by Murray Taylor
Mitch Evans clinched the GP3 Series title in a thrilling encounter that went to the final lap at Monza on Sunday morning. The 18-year-old Aucklander was the fastest driver on the track, finished last after a pit stop but, amazingly, also finished first in the best race of the season.
Daniel Abt needed to win to snatch the overall victory from Evans and the 20-year-old German was in the lead after just 5 laps. The only way Evans could then regain control was to fight through from the back of the 25 car field into a top eight point scoring finish.
He did just that, setting fastest lap with a spirited drive; worthy of a true champion. But then everything changed, and changed again. Six times the points lead see-sawed backwards and forwards during an enthralling 16 lap encounter.
GP3 Champion Mitch Evans on the historic Monza banking.. Photo: GP3 Media.
Evans finished 20th and last, having driven into the points from 25th on the grid but then being forced to limp into the pits to change a punctured tyre.
At the finish Cypriot driver Tio Ellinas won the final GP3 race of the year, slip streaming past Abt with just a lap and a half to run. That final act cost Abt the two points he needed to snatch the title from season-long series leader Evans.
It also meant the Pirelli prize of 200,000 Euros towards a GP2 budget in 2013 – and a GP2 test at the end of this season – went to the youngest of the four contenders going into the Monza weekend. Evans is a deserving winner having won more races and set more pole positions than any of his rivals.
Abt knew he had to win the race to take the GP3 title and he was charging from the start, leaping from eighth to fifth off the grid and into the first chicane. He passed Lotus team-mate Conor Daly when the American went off at the Parabolica, and took third from Marlon Stockinger on lap three.
A lap later he was slicing ahead of David Fumanelli, and then repeated the move on early race leader Giovanni Venturini. By taking the lead of the race, Abt also had the lead of the championship by a single point.
Meanwhile at the other end of the swarming pack Evans was charging his way up through the field, grimly aware that he needed to finish eighth - or take the two points for fastest lap and finish in the top 10.
Evans’s pace was scintillating as he set fastest lap times on the sixth and seventh laps. His fastest was a 1m 44.32s which wouldn’t be beaten and would be 0.7s faster than Abt’s best time. When he passed Robert Visoiu for 10th on lap seven, he regained the championship lead.
Evans had taken 10 places on the opening lap and MW Arden had carried over the speed that had given Evans pole on Saturday when he went over the kerbs and out of the race at the first chicane. That had been his only retirement all season.
During his rapid charge he had endured frustration getting back passed Alice Powell when had to give away several places after coming on Ceccon during yellow flag conditions.
By mid race Evans was fighting in a tight bunch that included Vainio and Felix da Costa. The day before they too had been title aspirants; on Sunday they could have swung the balance against Evans.
During the furious infighting Vainio clipped the right rear tyre on Evans’s car and with the tyre deflating, Evans was forced to straight line the chicane. He bounced across the kerb and struggled to retain control as the Dallara-Renault slewed from side to side.
He almost lost control as the deflating tyre sent him wide into the gravel at the Lesmos corner.
“It was touch and go after that puncture,” said the New Zealander.
As Evans limped towards the pits, Abt was suddenly ahead again in the points race, because the two bonus points Evans would have scored for his fastest lap were negated when he dropped out of the top 10 by pitting for new tyres.
“I’d got up to 7th when Vainio touched my right rear. I had fastest lap but on the straight I could feel the tyre going. Into turn one I had to cut the chicane as the brakes wouldn’t work because of the puncture,” reflected Evans.
“I thought it was all over – I was not a happy boy when I was in the pits. But never say die...”
The only thing that could now save Evans's title was someone stopping Abt from winning. That was Tio Ellinas – although he was now a minute and half behind the leaders Evans still had a front row seat of the action to follow.
“I was literally screaming into my helmet “Go Tio” because I could see what was happening up at the front on the big screens all around the circuit. I knew exactly what was happening.”
After showing good speed yesterday to score his first podium of the season, Ellinas swept past Venturini and lined up Abt for the lead.
Abt seemed to have him covered at Rettifilo, but his defensive cover there cost him speed at the exit, and Ellinas towed past through Curva Grande and finished the move around the outside at the Roggia.
But Abt fought back immediately, slip steaming back into the lead on the start/finish straight at the beginning of lap 14. He was now just two laps away from being the new champion.
Then Ellinas repeated his overtaking move on the penultimate lap at Curva Grande and Roggia. Abt was not close enough to get a tow, and spent the last lap fending off Venturini, as Ellinas won by a second - his first win of the season.
That sixth change of points lead finally handed the title back to Evans, who was ecstatic and punched his arm in the air. He’d won the crown and the jewels by just two points.
“It’s been a roller coaster year. This was the third time I’ve been put out with a puncture. Those times made it tough – people don’t remember the missed opportunities.”
“Some races things just fall into place – but overall it hasn’t been an easy year.”
“But we’ve won more races (3) and taken more pole position (4) than any other driver and that is an achievement for the whole MW Arden team.”
Abt finished second ahead of Venturini, Stockinger, Antonio Felix da Costa and Matias Laine, who inherited the fastest lap points with his 1m 44.47s best.
Race 16 – Monza Italy
Result - 16 laps:
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
1. Tio Ellinas Manor 28m18.541s
2. Daniel Abt Lotus + 1.003s
3. Giovanni Venturini Trident + 1.408s
4. Marlon Stockinger Status + 1.715s
5. Antonio Felix da Costa Carlin + 7.377s
6. Matias Laine MW Arden + 8.488s
7. Robert Visoiu Jenzer + 8.968s
8. Alice Powell Status + 14.383s
9. Kevin Ceccon Ocean + 14.416s
10. Alex Brundle Carlin + 15.535s
11. Conor Daly Lotus + 16.124s
12. Will Buller Carlin + 18.964s
13. David Fumanelli MW Arden + 24.392s
14. Aaro Vainio Lotus + 27.489s
15. Tamas Pal Kiss Atech CRS + 30.682s
16. Fabiano Machado Manor + 36.048s
17. Robert Cregan Ocean + 36.116s
18. John Wartique Atech CRS + 38.365s
19. Carmen Jorda Ocean + 1m08.753s
20. Mitch Evans MW Arden + 1m29.894s
Patric Niederhauser Jenzer 7 laps
Vicky Piria Trident 2 laps
Lewis Williamson Status 0 laps
Ethan Ringel Atech CRS 0 laps
Dmitry Suranovich Manor 0 laps
Final GP3 Series Points (After 16 races)
1. Mitch Evans New Zealand 151.5
2. Daniel Abt Germany 149.5
3. Antonio Felix da Costa Portugal 132
4. Aaro Vainio Finland 123
5. Matias Laine Finland 111
6. Connor Daly United States 106
7. Patric Niederhauser Switzerland 101
8. Tio Ellinas Cyprus 97
9. Kevin Ceccon Italy 56
10. Marlon Stockinger Philippines 55