In motorsport you’ve got to be in it to win it and Clément Novalak certainly put that into practice in Zandvoort. Whilst the top six contenders in the Drivers’ Championship faced their own struggles at a pivotal moment in their title fight, the Trident driver steadied the ship to bring home his first Formula 2 victory in a drama-filled Feature Race.

Round 12 was anyone’s game from the moment it began. Although PREMA Racing’s Oliver Bearman led the way in Practice, it was another of his fellow rookies who stole the show in Qualifying – Jak Crawford.

The Hitech Pulse-Eight driver demonstrated just how valuable getting solid initial benchmarks on the board can be by clocking in a 1:21.210 on his second attempt. Several drivers tried to match his efforts, but none could succeed as three Red Flags denied the field a chance to go one better than the American.

Despite this, it wasn’t quite straightforward for Crawford. Contact in the pitlane with Novalak left him needing a new front wing and almost shattered his hopes of a first pole position of the campaign, whilst Dennis Hauger came close to usurping the Red Bull Junior on his two final flying laps, missing out by just 0.034s.

For the title contenders, the advantage was with Frederik Vesti, who recovered from his Spa-Francorchamps woes to secure third on the grid. Ayumu Iwasa was left disappointed as he had to settle for P12, but Théo Pourchaire knew he had a chance at damage limitation as he qualified in 10th, earning him reverse grid pole for the Sprint Race.

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The ART Grand Prix driver didn’t get to enjoy the P1 spot for long after mechanical issues forced him to start from the pit lane. At the same time, the long-forecast downpour made its appearance, leaving Isack Hadjar to get racing underway with a rolling start.

Bolting early once the green flags were waved, the Frenchman kept compatriot Victor Martins behind to hold on to the lead. Bearman gambled on a risky move trying to slide past Van Amersfoort Racing’s Juan Manuel Correa up the inside of Turn 1 and was rewarded with third.

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Further back, Kush Maini and Crawford’s battle at the tail end of the top 10 ended no sooner than it had started as contact sent the pair spinning off into the barriers at Turn 5. Ralph Boschung found himself caught up in the incident, unable to avoid colliding with his Campos Racing teammate.

The trio all clambered out of their cars as the Safety Car was deployed, before being replaced by a Red Flag on Lap 3. A lengthy Red Flag ensued for barrier repairs, leaving 22 minutes left on the clock as Hadjar led the procession of cars back out behind the Safety Car.

In the meantime, the downpour had turned torrential and given the conditions, the Red Flag was waved for a second time. Ultimately, the race wasn’t restarted with Hadjar taking his first win, but as two racing laps were not completed without a Safety Car intervention, no points were awarded.

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Attentions then turned to the other half of the Hitech Pulse-Eight garage as Crawford took his place on pole for the Feature Race. Despite the slippery conditions, he looked in full control as he nailed his launch at the rolling start.

Vesti’s hopes of clawing back lost ground in the title fight looked lost on the opening lap, as a spin left the Mercedes junior tumbling down the order to 19th. His PREMA teammate Bearman also experienced his own challenges, tagged from behind by Correa and sent wide through the gravel at Turn 1.

The Briton wasn’t alone in his off-track detour, as Martins followed him. The duo rejoined in P14 and P15 as the Safety Car was deployed before the end of Lap 1 to recover a stationary Jack Doohan, who had spun at the final corner.

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Once racing resumed on Lap 4, Crawford perfected his launch once again as those behind him struggled to deal with the mixed conditions. Iwasa attempted a lunge on Maini for seventh at Turn 1 but made contact with the Indian driver that put both off the road.

Fourth-placed Zane Maloney started a chain reaction when he opted for his mandatory pitstop on Lap 8 with the leading trio of Crawford, Hauger and Correa following him in the following lap. That warm-up lap was vital when Crawford and Hauger emerged just in front of the Rodin Carlin driver. With his tyres already up to temperature, the Bajan racer wasted no time getting past them both.

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In response, Hadjar and Pourchaire both boxed on Lap 10, narrowly avoiding contact as the Sauber junior attempted to slow down for the pit speed limit line. The ART pit crew quickly got to work, getting Pourchaire out in front of the #10 Hitech, with the overcut putting them ahead of the earlier stoppers.

Shockingly, title fortunes turned once more as Pourchaire crashed out on his outlap, triggering the Safety Car. This gifted PREMA Racing a chance to double-stack their pair, but an error meant both of Vesti’s rear tyres weren’t attached properly. As he exited the pit lane, the tyres fell off, forcing the Dane into retirement too.

As the pack settled down, it was Novalak who emerged at the head of the field with a timely pit stop moments prior to the Safety Car. As soon as the Safety Car was withdrawn on Lap 16, the Trident driver remained untroubled as second-place Crawford was forced to look in his mirrors to defend from Maloney.

READ MORE: Iwasa: Title may be out of reach but signing off 2023 with win is the goal

The #3 Rodin Carlin had the clear pace advantage, swooping around the outside through Turn 1 to demote his fellow Red Bull junior.

Bearman initially seemed to have found his way past Martins for fifth, but the pair made contact out of Turn 3. Although Martins remained inside the top five, the PREMA driver was sent off into the barriers and into retirement with damage. The Alpine junior received a 10-second time penalty for the incident, eventually dropping him to ninth.

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With the clock ticking down, it was a race against time for Maloney to try to catch Novalak, clawing to within two seconds of the Frenchman, with Crawford hot on his tail too. However, Novalak responded with the fastest lap of the race to keep that gap intact, going from 13th on the grid to the top step of the podium.

As the top four in the Standings all failed to score, Pourchaire’s 12-point lead over Vesti in the Drivers’ Championship remained untouched. Meanwhile, ART Grand Prix remained the team to beat, sitting 32 points clear of PREMA Racing. But as they headed to Monza’s Temple of Speed, they knew the battle to be crowned the 2023 Formula 2 Champion was far from over…