The 2023 campaign took another dramatic twist around the Temple of Speed, as Frederik Vesti’s weekend went from race-winning high to head-in-hands low.
It was the weekend that set up the upcoming finale at Yas Marina, the second title-deciding race to take place in Abu Dhabi in Formula 2 history.
For the first time since the opening round of the season, Pourchaire was the driver to beat in Qualifying.
ART Grand Prix teammate Victor Martins was quickest after the first runs, setting a 1:32.423. His lap was marginally quicker than lead PREMA Oliver Bearman, who sat second just 0.064s behind with Pourchaire third.
That was reversed on the next laps as the Frenchman went to the top of the times, over a tenth clear of Bearman heading into the final 10 minutes.
The field peeled out of the pitlane with four minutes to go but with everyone playing for track position, only a few drivers got a clean lap in in the final moments. Roman Stanek rose to third, demoting Vesti to eighth with his title rival on pole while the rest were left to rue what might have been.
With the pressure very much on the Dane, Vesti was on the attack from lights out in the Sprint Race, taking the lead of the race on the opening lap by Turn 4. The Safety Car was deployed entering Lap 2 following a spin for Amaury Cordeel at the Ascari chicane after the slightest of contact with Zane Maloney.
Back to racing on Lap 5, Vesti kept hold of the lead while Martins was on the move, passing Isack Hadar, Jak Crawford and Kush Maini in quick succession to move himself into the podium places. Pourchaire was making progress too, up to fifth on Lap 8 after clearing the Hitech Pulse-Eight duo himself.
After a few quiet laps closing in on the Van Amersfoort Racing of Richard Verschoor, Martins pulled off another ambitious dive to clear the Dutchman for P2. It was a move completed just in time, as the second Safety Car arrived on Lap 11 following a spin for Roy Nissany at Turn 4.
Vesti controlled the restart on Lap 15 to keep Martins at bay while teammate Pourchaire pulled off a brave pass on Maini for fourth, leaving his braking late to slip by the Campos Racing driver at Turn 4.
Up front, Martins tried to close in on the leader, but the PREMA driver kept him far enough away to resist the challenge and take the Sprint victory. Verschoor also held off Pourchaire to claim the final place on the podium on Saturday, with Maini rounding out the top five for Campos.
With the gap in the Drivers’ Championship now at seven points heading into the Feature Race, it was all to play for. Pourchaire was under immediate pressure at lights out from Bearman heading into Turn 1, and the Briton picked up the slipstream on the run to Turn 4 to take the lead.
Out of the second chicane, Vesti tried to clear Stanek for fourth position but was squeezed to the very edge of the track approaching Lesmo 1. The PREMA driver ran two wheels onto the grass and was left spinning into retirement, a massive blow to his title aspirations.
Managing the restart, Bearman retained the lead ahead of the pursuing ART pair, with Martins up to third after an aggressive start from fifth on the grid. A second Safety Car arrived after a spin for Arthur Leclerc on Lap 7.
That brought the leaders in for their mandatory stops, and Bearman retained his lead over Pourchaire. Jehan Daruvala led Jack Doohan, Iwasa and Hadjar on the alternate strategy, running first to fourth at the restart. The MP Motorsport driver was on the defensive immediately from Doohan, but it was Iwasa that claimed P1 on the run to Turn 4.
Another Safety Car was deployed almost immediately following a crash for Maloney along the main straight, tagged into a spin by Nissany. Those on the alternate strategy barring Doohan used the chance to pit.
Back to the lead, Bearman got racing underway once more with 15 laps to go, holding onto the front of the field as Doohan on his worn tyres struggled to keep pace. Pourchaire couldn’t clear the Invicta Virtuosi Racing man until Lap 18, by which time, Bearman had escaped 2.5s up the road.
Martins’ charge was ended by a broken DRS mechanism, forced to retire with 10 laps remaining after his rear wing flap became stuck open. It marked the end of a phenomenal run of top 10 finishes, dating back to the Monte Carlo Sprint Race.
Fighting for the final podium position, Crawford and Maini came to blows on Lap 23 to bring out another Safety Car. Bearman handled the restart with aplomb once again to keep hold of the lead ahead of Pourchaire. Iwasa was opportunistic on his fresher tyres and claimed second from the Frenchman at the first chicane.
More contact for Crawford left the Hitech Pulse-Eight driver stranded on the side of the track, bringing out the final Safety Car of the day with just a handful of laps to go. It meant the race ended under yellow flags, with Bearman leading home Iwasa and Pourchaire on the podium.
The result lifted the ART man 25 points clear of Vesti in the Drivers’ Championship with Iwasa still in the reckoning mathematically, 39 points back from the leader. In the Teams’ Standings, ART opened up the gap to 26 points over PREMA Racing despite the Italian team’s two victories across the Monza weekend.