To the surprise of all of us, we arrived at Thruxton under darkly cloudy skies, but it didn’t rain on us for a change. In fact, the session remained dry though it was rather colder and a lot windier than was strictly necessary. The unusually clement weather appeared to catch one or two people on the hop, with both Ryan Lewis and Barton Mawer sitting in the pitlane waiting to go out and wearing completely unsuitable wet weather tyres on their Dallaras. The T-Sport team pounced on Lewis and made the necessary changes, but Mawer had to go out and do a lap with wets on before returning to the pits for a much-needed change of rubber. As seems to be the pattern now, Lewis was keen to get out, as was Mike Conway (Fortec Motorsport), who would probably like to get his championship lead back after losing it to Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport). He was doing his best anyway.
James Walker (Fortec Motorsport) was an early front-runner, but no one was too excited by that. Ronayne O’Mahony (Fortec Motorsport) was joining in too, presumably as part of his birthday celebrations. However, although they were that far up early on, it was pretty unlikely that either of them would be anywhere near the front by the end of the session. They were both quickly supplanted by most of the rest of the field, starting with Steven Kane (Promatecme F3), who was doing what he could with the Lola to make up for lost ground earlier in the season. He was joined at the head of the field by Stephen Jelley, the Menu Motorsport driver seeing the top part of the order for the first time since Spa. However, he would soon slip back down the order too, and seems to be suffering some sort of crisis of confidence now. What the answer is is less than obvious, although the shortage of a team-mate may well be a contributory factor. At this point O’Mahony was still 4th, and Daniel Clarke (Double R Racing) was in between them in 3rd. The grid was not looking especially normal at this point.
Conway upped the ante on the times when he broke into the 1:09s to claim a provisional pole. However, it wouldn’t last long. With Walker in 2nd now from O’Mahony, we didn’t exactly have the usual suspects at the front. That was all about to change, though, when Parente went out on a flying lap, getting down to 1:08.636. He was almost instantly bumped down a place by Tim Bridgman (Fortec Racing), and then got caught up in traffic that included his team-mate, Ricardo Teixeira. Another of the Carlin Motorsport lads was now starting to look good too; Charlie Kimball rocketed round the tricky track to snatch pole, with the third Carlin front runner Christian Bakkerud now 3rd after breaking the speed trap timing beam at a little shy of 150 mph. Things were beginning to look very good indeed for Carlin.
While Kimball went even faster to try and set the seal on his first F3 pole, Parente was slipping down the order as the times came thick and fast. The Portuguese was now 10th, though he still had some weapons in his armoury. It wasn’t over yet by a long way. For one thing, Conway was just about to go faster, although Kimball wasn’t about to let him keep it. A lap later the American was straight back to pole, with a time that got very close to Takuma Sato’s existing lap record. If things were going well for Carlin, they were not exactly going well for Anthony Hieatt’s Double R Racing. Clarke was now 11th, while Bruno Senna was only 20th and didn’t seem to be at all happy about it, understandably perhaps. Meanwhile, Bridgman, having slipped down the order, was on his way back up the list, and was 5th. Conway, on the other hand, was in the pits having changes made to his car’s settings in an attempt to get on terms with Kimball, which wasn’t going to be easy.
In the interim, the battle for the National Class pole position was raging, and it kept changing. Right now it was Salvador Duran (P1 Motorsport) who had the upper hand. For one thing, Mawer wanted the place, as did Charlie Hollings (Promatecme F3). They were all swapping positions, and they were joined by Jonathan Kennard (Alan Docking Racing). It was a rollercoaster ride out there. Parente, meanwhile, was still on the hunt for another pole. He was working hard to get some space and was now 6th, and clearly looking for further improvements. He wasn’t the only Carlin driver who was working very hard. Bakkerud was also threatening the top of the order, and was now 3rd, though he’d get it taken away a lap later by Parente, who moved into 3rd place. The Carlin boys now had Conway in something of a stranglehold, as they were 1st, 3rd and 4th.
With slightly under two thirds of the session still to run, Lewis finally got his act together and went 5th, though most other people seemed to thing it best to retreat to the pits for a variety of tweaks and changes. Danilo Dirani (P1 Motorsport) was still fighting the Lola to a standstill, and he quickly joined the throng in the pit lane. He was joined there by O’Mahony, the birthday boy also now struggling to make an impact. Someone who was making an impact was Mawer, the T-Sport National Class runner throwing the Dallara recklessly into the Chicane lap-after-lap. Considering what happened later, he may just have been sizing it up for another attack. He wasn’t the only one savaging the track. Bridgman was another who was very sideways on a regular basis, and for once it seemed to be working in his favour. While Conway and Walker were both in the pits, Bridgman was busy grabbing 5th place, in response to the challenge of Hitech’s deadly enemies, the Fortec team. He was certainly getting on better than Double R Racing’s boy, Senna, though the Brazilian had now improved to 13th. However, there was far more activity in the pits than on the track at this point, with Kane another in for rear wing adjustments. Asmer, too, was sitting in the pits waiting for the lads to finish working on his wings.
In the National Class, with ten minutes of the session still to go, Kennard was leading the National Class for the umpteenth time, having spent the session trading times with Hollings, Mawer and Duran. It was quite a performance from Hollings in particular, as the Yorkshireman isn’t terribly keen on Thruxton, after hospitalising himself with concussion last year in Formula Renault. He was getting on with the job, but he’d be glad to get away from the Hampshire circuit. It seemed likely that the changes were about to dry up though. The tyres really do only seem to be good for about 20 minutes, which means that the closing stages of most qualifying sessions tend to be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Bridgman decided there wasn’t even any point in staying out there, and returned to the pits where he remained for the rest of the 30 minutes. Only the truly desperate tend to stay out much beyond the twenty-minute mark, and so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Clarke went back out to try and improve his grid position. Kimball was faster than Conway by a significant margin, and he soon decided there was no sense going on wasting tyre rubber either; he was unlikely to go any faster and no one seemed able to challenge him for pole. He too came in and stayed in.
Conway, on the other hand, seemed disinclined to give in, and after a lengthy pit stop he re-emerged in the closing minutes of the session, much as he had at Knockhill. It didn’t help, however, even when he managed to set the fastest time of the whole session for the first sector. By the time he crossed the start/finish line though, he hadn’t managed to improve on his time.
The only changes happening now were in the National Class, and of the two notable ones, only one would stick. Mawer managed to cut the Chicane completely, crossing the line to be temporarily rewarded with the class pole. Predictably, he wasn’t allowed to keep it, and in the closing seconds a grimly determined Hollings snatched it back anyway.
And so the flag was shown and Kimball claimed his first pole. Much as Parente had at Knockhill, he’d never looked in the least bit threatened after the first few minutes. It was left to Conway to settle in to 2nd place, from Parente and Bakkerud. 5th was Bridgman, for once beating his team-mate Asmer, while Lewis, Walker, Kane and Dirani rounded out the top ten. Clarke was 11th, from O’Mahony and Jelley, with Senna in 14th. National pole man Hollings was 14th overall, ahead of Kennard, Mawer, Duran, Josh Fisher (Team SWR) and Juho Annala (Alan Docking Racing). Teixeira, who is showing signs of improvement as he learns all about F3 and the British tracks, out-qualified Keiko Ihara in the last of the Carlin cars. The last two places went to Nick Jones (Team SWR) and Cheong Lou Meng, the Edenbridge driver complaining of being too tired to steer properly…