An inspired tyre gamble gave Christian Mansell a superb second podium finish in the FIA Formula 3 Championship during the penultimate meeting of the 2023 season at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend (28-30 July).
After a strong run of form in the latter half of his maiden full FIA F3 season with Campos Racing, the young Aussie from Newcastle, New South Wales, had moved himself closer to the top 10 in the Drivers' Championship after strong points finishes at both Silverstone and Budapest.
Backed by AJM Transport, Castrol, Vawdrey Trailers and VISA Global Logistics, Mansell next turned his attentions to the picturesque Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium to support the latest Formula 1 event of the year hoping to add to his maiden podium at the British GP weekend.
Typical Spa weather would not be kind to the drivers all weekend however, starting with a damp Friday for Free Practice and Qualifying. After a close morning, Mansell fought to find the optimum set-up with the car for the crucial timed session in the afternoon as weather improved, ending the day 23rd.
A wet Saturday would begin the serious action as the shortened 12-lap opening Sprint Race got underway. Mansell made an electric getaway from his unrepresentative starting position, climbing several places heading into the opening hairpin. His forward momentum continued in the following corners during a frenetic and experimental opening lap as Mansell tested the conditions on cold tyres, gaining a total of seven places to move up into the top 16 with the safety car deployed.
Unfortunately, the Australian would see all his hard work undone by slight contact with a rival that left him with a punctured rear Pirelli tyre. A trip to the pits followed, after which he began a recovery drive from the rear of the field. Having worked his way back into 19th place, his pace could not be utilised as a sequence of safety cars ended the race under yellow flag conditions.
The Infinity Sports Management, IOR Petroleum, Locker 27 and AMSL Diabetes Australia-backed star lined up from 23rd on the grid for the Feature race on Sunday, in conditions that were wet but with a potential to dry out over the 15 laps. Starting behind the safety, Mansell was one of several drivers who opted for wet tyres, hoping the circuit would remain damp throughout.
It would prove to be an inspired decision, as the multiple GB3 Championship and Euroformula Open race winner sensationally surged past the slick-shod runners and a handful of his fellow wet tyre-running competitors to end a colossal opening lap in fifth place - a net gain of 18 spots.
Mansell was not finished by any stretch, and soon displaced Nikita Bednerin for fourth, only to then ease his way by the MP Motorsport car of Mari Boya to move into a podium position. A safety car interruption meant others pitted for slick tyres, promoting Mansell to second behind leader Taylor Barnard - also on wets.
On the restart, the remainder of the race proved it was the right call, with slick tyres only coming into their own on the final lap. Mansell spent the rest of the contest fiercely trying to find his way by Barnard for a historic first win, twice pulling alongside on the Kemmel Straight, having to take evasive action after the pair touched wheels under braking for the Le Combes complex on one occasion.
Although he would be narrowly short of a phenomenal race win, Mansell did bring his Campos Racing car home in a brilliant second place, making it a second visit to the podium in his first full F3 season and his best result of the campaign to date.
Another strong weekend means Mansell has climbed the Drivers' Championship table further to 12th, and will be back in FIA F3 action for the final two races of the season at Monza in Italy across the weekend of 1-3 September.
Christian Mansell: "An amazing result to finish off a weekend where we were struggling at first. We chose what we thought was the best decision based on the conditions we had seen over the days, and it paid off in the end!
"I'm so happy with the result. It's slightly gutting in a way to come so close and not quite be able to get that first win, but it can only be about positives getting our second podium of the year and making the right calls with the team. An amazing result for us all.
"We were struggling to get into the groove early on during Friday which put us on the back foot, and then after such a great start to the opening race we had contact out of our hands that gave us the puncture and put us back down the field.
"We're still getting the results we want in recent rounds, and hopefully we'll be able to finish in style at Monza next time out."
Images from Dutch Photo Agency.