2002 Avon Tyres British Formula Three Championship - Rounds 25 & 26, Donington Park, Leicestershire, September 20th/21st/22nd
There were two additions to the grid for this, the final meeting of the 2002 series. They were:
Luke Stevens (Hill Speed Racing), the 2001 ARP Formula Three champion putting in a slightly delayed appearance in his Dallara F301 Opel-Spiess, and running as No. 69.
Julien Schell, racing for Performance Racing. The leader of the French Formula Ford championship was rewarded with a drive in the Scholarship Class in the UK, on a circuit he had never seen before, and under the critical eyes of what seemed to be most of the French media contingent, including a TV crew. So the pressure wasn't really on then? He was also out in a Dallara F301 Opel-Spiess, No. 54.
No longer present was Pedro Barral (Diamond Racing), the Spaniard not exactly having had a happy couple of races with the team before taking out his teammate, Harold Primat, at Thruxton in the previous race. He has not been seen since. Perhaps Harold has buried him somewhere in the grounds of Luttrellstown Castle!
Qualifying - Round 25:
Weather: Cloudy, dry, cool.
By way of a change, the Championship Class runners were sent out to play first at Donington; usually it's the unfortunates in the Scholarship Class who have to go out first and clean the track for the richer teams and drivers... First out to play was Stefan de Groot (Menu Motorsport); he was looking very keen to set a time on the long Donington circuit, and he was shortly joined by Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport), who was obviously looking for a spot at or near the front too. On the other hand, having shaved his head as a result of winning both races at Thruxton, perhaps he just wanted to have his helmet on to keep his head warm... Whatever the real reason, he was taking what can only be described as some very "Finnish" lines through the Melbourne Loop, involving as much of the kerbs as possible. The full circuit at Donington Park is always a tough challenge, and this time out was no exception to that rule. James Courtney (Carlin Motorsport) was a man with a lot at stake, and still with a slim chance of stopping Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) from taking the 2002 title. As a result he was pressing on very determinedly from the very first of his flying laps, arriving at the Melbourne Loop with his wheels locked and trailing smoke. His teammate, Alan van der Merwe was looking pretty wild too, as he fought the car round the sharp hairpin bend. At first it looked as if Courtney's efforts might be rewarded as he set an early pole time, but he was quickly pushed down the order by de Groot, who was running extremely well at this point. Of course things were a very long way from over at this point, as was clearly demonstrated when Michael Keohane, in the third Carlin car, went to pole, from van der Merwe, Ronnie Bremer (Manor Motorsport) who was still complaining that he was suffering the after-effects of the cold that had afflicted him at Thruxton, and remarkably Shinya Hosokawa (Formula Dream Team Carlin). To further illustrate that all bets were off, van der Merwe then set the fastest time, while Stefano Fabi (Team Avanti), implausibly perhaps given his usual performance levels, was actually in the top 10 (9th) and Kovalainen had slipped down the order to 10th. While van der Merwe stayed on top of the timing screens, de Groot put in another quick lap to go 2nd, from Bremer, Courtney, Hosokawa and Keohane.
A determined effort from Kovalainen saw him demote van der Merwe from provisional pole after what looked like a very fast lap - usually, the quicker they actually look, the slower they are, but not this time. De Groot was still 2nd with Richard Antinucci (Manor Motorsport) now 3rd. Oddly, both Manor drivers (Antinucci and Bremer) seemed much more relaxed after the departure of Mark Taylor from the team and the series, and were running strongly, although Bremer was making mistakes which he blamed on his cold. Certainly both of them seemed determined to make the most of the attention that was now focused on them, where formerly it had been on Taylor.
An equally determined effort from van der Merwe moved him back ahead of Kovalainen, who lost another place when Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International) suddenly seemed to get to grips with the situation and produced a time that would take him to 2nd on the grid. The rest of the top ten was made up of Keohane, who was now 6th, from Bremer, Courtney and Hosokawa. Kerr, worryingly for him, was only 16th and he really needed to get a move on if he wanted to have the title in his possession by the end of the first race rather than dragging it out to the very last race of the series.
It seemed the message had got through, when he rocketed up the time sheets to go fastest, but it was all still to play for. Fabio Carbone (Fortec Motorsport) promptly went faster, while Courtney was now falling down the order and quite clearly in trouble, when de Groot further demoted him. Even though Kovalainen, Keohane and Hosokawa were still behind him, that was scant comfort for the Australian as his Mugen engine seemed to have gone seriously off song. Carbone was showing signs of being prepared to work to keep Kerr behind him, while Jouanny was now setting times that were under the lap record and was looking keen too. At long last, the Renault engines seem to be working on most circuits, and it looks like Mugen will have some work to do over the winter to make up ground and keep their customers happy.
Messy moments included Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport) arriving at the Melbourne Loop all locked up and Hosokawa who seemed to be looking for a gear he liked and was all over the place as a result...
At the halfway mark, Carbone was briefly on pole, from his friend Antinucci, Courtney (who was trying incredibly hard), Kerr and van der Merwe, only for Jouanny to once again hit the front. With the top 11 cars covered by less than a second, it was close out there. Whatever, Jouanny was not going to let go of this easily, as Kovalainen quickly discovered, setting 2nd fastest. Of course, it could be that after Thruxton "Heidi" thinks it's more fun to just drive round Bruce to take the lead, but this seems unlikely given the effort he was putting in to his driving.
The top ten now looked like this, with Jouanny on top, from Kovalainen, van der Merwe, Courtney, Carbone and Keohane. Kerr was now falling back again and had dropped to 7th ahead of Antinucci, Austin and de Groot, who had completed 5 laps and then gone missing somewhere out around Starkeys after a spin had induced heavy rear-wing damage. Van der Merwe was obviously enjoying being further up the order than usual at this stage of the morning, although his style through the Melbourne Loop was a little on the lurid side, as was Bremer's. The battle for supremacy at Carlin was showing no sign of abating however, with Keohane quickly taking 4th from van der Merwe, who retaliated by moving up to 3rd. At the very sharp end of the grid, though, Jouanny was busy going faster still. Elsewhere, Courtney was still looking for an answer, and would find it when he pitted to have a head-gasket problem looked at - Carlin cars always smoke but not usually that severely. There were more surprises when Austin dragged his Opel-Spiess powered car up the order to 5th, the Opels finally seeming to work in the UK too. Of course, Rob also seems to have regained his focus since he has had a teammate who is quick (de Groot) instead of one who really didn't seem able to get to grips with either the car or the circuits. With it looking likely that the Menu team will be running the new Lola F3 chassis next year, their pace at the end of this season bodes well as they work to develop the new machine.
There was still no dislodging Jouanny at the top though, even despite Kovalainen setting a time that was a mere 4/1000 of a second off Jouanny's time. Of course he then found Kerr had got between him and his target. And although Hosokawa was still driving around looking like an accident about to happen, the Japanese was up to fourth, only to have it taken off him again by van der Merwe. As time ran out in the twenty-minute session, Courtney was really trying, but it was no help now, his tyres being too far-gone even if the engine had been fully operational. John Antoniades (Duma Racing), on the other hand, seemed to be getting the hang of British F3 and on one lap at least was able to push the car hard enough to get flames from the exhaust. In addition, the car was up in 14th for quite a while, which was probably better than could be expected from a one-car team that had hardly run all season.
As the second hand ticked round, Jouanny obviously felt he could do no more, and so he pitted early. He might, in retrospect, have wanted to reconsider that decision though. With his time up and no more chances left, Kerr came storming round on his final lap to take the chequered flag and set the fastest lap of the morning. With Kerr having taken pole position, and Courtney languishing in 5th place, it looked very much like it was "Game Over" at this point, unless something very odd was to happen to Robbie in the race. Courtney was not happy with his qualifying but he also wouldn't admit that he was beaten. "I need a miracle, but it's not over yet!"
Although Stephen Colbert (Meritus Racing) was first out when the Scholarship Class part of the session started, Adam Carroll (Sweeney Racing) was also in a hurry to get some track time, though he still seemed to be struggling with the handling of his Dallara, at least to begin with. The two newcomers, Julien Schell (Performance Racing) and Luke Stevens (Hill Speed Racing) were also having difficulties, which was understandable. Schell has no experience of F3 or British circuits, being a French Formula Ford runner in real life, while Stevens has experience of F3 but only in the ARP series, where the cars are at least four or five years older and consequently much less complicated technologically. At least Schell was with an experienced team; Stevens was with his usual ARP team. This was never going to be easy for either of them. Sensibly, perhaps, Schell took it very cautiously on his first few laps, the level of competition he was facing impressing him no end. "They are all so strong," was all he could find to say. Clivio Piccione (T-Sport) was not taking anything cautiously. With the runner-up slot in the Scholarship Class already in the bag, and Carroll having claimed the title, he had nothing to lose and was out to impress. As a result he was pressing on enthusiastically, bouncing the silver-liveried car off the kerbs in his efforts. The trouble was that Robert Dahlgren (Sweeney Racing) was looking for yet another pole position, and whatever Piccione did, it would seem that the Swede would be almost impossible to stop.
However, most people's early attempts at setting a time had to be abandoned, when Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) managed to spin at the Melbourne Loop. He's a local boy - this is his circuit if anywhere is - and he was more than a little embarrassed afterwards. It took him several minutes to sort himself out, which, as he was stranded right across the entrance to the corner, meant that everyone arriving there had to slow right down and squeeze through on the grass.
Briefly, things got very strange, when Harold Primat (Diamond Racing) was up as far as third place, just behind Billy Asaro (Sweeney Racing). Things soon started to settle back to relative normality after that though. Asaro grabbed the class pole, with Dahlgren slotting in behind him. The Canadian was on fine form and was the first of the Scholarship Class drivers to get up there with the Championship Class cars, clearly enjoying being the fastest of the Sweeney runners this time out. Piccione was soon up there with him, although perhaps unsurprisingly it wasn't long before the situation at the front changed again. Meanwhile at the back of the grid Schell and Stevens were fighting not to be last, with Schell just edging ahead at this stage despite driving as if he was still in a Formula Ford. Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) was now showing signs of improvement, despite a chassis that he felt was not properly balanced. While the Indian struggled with a recalcitrant Dallara, Dahlgren was suddenly back in contention, the Swede working his way back up to 3rd in class and showing signs of wanting another pole position. However, his plans looked to be coming off the rails, when Colbert pushed him back down a place. Sherwood, having recovered from his earlier misdemeanour, was now 26th overall, which was an improvement of sorts, though not what he was looking for on his home circuit.
To no one's very great surprise, Dahlgren suddenly vaulted ahead, to take provisional class pole and go through to 13th overall. This dropped Asaro and Piccione down to 2nd and 3rd and led to a general rush for the pits and much (as it turned out) completely pointless fiddling with settings on the part of most people. Even Schell and Stevens wandered into the pits to get things adjusted, although it's doubtful that either of them was too sure which way to go at this stage of their F3 careers.
Afterwards, Asaro looked really wild through Goddards, so whatever the Sweeney team had done wasn't helping him much, but at least he was still able to control it. However, he couldn't control Piccione who soon went ahead of him, to claim 2nd, only to lose out to Carroll, who was making a last determined effort to get the better of Dahlgren. It didn't quite work, but it did move him up to 2nd. It all seemed a bit odd though; in the past at Donington the Scholarship Class cars have tended to be much further up the grid than they were this time out. At least if they weren't qualifying too close to the Championship Class runners, it should put paid to talk of weight penalties and success ballast in the class. And so, with five minutes left to go, the improvements ceased and it was all over bar the shouting.