Qualifying - Round 26:
Weather: Fine and sunny, mist beginning to burn off. 18ºC.
We don't care what anyone says. 09:00 is way too early for a practice session for a bunch of single-seater drivers, especially the Championship Class runners in F3; they don't usually have to turn a wheel before 10am at the earliest. It has always seemed to us that they are only barely awake by lunchtime, so sending them out when they should be having breakfast could have been a recipe for disaster. Still, at least it would establish who were morning people and who weren't. It appeared that Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport) was among the larks, rather than the owls. He was certainly out there and attacking almost from the first few seconds of the session, and he was being followed closely by Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International), the Frenchman beginning to take being beaten by the Finn rather personally. Interestingly, despite most of the drivers going out as soon as they could, almost to a man they were soon back in the pits, having new sets of tyres fitted after completing their first flying laps. Michael Keohane (Carlin Motorsport) didn't even go that far, the Irishman diving back in for new tyres at the end of his out lap.
Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) may have been within reach of the championship by then, but he didn't seem to keen to get out there and get on with it. Obviously he's more of an owl than some of the others. It didn't help that he had James Courtney (Carlin Motorsport) right behind him on the road and doing his best, after setting an early pole, to unnerve the Englishman if he could. In addition, Courtney really didn't seem interested in new tyres, and instead seemed to be concentrating his efforts on getting as much as he could out of the Mugen before the weather started to warm up too much. At least he was now ahead of his teammate, Shinya Hosokawa. Elsewhere in the order, Ronnie Bremer (Manor Motorsport) was also staying out on used rubber, the Dane claiming to be making mistakes because he still wasn't feeling at all well; perhaps the main one he was making was not calling in for new tyres.
Kovalainen was back out on new rubber, and it was already starting to kick in, the Finn rocketing up the order to 2nd, while his teammate, Fabio Carbone, seemed to be struggling with the circuit and almost everything else. Certainly he was a lot lower down the order than he is used to, in 9th. Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) was in fine form again, having landed fourth on the grid for Round 25. Right now, he was the only driver in the 1 minute 28 second bracket, and as such he had provisional pole in his grasp. Oddly enough, Hosokawa was now 2nd fastest, dropping Kovalainen back down the order. At this stage Bremer appeared to have made the right decision, and was well up the order, as was John Antoniades (Duma Racing), who was in 5th. As van der Merwe went even faster, Kerr was beginning to press ahead, clearly anxious to make no mistakes in his pursuit of the title. The normal order of things at Carlin had been turned on its head, and Michael Keohane, in the team's fourth car, was not a happy bunny at this stage, down in 9th. Van der Merwe still headed the times, with Hosokawa 2nd and Courtney now in 3rd. Antoniades was still 5th, while Bruce Jouanny, having set a time that put him on the front row for Round 25, was only 10th. Perhaps it really was too early for him.
Suddenly it was all change, with Kerr putting in the 3rd fastest time of the morning, although he was not quite as fast as Kovalainen. And still neither of them was as fast as van der Merwe. On the other hand, they were not as slow as Mark Mayall (Alan Docking Racing), who was sitting in the pit lane while the team pulled grass and gravel out of his car. Meanwhile, Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport) had leap-frogged to 2nd, and it was all looking too weird for words. At least things started to normalise after that, with Jouanny waking up and setting a time that was enough for 3rd on the grid, while Richard Antinucci (Manor Motorsport) was just behind him. Carbone was managing to improve his times but not his grid position, despite his best efforts. Hosokawa improved again, to go 3rd, while Courtney was 6th until Stefan de Groot (Menu Motorsport) pushed him back to 7th. Kovalainen pulled another fast time out of the hat to go back to 2nd, dropping Austin to 3rd, ahead of Hosokawa, Jouanny, de Groot, Kerr, Bremer, Antoniades and Keohane. Courtney's challenge seemed to be evaporating however, the Australian sliding back to 13th, not a position he would even recognise normally; things were really not looking at all good for James. They were looking pretty good for Jouanny though as he was on pole now, while Bremer had moved up to 6th. With less than five minutes left of the session, Jouanny was now comfortably on pole, from van der Merwe, who was still showing strongly, with Kovalainen 3rd, Austin 4th, Hosokawa 5th, and de Groot 6th. Kerr was now 7th and Courtney had improved but was still only 10th.
Kovalainen was not about to settle for 3rd if he could help it; he was still improving his times and a particularly fine lap saw him move to the front row, while Courtney fought his way to 7th. As all this was going on, Jouanny promptly set a time that increased his margin for pole, to say nothing of being the fastest lap ever driven in an F3 car around Donington. The changes were still coming thick and fast, even at this stage of the session. Carbone hauled himself up to 6th, while Courtney was now 5th but was obviously still struggling with a recalcitrant Dallara, while Kerr was 4th. Stefan Hodgetts (Motaworld) was down in 14th while de Groot was paying the price for his indiscretion in practice for Round 25, and was in 10th, further back than he should have been judging by Austin's performance. Kovalainen again put in a faster time, but it was no good; he couldn't get the jump on Jouanny and would have to settle for 2nd. Austin was 3rd while Kerr and Courtney were 5th and 6th until Antinucci got between them. Keohane, meanwhile, had slipped down to 12th and was not at all happy about it. At least Jouanny was happy, which was just as well, because Matthew Gilmore in the other Promatecme car certainly wasn't, eventually managing to set a time that would put him 10th in the order and much further off the pace than he wanted to be. In the final two minutes, Gilmore was the only driver who was able to improve at all. Hosokawa was now beyond improvement, having gone off at the Old Hairpin. Perhaps he was in shock at being so far up the order when he's not used to being near the front. The end result was a pretty sorry looking Carlin car coming back on the back of a flatbed truck, but then you get used to that sort of thing when you have four drivers to deal with rather than the more usual two.
With the Championship Class drivers out of the way, the Scholarship Class runners were again allowed out for their twenty minutes. And once again Stephen Colbert (Meritus Racing) was first out of the pits, while Adam Carroll (Sweeney Racing) couldn't turn a wheel without his fans making lots of noise with air horns in a fairly annoying manner. The fact that they were also carrying the wrong flag was a bit worrying. There is a theory that drivers get the fans they deserve, but surely not in this case - after all, Adam is a thoroughly likeable young man... Fastest in the early stages was Clivio Piccione (T-Sport), while Gavin Smith (Meritus Racing) was taking a leaf out of the Championship Class book, and had stopped early for fresh rubber. Robert Dahlgren (Sweeney Racing) was on the pace almost immediately, setting a target time that gave the others something to aim at. At the other end of the spectrum, Julien Schell (Performance Racing) and Luke Stevens (Hill Speed Racing) were fighting over the final slot on the grid, just as they had on Friday. Of course, their lack of experience was hampering both of them; it was probably now just a case of who was the faster learner of the two. As it turned out, it was probably Stevens, although he had the advantage of having seen the circuit before.
Carroll was speeding up and things soon began to settle to a Sweeney three-way fight. Billy Asaro, in the third of the Sweeney cars, was also looking especially strong. Just to keep everyone guessing, Dahlgren shot up to 14th overall, which was sufficient to take class pole. Then Piccione tried to spoil the Sweeney party by going 3rd in class. Oddly enough, Harold Primat (Diamond Racing) was faster than Asaro for a short while, while Piccione was busy having a very sideways moment trying to exit Redgate faster than the car wanted to go. At the head of the order, Carroll was now ahead of Dahlgren. The Swede promptly went faster but Asaro was able to put in an even better time, and was now on pole. Second was Dahlgren, with Carroll just behind. Piccione was 4th, from his teammate Karun Chandhok and Colbert was 6th. Unfortunately for Asaro, life was about to get very interesting indeed. As soon as he had claimed provisional pole, the steering wheel on his Dallara broke, leaving him hanging on for dear life and hoping against hope that no one would go faster. His luck has not been that good this season.
The battle not to be last swung briefly in Schell's direction but Stevens soon got ahead of him again. In the middle reaches, Mohammed Fairuz (Fred Goddard Racing) was ahead of Gavin Smith, despite Smith's early tyre stop. Carroll had now edged into the top 10 and was 9th overall, dropping Asaro down to 2nd in class. Of course, just to rub it in, Dahlgren then went ahead of the Canadian too. With 5 minutes left of the session, and the weather warming up rapidly, there was really nothing happening in the session. Colbert was able to go faster but failed to improve his time. Primat was now an impressive (for him) 7th in class and looked as if he might even stay there. Chandhok was trying hard to improve from 4th in class, while Dahlgren was still 2nd although he had moved up the order to 10th overall.
In the closing stages, Colbert found some extra speed from somewhere, and while it was enough to move him to 4th in class, he was still 20th overall with an awful lot of Championship Class drivers between himself and the class pole man, Carroll. Dahlgren seemed to think there was too much of a gap between himself and Carroll too, and though he was able to narrow the margin, he couldn't get ahead of his teammate and had to settle for 2nd in class. And really there was nothing more to be said. The Scholarship qualifying was a Sweeney top three, with the two T-Sport drivers, Piccione and Chandhok, separated by Colbert.