At Rockingham this morning Daniel McKenzie (Fortec Motorsport) judged it to perfection in the first British F3 series race with pit stops since the Cellnet Superprix (which were non-Championship races anyway) in the late 1980s/early 90s. The idea was to try pit stops out for the first time in the sprint race so that if it did go badly wrong, no one would lose out too badly as there are only half points available for this one. In second, despite leading for most of the 20 minutes, was Daisuke Nakajima (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing), the Japanese starting from pole after yesterday's winner Jean-Eric Vergne (Carlin) made the worst possible draw to decide his grid place and found himself starting 10th. 3rd place, after being in the thick of the action, went to Adriano Buzaid (Carlin). The National Class went to Menasheh Idafar from James Cole, the T-Sport pair both having to pit for work, rather than just to complete the mandatory stop.
There was a lot of excitement as well as a certain amount of trepidation in the pit lane before the race as various teams tried to figure out the strategy to employ. The pit window would open at the 2-mnute stage and would remain open for 15 minutes, so there was a lot of scope. The pit stop entailed the driver coming in, coming to a stop with a team member holding a stop lollipop, then going back out. It remained to be seen how this would play out.
Anyway as the lights went out, and pole man Nakajima made a very good start to get away into the lead, while McKenzie bogged down slightly and lost a place immediately. Series leader Vergne, on the other hand, gained 3 places, helped by James Calado (Carlin) dropping to 8th after he took to the grass at the start in a misfiring attempt to make up places.
The first pit stops came quite rapidly afterwards, as soon as the pit window opened, with Oli Webb (Fortec Motorsport), Lucas Foresti (Carlin), Alex Brundle (T-Sport), Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin) and Jay Bridger (Litespeed F3) all opting to get what had been described as more of a mandatory stop/go penalty than a pit stop over with as soon as possible so they could then try and benefit from other people's stops. It got a bit messy and a bit fraught but Jaafar managed to get out in good form after a somewhat muscular exit from the top end of the pit lane. Meanwhile, on the track, McKenzie took 3rd back from Felipe Nasr (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) and set off after Buzaid. Elsewhere, it was looking a bit bleak in the National Class with both Cole and Idafar in for running repairs; Idafar needed a new tyre, while Cole looked as if he'd need somewhat more time to get back out as the team replaced the front wing and nose. The suspicion was that they'd made contact which is embarrassing - the cardinal rule of Motorsport after all is you can do what you like as long as you don't run into your team- mate.
While Buzaid was busy setting a new fastest lap of the race, others were more interested in stopping. Max Snegirev (Fortec Motorsport) pitted but didn't really stop properly, while Nasr came in and managed to delay himself quite badly by stalling when the team signalled him to go. Carlos Huertas (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing), on the other hand, got the pit stop spot on and was back out again in good order.
With Nakajima still leading, McKenzie was charging hard in 3rd, setting a new Fastest Lap as he tried to hunt down Buzaid for 2nd. Quite clearly none of them would be pitting any time soon. Others had decided it was time; William Buller (Hitech Racing) twitched his way in, while the crowd held their collective breath as McKenzie made an attempt to drive round the outside of Buzaid at Deene. It didn't come off and he had to slot back in to 3rd again but he was a long way from giving up on the place.
As we reached the halfway mark, the top nine still hadn't stopped, so it wasn't too surprising when Dias and Vergne both came in, Dias setting off back out and swerving to the outside just as Vergne tried to swing to the inside to stop. It was a narrow miss so Hywel Lloyd's (C F Racing with Manor Motorsport) line to go back out where he was almost on the pit wall seemed a sensible choice on the part of the Welshman.
And then McKenzie was through, finally, just as Nakajima came in to take his stop. The stop was very well done on the part of Double R, but inevitably the Japanese driver lost ground, the lead now passing to McKenzie (who of course still had to stop). With the weather briefly threatening rain, Nasr was all over Pietro Fantin (Hitech Racing), the lone Invitation Class runner, but they were a long way back on the leaders at this point. The next round of stops saw Rupert Svendsen-Cook come in from 4th place, while the main beneficiary of the stops was probably Jaafar, the Malaysian now 12th which was more than he might have expected as he'd started the race in 21st. With most of the stops now done, McKenzie continued to lead from Buzaid, Calado, Nakajima, Buller, Webb, Vergne, Huertas and Foresti. However, there Calado still hadn't stopped, and neither had Buzaid. On lap 11 they both cracked and dived for the pit lane entrance, which just left the race leader to come in. Calado had lost out to Dias and Buller once he got back on track, with Buller hanging onto the Brazilian like a terrier with a rat.
The main interest, though, was now with McKenzie, who finally had to come in on lap 12. There was a tense moment as he came in, stopped, briefly spun the wheels as he got going and pulled out on the track just ahead of Nakajima who was now back to 2nd and could see the Fortec car just ahead of him on the track. The question was did McKenzie have enough momentum to stay ahead into Deene or would Nakajima catch him and get through? As it turned out it was desperately close, but McKenzie held his line and blocked the speedy Japanese, denying him the place in a fair but firm move. With the race now almost run, that was it for the leaders though just behind them Calado was under fierce attack from Huertas for 6th, the English driver just managing to hang on to take the flag.
McKenzie was utterly delighted with his first International Class victory, and Nakajima too looked happy to be back on the podium. Buzaid was 3rd from Dias, Buller, Calado, Huertas, Webb, Vergne and Foresti. 11th, just out of the points, was Jaafar, from Brundle. Svendsen-Cook, Lloyd, Nasr, Fantin, Bridger, Snegirev, National Class winner Idafar and Adderley Fong (Sino Vision Racing), the hapless Hong Kong driver never managing to get ahead of anyone even after his pit stop, and even managing to be lapped in a 20 minute race where everyone else had to stop too. Only Cole was behind him and that was only because he had needed bodywork repairs.
Fastest laps went to McKenzie, Idafar and Fantin.
Weather: Grey, windy.
See also: Vergne wins Rockingham thriller