F3 Cup 2011 Season Review

03/01/12 - A superb year of F3 Cup action could not detract from a dominant display from Kent’s Aaron Steele in 2011.

03/01/12 - A superb year of F3 Cup action could not detract from a dominant display from Kent's Aaron Steele in 2011, as he demonstrated his true class throughout the year to secure the prize of a Formula Two test drive and the chance to race at Daytona in January.

Right from the opening round at Snetterton in March, it was clear the former McLaren Autosport BRDC nominee would be the man to beat. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of intense and high quality action up and down the grid in all nine rounds.

Steele had only confirmed his drive for the year with Gray's Motorsport just four days before the F3 Cup's first meeting at the Norfolk track. It was the first time that any of the 16 confirmed drivers had raced on the new 300 circuit layout and from the first green light, the F3 Cup sprung into life.

The Kent driver had started from pole position alongside Mark Terry with Alex Craven in third. Yet, Terry made a slow getaway from his second-placed grid slot and As he attempted to cover his line the two care made contact. Subsequently, the two Lanan Racing Dallaras made contact and Terry's car was launched into a roll, he escaped uninjured. It had been a dramatic start to the year, yet the restarted race was no problem for Steele. He won by nearly half of minute from Chris Needham and Craven.

Steele also dominated race two, but Needham and Craven provided the highlights of the event, jostling and running side-by-side throughout the race, with Needham edging his rival for second place on the final lap.

Compared to Snetterton, the two races at Donington could not have been more different. Mechanical problems forced Snetterton double winner Steele to spin and then stall on the grid, writing him out of serious contention for both races and leaving the door open for the rest of the field to take advantage.

Initially, Needham looked to have grabbed the upper hand when he took an early lead from Louis Hamilton-Smith. By lap seven though, Hamilton-Smith had reversed the positions and would go on to claim his first and only win of the year. Needham held on to second comfortably ahead of veteran competitor Dave Karaskas.

In race two, treacherous conditions greeted the drivers thanks to a sudden downpour pre-race.  Despite the greasy track surface, Hamilton-Smith elected to change on to slicks before the start, surrendering his pole position. This gave Needham pole and the break he needed to take victory by over 10 seconds from Karaskas. Hamilton-Smith tried to battle his way back into contention but retired with a lap to go.

Hamilton-Smith was out of luck again when the series returned to Snetterton for the next round. Having started second on the grid, he stalled and dropped to the back of the field. Unperturbed, he charged back to finish third behind Alex Craven and race victor Steele, back to winning ways after his Donington disappointment. He followed that up with a further success in race two, before the drivers faced their toughest challenge of the year at Spa.

No less than 48 cars took to the track for two races around Belgium's iconic 4.4mile circuit, as the F3 Cup drivers took on their Austrian counterparts. Once again, Steele was the pick of the bunch securing an overall win in race two, a victory he described as "the best win of his career to date."  It had followed up his class victory in race one, where he finished third overall behind Austrians Gery Hauser and winner David Hauser.

Elsewhere though, Needham, Karaskas, Kat Impey and Mark Draper all put in highly creditable performances, racing against and beating drivers with more familiarity of the circuit. It was a great advert for both the drivers competing and for the strength of the F3 Cup.

Needham continued to impress when the F3 Cup returned home to a damp and overcast Brands Hatch, when he took victory after Steele made a rare mistake, spinning out of the lead at Druids, after hitting an oil patch on the final lap. There was also great encouragement for Mark Terry, who bounced back from his Snetterton accident to take a great second at his local track.

In race two however, fortunes for Steele and Needham swung around. Steele took his seventh win of the year; again by nearly half a minute and putting him right on course for the F2 test opportunity. As for Lancaster's Needham, mechanical problems forced him to retire with two laps remaining. Draper capped a fine drive to hold second ahead of a relieved Hamilton-Smith.

Interest in the F3 Cup was clearly growing as a month later, 34 cars were on track for the subsequent Brands Hatch GP double header meeting, as the series shared the grid with the Monoposto Championship. Come race day, Steele was again in a class of his own, taking victory by nearly 15 seconds in race one and over 25 seconds in race two on a glorious summer weekend.  Terry continued his fine run of podiums with a third and a second, suggesting he could be one to watch should he continue into 2012.  

This was emphasised again in the next round at Anglesey where, despite challenging damp conditions, he secured another two second place finishes behind Steele. Mark Harrison also put in a positive performance with a pair of thirds, another driver who could be an ever-increasing threat next year. Needham also picked up a pair of fourths (despite a spin) in a meeting.

As for Steele, it seemed only a matter of time that he would secure the Sunoco Grand-AM 200 Challenge, needing only one more victory at Silverstone to seal it. An incredible 53 cars lined up on the grid at the Northamptonshire circuit creating the largest ever single- seater race in the UK. After qualifying, Steele put himself in the best position to secure the Grand-Am prize by claiming pole for race one.

At first, he hadn't made things easy for himself when he was beaten off the line by Needham. Nevertheless, it didn't take long for the Rochester star to regain his composure and after grabbing the lead on lap two, he never looked back. He went on to take his 12th win of the year and claim the Grand-AM 200 prize, securing him the "American Dream" of a fully funded drive at Daytona in January.

Needham held on to second from Karaskas, while former Ginetta G50 Cup racer Chris Dittman wasted no time in getting adjusted to F3 machinery by finishing fourth. He followed up his fine first race display with a fifth in race two, as Steele took the flag from Needham and Terry.

The final round at Oulton Park was a mixed event for Steele. Firstly, his Gray's Motorsport's Dallara suffered gearbox problems in race one before he bounced back to claim race two. More significantly though, some new and exciting additions to the grid at the Cheshire circuit in both drivers and car-specifications gave followers a taste of what they could expect to see in the F3 Cup in 2012.

Of those new additions reigning Monoposto champion Tristan Cliffe, who drove his new 2004-spec Dallara, finished third in race one and signalled his intentions that he has the pace to be challenging right at the front when he attempts to race a full campaign in 2012.

Steele's stunning record of 14 wins in 18 races may suggest the year was a walkover for him, but the performances of other drivers, many of who are likely to stay in the F3 Cup next year, would suggest a competitive title battle could be a realistic and enticing possibility in 2012.

Chris Needham and Louis Hamilton-Smith took four excellent victories between them in 2011, demonstrating they have the quality to win races, while Mark Terry, Tristan Cliffe, Kat Impey and the experienced David Karaskas are just some of the names who hope impressive and consistent displays demonstrated in 2011 have laid the foundations for successful years ahead in the F3 Cup.

For more information on the 2012 F3 Cup calendar, please CLICK HERE.