At the start of the session the track was still damp from some overnight rain and with an 09:00 start it was going to be a while before anyone was really able to hit their stride. At least the track was as clean as it ever gets at Donington - there is, after all, a permanent film of aviation fuel overlaying everything, what with East Midlands Airport being just the other side of the perimeter road. None of this was going to stop Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport) from getting out there and really trying. Certainly he was looking good in the opening laps, although the big, fat, sleepy pigeon that spent most of the day in the Redgate gravel didn't seem in the least impressed by him - or anyone else for that matter. Another driver who seemed more than normally fired up was Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport), the South African fully expecting to end the day as 2003 British F3 Champion if everything went according to plan. Mind you, it didn't stop him being almost the last man to emerge from the pits at the start of the session, an approach that has very much characterised the latter part of his season.
The pigeon was still asleep in the gravel when Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) came round and managed to get everything crossed up in the course of his first flying lap. It moved its head at the sound of squealing tyres, so it obviously wasn't either dead or stuffed. It might have considered moving if it had seen Michael Keohane (Carlin Motorsport) coming through with one hand off the wheel while he fiddled with the tear off on his visor, but then again pigeons can be pretty stupid, so maybe it didn't realise the danger it was in! The last man out proved to be the final Carlin driver, Ronnie Bremer, though he was close behind van der Merwe. Maybe he was hoping to learn something from his teammate.
He certainly wouldn't learn anything from the Team SYR drivers, as Rizal Ramli was looking as hopeless as ever, while Masato Shinoyama at least seemed to be improving, though he would almost certainly be better off in a lower formula while he learns the various British circuits, rather than having to rely on Ramli for input.
Most of the cars were beginning to look quite quick, the first to really start setting times being Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport). He set a 1:07, which was promising but meant there was more to come. He was joined at the top of the order by Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport), but they were soon split by Danny Watts (Hitech Racing), the Englishman determined to get another good result if he possibly could. Almost immediately after Keohane went even faster. The effect of this was to push Piccione back to 4th. In the Scholarship Class Steven Kane (T-Sport) was fastest initially, while Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was busy having a bit of a wobbly moment, which was probably enough to make his driver coach, Kris Kolby, yell at him over the radio! Shortly afterwards, Green had collected himself together enough to move up to 2nd, with Viso in 3rd, so maybe that moment had concentrated his mind.
Watts was looking pretty focussed too, and set a faster target time as the sun came out and the track dried out properly. It was all starting to happen now, with Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) starting a rush for the pits and fresh rubber, even though we were only a third of the way into the session. While lots of people pitted Nelson Piquet Jr (Piquet Sports) stayed out there, pushing on while he could do so in relative peace. As a result he was soon up near the front in 3rd, from Keohane but he soon seemed to lose the plot somewhat. They were both demoted a slot when Green went faster, and then things started to look a bit odd as Kane was briefly fastest overall, while his Scholarship Class rival Viso was 5th, ahead of Bremer, while the third contender for the Scholarship title, Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) was seriously adrift in 22nd overall. Normality was restored by Watts (not something you would normally associate with Danny!) when he grabbed provisional pole back, with Austin and Asaro moving into 2nd and 3rd.
And then Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing) managed to join his teammate Watts on the front row, which made matters nice and tidy temporarily. Very temporarily. Van der Merwe was now really on the move, pushing hard for another pole position. Someone else pushing hard was Joao Paulo de Oliveira (Alan Docking Racing). The trouble was he was pushing the Lola-Dome, which seemed to be pushing back equally hard. He was 13th at this stage but the car looked as if it was proving to be a real handful.
The pit lane had now become a very busy place, what with most people coming in for fresh Avons, and one or two having to pit to get grass or gravel emptied out of their radiators (Piccione, Promatecme F3's Fairuz Fauzy). All in all it was probably better to stay out of there if you could, especially as the Touring Car teams were occupying all the garages.
Green was rapidly back out on the track with his new tyres, and was equally rapidly up the order to 3rd, while van der Merwe came through weaving wildly to try and get some heat into the Avons. Kane was now in 8th (and leading his class), an impressive feat for a Scholarship Class runner, though it isn't that unusual at Donington. By the halfway stage though, it was all set to change as van der Merwe set off on the first of his flying laps. It was only enough to move him up to 12th, but he was also only just beginning to push. While Keohane fell back to 11th, "Swerve" was challenging Watts for pole. Keohane, however, was far from finished, and promptly demoted van der Merwe from that 2nd spot. As well as having a dry track to play with, the weather was starting to warm up now and it thus became a matter of trying to set a time while conditions were at their optimum.
Van der Merwe promptly bettered both Keohane's and Watts' times, only to have Watts snatch it back. In his turn he immediately lost out to Keohane, who was beaten a few seconds later by Fauzy, his car running much better now it wasn't full of grass! De Oliveira, meanwhile, was edging nearer to the front and was temporarily 3rd, but he got shoved back down when Antinucci leap-frogged his way onto the front row. The American didn't stay there long as both Keohane and Fauzy again went faster, but they too were not going to get the chance to enjoy their efforts. Bremer made sure of that, the Dane just losing out to Will Davison (Menu Motorsport) for 2nd.
It was now completely frantic at the front, with Viso edging ahead of Kane in 5th (Kane was briefly 6th overall). Van der Merwe again raised the pace, just ahead of Davison and Green, but then Austin began to show on his return, the English driver grabbing 2nd. Whatever had happened mid-season, he seemed genuinely happy to be back in the car.
Meanwhile, there was a minor drama in the pitlane as Asaro tried to leave after a tyre change, only to discover the rear jack was still attached. Cue a quick fit of headless chicken mode as the team chased after him, but he was quickly separated from the equipment and allowed to go on his way once more with no harm done. In fact, the whole incident seemed to have got him well and truly fired up.
Fauzy was still looking pretty charged up as well, and was now 4th, while Austin was sitting between van der Merwe and Green at the front. Van der Merwe was also steadily improving on his pole time, when Piquet started to show again, and moved himself to 6th.
With less than 10 minutes to go the order was van der Merwe, Austin, were Green, Fauzy, Bremer, Watts, Piquet and Piccione (who had been as high as 3rd but seemed unable to continue in that vein). Another who had slipped down the order as the session wore on was de Oliveira, who was now 12th. He was unlikely to be too happy with that but it was frankly pretty good going in a car that was handling as horribly as the Lola-Dome.
The changes were still coming thick and fast, with Piquet inching his way up the grid to 5th, while Austin snatched pole from van der Merwe. Alan could afford to let Rob take the position, it wasn't as if it would make a lot of difference to his championship challenge, but it was also obvious that he didn't want to let him have it.
A - perhaps slightly surprising - presence in the top 10 was that of Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing), the Scot now in an unaccustomed 8th place, which made you wonder a bit. To be fair to Andrew, he seems to have raised his game in the latter part of the season, and he was on a pretty steep learning curve when he showed up from Scottish Formula Ford and the odd sortie south of the border.
And that was almost the end of the excitement. With five minutes left to go Asaro, after his late pit stop, was able to grab 5th place, which was a good result for the Canadian after a somewhat trying season. Even when Watts demoted him, he probably couldn't complain too badly. Given that in the middle stage of the session he was outside the top 20 there was plenty for him to smile about. By now, despite the efforts of the commentary team to whip up some enthusiasm, most people had given up the attempt to improve, knowing that their tyres were really not up to it any longer, and a general drift back to the pit lane occurred well in advance of the chequered flag being waved. Even Viso, who had managed to hang on to class pole but was now 16th overall, recognised a lost cause when he saw one, and wandered back in, content to be ahead of Kane.
-Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite, special writers