Weather: Cold, cloudy
It would have been nice to report that the last two races of the 2003 British F3 Championship were full of drama and excitement, but if we tried to say that we'd have to lie. The first race of the weekend in particular, Round 23, turned into one of those stiflingly dull races you occasionally get at Brands, where one driver gets away in the lead and everyone else sits in a well-mannered queue behind him, watching as he vanishes into the distance.
The start had the potential for chaos, as demonstrated when Michael Keohane (Carlin Motorsport) made an unusually atrocious getaway on the green flag lap. If that was his plan for the afternoon, it wasn't a very good one. Hopefully the green lights would have more of a galvanising effect on him than the flags did, because sitting where he was in the middle of the grid, life was going to get very messy if he didn't move when everyone else did.
Someone who wouldn't be moving when anyone else did was Will Power (Fortec Motorsport). The Australian had offed the car big time in qualifying on Saturday morning and the team was fighting to get the rebuild finished in time to start the race. They didn't make it, so the race would have to start without Power. Robert Doornbos, meanwhile, pulled his Menu Motorsport car into the pit lane rather than taking his place on the grid. Mike Baker tried to convince people this was planned, and to be fair, if the Dutchman had actually joined in as soon as the race started, rather than emerging half a lap down, there might have been some store set by this claim. There were way too many people with plans about at Brands, and you got the distinct impression that none of them had been properly tested!
As it was, what actually happened when the lights turned green was that Nelson Piquet Jr. (Piquet Sports) managed to do exactly what he had said he would, and made a superb start to be ahead of Doornbos' team-mate Will Davison before they ever got as far as Paddock Hill Bend. Piquet had said that if he got away in front his plan was to get right away from all of them and it already looked like that was what he was doing. He still had a shot at the Championship runner-up slot and he was keen to take that too, though his only rival for that placing, Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) would need a run of bad luck if he was going to be beaten now.
Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) had qualified in a distant grid spot after crashing out of qualifying around the same time as Power. He had nothing to prove but he was still determined to get a good result. Certainly he was completely awake when the lights turned green and was progressing well. It didn't take long to leave Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) in the dust, but then Kerr was wrestling the Lola-Dome (and losing badly it seemed).
And so Piquet led from Davison, with Green in 3rd, which was too much for Piquet. Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) was 4th, ahead of Eric Salignon (Hitech) and Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport). Van der Merwe, meanwhile, was now 13th, bottled up behind Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) who was locked into his own battle to beat Steven Kane (T-Sport) to the Scholarship Class title if he could. It might have made the Venezuelan easier to pass, though with "Ernie" you can never be too sure. While Power finally emerged from the pit lane, Lewis Hamilton (Manor Motorsport) was having a pretty torrid time in his debut F3 race. The teenager had started well enough but then took a trip through the gravel and dropped himself way back down the order. He was now behind everyone except Power and he'd picked up a slow puncture, which would eventually force him out of the race. The first retirement, though, came from Green. On lap 4, Green made a mistake. While he was recovering from the self-inflicted wobble that ensued, Watts arrived and collected him. That was the end of Green, but Watts' luck held this time and he escaped, inheriting 3rd place from Green, while Asaro took advantage of the incident to take 4th place from Salignon. That kept Piquet's quest for runner-up glory alive, especially as he really was pulling out a huge gap from Davison and the rest.
And that really was about it for interest at the front of the field. Piquet seemed to have found a short cut somewhere that was unknown to the rest of them, and was now a distant speck as far as Davison was concerned. From where van der Merwe was, he couldn't even see Piquet. This was mostly because he was temporarily stuck behind Piccione in 12th place. When he finally did get past the Monegasque, he found he had a much more serious problem. Now he was stuck behind Keohane and although they are teammates, there's not a lot of love lost between the two of them. In addition, Michael is difficult to pass at the best of times, and when he's battling for a place with that well-known double act of Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) and Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport) it's a long way from the best of times. The fact that van der Merwe had been trying hard was clear in the fact that he had almost scraped off one of the decals from his front wing (it was flapping in the breeze), not for the first time this season. Even he seemed to think better of tackling Keohane though. It just wasn't worth the trouble.
Someone who would have loved to be that far ahead was Doornbos, who was starting to catch up with the back markers, before a technical problem saw him limp back to the pits and out of the race. Also near the back, Hamilton was making a major meal of trying to get past Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing), but as it turned out that was because he had a slow puncture after his earlier trip through the gravel and he wouldn't last much longer out there.
In the Scholarship Class, Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was leading the chase for the title, but not by very much. His nearest rival, Steven Kane (T-Sport) was being held at bay by Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) as last year's champion tried to drag the Lola-Dome round the circuit in a sensible manner.
At the very back, the leader of the two Team SYR boys, Rizal Ramli, seemed to have left some of his front wing behind somewhere. Still, he didn't seem to need it - it certainly wasn't likely to make him any faster. The real mystery was how he'd done it, because it looked as if he'd been going too fast and had hit someone up the rear. Hmm, odd!
Apart from puzzling over that, there really wasn't a lot to hold the attention as the race came to a close. Piquet was impressive but distant, and now Davison was in a lonely 2nd, while Watts held off Asaro for 3rd. Salignon was 5th from Robert Dahlgren, who headed home the third Hitech car of Andrew Thompson, the Scot getting another decent result now the season is almost over, presumably having, like Salignon, finally become comfortable with the car and the category. Antinucci and Bremer were still 8th and 9th and Keohane grabbed the last point from a clearly frustrated van der Merwe. Piccione was a lacklustre 12th, while Viso won the Scholarship Class, as well as taking the extra point for fastest lap. It still wasn't over though. Kane was 2nd, 15th overall behind Kerr, and so the Scholarship Class Championship chase would go down to the wire, and would not be decided until the final round of the series.
Scott Speed (Alan Docking Racing) and Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) were 16th and 17th, ahead of Karun Chandhok (T-Sport), who was 3rd in the Scholarship class, while Sherwood was next up and 4th in class. The final places, predictably, were occupied by Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport), Ramli, Masato Shinoyama (Team SYR), and Power who never really had a chance, as he hadn't even started on the same lap as the others. It was a pretty dull race really, though it underlined what Piquet is capable of, and made you wonder what might have happened if he'd managed to get his starts off pat at the start of the season. Assuming he is allowed to do what he wants, and stick around for the 2004 series, he has to start the year as title favourite.
- Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite