Qualifying - Round 1:
It's April in England, so it's time for the British F3 circus to reconvene, complete with the usual gamut of acrobats, high wire artistes and the occasional clown, as 31 hopefuls assembled at Donington Park to slug it out for the title. After one of the warmest, sunniest Marches on record, we arrived in Leicestershire to find someone had turned the air temperature right down, though the sun was at least shining for part of the day. Some of the old guard was back in strength, with Carlin running four cars, and Manor with Three. Fortec were down to one runner only, as were Menu Motorsport who had Rob Austin as last year, but were without Stefan de Groot. Budget problems mean that the talented Dutch driver is condemned to a season in Dutch Formula Renault, which is a major waste. On the other hand, new boys Hitech Racing (most of whom were part of Fortec last year) had three cars, one of them with the last minute substitution of Fabio Carbone in for Eric Salignon. The sensation of last year's European Formula Renault series was ill and was confined to base back in France. There were those who unkindly suggested that what had made him sick had been his times in pre-season testing on a bunch of circuits, most of which he had never seen before. We prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, as he always looked impressive in Renault where the competition was strong last year.
Someone else who needed to impress was Nelson Piquet Junior, here with the team set up for him by his father. After the build up the kid was given in some quarters of the media, nothing less than walking on water would do. The hype was palpable, the entourage huge and - possibly as a result - the Brazilian teenager looked less than comfortable out of the car though he seemed right at home in it. Another new outfit was the all-Malaysian Team SYR, although they seem unlikely to trouble the Carlin and Piquet outfits much, running Rizal Ramli who didn't look particularly impressive in Europe last year, alongside Farriz and Fairuz Fauzy (the latter being the individual we all knew as Mohammed Fairuz last year).
Also of note is the presence not of one but of two alternatives to the all- conquering Dallaras. Although neither chassis is likely to have Trevor Carlin diving for his chequebook in the immediate future, it was good to see the Lola-Dome F106 making its debut in the UK in the hands of Adam Carroll (Sweeney Racing) and the Ralt F303 being run by Diamond Racing with Australian Will Power at the wheel. As both of these teams have just stepped up to the Championship Class as well, it may be some time before the results start to show. However, it should be recalled that the Dallara was viewed as a disaster when it was first introduced in Britain in 1988 (anyone who has doubts should ask Raphael del Sarte, who was unfortunate enough to have to drive it).
Anyway, with some returning drivers and a whole new batch, Saturday morning saw the first wheels turn in anger as practice got underway for the 2003 British Formula Three Championship.
First out of the pits was young Piquet (Piquet Sports), followed almost immediately by Michael Keohane (Promatecme F3). The Irish driver was supposed to have found a berth at Sweeney, but had made a last minute decision to switch teams, fearing that Sweeney would find it difficult running two Lola-Domes in competitive trim. Not wanting to waste his second year in the Championship Class of the series developing the car, Michael opted for a tried and tested solution instead. Canadian Jesse Mason (Performance Racing) was following teammate (and local driver) Justin Sherwood around, perhaps aware of the fact that having thrown it off more than once in testing on Thursday, he maybe needed to be shown the proper way round! The three Malaysians were sticking together at the start as well, though it wasn't helping their speed any. However, Fairuz had at least seen Donington before, and he soon left the other two trailing in the distance.
Last year's championship-winning team, Alan Docking Racing, were having a dreadful time of it. After a "character-building" test session on the Thursday, their inexperienced pair of drivers, Scott Speed and Will Davison, were struggling to get on terms with the track and the cars and neither of them looked particularly happy out there. Someone else who didn't look too happy was Ernani Judice (Promatecme F3). The Brazilian has spent the last few months stringing a deal together and as a result only arrived in the UK the week before the race. The combination of jet lag and the cold weather was not a happy one, but he was beginning to settle in as the session wore on. It wasn't long before he pitched the car into a brief spin, but at least it was nothing serious. Rather more dramatic was Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing), the Scotsman appearing at the exit of Goddards and promptly revolving onto the grass, He was sent on his way by the marshals, only for Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) to do the same thing. It was beginning to look as if there was something unpleasant on the track, presumably left behind by the TVRs that had been out before, or by the low flying aircraft that come in to land at the neighbouring East Midlands airport.
By this point there was also some confusion breaking out on the timing screens, as we apparently had two Robert Dalhgrens (Fortec Motorsport) out there, and they were 7th and 8th! Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) was causing problems too, the Italian getting in the way of Promatecme F3's Championship Class runner, Christian England, who finally bundled past the youngster at Redgate. Just as things seemed to be settling down out there, Carbone arrived in a cloud of tyre and brake smoke. With a great deal of noise, he proceeded to redecorate the marshal's post at Redgate with gravel, cover the spectators in dust, and narrowly miss the wall, before driving back on to the track with a set of Avons that were surely now a long way past their best. Some things never change it seems! The fact that he stayed out for a further lap on those tyres was proof that Fabio is just as exuberant as ever, and in these days of corporate men I think we should all be grateful.
If the timing screens could be believed, and they seemed to have settled down now, Richard Antinucci (Carlin) was first to pole, while his friend Carbone was now 2nd. People will talk if the two of them insist on sticking together like this! Elsewhere, Mason's run had come to an abrupt end with a broken gearbox. He wasn't the only one experiencing problems either as the timing screens briefly went nuts again and gave us two of everyone. When the dust settled, the order appeared to be Antinucci, Austin, Ronnie Bremer (Carlin), van der Merwe and Keohane. It didn't stay that way for long though. The current Autosport Young Driver of the Year, Jamie Green (Carlin) was always going to be strong, especially here, and sure enough he leapfrogged up the order to 6th, closely followed by Piquet, and Fairuz. Just behind the Malaysian was the Sweeney Racing Scholarship Class runner, Ernesto Viso who was a long way ahead of the rest of the Scholarship competitors. In 10th place, just behind the Venezuelan, was Danny Watts in the first of the Hitech cars, having a miserable time with car that was oversteering badly.
With ten minutes left Green went for it, grabbing pole from his teammate. It is clear that one of the main battles of this season will be the internal one at Carlin. Van der Merwe was one of the favourites coming into the season, but Green has the look of a potential champion about him, and clearly nothing daunts him. Someone who was daunted by what was happening was Carroll, the Lola-Dome wearing out its Avons rather alarmingly. He was down in 17th when he was forced to pit for adjustments. Not wanting to be left behind by Green, Piquet promptly moved up to 4th, just behind Antinucci and Austin and ahead of Bremer. Green clearly felt he had done all he could and pitted, as did van der Merwe, who was having trouble selecting gears and was the slowest of the four Carlin cars in 6th place. It looked as if it was pretty much all over bar the shouting now. Keohane was 7th, from Fairuz Fauzy and Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport), the Monegasque being the only Manor driver who looks likely to challenge for podium places this season. Just behind Viso was Danny Watts, who was heard to mutter "That's what happens when you put a tosser in the car!" You can always rely on Danny for brutal honesty! Even so, he was a long way ahead of his teammates, Thompson (17th) and Carbone (22nd). The flag came out, the order seemed settled, and Carroll, still struggling with the handling, threw the Lola off at Redgate on the slowing down lap.
The excitement wasn't quite over yet for the day though. Scrutineering revealed an irregularity on the brake ducts of Piquet Jr.'s Dallara. The parts in question may well be acceptable in the Sudam championship, but they aren't here and he was duly disqualified from the session. Although it may not have been a performance enhancing matter, it is still illegal so that was that as far as Piquet was concerned. We would have to wait for race two to see what he could do.
Qualifying - Round 2:
This part of the report will, perforce, be a little sketchy, as we were overcome by the urge to go out towards the Old Hairpin and the Craner Curves for the session. As a result we were a long way from any timing screens and - always a problem at Donington because of the proximity of East Midlands Airport - the radio reception was truly abysmal.
All 31 drivers were pretty keen to get out there for qualifying for the second race of the opening weekend of the 2003 British Formula Three championship, so much so that they almost tripped over each other as a 31- car mobile traffic jam made its way towards Redgate for the first time. If you wanted a space you had to be a bit rough about it. Interestingly, one of those most determined to get a traffic-free run seemed to be Jamie Green, Carlin Motorsport's sole rookie, who had already qualified on pole for the first race of the weekend. As one of the first drivers out of the pits, he was ideally placed to push his way to the front. Others were more reticent, preferring to drop back to try and get some lebensraum.
With Green looking very keen to get a front row place for the second time in one day. However, as was often the case last year, the first Carlin driver to hit the front was Alan van der Merwe, keen to try and make up for only being 5th on the grid for the first race. Richard Antinucci (Carlin Motorsport) was 2nd, just ahead of Fortec Motorsport's lone car in the hands of Robert Dahlgren.
Suddenly everyone had to back off. An outbreak of yellows at Redgate resulted when Will Power (Diamond Racing) dropped the Ralt at Redgate. In his efforts to get going, or at least to get out of the way of the oncoming traffic, the intense Australian managed to strand the car on the kerbs out of reach of both the snatch vehicle and the marshals. While all this was going on, observant individuals at the Craner curves would have seen Ivor McCullough (Meritus Racing) in some difficulty. They would also probably have noticed that while Antinucci and Green were clearly in an attacking mood, Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) wasn't and was assiduously avoiding the kerbs whenever he could. He didn't look comfortable at all. Predictably, he was last in the order at this point when the red flags came out so that Power could be retrieved from his perch at Redgate.
At the restart, which came very quickly, Green looked incredibly committed through the Craner Curves leading some to suggest that perhaps committed was what he should be. He seems sane enough off the track. Someone else looking a lot better than they had in the morning was Hitech Racing's Danny Watts. He had been unhappy with the handling of the car in the morning, complaining of oversteer. It looked suspiciously as if the team had managed to dial most of that out and now he was looking much smoother.
Power was able to rejoin the session quickly too, the Ralt needing nothing more than a new battery before it could be sent back out to play. The car seemed to be OK, but the driver was quite obviously not finding this at all easy as he wrestled with an unfamiliar car on tracks he's never seen before in a country he doesn't know.
Someone else struggling was Michael Keohane (Promatecme F3). After a good run in the morning, it was now all going horribly wrong for the Irishman. Michael hadn't stopped trying, as evidenced by his remarkably sideways approach to the corners, but whatever changes the team had made between session had clearly taken them in the wrong direction altogether. His teammate had either made different changes, or just found the car better suited to his driving style, because Ernani Judice was now up in 3rd place. Despite his robust style, Antinucci had dropped to 10th but there were a lot of changes still to come before the flag. One thing that looked unlikely to change was the Championship Class pole - Ernesto Viso, who seems to have all of Venezuela supporting him, had again put the Sweeney Racing car on provisional pole, and as he was 7th overall it seemed no one would be able to challenge him.
All of a sudden Judice was on pole, ahead of Dahlgren and van der Merwe. Someone failing to live up to his name was Scott Speed, the Alan Docking Racing-run American struggling back in 14th which is not what the pre- season hype would have you believe he was going to do. Nelson Piquet Jr., on the other hand, was trying to live up to all the hype, and was on a flyer, leaping from 20th to 4th. After having all his session one times disallowed for a technical infringement he had a point to prove and was doing so in some style.
As the session speeded up, there were a number of spinners, but it didn't stop van der Merwe from clawing his way back up the order to pole. He barely had the chance to savour the achievement when Green took it back off him, having briefly joined the spinners the lap previously. It didn't seem to slow him down at all. And then it was all change. Piquet found some more speed from somewhere, to go 3rd, and then 2nd. Antinucci was just ahead of teammate Ronnie Bremer, while van der Merwe was down in 5th again and not at all pleased with himself. Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport) was 6th, ahead of Dahlgren, who was sharing the 4th row with Viso, who was seven places ahead of his nearest rival Steven Kane (T-Sport). Watts was 9th, ahead of Adam Carroll, who had done a sterling job with the Lola-Dome given how far off the pace it had been in the morning. The highest placed Manor Motorsport driver was again Clivio Piccione in 11th, just ahead of Judice. The Brazilians (other than Piquet) were clustered together this time, with Fabio Carbone (Hitech Racing) nursing his jet lag in 13th place. The first of the Team SYR Malaysians was Fairuz Fauzy, who had also gone backwards from the morning, as he was now only 14th.
15th overall - and 2nd in class - was Kane, who also had a healthy cushion between himself and the 3rd placed Championship class runner, Christian England (Promatecme F3). They were separated by Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) and Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing). The first of Alan Docking Racing's pair of drivers, Will Davison, was 19th, with Keohane in a disappointed 20th. McCullough was 21st (4th in class), ahead of Chandhok (5th in class), and Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing), who was 23rd overall and 6th in the Championship Class. Speed was a lacklustre 24th while Power was 25th, both of them probably wishing they had different surnames! The final five places went to Rizal Ramli (Team SYR), Graves, Jesse Mason (Performance Racing), Sergio Hernandez (Azteca Motorsport) and Farriz Fauzy (Team SYR).
Alex Pozzobon (Essencial Motorsport) failed to qualify and, as first reserve, would only get to race if anyone else was unable to take the start.