It’s not over till it’s over and even coming into this weekend needing just a Feature race win, Charles Leclerc was taking nothing for granted. He prepared as he would for any other race but the team heavily prioritised the Feature Race, making sure he had fresh tyres to push from lights to flag. He could have been doing with an easy afternoon, unhassled up front, and for a while at least, it looked like that was what he would get.
He shot off the line from pole to secure the lead from Luca Ghiotto in second. Alex Albon made it round the outside of Rowland for fourth but, with the championship at stake, the Brit took the place back and made a move on Sette Camara to take third within two corners.
For the first ten laps, Leclerc was the only driver really making progress, with everyone else skirting around DRS range of the car in front. As he continued to draw out his lead, Ghiotto struggled on his tyres and with Rowland breathing down his neck he managed to pass into turn one under DRS to take second, just one place behind where he needed to be to keep the Championship alive. Having stayed out and been mugged, Ghiotto pitted for fresh rubber on lap twelve, coming back out in tenth.
The top two pitted for mediums on lap 13 and rejoined in sixth and tenth, respectively. Within two laps, Leclerc made it past Gustav Malja and his teammate in Fuoco who, understandably, didn’t put up much of a fight. He then glided past Jordan King for third and Santino Ferrucci for second with just Latifi standing between him and the lead.
If Rowland was to keep the championship alive, he would need to make progress through the alternative strategy runners. Fuoco would have liked to have made his life more difficult, but didn’t have the life in the tyres to do so. He then managed to cleanly make it past the squabbling Ferrucci and King to take third within half a lap.
Meanwhile, Leclerc had taken the lead from Latifi, but as the Canadian pitted, it promoted his Dams teammate to second. The Monegasque driver managed the gap from there at around six seconds.
Behind them, the battle for reverse grid pole in the Sprint race was really hotting up between Nobuharu Matsushita, Artem Markelov and Nyck De Vries. Matsushita seemed to have no grip at all from the tyres and was a sitting duck, taking to the grass at one point to defend.
He dropped to tenth and immediately had Ferrucci on fresh rubber to deal with. As the pair jockeyed for position, Matushita drifted wide of the apex, into the American on the outside, sending him into the barrier and bringing out the Safety Car to clear up the aftermath.
Nobuharu Matsushita helping Santino Ferrucci out the race and bringing out the safety car for good measure [Image: Twitter]
This closed the pack up but, crucially, there was still a backmarker, Sean Gelael, between Leclerc and Rowland, allowing the leader to hold on to P1 at the restart and try to build a gap. Rowland cleared Gelael shortly after but the contra-strategy runners started to come alive with the fresher tyres.
Oddly, this included back markers that were in amongst the lead cars. So, with Latifi and Fuoco in fourth and fifth and on fresh softs, they found themselves racing to get past Louis Delatraz and Sean Geleal, each of whom, in turn, was faster and trying to come back at Rowland! It was a mess and you could sense the frustration of the lead cars as they struggled to contend with the cars that were a full lap behind. To add to the tension, there appeared not to be a single blue flag in the circuit, so the top 5 were racing the guys in 16th and 17th for track position!
This was made even more nervy by the fact that Leclerc had completely run out of life in the medium compound and, despite Prema trying to optimise his tyre strategy for th eFeature Race, he was now struggling to keep the car on the track. It came to light after the race that they had miscalculated the number of laps and, as a result, found themselves with four additional laps to complete on what appeared to be sheet ice! For the entirety of the final lap, Rowland was all over the back of the Monegasque driver with backmarkers coming at him left and right too. Even with just the final turn to go, the order was still unclear.
But it was Leclerc who crossed the line in the lead, finishing just two tenths ahead of his title rival and taking the Championship at the first opportunity. Fuoco was the man who rounded off the podium places as, miraculously everyone came across the line unscathed. Having started the race in 15th, he crossed the line less than a second behind his teammate, giving the Prema pit wall double the cause to celebrate.
Leclerc did no wrong all season and, even mistakenly playing the French national anthem couldn’t take away from what has been unarguably a dominant year. From day one in Bahrain, he never looked like anything other than the win was on the cards and wrapping it up three races before the end of the season underlines the hold he had.
Here is what he had to say following the race
He is the first driver to take the title in his rookie year since Nico Hulkenberg in 2009 and the only driver ever to win back to back GP3 and GP2/F2 Championships. He also holds the record for most poles in a season with eight and counting. He is massively tipped to secure a seat in Formula 1 next year and, as a Ferrari Driver Academy driver, Sauber look like the most likely destination, with their up to date power unit deal and his FP1 outings for the team.
Yet to be confirmed though …
Charles lost his Father in the middle of the season and, having dedicated his GP3 title to his Godfather and best friend Jules Bianchi, he dedicated this win to his Father, having secured it in his colours.
Here is how the chaos settled as they crossed the line with Alex Palou taking reverse grid pole for tomorrow's Sprint race.