F3 Asia: Amna Al Qubaisi scores first F3 top-15 in Abu Dhabi Round 2
In the first of the two Asian Formula 3 back-to-back Abu Dhabi rounds, home star Amna Al Qubaisi scored her best F3 result to date with a P14 in race 3, as Irina Sidorkova had a more challenging round and was crashed out of the final race.
A few days after its season opener at Dubai Autodrome, F3 Asian Championship moved its paddock to the nearby YAS Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, for the second round of a five-week back to back racing calendar.
In Dubai, F4 race winner Amna Al Qubaisi and W Series new entry Irina Sidorkova made their Formula 3 race debut, as they entered the Asian based championship targeting a learning opportunity for their next commitments. While the learning curve will certainly be steep, both Amna and Irina showed good progress throughout the opening round and massively improved their laptimes and pace. Al Qubaisi had a very encouraging first race - ended in 16th position in one of the most competitive lineups that the series has seen in recent years - and Sidorkova impressed with a P15 in Race 3.
The first race weekend was marked by the dominance of F2 racer and Alpine F1 development driver Guanyu Zhou - one of the several FIA F2 and FIA 3 drivers on the grid of this year's F3 Asian Championship.
At the spectacular YAS Marina location, home of the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix since 2009 and venue of Amna Al Qubaisi's first win in single seaters, hopes were high for the 20-year old home talent.
Unfortunately, the weekend didn't start with the right foot for Amna, who was involved in a massive testing crash on Wednesday with Pinnacle Motorsport's Alessio Deledda, which left the cars heavily damaged but luckily with no serious consequences for the drivers.
The #88 Abu Dhabi Racing Tatuus required insense work from the mechanics overnight and, with so many races in rapid succession, Amna's weekend could have been quickly compromised. The efficient Prema crew - which runs the Abu Dhabi Racing operation - ultimately managed to send Amna on track on Thursday morning for the first qualifying session, which she completed in P20 and P21. Sidorkova was just ahead and qualified P19 and P20 in the two 15-minute sessions that were topped by Jehan Daruvala and Pierre-Louis Chovet.
When the lights went out for the first time in the Abu Dhabi weekend, Daruvala held the lead from Zhou, who had a better start than Hadjar from the front row. At the back of the pack, Deledda made contact with Roberto Faria's car at Turn 17 and soon pulled back into the pits and retired.
Irina Sidorkova had a good getaway and advanced to P17, with Al Qubaisi also moving up into P19.
While it was a rather uneventful race throughout, Jehan Daruvala defended from Zhou and Hadjar, as the leading trio remained within the one-second gap to each other for the whole race duration. Young Frenchman Isack Hadjar was the quickest on track and attacked Zhou - the latter defending superbly and denying all the chances to the Evans GP driver.
This battle allowed Daruvala to open a 3-second gap up in front.
Sidorkova, after the opening laps, started to struggle a bit for pace and came under threat from both Faria and Amna Al Qubaisi. The Emirati racer passed Irina on lap 7 and moved up to P18. A few laps later, the Russian lady was also under pressure from Luethen, who would eventually goes by on lap 12.
After 16 laps, Jehan Daruvala crossed the line to take the first ever victory for Mumbai Falcons, in the team's first season in international motor racing. Zhou edged Hadjar for second while Dino Beganovic, who had caught up with the leading trio in the final laps, was halted by a mechanical failure on the very final lap. The Swede's heartbreak handed the fourth place to Patrik Pasma (Evans GP), while fellow former Formula Regional European Championship racer Chovet (Pinnacle Motorsport) was fifth ahead of Stanek and Nissany.
After a positive first race, Amna Al Qubaisi took the chequered flag in P17, preceding Luethen, Sidorkova and Villagomez.
One of the defining battles of the first part of the championship has definitely been the fight between the experienced F2 drivers (Daruvala, Zhou) with the upcoming F4 talents making their jump into F3 machinery (Hadjar, Beganovic).
Indian talent Daruvala shared the front row with Isack Hadjar and the pair completed the first corner into the lead. Behind them, Beganovic jumped Zhou for third. The two BlackArts Racing cars of Rafael Villagomez and Lorenzo Fluxa stalled on the grid and were avoided by the rest of the field, as Sidorkova nailed again the start and moved into P17.
Amna Al Qubaisi found herself at the tail end of the pack, 8 seconds adrift after the first laps but, in clear air, she regrouped and caught up with the rest of the field. Amna, approximately 2 seconds per lap faster than the cars in front, closed on Sidorkova - who had fallen behind Deledda, Villagomez and Luethen - and passed her on lap 11.
Meanwhile, it was an action-packed race for the lead: Hadjar launched several attacks on Daruvala, but the Indian held the young gun at bay. Beganovic joined the action but, after a breathtaking 3-wide battle into Turn 11, had to settle for third after the recovery of Zhou in fourth.
Hadjar gave it his all and attempted more moves under braking, but Jehan Daruvala - visibly struggling for grip - used all his experience to defend and crossed the line to take a back-to-back victory for Mumbai Falcons. Beganovic, Zhou and Chovet rounded out the top 5.
With his second win of the season - albeit not an easy one - Jehan Daruvala moved up to leading the points standings.
Al Qubaisi had another strong second half of the race, marked by promising pace a a couple of overtaking moves. She finished again p17, just three tenths off Luethen. Sidorkova, in a similar result to Race 1, had a blistering start but then started to drop towards the middle of the race, as she continues her learning process in the very physical Tatuus F3 car.
The third race of the double Abu Dhabi round saw Pierre-Louis Chovet starting from pole position for the first time, alonsgide Guanyu Zhou and ahead of Jehan Daruvala and Isack Hadjar. When it was all set for another exciting battle for the top-4, Zhou stalled on the grid as the lights went out, forcing the rest of the field to take evasive action.
Chovet led Daruvala and Hadjar after the first corner, while a lap 1 incident which involved once again Italian F2 driver Alessio Deledda brought out the Safety Car: Deledda came way too deep into Turn 8 and hit Stevenson, who spun around and left no space to Irina Sidorkova, who also was blameless victim of the accident. All three drivers retired; despite the Russian teenager made it back to the pits, she had to climb out of the car with suspension damages.
After a good start and avoiding all the chaos unfolding in front of her, Amna Al Qubaisi completed the first lap in P14. Also taking the most out of the messy start was Red Bull-sponsored Japanese driver Ayumu Iwasa, who climbed to fourth.
At the race restart on lap 4, Chovet managed the perfect restart and left Daruvala into the clutches of Hadjar. Al Qubaisi defended well and, despite she had to give up to positions to Pasma and Beganovic - who were both recovering from a lap 1 contact with Fluxa - she re-claimed her positions back by moving ahead of Marinangeli and Maini.
Amna had another solid race with impressive pace: on very competitive laptimes, the 20-year old Emirati star almost caught up with Alexandre Bardinon in the final stages.
Up ahead, it was another hardly fought race between Daruvala and Hadjar for second, while Chovet opened a safe gap of nearly 8 seconds. The Pinnacle Motorsports driver completed 14 laps and took the chequered flag to claim his first win of the season, as Jehan Daruvala edged again Isack Hadjar for the other podium spots. The Indian, with two wins and a second place, now leads the standings by one point over Chovet. Abu Dhabi Racing's Guanyu Zhou had a more challenging weekend but managed to finish in the top-5 despite stalling on the grid at the start.
Amna Al Qubaisi was 14th - her best finish of the season and of her F3 career.
"Had good pace throughout this race weekend as I’m getting more and more comfortable and used to the car", she wrote. "Onto the next."
With Asian Formula 3 Championship tackling a back-to-back round in Abu Dhabi that will see the drivers competing in 6 races over 4 days, hopefully the two ladies of the championship will build on their progress and make an extra step in the three races coming up on Saturday and Sunday at Yas Marina Circuit.