Fresh restart, same cool

66th Macau Grand Prix Special | Co-ordinated by Sérgio Fonseca

FIA F3 World Cup

A wise man once said that you can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sails to reach your destination. The introduction of a brand new F3 car didn’t make life easier for the only single-seater driver of Macau; Charles Leong Hon Chio.

Charles Leong Hon Chio

Contrary to public opinion, local drivers are not super wealthy and do not receive a pharaonic support from the Macau Government; that’s the case of Leong. The 18-year-old driver, who will take on the Macau Grand Prix F3 – FIA F3 World Cup for the second consecutive time, doesn’t come from a rich background, and the warmly welcome support he annually receives from the Government is not even enough to pay for half the season in the FIA F3 Championship. Generating sponsorship from private investors seems a “mission impossible” for the local racers, as the gaming industry, the main player in town, has little interest in waging on a distant market. Thus, it came as no surprise that the Macau youngster sat on the sidelines for six months before driving the new F3 car.

Leong had the first chance of driving the new F3 car in the FIA F3 Championship season finale at Sochi, Russia, at the end of September. It was a shocking experience for him. With no previous testing [testing is not allowed during the FIA F3 season as a cost-cutting measure], he had to get used to a new reality in the single free-practice session ahead of the weekend qualifying. He was four seconds out of pace in the session. His first race was cut short as Charles, who had already made up some places, slid off the track in a slippery spot and ended his race in the tyre wall. In race two, he finally got the opportunity to experience a full race distance in such a powerful car, crossing the finish line in 21st.

“It was a tough first experience. An all new car, a new track and driving again after six months. I was used to last year’s F3 car, and this is a very different car to tame. You need to brake like the F4 car,” he explained. “It is always hard to switch back your driving style”. 

Adaptation difficulties apart, in general, Leong liked the experience at the wheel of the new F3 car. “Physically, it is as demanding as the Asian F3 car [FIA F3 Regional spec], but this is a much faster car that gives you a very nice feeling. It is strong on power and the Drag Reduction System (DRS) is nice. The most impressive thing is definitely the straight line speed,” he says.

The new cars, as well as being much faster than the old, are also considerably heavier [690 kg without driver and fuel], meaning they will give greater speed down the long flat-out stretch from R Bend to Lisboa, but will provide an enormous challenge around the sinuous mountain section.

The F3 2019 car features a naturally aspirated 3.4 litre bespoke Mecachrome 6-cylinder engine, which delivers 380 hp at 8000 rpm. These new cars recorded speeds above 300 km/h at the Monza circuit earlier this year. For reference, last year’s winner Dan Ticktum’s top speed just before Lisboa without a tow was 267 km/h in his 580 kg car. For safety reasons, the FIA mandated a minimum rear-wing angle for the Guia Circuit in order to keep top speeds down. However, even with that, with DRS on, teams and drivers believe that the Dallara-built cars will be close to 280-290 km/h in the long straights over the weekend.

Like F1 cars, the new F3 cars feature DRS. When a driver is within one second of the car in front at a designated point, which in the Guia Circuit will be on the run down to Lisboa corner, they can activate DRS, which opens a slot in the rear wing to reduce drag, boost straight-line speed and help with overtaking.

Furthermore, with an overall length of 4965 mm – half a meter longer than the previous F3 – there is an expectation of how the drivers will cope with the new car in the narrow parts of the circuit. Teams are expected to have some set-up adjustments to help turn in for the tight Melco Hairpin, because “this is a really big car”, says a bewildered Leong.

Using the same chassis, engine and Pirelli tyres, the young drivers must showcase their skills both in speed and in managing tyres; just like they will have to do when they move up the motorsport ladder. Experience plays an extraordinary part in nursing the Pirelli tyres degradation, and Leong had none when he arrived in Russia in September. The Guia Circuit surface is not quite smooth so tyre degradation is relatively high, and the drivers need to manage well the four dry-weather set of tyres available for the whole weekend.

Nevertheless, the former Asian Formula Renault Series and China F4 Championship Champion keeps his usual cool head at the great event. With one race and a three-day test in Spain, the local hero knows he is starting far behind his opponents, but it doesn’t take any motivation from him.

“I don’t feel any pressure honestly. I will take it in the same way as last year. I will give my best and I want to enjoy the weekend at the maximum. I hope people understand I don’t have the same kind of preparation as my rivals, nor the same resources”, he attests.

Things did not change dramatically for the “Macau boy” as he faced last year’s Grand Prix with more or less the same F3 mileage, or lack of it. He still managed to finish 18th in the qualifying race, being an innocent victim of the Lisboa corner mess in the Grand Prix race. This year, above all, he will definitely want to see the chequered flag.