F3 goes Down Under: Sophia Floersch closing in on top-15
"We are working hard in the background to really improve. Everyone is motivated and by trying to get to the maximum track time out we really want to understand the car and especially tires better.“ - At the second round of the F3 season, there were positives to take for Sophia Floersch, who was close to a top-15 finish in Melbourne.
For the first time since it was launched, the FIA Formula 3 championship paid a visit to Australia, for its second racing weekend of the 2023 season: the Albert Park Circuit, in Melbourne, hosted two of the most chaotic races that the championship has seen in a while. Drivers and teams had no prior experience of the track - also in its renewed layout, with a much faster second sector - and to add a further difficulty, rain started to pour down: the sessions saw many red flags and safety cars, but eventually offered many interesting talking points.
Having joined the Alpine F1 Team Academy with the new programme Rac(H)er, German racing star Sophia Floersch made her return to FIA F3 after spending a couple of years in sports car racing. Three years later, she was back in a single seater - in one of the most competitive junior championships in the world - for the Bahrain season opener, where she showed promising signs in the first round. Floersch claimed her first top-20 in Bahrain, after battling consistently in the mid pack, always ahead of her two teammates. "The team and I collected mainly data in Bahrain and probably also in Melbourne", Sophia had told us after Bahrain. "These are now to be analyzed to find out where we lose the so important tenths. Performance and tire understanding must improve." Racing for PHM Racing, a new team for the series, also means that collecting data is the most crucial goal for the three drivers of the new German outfit - at least in the opening rounds - but Floersch seems to have adapted back quickly to formulas. Melbourne's qualifying session was a pretty hectic one, with multiple red flags deployed following accidents for Marti, Frederick, Bedrin and Mini. Gabriel Bortoleto (Trident) managed to snatch the pole position, while Floersch set a personal best of 1:35.519, which put her in 24th for Race 1, again ahead of both her teammates.
When lights went out for the sprint race on a busy Saturday and mixed-weather morning, Franco Colapinto (MP Motorsport) was fast to steal the lead from Sebastian Montoya (Hitech Pulse-Eight), on reverse grid pole, while Sophia immediately gained a few positions. The race had barely started and the safety car was out on track, as Luke Browning (Hitech Pulse-Eight) and Oliver Goethe (Trident) made contact at turn 3: the German driver was stuck in the gravel and had to be retrieved.
Just after two laps of green flag racing there was another neutralization, when Ido Cohen (Rodin Carlin) hit the wall after contact with Hugh Barter (Campos Racing). At the restart, Tommy Smith (Van Amersfoort Racing) went off and triggered the third safety car of the race. Despite only a handful of racing laps, Sophia Floersch had managed to avoid all troubles and gained eight positions, eventually crossing the finish line in a positive 16th position, as she quickly closes in on a top-15. Zak O'Sullivan (Prema Racing) won the Sprint race - after Franco Colapinto was disqualified due to technical infringements - and was joined on the podium by Sebastian Montoya and Paul Aron (Prema Racing).
On Sunday morning, Formula 3 was back for another action-packed race. As cars lined up on the grid, again, variable weather made the teams' work harder. At the start, Montoya and Christian Mansell (Campos Racing) collided and the Hitech driver retired; Colapinto hit the wall after a puncture and Mari Boya (MP Motorsport) suffered a scary crash after a contact with Nikola Tsolov (ART Grand Prix). Luckily, the Spaniard was unhurt, but the safety car was deployed.
From 24th on the grid, Floersch did again a perfect job in avoiding incidents - with cars all over the place in the opening laps - and, with good racecraft, moved up a few positions. Unfortunately, she was pushed wide and into the gravel at the exit of Turn 13, but could rejoin, albeit having lost several positions.
The safety car was deployed once again after a couple of laps, when Cohen and Rafael Villagomez (Van Amersfoort Racing) hit the wall.
Gabriel Bortoleto won the feature race after battling with Gregoire Saucy (ART Grand Prix) until the very end. They were joined on the podium by Italian Gabriele Mini (ART Grand Prix).
Floersch made up more places in the second half of the race, with some clean passes and showing good patience - a skill that she likely refined in endurance racing. She was P18 across the finish line, completing a promising weekend again in the top-20.
"Albert Park is such a cool and quick track and the amount of fans who’ve been there over the weekend was insane"
"The pace was not really there but for us it was important to really finish the races and try some stuff on the car", Floersch told us after the Australian weekend.
"Coming from P24 in both races, we finished P16 and P18, with being the best in the team the whole weekend", she continued. After four races, Sophia is one of only three drivers (together with Gregoire Saucy and Taylor Barnard) to have always finished ahead of their teammates, and has completed every lap so far.
"There are positives to take and some things where we know we will still need to work for the test days in two weeks", Floersch added, as she looks ahead at the next testing event at Autodromo Enzo and Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy.
"We are working hard in the background to really improve. Everyone is motivated and by trying to get to the maximum track time out we really want to understand the car and especially tires better.“
The upcoming test days are going to be particularly important, as the European season approaches. Imola will in fact play host to the third round of the FIA F3 season on May 20-21, on a track where Floersch has historically been competitive, but where passing can be tricky.
Undoubtedly, though, after the first two rounds, the progress has been noticeable.