Another year, another season and here we all are again. And after the sodden unpleasantness of the Media Day in March, the first qualifying session of the newly named British F3 International Series was held in sunny - albeit chilly - conditions. Of course, some people didn't get much of an opportunity to appreciate the weather. With a field full of rookies, and a number of new teams, there was always going to be scope for mayhem. The first of the rookies to embarrass himself was Charlie Kimball (Carlin Motorsport), the American skittering off into the gravel before the session was five minutes old. It was odd really; he'd been looking very impressive in testing, and he seems pretty steady usually, but there he was in the gravel at Coppice, doomed to sit out the rest of the session. He'd set a time, but it wasn't a fast one, and the result was that he ended up starting his first F3 race from a very distant grid slot.
Meanwhile, Steven Kane (Promatecme) was trying to ignore his exhaustion, as he pushed his new Lola to its limits. As the car had only arrived a week before, everyone, including the driver, had been working flat out into the wee small hours every night to get ready. At this point it was uncertain whether the gamble would pay off or not. Certainly Kane was quick straight off, though the car looked to be something of a handful, to put it mildly. Another returnee, Marko Asmer, was soon on the pace, the Hitech Racing driver really trying this year, after what could only be described as a very up-and-down year in 2004. He was being hotly pursued by Fortec Motorsport's Mike Conway, the debutant from Formula Renault settling in well in his new formula, snatching an early provisional pole. Meanwhile, in the National Class, Australia's Barton Mawer (T-Sport) was starting out as he intended to continue. Apart from having provisional class pole, he was 4th overall. It looked as if this might be one of those years when the National Class cars (formerly known as Class B, or as Scholarship Class) would prove capable of getting on terms with the A class (now known as Championship) Class runners.
The battle for the front row was a long way from over of course. Bruno Senna was the next to show his hand. The Double R Racing Brazilian was looking impressive, but he wasn't the fastest Brazilian, and wouldn't be either if Danilo Dirani had his way. P1's Lola was looking good, and Dirani was looking very smooth as he powered through the corners. The order now was Conway, from Daniel Clarke in the second of the Double R Dallaras, while Dirani was 3rd, ahead of Asmer. Fifth now was Ryan Lewis (T-Sport), the 2004 Championship Class champion wanting to prove a point now he's up against a lot more opposition.
Elsewhere, Josh Fisher (SWR Pioneer) was now heading the National Class times, while Dirani grabbed overall pole, and showed every sign of wanting to hang on to it. A lap later he went even faster, and although it wouldn't move him any further up the order, it did at least make him look as if he was in control. Susie Stoddart (Alan Docking Racing) was beginning to settle in, though at present she was only 9th. That wouldn't be to the young Scot's liking at all. She was just behind Kane, and then the two of them were pushed back a place each, when James Walker (Fortec Motorsport) leapfrogged them. It was just as well things were changing mid-field because at the front Dirani was proving utterly unshakable. It wasn't that unexpected really, though the pace of the Lola might well have shaken a few people. If you'd been paying attention last year, this really shouldn't be a surprise. In Danny Watts's hands, the car had been steadily improving, and towards the end of the season it was always there or thereabouts. It'll be interesting to see what happens this year if the Lola continues to impress. Back when the Dallara was merely an experiment in many peoples' eyes, it took about half a season for everyone to ditch their Reynards, Ralts and whatever as soon as the Italian marque started to look unbeatable.
Meanwhile, Senna was still attempting to impress, and he was certainly drawing attention to himself, though not necessarily for the right reasons. Pushing as hard as he could, the young Brazilian came haring round to break the timing beam, and while he improved his times to take 4th on the grid, he also spun as he crossed the line, flat-spotting his tyres and putting an abrupt end to his session. A lap later he meandered into the pits somewhat sheepishly, where presumably he got something of a talking to from team boss Anthony Hieatt. He couldn't go out again if he was to have decent condition tyres available for the race, so presumably that may be a lesson well-learned.
While Asmer joined Dirani on the front row, driver after driver was giving up the unequal struggle, and were pitting. The National Class was still wide open though, with Salvador Duran (P1 Motorsport) now claiming pole, though he would have it taken off him again by Performance Racing's Suk Sandher, the Indian then being demoted by Mawer, who in turn lost out to Fisher. Just as it seemed the session was gaining momentum again, Ricardo Teixeira, Carlin Motorsport's only National Class runner, managed to run out of brakes. The Angolan was stranded at McLeans, and the yellow flags slowed everyone right down. This left Dirani very much in charge still, ahead of Asmer who had at least closed the gap right down, from Conway, Senna and Lewis.
Another improvement from Asmer saw him edge ahead of Dirani, only to have the Brazilian come back at him in the closing stages. This wasn't going to plan as far as Marko was concerned. It wasn't going to plan for Kane, either, as he limped round to the pits suffering from gear selection problems. The shift was proving very stiff, and it looked as if the car was still in need of quite a bit more work to get it race ready. It would leave him further down the order than he really wanted to be, way back in 13th. And so, as the flag dropped, Dirani was a very happy pole man. Asmer was 2nd, and Conway and Clarke took the next row. Senna was disappointed in fifth, while Lewis was 6th, just ahead of Tim Bridgman. There were an awful lot of rookies occupying the first few rows, which didn't bode too well for the race come Sunday. Walker was next up in 8th, while Christian Bakkerud (Carlin Motorsport) was 9th, the Dane having been ill most of the week. For a man who'd missed testing because of a stomach bug (which also knocked around 5 lbs of his less than considerable body weight), he wasn't doing too badly.
Joining the ranks of the disappointed was Stephen Jelley (Menu Motorsport), the Englishman having all sorts of trouble with his Dallara. Regardless of what the team did, there was a mysterious misfire plaguing them, and the thing simply wouldn't accelerate. It would be sometime on Saturday night that they would isolate and cure the fault. 11th was Stoddart, who would undoubtedly like a teammate to help with the set up, but is unlikely to get that advantage any time soon.
12th overall, and on National Class pole, was Fisher, ahead of Kane, Mawer, Sandher and Duran. 17th - 5th in class - was Charlie Hollings, another Lola runner. The Promatecme team seemed to be having trouble communicating with him, however, judging by the frantic arm waving going on from the pit wall when they wanted him to come in. Another on the sick list was Ronayne O'Mahony (Fortec Motorsport). Having gone down with tonsillitis earlier in the week, the Irishman had gone three days without solid food, so he was more than a bit light-headed, and probably not really in any condition to be out there. 18th was the best he could manage. The Alan Docking Racing National Class pair of Jonathan Kennard and Juho Annala was next up, both of them circulating together for much of the session as they tried to learn the circuit. They were still quicker than Keiko Ihara (Carlin Motorsport), the Japanese woman not showing any more pace than she did in Formula Renault way back. The final places went to Nick Jones (Team SWR Pioneer), a deeply embarrassed Kimball, Edenbridge's Macanese driver, Lou Meng Cheong, and the unfortunate Teixeira.
It looked as if Sunday's first race of the season could prove to be interesting, and not necessarily in a good way.
Weather: Cool, sunny.