The BRDC British Formula 3 Championship returned to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps for the first time since 2019 at the weekend (23-25 July), and served up its customary helping of surprises up and down the order.
Championship leaders Zak O’Sullivan and Carlin extended their respective advantages in the Drivers’ and Teams’ standings, thanks to a win and four podiums across the first two races.
Bart Horsten took his first pole for Hitech GP on Friday evening, also putting himself at the front for Race 2 by account of his second-best time.
In fact, the top four was the same for Race 1 and 2, with O’Sullivan second, his Carlin team-mate and Horsten’s compatriot Christian Mansell third and Roman Bilinski fourth in just his second F3 qualifying session.
Race 1 took place in wet conditions which had caught several drivers out in the other categories on Saturday morning.
Horsten slipped to third early on as O’Sullivan and Mansell found a way past him down the Kemmel Straight and into Les Combes respectively, while Reece Ushijima was sat up by Ayrton Simmons at the Bus Stop chicane, the Chris Dittmann Racing driver finishing the move at La Source on Lap 2.
Tom Lebbon moved past Horsten in the Elite Motorsport car to go third, as Javier Sagrera and Roman Bilinski battled for fifth just behind them.
Mansell took the lead from his Championship-leading team-mate who ran wide at Bruxelles on Lap 4. The Australian began to clear off immediately, setting the fastest lap to go over a second clear, with O’Sullivan a further five ahead of Bilinski.
He set further fastest laps on his way to his second win of the season, his first in regular-grid races, while O’Sullivan led home Bilinski who jumped Lebbon into Les Combes in the dying minutes.
Bilinski took his first British F3 podium in just his fourth race, against drivers with several races’ experience over him, repaying Arden Motorsport‘s faith in drafting him in for Frederick Lubin for the past two rounds.
Lebbon held onto fourth, with pole-sitter Horsten having struggled with the conditions, eventually slipping to fifth.
Mansell was delighted with his points haul, which only improved as the weekend progressed.
“It’s a pretty special feeling to win at this place,” he said.
“It’s such a great circuit and I’m really, really happy.
“At the start of the race I was just biding my time, seeing where [O’Sullivan] was stronger or weaker, then he made a mistake at Bruxelles and I capitalised on that.”
Race 2 was equally dramatic, if a little drier, with Roman Bilinski taking his first win in F3 machinery from fourth on the grid.
He moved past Mansell and O’Sullivan down the Kemmel Straight on the first lap, despite being squeezed onto the grass by pole-sitter Horsten.
Bilinski would take the lead out of Raidillon on Lap 2, having sat in Horsten’s gearbox down the hill from La Source.
Behind them, O’Sullivan moved around the outside of Mansell at Les Combes, forcing the Australian wide and into the clutches of Ushijima (Hitech), but Mansell managed to hold the Championship’s second-placed driver behind into Bruxelles, having made the move for the win there earlier in the day.
Bilinski made his all-new set of tyres work, pulling away from Horsten on his half-used set. Horsten fell behind while Lebbon chased Roberto Faria for ninth place.
Ushijima found a way past Mansell at Les Combes on Lap 3, while Reema Juffali edged Donington Park race-winner Mikkel Grundtvig out for 14th at the same spot.
Mansell returned the favour a lap later in stunning fashion, diving down the inside at the second right-hander at Les Combes to secure fourth, as José Garfias (Elite Motorsport) found the barriers at the Fagnes Chicane.
O’Sullivan dived up the inside of Horsten at the end of the Kemmel Straight as Horsten suffered a big lock-up, taking second place as Bilinski only held a lead of three tenths.
Mansell followed him through on the final lap, demoting Horsten from what would have been his second podium of the season, while Bilinski stretched his gap to seven tenths to take his first British F3 win, ahead of O’Sullivan.
Horsten held on for fourth place, ahead of Hitech team-mate Ushijima.
Garfias received a five-place grid penalty for a collision with 2020 US Formula 4 champion Hunter Yeany which saw the American pit for a new front wing.
Bilinski said: “I’m lost for words, thank you so much to the team, the car was absolutely amazing.
“I can’t really describe how I’m feeling right now, a lot of hard work has gone into this and it makes that win a lot sweeter.
“It maybe didn’t look like I was under much pressure, but I can tell you for sure I’ve never felt pressure like that before, it was unreal.
“I was kind of hoping the race would end sooner just so it could be over!”
The customary reverse-grid affair on Sunday started with Max Marzorati on pole, ahead of Reema Juffali, a carbon-copy of the starting order at Donington two weeks earlier.
Like that action-packed third race, a Fortec Motorsport car triumphed, but this time it was Roberto Faria‘s turn to take his first British F3 win after graduating from F4 British Championship in the latter stages of last season.
The Brazilian took third place in Race 2 at Donington, and moved past Marzorati on the first lap.
It was his Fortec team-mate Grundtvig who had bolted at the front, though, holding a comfortable two-second lead at the start of the third lap, as Faria tried to find a way past Juffali in the Douglas Motorsport car.
He got the move done at the Fagnes Chicane, while Championship leader O’Sullivan moved up to seventh.
He had made up eight positions in the opening three laps in the Ardennes Forest, and Ushijima had jumped seven spots to fourth.
Juffali, Ushijima and Hunter Yeany were battling for third towards the halfway point of the race, but their fight was overshadowed at the end of Lap 4 as Tom Lebbon made contact with the back of Ayrton Simmons (Chris Dittmann Racing) entering the Bus Stop chicane, sending both off-track.
Juffali’s weekend ended in the tyre barrier at the Fagnes Chicane halfway through proceedings, as Ushijima attempted a move through the left-hander and the gap on the inside closed.
Sebastian Alvarez then lost his front wing after spinning Javier Sagrera at the Bus Stop, an incident for which he received a five-place grid penalty to be served at Snetterton. That followed a five-second penalty for overtaking outside of the track limits at Eau Rouge on the opening lap, which did not alter the Mexican Hitech driver’s finishing position.
Ushijima received the same penalty for a similar incident, dropping him from third to sixth, just ahead of title rival O’Sullivan.
Faria finally took the lead at Les Combes on the penultimate lap, as team-mate Grundtvig outbraked himself and ran wide, opening the door for the Brazilian to take his first British F3 win.
Ushijima moved past Hunter Yeany for third despite his penalty which would be applied post-race, as Tom Lebbon and Ayrton Simmons mugged Horsten into Les Combes on the final lap.
Ushijima’s penalty meant Yeany took a podium in his maiden British F3 weekend, his first outing in F3 machinery and his first time racing in Europe.
Bilinski and Mansell completed the top five, with Ushijima dropping to sixth.
Faria said of his first F3 win: “It’s a very good result. The weekend didn’t start very well for me but now in the last race we’ve managed to win, so it’s good points for the Championship and now we can come back strong for the second half of the Championship, and score even more points or wins.
“I started P4 and finished the first lap there. I was battling the whole lap with Marzorati and it was quite tough but I managed to overtake him in the last corner and I was third, and I was just trying to catch Reema [Juffali].
“She did a good job but she just made one mistake and I overtook her around the outside. After that, I was just trying to catch [Grundtvig] who was quite far ahead.
“I just did qualifying laps all the time and at the end, with two laps to go, I managed to catch his tow.
“He defended really well and he braked a bit too late so he opened up a bit for the second corner so I crossed him, and it was a good race for me.”
The half-term points picture
Championship leader O’Sullivan finished seventh, having beaten Ushijima in Races 1 and 2 and outscoring him in Race 3 on account of bonus points for positions gained.
The 16-year-old extended his lead to 78 points at the halfway point of the season, while team-mate and Race 1 winner Mansell closed up to Ushijima by 34 points to close the gap to just four going into Snetterton.
Horsten moved up to fifth in the standings as Sagrera and Simmons struggled, closing up to Faria by ten points despite the Fortec man’s Race 3 win.
After DNFs at Silverstone and Donington, the Hitech man will have been pleased to see the chequered flag at the end of all three races at Spa; he has now well and truly factored himself into the fight for fourth in the Drivers’ standings.
Having taken a win and a podium in his first six British F3 races, finishing in the top five in all of those, Roman Bilinski has already moved into the top half of the standings, going level with Arden team-mate Alex Connor, who was absent at Spa.
He returns to British F4 at Oulton Park just nine points behind double race-winner Simmons in seventh, should he retain his seat at Arden going into Snetterton.
His consistency, running effectively six races behind the rest of the grid, has been truly impressive, and he may well be on for a top-ten finish in the standings even if schedule clashes see him prioritise F4 at times this season.
In the Teams’ Championship, Carlin outscored title rivals Hitech by 50 points, stretching their lead to 97 points at the halfway point.
The battle for third remains tight, with Bilinski’s impressive early results keeping Arden ahead of Fortec and Elite Motorsport despite being the only Red Arrow on track at Spa.
With only the top two results for each team per race being counted, Arden’s disadvantage was not as pronounced as it might have been, with Faria’s win only helping to close the gap by two points heading to Snetterton.
Elite are a further 104 points ahead of Chris Dittmann Racing, themselves leading Douglas Motorsport by 98 points after 12 races.