Race Report by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite
No 56 - Marcel Romanio, Brazil, Team Meritus, Dallara F398 Toyota.
Brazilian Marcel Romanio joins Team Meritus in the Scholarship Class. As he has been out of racing for five years, it is hard to know what to expect from the Brazilian, and it could be argued that starting the season at Croft is a little on the ambitious side!
The weather gods that had made life so difficult at Thruxton were still making matters more complicated than many would have liked at Croft. Then again, this was North Yorkshire in April so we probably should not have been surprised. If Westley Barber (Alan Docking Racing) has control of the weather, then he's doing a dreadful job of it, is all I can say. It was a typical Northern Spring day, and the Sunday wasn't a lot better either. Although the rain held off, it was bitterly cold and into the bargain the track was liberally coated with oil and cement dust after the support race practice sessions. It was going to be tricky out there, no question about it. As if to prove the point, Ben Collins (Carlin Motorsport) was the first to fall victim to the conditions, managing the somewhat embarrassing feat of spinning off on his out lap. For a driver of his experience, this was not what anyone would have expected. He was able to get going again, but it wouldn't be his last off-track excursion of the morning.
After that things settled down quite quickly. The main contenders for pole were Antonio Pizzonia (Manor Motorsport) and Nicolas Kiesa (RC Motorsport). The young Dane has been fastest in testing during the week and was obviously looking to keep the momentum going into the race weekend. The two of them would fight it out throughout both sessions, the advantage finally going to Kiesa in the closing minutes of the second session. Once again the Brazilian would start from the front row but not from pole. This is not a habit he will want to get into, but he didn't seem too worried at the prospect. The 19-year old's confidence is still high after Thruxton, despite his insistence that he is not ready to talk about winning the title yet. He may not be but you won't find many to bet against him, even if he doesn't seem to have got to grips with the idea of the importance of setting pole yet. In fact he may well have thought it would be his this time, as for most of session 2, Kiesa was 0.001 seconds behind and did not seem able to find the extra required to overhaul "Jungle Boy". Then again, Kiesa came up through Formula Ford, where it's never over until you see the flag, something that was very clear from his efforts in Yorkshire.
Despite the intriguing battle for the front row, one of the major sensations of practice was the performance of Takuma Sato (Carlin Motorsport). While Ben Collins was having a dreadful time, the tiny Japanese driver showed his true ability. He was an unhappy 8th at the end of the first session but he put in a storming lap in the second session to drag himself clear of the rest of the field, and take 3rd place. The amount of effort required showed in his face when he returned at the end of the second practice session. Wide-eyed and sweaty as he was, he couldn't stop smiling for some time afterwards. "I was trying really hard, and this is what I get for it!" the delighted youngster said.
Behind him, in 4th place, was the decidedly less than delighted Tomas Scheckter (Stewart Racing). He very probably should not have been at the circuit at all and would almost certainly have been better off in his bed. Something he and the team had eaten had left him with a nasty attack of food poisoning. He had spent most of Friday night being sick, and wasn't appreciably better during Saturday. The lad obviously has at least as much determination as his father, Jody, and it speaks volumes for his talent that he qualified as well as he did. He even outqualified his team-mate, Narain Karthikeyan, despite the Indian having had the advantage over Scheckter in the early stages of the first session. It may be too early to wonder whether being at Stewart really suits Narain, but it is beginning to look rather as if it might not.
The other performance of note was Gianmaria Bruni (Fortec Motorsport). The woolly hat was gone, and though he still looked as if he couldn't believe he could be this cold, he was warming up nicely at the wheel. In the end he couldn't move much further up than 6th despite his best efforts. Even if he was a little disappointed, it was a fine effort for a novice in the series, particularly one who has raced very little in Britain. With the improvement coming as it did in the chaotic final moments of the second session, team boss Richard Dutton could not really have asked for more from the Italian. And, as with Scheckter, Bruni had outqualified his team-mate too. Michael Bentwood (Fortec Motorsport) was next up, in 7th place and not at all optimistic about his chances from back there. He had, at least, calmed down about the incident that took him out of the race at Thruxton, as had the other party involved, Gary Paffett. Bentwood was joined on the 4th row by Milos Pavlovic (RC Motorsport). The RC driver might even have been further up had he not been stricken with mechanical difficulties in the second session. "The clutch braked and I had to stop now," he explained.
In 9th place was Westley Barber (Alan Docking Racing). The Essex teenager tested well here, to such an extent that there were rumours going round that it had been Warren Hughes in the car and not Westley. This was causing him a great deal of annoyance, until he thought a little further about it and realised that there might be an advantage to the element of surprise. Certainly the team were well pleased with him. Less than happy was 10th placed Andy Priaulx (Promatecme UK). Running the new Renault engine, the 1999 Renault Spider Champion had a rush of blood to the head in the first session which saw him take himself and Ben Collins off the track at the Complex, something that quite clearly did not impress Ben at all. "Ben was going quite slowly and hadn't seen me and I lunged up the inside and didn't quite make it. It was a racing incident. The trouble was we weren't in the race!" They were both able to get going again, which suggests they were lucky, at least. Much time was spent in the Promatecme van between sessions, staring at the readouts from the engine and it's fair to say that Priaulx's driving in the second session looked pretty desperate. All of this suggests that, yet again, the new Renault engine may not be all it is supposed to be.
In 11th, was the second Manor Motorsport driver, Juan Manuel Lopez. The Argentinean didn't seem able to settle into a rhythm at Croft and, having come out of Italian Formula Three, may well be another one who is not entirely amused by English weather or the British circuits. He wasn't saying much but he needs to raise his game if he is going to get anywhere near his team-mate. 12th was Ben Collins, very unhappy after his morning of alarms and excursions and wondering why he bothered getting out of bed that morning.
Someone who may be wondering why he bothered getting out of bed at all this season is Martin O'Connell (Rowan Racing). The former Class B Champion is struggling this season, and 13th in qualifying was no help to his confidence at all. Still, he was not as baffled as Matthew Davies was. The second Promatecme UK driver was having difficulties believing some of the things that happened to him in qualifying. The failure of a rear wing end plate in the first session was baffling enough, especially as he hadn't hit anything and nothing had hit him. The team insisted that a break like that couldn't happen but it quite clearly had. To cap it all, in the same session, the Renault power unit suddenly started firing on 3 instead of 4 cylinders. As Matt pulled into the pits to have it looked at, he hit the accelerator one more time, and it cleared. It was all rather spooky. Haunted Dallaras, anybody? And if the first session had been bad, the second session was even worse. In fact it was so bad that Matt just didn't want to talk about it. To anyone.
Next up, in 15th, was Gary Paffett (Fred Goddard Racing). The Scholarship Class pole-man was disappointed to be so far back, feeling that the Championship Class drivers are the ones he wants to be up against. Still, he would settle for being ahead of two of them, and nearly a second faster than his nearest Class B rival.
In 16th was Tor Sriachavanon (Alan Docking Racing), while in 17th, which seems to be the slot he almost always occupies, was Warren Carway (Rowan Racing). At least this time his team-mate, O'Connell, wasn't a dim and distant speck on the horizon, though the team was hardly pleased by that.
The Complex and the Hairpin were popular places for getting it wrong. One driver who seemed to be having especial difficulties with it was Atsushi Katsumata (Team Meritus) though it didn't stop him being second in class. He was followed closely by his team-mate Marcel Romanio, the Brazilian certainly not looking like a driver who has not been in a racing car for five years. Another victim of the Complex was Craig Fleming (ME Motorsport). He was still showing evidence of the steep learning curve he is currently embarked on, going off there in both sessions. Unless he just likes the scenery there...
Another Rowan Racing driver in difficulties as Christian Colombo. He also went off at the Hairpin, unfortunately for him this was in the closing minutes of the second session, which is not the best time to hit trouble. It was, perhaps, a symptom of what was to come for Rowan. It certainly wasn't turning into a weekend they would want to remember or repeat. Then again, neither would Phillip Hopkins (Phillip Hopkins Motorsport). The Bristolian took an early off course excursion in the second session, ploughing into the boondocks at Clervaux and wrecking most of the front suspension. Apart from causing an awful lot of work for the team, it also scuppered his hopes of a decent qualifying position. 22nd was not what he wanted at this stage of the game.
The two Diamond Racing drivers, Mark Mayall and Ryan Walker, brought up the rear in 23rd and 24th respectively. This is not really surprising as the team have yet to compete in a full season of British F3 and so still have a lot to learn, as do the drivers.