Three drivers are now within nine points of each other at the head of the Australian F3 Championship after Britain's Ben Barker swept to a convincing victory hat-trick at Mallala Raceway near Adelaide.
It is the closest the championship has been since round one, and sets up a fascinating title battle in the second half of the year between three drivers at the top of their game.
Having claimed his maiden F3 win in a chaotic rain-hit opener on Saturday, Barker won the second sprint race on Sunday morning at near lap record pace – he missed the four-year old mark by just three-thousandths of a second – before controlling a battle with highly-rated Kiwi Mitch Evans in the feature race to score this third win from three starts.
The lanky Brit rocketed himself back into contention for the Gold Star as a result of his crushing performance in South Australia, whilst the margin at the top between leader Tom Tweedie and Mitch Evans is now a scant three points heading into the mid-season break.
“That was the perfect weekend,” Barker admitted, “Phillip Island was a real downer for me, so to come back like this is fantastic after getting the penalty there. I have to thank the team for setting up a fantastic car and thanks to my sponsor Cars Motorsport for their support. The team has done an awesome job and car was perfect. I feel really comfortable in the car and comfortable with the way I am driving so I'm really looking forward to the second half of the year.”
Importantly for his championship challenge, Evans finished ahead of season-long rival Tom Tweedie, who struggled throughout after missing valuable practice time on Friday. It was the toughest round of the season for talented teen Evans, but still netted him a third and two second place results.
“It's been an up and down weekend,” the 15-year old New Zealander conceded, “Qualifying went really well, but the driving error in race one was frustrating, so to bounce back with a solid second in the final race was good. It's been a good weekend for the points and the margin has really closed up so we can go into the next round looking to close it further.”
Tweedie insisted that he was pleased to hold onto the lead of the championship, if only by a reduced margin.
“It's game on,” he said of the three-way battle for the Gold Star, “To come out of this round with the lead in the championship is a good result given we struggled in the dry because we had no track time earlier in the weekend. The experience the local teams have here is critical and one of the reasons why we struggled, but we're looking ahead feeling positive. Tracks like Eastern Creek will be tough [for the Dallara F304], but Morgan Park and Sandown will be good for us, so it's going to be a good fight.”
Zhang Shan Qi had his career-best performance this weekend at Mallala and finished fourth in the feature, but not before waging a mighty battle with the two R-Tek Dallara's of Josh Burdon and Martin Short.
The trio swapped positions regularly throughout the early stages of the feature race, Zhang eventually getting his Team BRM with PTRS Racing Dallara clear of the two youngsters behind him. Short finished fifth and Burdon sixth but both showed impressive pace – lapping less than a second off the championship cars pace at the front of the field for a majority of the main event.