2000 Green Flag British Formula Three Championship - Round 2
Croft, April 8th/9th.
Race Report by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite
Weather: Dry, cold, cloudy.
Nearly everyone wanted rain for the race and it looked as if they were going to get it at one point. However, this time it held off and there were a lot of disappointed drivers as the cars lined up on the grid. There was one even more disappointed driver when then lights turned green. Nicholas Kiesa (RC Motorsport), having netted his first F3 pole position, stalled it on the grid in the classic F3 rookie error. This allowed second placed Antonio Pizzonia (Manor Motorsport) to storm away pretty much as he did at Thruxton. Given how good Pizzonia is on cold tyres, it was something of a miracle that any of the others ever saw him again. As it was, he didn't disappear quite so far as at Thruxton, though he was never seriously challenged again. Suggestions afterwards that he should perhaps slow down and let the others play too were turned down amid laughter, as was the suggestion that it might be becoming a tad boring. "I don't know what happened to him" (Kiesa) "but I was really confident after the qualify yesterday and you know I wasn't on pole but anyway I think the team did a really good job and I think everyone did a great job and I have to thank them. Well, at the beginning was really exciting because I had to push a lot and Scheckter was behind me" (actually it wasn't - it was Narain Karthikeyan) "and he was going quicker." He had a brief moment of tension on the way to the flag when he got caught behind a clutch of Scholarship cars fighting for position. It's fair to say that they probably didn't notice him to begin with and they didn't have time to look at the flags, they were so occupied with watching each other. It took him a while to get through. The Brazilian remained philosophical, however, merely remarking "I think the blue flags didn't work. But after that I was just cruising around." But he is certainly not finding F3 boring at present: "No way, no way!"
The mayhem at the start didn't help Takuma Sato (Carlin) very much either but he was having trouble with first gear too. He had to switch to second gear and then lost momentum trying to avoid the stricken Dane, ending up 7th from 3rd. The result of all this was that Narain Karthikeyan (Stewart Racing) was able to slip into second, ahead of his team mate Tomas Scheckter. The South African was honest enough to take the blame on himself for this, admitting "I made a rubbish start! I need to go for a day and do practice starts somewhere" As a result he got away in 5th place and was left to battle for position with Gianmaria Bruni and Michael Bentwood (both driving for Fortec Motorsport). Kiesa finally got moving, having been fortunate enough not to be hit by anyone else, and slotted into 10th place, just behind Westley Barber (Alan Docking Racing). He was quite obviously furious with himself, as later events would show.
Meanwhile, with Pizzonia romping away into the distance, and Karthikeyan trying to keep pace with him, the battle for third place was beginning to resolve itself, leaving Bruni somewhat aggrieved with his team mate. "I was very 'appy for the race. I was very 'appy for the start. I think the team do a good job. For position I think that today third position is my position because on the second or third lap my team-mate closed the door in the point of the corner." He wasn't particularly happy at having the door closed like that, but was inclined to put it down as a racing incident. "This is normal racing." He was still pleased with the final result. As was Bentwood. "Someone told me this morning that I could get on the podium from 7th, but I didn't believe them."
On lap three came the first retirement of the day. Warren Carway (Rowan Racing) crashed out on the far side of the circuit and heavily modified the front of his Dallara. Warren was unhurt though his budget may be a little bruised. No doubt, after his flying display here last year, he was just relieved to have what was a relatively small accident in comparison.
Also in the early stages of the race, Tomas Scheckter was on the move after his terrible start. He passed Bruni for 4th place, racing with terrific commitment despite not exactly feeling at his sparkling best. "I didn't sleep last night and I had a fever. A bug that's going around seems like it's going around the team. My two mechanics had it a couple of days before." He claimed it hadn't troubled him too much though. "In the race you've got so much adrenaline pumping you don't feel anything but I think I'll start feeling it a little bit later. I managed to eat a little bit before my race."
Meanwhile, Tor Sriachavanon (Alan Docking Racing) suffered a puncture though he was able to get going again, albeit a lap down in last place.
By this time, the leaders were fairly well ahead of the pack, but then came a gaggle of cars basically all fighting for 6th place, the rear of the charging pack being brought up by Gary Paffett (Fred Goddard Racing). As at Thruxton, the current Autosport Young Driver of the Year was the only one of the Scholarship Class runners able to keep pace with the Class A cars. He ascribes this to "A lot of hard work. We've worked very hard this weekend. I don't think we've really had the best package this weekend but we've worked very hard with the car set-up just to get as far ahead as we can really. We're consistently quicker in qualifying and in the races we can pull away a lot more." Certainly he did not disgrace himself as he slotted into the back of a 9-car train and it was pretty obvious why he got the award.
In the middle of the pack things were getting fraught. While Pizzonia was going ever faster at the front, doing his "going very fast on cold tyres stunt" he does so well, Kiesa was trying to make up for his mistake at the start. Unfortunately, he probably wasn't in the best frame of mind for consistent overtaking. He got Barber, before tackling Sato but then overdid things and was off into the boonies and retirement. At least he was man enough to admit that he had made a mistake. "At the start I was too quick with clutch and after that I was having problems. Then I just overcooked it and shunted it." Such honesty is refreshing and there seems to be a lot of it around this year, which is reassuring even if it won't help any of them if they want to make it to F1.
Having been overtaken by a maddened Dane, Sato next found himself attacking Andy Priaulx (Promatacme) in an attempt to reclaim 6th place from the Guernseyman, who had snatched it from him on the first lap. Eventually, Sato was through after a daring manoeuvre at Clervaux. He simply drove round the outside of the Promatecme car. Surely such a move was not really possible? "Yeah, maybe..." was all he would say later.
Meanwhile, in Class B, in an interesting piece of driving, Phillip Hopkins (Phillip Hopkins Motorsport) unnerved Mark Mayall (Diamond Racing) enough at Clervaux to move up a place. It was some compensation for his poor qualifying performance, though it is unlikely that Phil will be at all happy with his results so far. Also in some trouble in Class B was Marcel Romanio (Team Meritus). The Brazilian spun at the ever-popular Hairpin although he was able to get going again.
And if the Class B boys were having fun, so was Scheckter, who was busy looking for a way past Michael Bentwood for 3rd place. It took a while, but on lap 14 he was through and pretty pleased with himself. "I passed two people! You know, most people say you can't overtake in F3... it was just good because I like overtaking, it makes racing more exciting for the drivers and the crowds. I'm just sorry there were no people standing on that corner to see it. If you pass them it has to be a good move. I dummied them a little bit. I've done a lot of Formula Opel and I know how to overtake."
And so he was 3rd, except he wasn't. Because then the unthinkable happened. Narain Karthikeyan, with a clear track both ahead and behind, promptly went straight on at Clervaux. Whether it was a mechanical problem or a clear case of brain fade, the Stewart driver looked seriously embarrassed at what happened. It wouldn't have helped that all of this occurred under the critical eye of Jackie Stewart, the former World Champion choosing to spend Sunday at Croft when he could have been in Italy for the San Marino Grand Prix. There was a brief moment when it looked as if the Safety Car might have to be deployed but the Snatch Vehicle was sufficient to remove the gravel-filled Dallara. And so Scheckter was 2nd once again, and he promptly set about trying to catch Pizzonia. The pursuit was, ultimately, too late again, but the South African came out of it with a series of fastest laps and, of course, the extra point that goes with it. These may just prove critical at the end of the season. "I was a little bit lucky with Narain coming off but the speed I was going at the end, I got three or four fastest laps. Maybe I've set the car up a little bit so that it's not so good at the beginning of the race but it really comes in towards the end. If I can get it off the line properly, I think I'm in with a chance."
And as if all this was not excitement enough for one afternoon, Matthew Davies (Promatecme UK) had passed Westley Barber early on only to retire from the race with 5 laps to go when the fuel pump failed. Having been mauled by one Promatecme driver, Barber then found himself having to fend off the attentions of the other one as Andy Priaulx who had dropped back down the order after being overtaken by Sato started to try and come back. Westley wasn't giving up his 7th place for anyone, no matter what they tried. "The backmarkers sort of helped and 'unhelped'. I don't think it's done much damage. He just went into me and then on the last corner he smashed his front nose cone into me. I'm quite pleased though. It's not a bad result for me."
Meanwhile, Sato was setting about Milos Pavlovic (RC Motorsport). Demoting Priaulx had given him a clear run at the youngster and he wasn't going to waste it if he could help it. He tried to same move that he had used on Priaulx but then thought better of it, passing him later that same lap, moving back to 5th place.
Unnoticed in all the excitement, Ben Collins (Carlin Motorsport), having started so far back he probably thought he needed binoculars to see the light, had just quietly got on with the job to claim 8th place from Priaulx on the penultimate lap. He wasn't impressed with 3 points, but it has at least opened his scoring. Which is more than can be said for the boys at Rowan. While the final point went to Juan Manuel Lopez (Manor Motorsport), both Carway and Martin O'Connell are the only Class A runners to have not points at all. With two laps to go, having got involved with the Priaulx/Barber battle, O'Connell went off in exactly the same place as his team-mate, doing pretty much identical looking damage. And just to complete the hat trick for the team, on the very last lap, their Class B runner Christian Colombo trailed round and into retirement with a very sick sounding car. It seems that Croft may well end up joining Silverstone on Martin's list of least favourite circuits.
In 11th overall was Gary Paffett, the Scholarship Class victory and a point for fastest lap moving him well ahead of his nearest rival. In some ways, Gary wasn't too impressed by this although he was aware of the importance of the Class result. "We sort of think of ourselves as A class but in the back of your mind there's always the thought that you've got to win this race, not do something stupid." He's very confident about Oulton Park too, expecting that he will be able to get back into the overall Top Ten there.
2nd in class once again was Atsushi Katsumata (Team Meritus). The latter just beat Craig Fleming (ME Motorsport) to the second slot after a closely fought battle, Fleming only just being lapped by Pizzonia at the end. 4th in class was Phillip Hopkins, ahead of Ryan Walker (Diamond Racing), Marcel Romanio, and Mark Mayall. In 18th after his puncture and lost lap, but 11th in class was Tor Sriachavanon (Alan Docking Racing).
At the front both Pizzonia and Scheckter remain relaxed and confident. Scheckter hopes to use the three week break to good effect. "We didn't have the greatest test there," (Oulton) "but we've got two days at Pembrey and we have to develop the car but I'm looking forward to it. It's not my favourite circuit. I like smooth circuits like Donington and Silverstone."
Pizzonia too will be using his time well. "We've been testing there" (Oulton) "only one time and I haven't raced the long circuit, just the short circuit. I don't know if we are going straight to the qualifying. I'm going to Brazil tonight and stay there for a week. I'll bring some sunshine for you."