Jordan King raced to his sixth podium finish of the 2014 FIA Formula 3 European Championship campaign at Imola last weekend, as he artfully proved his pace and potential against the newly-crowned champion and a soon-to-be Formula 1 graduate.
Following a long summer break, the fiercely-contested single-seater series revved back into life with a two-day test around the legendary Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari – erstwhile home to the San Marino Grand Prix. After establishing his references and getting to grips with the demanding circuit, King featured consistently inside the top ten amongst the 29 protagonists – the indisputable crème de la crème of young racing talent at F3 level.
He replicated that form during practice as he lapped sixth and seventh-quickest. He then pulled a stunning last-gasp effort out of the bag in a red flag-disrupted qualifying session to place his Carlin-prepared, Volkswagen-powered Dallara on the front row of the starting grid for race one, stringing together his fastest sectors just when it mattered and outpacing new Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 recruit Max Verstappen for good measure.
When the lights went out, a slipping clutch unfortunately scuppered King’s hopes of leapfrogging pole-sitter Esteban Ocon, but he successfully defended second position and following an early safety car period, set about maintaining the pressure on the champion-elect, a Lotus F1 Junior protégé.
Remaining well within two seconds of his quarry throughout, the highly-rated Stoneleigh-based hotshot pushed hard right to the chequered flag, flashing across the finish line barely a second-and-a-half adrift to clinch the runner-up spoils. Ocon even admitted afterwards that he had needed to take some risks to ensure he stayed ahead.
The second qualifying session to determine the grid for races two and three was again disjointed by red flags, making it tricky to settle into a rhythm. Worse still, with fading light resulting in insufficient visibility, it was prematurely curtailed, leaving King to line up an unrepresentative 13th and ninth respectively.
In the weekend’s second encounter, the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) SuperStar, MSA Team UK protégé and former McLaren Autosport Award finalist spent almost as much time off the track as on it in avoidance of rivals’ mistakes. Describing it as ‘probably the worst race of my life – no matter where I positioned my car, I seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time at every opportunity’, he wound up an uncharacteristically lowly 19th when he had looked to be on-course for a solid points haul.
The third outing was scarcely better, with King finding himself squeezed onto the grass on the opening lap and – following no fewer than three safety car periods – finishing just outside the points in 11th. Quipping that it was ‘definitely a weekend of two halves’, the 20-year-old Hugo Boss brand ambassador and 2013 British F3 Champion now has one remaining chance to break his European duck in the Hockenheim finale in a handful of days’ time. Before he steps on up to bigger and better things next year, he is determined to tick that last box.
“Imola is a real old-school ex-F1 circuit – there’s not much room for manoeuvre or margin for error,” King explained. “It’s difficult to find the limit without going over it and if you make a mistake, it bites you – but I like that, because it’s what makes it such a drivers’ track.
“The pre-event test was very productive – we learned a lot and made some encouraging progress – and in the first qualifying session, I knew the time was in the car from previous sectors, but just as we were building up to it, there was a late red flag. At the re-start, I had only two minutes to get round on my warming-up lap to be able to put one last ‘flyer’ in, whilst making sure I left enough of a gap in front so I wouldn’t hit traffic. I crossed the line with literally two seconds to spare...
“In race one, I was quite confident I could give Ocon a run for his money into the first corner because my starts have generally been good this year – but there was a very long hold on the red lights and I could feel the clutch beginning to slip, which meant I didn’t pull away as cleanly as I had been hoping. He then opened up a small gap after the safety car period, but I kept him honest throughout. It was a cat-and-mouse scenario – whilst I would narrow the deficit on some laps, on others, he would extend it again.
“It’s always positive to finish on the rostrum, of course, but frustrating at the same time as that was my third second place and sixth podium of the season without a win. It’s like, ‘come on, when’s it going to be my turn?!’
“It feels like we’ve completed the jigsaw but lost a little bit under the sofa somewhere and we need to find it. All year, we’ve had the same speed as the drivers who have been winning races – things just haven’t come together to allow us to reach the top step. That said, I’m optimistic we will be in the mix at Hockenheim – we qualified on the front row there last year and finished on the podium back in May – so hopefully we can locate that missing piece of the puzzle between now and the weekend...”