into the season finale in Monza. Currently sitting seventh in the Standings on 87 points, the Italian racer is 19 points adrift of Paul Aron in second and 13 behind fifth-placed Franco Colapinto.
With a spot in the top five still to play for, the Italian racer knows it isn’t going to be an easy task on home soil in such a tight back-and-forth battle, but that’s what makes it all the more exciting.
Before his debut this year, many had the 18-year-old earmarked as one of their favourites for success. Stepping up off the back of his second-place finish in the Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine, Minì completed the British outfit’s rookie trio alongside teammates Sebastián Montoya and Luke Browning. Despite the weight of the pre-season expectations, he seemed to be unfazed.
That confidence wasn’t without reason for long. After topping Day 2 of pre-season testing in Sakhir, the Alpine junior took the field by storm, blistering to pole in his first-ever F3 Qualifying session.
“I felt positive, really confident in my team and myself that we could do well. To be honest, I think we showed good pace from testing and already from the first Qualifying, we showed that we were up there to fight for the Championship.
“Pretty much from the beginning of the first test we did in Jerez last year, I was P1 in the first morning, so I think we showed that we had really good pace right from the start. We were really quick in the Qualifying and race simulations. So, coming into that first Qualifying, I was expecting that the top three was possible and that’s what we were aiming for, but of course getting pole was even better.”
Proving that his Qualifying pace was not a one-off, Minì earned himself a spot in the top three in Melbourne, before securing a masterful second pole position in Monte Carlo. When asked whether it was his driving style being compatible with his new machinery or the Hitech team’s efforts in getting his up to speed ahead of the start of the campaign, he credited his rapid pace to a perfect combination of both.
“If you don’t have a good car, you can be the fastest driver, but you will not be the fastest on track and if you have a good car but you’re not quick, you’re not going to be quick. I think it’s a combination of both. The team gave me a really good car, gave me lots of information and data on the things that I should know before going there and I was able to apply them straight away from the beginning. I think their package was really good and we managed to show it.”
Nowhere did Minì manage to put that comment into action like he did in Monte Carlo. In a league of his own from Free Practice, nobody seemed to be able to come to close as his previous experience around the Principality paid off, taking pole and earning himself a clean sweep with victory in the Feature Race.
Elevated to second in the Championship, only 17 points away from leader Gabriel Bortoleto, he says he had no doubt that he could be in with a shot at glory.
“Heading to Monaco, it’s a track that I really liked straight away, but I wasn’t particularly fast my first time there and then I was pretty quick the second year. Coming into Free Practice I had an issue with the car, so basically out of the 45 minutes I managed to complete one lap and we were good enough to be P1. That was already pretty positive considering I didn’t have any track time, the lap was not really good, and I was still managing to be up there.
“Then in Qualifying, everything went in the best way possible! I did a really good lap; the car was on rails, and I managed to put nine tenths to P2, which is a lot. When I saw the gap on the screens, I thought it was wrong, but when my engineer told me the gap, I was really impressed because you can feel good on a lap, but you would never expect to put that much to second place. Sometimes you think it’s a good lap and then you’re far off.
“In the Feature Race, I tried to do the fastest lap twice and the first time I missed it by three hundredths and the second time, I got it back by one hundredth. At the end of the race, I just chilled because there was no point risking putting it in the wall and trying stupid things, just instead bringing it home.
“When you go to a track like Bahrain and you’re in first place in Qualifying, then you go to Melbourne where we could say we were struggling a bit more, but we were still P3. Then after the win in Monaco, I think for sure the title was on. Going into Barcelona, I was pretty confident in both me and the car that we could fight for the top.”
Since then, the following five rounds over the summer have been far from the smooth sailing Minì and his Hitech team would have hoped for, as he struggled to convert his outright speed into the regular Feature Race points hauls needed to mount a consistent fight up front.
While a Sprint Race podium in Spielberg and another win in the Budapest Sprint added more silverware to his rookie tally, he struggled to match his earlier achievements. In a Championship that has such a small margin for error, a smattering of mistakes has had big consequences for the Italian.
Reflecting on the frustrations that have plagued him from Round 5 in Barcelona onwards, Minì accepts the reality that in motorsport, sometimes it’s just not your day, but believes he didn’t always extract the most out of his more favourable outings.
“I think Barcelona was probably my lowest point because even though my pace was really, really good in the races, we struggled with the first two sets of tyres in Qualifying. Then on the third set, I just lost the car mid-corner, tried to keep it out of the track limits and missed it by about 5cm, which is really frustrating. In the end, we knew we could come back to the points, which we did but we got a penalty. Then the same thing for the day after, we just didn’t have enough pace to gain many positions and get back in the points.
“Austria was the most frustrating because we had really good pace, but I just made a small mistake which compromised Qualifying. In the Feature Race, looking at my teammates and the pace we had, I think we could have come back and even been fighting for the win considering the amount of degradation there was. Starting from P11, I thought anything was possible. Sadly, things didn’t go well on the first lap, just a really small touch to the front and I was gone.
“In Hungary, clearly, we were missing a bit of pace. As I said in the press conference, it’s always good to win, you’d prefer a Feature Race because it’s 15 more points. 10 points is 10 points, but you care mainly about the win because if you’re tied with someone else, you always want one more win.”
He added: “To be honest, these things can happen, maybe some tracks don’t suit the driver’s style. We know that teams can’t always be the best at a track, otherwise it would be easy. There are many factors that meant we didn’t score the most points we could. Clearly, we were not as strong at some tracks as we were at the first round in Bahrain or Monaco. I think we just didn’t maximise the points we could get.
“At the beginning of the year, I think the team was the quickest, especially in Monaco. I think probably we weren’t the quickest elsewhere, but we were still able to fight for a top five or top three easily most of the time, but sometimes some small mistakes didn’t allow me to be up there.
“I think it’s more in the Qualifying simulations where the others stepped up or the track suited me or the team a bit less, so we didn’t achieve as many wins, but it’s a bit the same for the Championship leader. Bortoleto has two wins, and they were in the first two races, it doesn’t mean he’s getting slower.
“Things like this happen in a Championship, they key is to be as consistent as possible, as Gabriel is doing. He’s regularly scoring points and he’s managing to get every opportunity, that’s what is making the difference. Pace-wise I think we are there; we just need to maximise it a bit more to be honest.”
Having assessed his evolution across the campaign, Minì knows that the final curtain call is approaching, as the 2023 field head to Monza’s Temple of Speed for the season finale. 19 points adrift of second-place Paul Aron, the Hitech driver isn’t counting himself out just yet, firmly believing that a top three finish is still an attainable target.
“For sure, the pace has gotten a lot better, even if the results don’t fully show it,” he noted. “Looking at the data, we’ve still managed to improve a bit. Also, looking at overtaking in the beginning of the season. Of course, when you’re coming into a new category, I wasn’t really sure where I could do overtakes, I was taking it easy and now I’m there, trying to send it a bit more. Of course, it’s riskier, but if it was easy, everyone could do it.
“To be honest, looking at the gap I think P2 is not easy, but it’s 100% possible. In the end, the only thing we can control is our pace, so we just have to try and maximise that and see how it goes.”
With final races often sticking strongly in people’s minds, he’s eager to leave a strong impression on those around him and end a rollercoaster rookie year on a high – with a return to the top step of the podium. Having nothing to lose and everything to gain, he’s willing to give it everything he’s got all the way to the chequered flag.
“Ending with a win would be ideal. Last year, I won the final race which was the best way to finish the season. I would be nice to finish in the top three and with a win at Monza, which is my home race.
"Once again, it’s going to be very tricky, especially in Monza because it’s not really too much about the pace itself. It’s really all about getting a good slipstream, which can make up five to six tenths a lap. If you drive okay and don’t do the lap of your life, but you get a really good slipstream, you can still be on pole.”
Minì concluded: “My approach is probably just to send it! Honestly, I don’t have much to lose. Worst case scenario I finish where I am or down in P10, but after P1, everybody is losing so I’m just going to try to send it and see how it goes.”