Changes - Rounds 23 & 24:
Robert Doornbos was back in British F3 after his previous outing with Menu Motorsport at Spa. He must have liked racing for them. Meanwhile Lewis Hamilton is making his racing debut for Manor Motorsport after a superb test day here on Friday. Much was expected of the 2003 British Formula Renault Champion; it remained to be seen whether he could deliver for Manor come race day; if he could, the team are much in need of a boost. At Alan Docking Racing, Scott Speed was back, while Robbie Kerr had taken over the Lola-Dome, after Joao Paulo de Oliveira thrashed the thing round Donington to reasonable effect. Quite why Lola had decided to put Kerr in the car was beyond most people; it seemed to make no sense at all.
And while we're on the subject of change, anyone with fond memories of Dingle Dell should shed a tear now, as the corner is effectively no more. Changes in the off season, meant to make it safer for motorcycle racers, have effectively emasculated one of racing's most challenging corners, and seemingly without actually making it any less dangerous. There's progress for you. If you loved that corner, don't go there now.
Qualifying Report - Round 23:
Weather: Cold, overcast.
It had been raining quite heavily overnight and, although it had stopped, the track was still very damp, especially out at the back in the woods! The trouble was it was still overcast and it looked as if it could start again at any moment. As a result some people who wouldn't usually be among the first out to play decided that they might as well go out and get it over with while the weather lasted. Someone who wasn't taking any chances with the weather was Will Davison (Menu Motorsport), the Australian jumping to the top of the times early on. He seemed to be happy at Menu, presumably on the grounds that no one was asking him to drive a car set up for Robbie Kerr! Meanwhile, Kerr was wrestling the Lola-Dome, while the Lola PR man was insisting that Kerr would be on the podium by the end of the weekend. There was a great deal of laughter at that, allied to the suspicion that whatever he was on, no one else wanted any! You would have been hard pressed after that to decide what the situation was as the MST timing screens briefly fell apart. When they did come back, what they said seemed a little unlikely, as it appeared Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport) was fastest. After a less than impressive season, the Dane suddenly seemed to have found his form, but the feeling was this show of speed was way too late to save him. Additionally, there weren't that many drivers out there now, although the numbers did - unusually - include Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport), the 2003 Champion taking a different approach for once and not waiting until the rest of them cleaned the track for him. Hamilton was out there too, making the most of the available laps to try and set a good time and impress everyone.
Eventually Nelson Piquet Junior (Piquet Sports) finally emerged, as did Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport), the two lads fighting for the runner-up spot in the 2003 title race. They had both been waiting but finally they both cracked and went out to try and set a time. It was all getting a bit F1 really in some quarters. And while all this was going on, the times just kept on coming down as the dry line started to appear. It began to look as if those who went earlier were about to regret it, especially if there was no life left in their tyres. As the session developed, Doornbos was now going very well, trading times with Davison as the two of them fought it out for pole. They may have been momentarily distracted, because while all that was going on, Kerr grabbed temporary pole position, though it was obvious he wasn't going to be able to keep it, except possibly in the wildest dreams of the Lola PR man!
There were now 20 minutes of the session left, and pretty well everyone now emerged onto the still damp track, and the result was everyone got caught in traffic. Sheep have nothing on these guys when it comes to blindly following the leader! Now Bremer was back to pole, and van der Merwe was second. Bremer's showing was raising all sorts of questions about what had happened in the previous 22 races. Meanwhile, Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was 3rd overall, which would give him a good run at the Scholarship Class title, especially as his rivals, Steven Kane and Karun Chandhok (both T- Sport), were both a long way down the order. The Carlin battle seemed to have taken over now, with Bremer and van der Merwe taking it in turns to be on pole, while Michael Keohane and Green were battling for 3rd place. Will Power (Fortec Motorsport) fought his way to the top, only to get pushed aside by the others, with van der Merwe now on pole from Bremer. Oddly, Rizal Ramli (Team SYR) was in 6th, which suggested the timing screens were still not working normally. Viso being 3rd overall was a lot easier to believe, while Kerr and the Lola had slipped down the order to 19th. After the mass rush to get out on track, there was now a wave in the other direction as people started diving into the pits for fresh rubber, or general adjustments.
When things settled down again, Piquet grabbed pole. While the Brazilian sat at the top of the pile, van der Merwe was sliding and twitching his Dallara through Paddock as if he was driving a Formula Ford. The Manor drivers were also starting to show now, with Clivio Piccione in 5th, and Hamilton two places behind him. Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) seemed somewhat subdued off the track, but he was very much awake on the track, and was 8th. Another odd feature of the session was that Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was in an absolutely unprecedented 9th until Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) went 8th and pushed him down a place. Perhaps Fauzy was inspired by the fact that Malaysian Airlines were sponsoring the meeting. Watts was clearly on a charge, and suddenly looked as if pole might be on the cards for him. He was 2nd already, with Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport) in 3rd. These last few races, things have started to look good for the Canadian, although it was too late for him to feel much affection towards the Formula.
When Hamilton put in his claim for pole, no one should have been too surprised, because the youngster looked smooth and capable. It would be quite a debut if he could keep the place, but Piquet was back out there again and he was now hunting for a good lap. You only had to watch the way he was handling the car to see that he meant it, though van der Merwe was still quicker than him. Piquet's best wasn't quite good enough that lap, and he stayed 3rd. Hamilton was also trying very hard, though he wasn't the only one. Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing) snatched 5th.
It was beginning to look as if the fastest man at the end of the session would be the last one to cross the line at the end of 30 minutes. Certainly, the damp patches at the back were still a factor, and the clouds had thinned, suggesting that the rain would hold off, at least for the morning. Piquet grabbed pole back, while Davison, who had been there, was now 20th. The session really was that seriously up and down. Piquet was soon displaced by van der Merwe, who was still trying to get more from his tyres. In the meantime, Kerr was 17th, which was making the Lola PR man look pretty silly.
Someone else who wasn't looking too good was Green, who now seemed to be overdriving the Dallara in a desperate quest for progress. It wasn't helping him any, so maybe he should stop listening to his entourage and relax; it would probably help. Piquet went back to pole on his next lap, while Salignon was now 8th, while Power hauled his was back up the order to 3rd. All of the three Hitech drivers were looking good this time out, and Salignon proved it by taking 3rd away from Power, only to have van der Merwe go 3rd, after a slide down the order was abruptly reversed. Davison was now charging hard again too, and was back in the top 10, while Kane was beginning to wind himself up, though he still seemed to lack Viso's pace. The P1 cars were going well this time out, which was bad news for Kane and Chandhok. Bad news was also what came next, as with 7 and a half minutes left and we got a red flag. And they'd been doing so well up till then too.Particularly frustrated by the stoppage was Doornbos, who had just started out on what looked likely to be the fastest lap of the session so far. His first sector time was the fastest anyone had so far managed, but then he had to abort the lap as the red flags brought the session to a premature halt.
Eventually the wreckage was cleared and brought back. The major cause of the stoppage was Power, who had gone off at Westfield and comprehensively bent the car (way beyond the usual "little pile of bent bits"), and possibly himself as well. Certainly he was complaining of back and neck pains, so the medics strapped him into a collar and hauled him off for a series of checks. Later he would be passed fit, if bruised. Anyway, there now followed a very long delay as the marshals (who were short-handed on Saturday) cleared up after Power. He'd done a lot of damage to the tyre wall and the track had to be cleaned after the wreckage was taken away.
The other man in trouble was van der Merwe, who managed to make a fool of himself in the damp conditions. "It's very slippery round the back, and round Stirlings I just had a bit of brain fade and steered off onto the grass and I thought I'll straighten it out on the grass but it just sucked me into the wall really. It was a really low speed accident, but it's just that slippery out there on slicks that you can't lose concentration even for a second. The car's not too bad but it won't be out for the rest of the session." That meant he could expect to find himself a long way down the grid at the end of the morning. That'd teach him not to say things about racing against people he didn't know at Donington! He wasn't having the best of weekends.
When they finally got going again, Doornbos was first back out; he now had unfinished business and he wanted that pole position. The trouble was his tyres were no longer really up to the job. And Piquet was still on pole, with Asaro in 3rd, and neither of them would want to give up their places to the Dutchman. There was still enough time for 3 laps, 4 if you were lucky, and some people were. At the end of his first flying lap, Davison was back at the head of the order, but with the track now almost completely dry there were lots of improvements coming through, and van der Merwe was now slipping rapidly back down the order as he had to sit and stew in the pits. Viso moved back to 3rd overall with Kane now 7th, when Davison again grabbed pole, just getting ahead of Piquet. It really was going to come down to the order they crossed the line in. With a minute still to go Piquet, Davison and Salignon all looked capable of pole, and Davison was clinging on to it for all he was worth. Piquet took it off him but Davison went faster again. Unfortunately for the Aussie, Piquet was behind him on the road and managed to get one more lap in before the flag than Davison. As Davison trundled round on his slowing down lap, everyone else held their breath, wondering if Piquet could get away with it and rob the Menu driver of pole. With both Salignon (2nd) and Watts (3rd) between him and Davison, Piquet had to give it everything on that final lap. To nobody's surprise, as he crossed the line at the end of the session, almost the last man to complete a flying lap, Piquet's name flashed to the top of the list, The young Brazilian had pole.
Davison would have to settle for 2nd, ahead of Salignon and Watts, while Green was 5th, from Asaro, Hamilton, Piccione, and Andrew Thompson in the 3rd Hitech car rounded out the top 10. Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport) looked out-of-sorts in 11th, ahead of Keohane. 13th (and on Scholarship pole) was Viso, while Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) was next to Bremer in the order as usual. Doornbos was a disgruntled 16th, from Kerr, van der Merwe, Chandhok and Kane. 21st was Power, with Speed, Sherwood, Fauzy, Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport), Ramli, and Masato Shinoyama (Team SYR) bringing up the rear.
-Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite