Weather: Sunny, warming up fast.
For the latest edition of the British F3 International Series, there are lots and lots of new boys, and more than a few new teams. There are the inevitable returners too, and with 31 cars entered, and another two waiting in the wings, this promises to be a cracking season. For the time being, however, we're missing Cristiano Morgado (Fluid Motorsport), who has apparently not had enough time in the car to want to take part this weekend, and Max Chilton (Arena International Motorsport), who has to wait for Donington, when he'll actually be old enough to hold the appropriate license (he's not 16 yet but he will be in two weeks time).
In other changes, Carlin Motorsport's cars are now all Mercedes powered, the team bowing to the inevitable perhaps, after staying loyal to the Mugen-Honda brand through the 2006 season. They are fielding 5 cars, including one for their returning find of last year, Maro Engel. Meanwhile Stephen Jelley (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) is back for what must surely be one last run at the title, with the pressure squarely on this time. An additional major force should be Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing), through the fact that he's splitting his time between the Japanese F3 series and the UK may take its toll on the Estonian.
And before we knew it, it was time for the theorising to stop. The pitlane opened, and Engel was our first, just ahead of another potential front-runner, Sebastian Hohenthal (Fortec Motorsport), the personable Swede finally making it to F3 after a championship winning Formula Renault season. His car probably wins the award for the most sponsorship decals on any car, and if he was taller, maybe he could fit some more personal sponsors on his overalls too. Getting out first looked like it might prove critical this time, and Engel was a long way ahead as he came round to cross the line for his first flying lap. Given that the 2007 Avon tyres are a trifle unpredictable, and that the temperature was already starting to rise sharply, to get the best out of your tyres, you probably needed to be out there straight off. Hohenthal raised the bar for all of them, only for Jelley to go faster, and Asmer to go even faster.
The times start to come down quite rapidly, with Asmer and Jelley getting into the 1.32s. It was quiet clear there was a lot more where that came from though. And it came from Engel next, the German setting the fastest first sector time and looking set to go for it. Less than 60 seconds later he was on pole in a time of 1.30.613. Jelley responded almost immediately, setting a lap in the 1.29s, with Asmer again 2nd, and Jonathan Kennard (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) now 3rd. Engel wasn't taking that lying down and immediately raised the stakes again, as did Jelley with successive quick first sectors.
With all the excitement at the front, it was easy to overlook what was happening further down the order. Alistair Jackson (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) was leading the National Class, while last year's Champion, Rodolfo Gonzalez (T-Sport) was now up in the top 6. Jelley was still pressing on, and had got up into the 1.28s. He's always liked this track and this year it seemed to like him! Meanwhile, Sam Bird (Carlin Motorsport) was joining in the fray, and was to 3rd behind Jelley and Asmer. Engel wasn't about to have his newbie team-mate ahead of him and responded by going 2nd.
Elsewhere, Sergio Perez (T-Sport) had now claimed the National Class pole, which is what you might expect given the T-Sport really do take some beating in this category. He was just ahead of Cong Fu "Franky" Cheng (Performance Racing), and looked like he planned on staying there. We were headed for half distance and the order now was Jelley, Engel, Asmer, Hohenthal, Niall Breen (Carlin Motorsport), Kennard, Bird, Gonzalez, Greg Mansell (Fortec Motorsport) and Alberto Valerio (Carlin Motorsport). However, there was no reason to assume this was how it was going to be at the end. Jelley dug deep and upped the pace again, and Engel was closing in on him. Breen leapfrogged to 5th, and Mario Moraes (Carlin Motorsport) joined in, edging his way into the top ten. A lap later Engel had pole, from Jelley, Hohenthal and Asmer. And then the red flags were hauled out for the first time this year. Leo Mansell (Fortec Motorsport) had gone off, making a mess of the left-hand side of his car and necessitating quite a long stop while the marshals retrieved him and cleared up the mess.
By the time the session restarted, the temperature had risen even further, and it looked likely that there would be little in the way of improvements. Certainly Engel wasn't showing much sign of urgency, allowing most of the rest of the field to get back out there before he even bothered to put his helmet back on.
Life at Ultimate Motorsport was about as you'd expect for a brand new team with their current history.(they originally thought they'd signed Ben Clucas, but now they have Michael Devaney instead, presumably as Clucas couldn't raise the necessary funds, and Esteban Guerrieri who has been at home in Argentina for most of the pre-season testing sessions dealing with family issues). Devaney, by this stage, hadn't actually managed a lap, and Guerrieri was fighting to get to grips with an unfamiliar track and a car that wasn't configured the way he expected it to be.
Engel, meanwhile, eventually put on his helmet and headed out to defend his potential pole. It probably wasn't necessary, because no one at the sharp end seemed able to improve, though Breen set a faster lap time, and Guerrieri was able to drag himself up to 20th, his improvements coming as he learned the car. Jelley was still pushing hard, as demonstrated when he managed to make a hash of Knicker Brook and went straight on instead. His team-mate, on the other hand, Atte Mustonen, was beginning to show signs of having got to grips with the track and suddenly the Finn was up there in 7th. The order now was Engel, from Jelley, Hohenthal, Asmer, Breen, Kennard, Mustonen, Gonzalez, Bird and Valerio. It was looking like business as usual really with Carlin and Double R occupying the front row.
That wasn't to overlook Asmer, though, because the Estonian was one of the few people still going faster, and perhaps as a result of his encouragement, Greg Mansell edged his way into the top 10 as well. Bird was also on the move and was up to 6th only to have Mansell take it from him. Hohenthal and Asmer were both still pushing hard now, but the improvements just didn't seem to be coming. That led to a general drift towards the pits, which might have been the best place for a number of individuals including Gonzalez. Instead, the Venezuelan had a spin, just as Mustonen decided that he really needed to go faster. With yellow flags all over the place and marshals running round in circles trying to get Gonzalez to a safe place, Mustonen really shouldn't have been going that fast, and the fact that Gonzalez's car wasn't on the racing line is immaterial. Frankly, it was dangerous, and something should be said about it.
In effect that was the end of any further improvements. Engel claimed the first pole position of the season, from Jelley, Hohenthal, Asmer (who perhaps inevitably complained about traffic), Breen, Bird, Mustonen, Kennard, Gonzalez and Walter Grubmuller (Hitech Racing). Greg Mansell was 11th, ahead of Valerio, Rodolfo Avila (Performance Racing), Moraes, Francesco Castellacci (Alan Docking Racing), Guerrieri who made a last lap improvement, Leo Mansell, Ricardo Teixeira (Performance Racing) who managed to rip the floor off the car after only 8 laps, National Class pole man Perez and John Martin (Alan Docking Racing), of whom much is expected, at least by the Australian Motorsport Federation. Devaney was 21st, heading up Cheng, Michael Meadows (Master Motorsport), Viktor Jensen (Alan Docking Racing), Sean Petterson (Fluid Motorsport), Alberto Costa (Double R Racing), Jackson, Alex Waters (Promatecme), Salman Al Khalifa (Promatecme), and Juan Pablo Garcia Samano (Fluid Motorsport). In 31st, having failed to set a time was Hamad al Fardan (Performance Racing Europe).