At Portimao this afternoon the 2009 British F3 International series was finally decided in favour of the man who has led since the first race at Oulton Park back in April, Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin Motorsport), but not before a truly fraught...
At Portimao this afternoon the 2009 British F3 International series was finally decided in favour of the man who has led since the first race at Oulton Park back in April, Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin Motorsport), but not before a truly fraught race was run over this undulating 4.6k track. First on the road was Jules Bianchi (ART Grand Prix), from Sam Bird (Fortec Motorsport) while 3rd on the road and International Class winner was Max Chilton (Carlin Motorsport), so often the bridesmaid this year. Carlos Huertas (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) was 2nd in class from Adriano Buzaid (T-Sport) who ended up fighting it out with Ricciardo for the final podium position. In the National Class Gabriel Dias (T-Sport) pulled off another win, but Daniel McKenzie (Fortec Motorsport) was crowned champion and finished 2nd ahead of Mathieu Maurage (Team West-Tec). 3rd in the Invitation Class was Esteban Gutierrez (ART Grand Prix), despite early race problems, the Mexican making an impressive recovery drive after two Safety Car periods messed everyone's plans up.
At the front Chilton made another poor start, finally getting going too late, having ceded the lead to Bird. As "Small Person" tried to get away, Ricciardo and Bianchi made contact, the Australian ending up with wing damage. Further back it all got very messy when the start procedure took far too long and Adrien Tambay (ART Grand Prix) almost jumped the start, stopped himself in time, and ended up skewed across the track. Everyone missed him; God only knows how and he finally got away after the rest of the pack with the assistance of a bunch of friendly marshals. Meanwhile Riki Christodoulou (Fortec Motorsport) and Roberto Mehri (Manor Motorsport) tangled off the line, both of them destined to go no further than the first corner. In addition, Joe Ghanem (Carlin Motorsport) was out as well having failed to make the grid, the car breaking down on the formation lap, while Satrio Hermanto (Litespeed F3) failed to start at all, his gearbox broken beyond recall after the morning race.
The result of all the mayhem was an almost instant Safety Car period, which saw Bird in the lead from Ricciardo, Bianchi, Renger van der Zande (Hitech Racing), Chilton, Huertas, Henry Arundel (Carlin Motorsport), Buzaid, Philip Major (Carlin Motorsport), and Hywel Lloyd (C F Racing). In 11th was Victor Garcia (Fortec Motorsport), ahead of Stephane Richelmi (Barazi Epsilon), Wayne Boyd (T-Sport), Jay Bridger (Litespeed F3/Bridger Motorsport), Dias, Mathieu Maurage (Team West-Tec), Pedro Enrique (Manor Motorsport), McKenzie, Max Snegirev (Team West-Tec) and Daisuke Nakajima (Raikkonen Robertson Racing). At the back were Victor Correa (Fortec Motorsport), Gutierrez, Kevin Chen, Walter Grubmuller (Hitech Racing) and Tambay.
At the restart Bird was attacked by Ricciardo, a move which didn't come off, and which allowed Bianchi to come through for 2nd; after all it's not as if he needs a second invitation. And nor did van der Zande, who followed through to claim 3rd from Ricciardo, the Australian not keen to make a fight of it with the title now within his grasp. It didn't take Bianchi long to despatch Bird either to claim the lead, which was just as well because not everyone at ART was having such a good afternoon, Valtteri Bottas having pulled into the pits and out of the race on lap 3.
While Bianchi began to streak away, setting a new fastest lap, Chilton was now setting about Ricciardo, while van der Zande also blasted past Bird at the Hairpin. It was beginning to look as if we might be seeing a repeat of the morning's race with the Invitation Class runners getting away unless van der Zande could do something about Bianchi. Meanwhile Dias was leading the National Class but as McKenzie was 2nd that meant that championship was close to settled as well - the Fortec driver only needed 2 points to clinch it and there are 15 available for 2nd. Just ahead of them Bridger and Richelmi were battling over 12th place with the advantage going to Bridger in the end. They were behind Boyd who was also on the move up the order, as were a recovering Enrique and an even more in need of recovery Gutierrez (15th and 17th respectively at this stage). They weren't the only ones who needed to make up ground - Grubmuller was still back in 19th and was desperately trying to find a way past Nakajima, who was as ever proving to driver a very wide car.
A lap later and Chilton was past Ricciardo for 4th as the damage to the Australian's car started to hamper his progress, while further back Grubmuller was up a place and then another as he and Nakajima both barged past Dias, the National Class leader wisely no making an issue of it, despite the fact that he had now fallen back into McKenzie's clutches once again.
And then Garcia binned it, necessitating yet another Safety Car period. Bianchi settled in to lead the pack round, with van der Zande, Bird, Chilton, Ricciardo, Huertas, Arundel, Buzaid, Major and Lloyd rounding out the top ten. Next up was Boyd, from Bridger, Richelmi, Gutierrez, Enrique, Grubmuller, Nakajima, Tambay, Dias and McKenzie. 21st was Correa, ahead of Maurage, Chen and Snegirev. The clear up didn't take long, but this was starting to get a bit ridiculous.
At the restart Grubmuller charged past Enrique, while Arundel lost out to Buzaid, this time cleanly. Gutierrez was up to 9th though some of that was almost certainly done early of the start/finish line, and at the expense of Lloyd, though he too was able to get into the top 10, once again at Major's expense. It was nearly Safety Car's 'R' Us again when Grubmuller and Enrique managed to tangle at the Hairpin, both spinning off. Grubmuller was able to restart but Enrique was stuck in the gravel and not going anywhere. He wasn't the only one in trouble. With a third of the race left to run, Major lost around 4 places after contact with Boyd, T-Sport's weekend still not going quite according to plan.
Ricciardo's weekend was also starting to look as if it had become derailed when Huertas passed him, and the Buzaid had a go too. With van der Zande set to score 21 points, Ricciardo couldn't afford to finish lower than 5th and it was starting to look a little shaky. He wasn't being helped by the fact that Gutierrez had now caught him, but as the Mexican wasn't involved in the International Class and thus couldn't score points, Ricciardo gave him as much room as he needed. Buzaid and Arundel had already lost out and now Buzaid was back on Ricciardo's tail again.
And then with three laps to go, van der Zande collected a piece of the Astroturf the organisers have placed on several of the corners. The stuff isn't nailed down at all, and the drivers had been warned that if they got onto it they might well end up with it wrapped round a wheel, but in the heat of the moment it isn't always at the forefront of their minds. And that was what happened. He tried desperately to shake the stuff off, but in doing so he had to let first Bird and then Chilton through, and still it wouldn't leave him. By the time it was sorted he was back in 8th and still dropping like a stone down the order, well behind Ricciardo, who was now fighting for 3rd in class with Buzaid. The Championship was effectively over and done, signed and delivered to Carlin yet again with Ricciardo a well-deserved winner.
Bianchi won the race and the Invitation Class, from Bird, International Class winner Chilton, Huertas, Gutierrez, Buzaid, Ricciardo, Arundel, Lloyd and Tambay. 11th was Bridger, from van Der Zande, Nakajima, National Class winner Dias, Richelmi, newly-crowned National Class champion McKenzie, Boyd, Chen, Maurage and Grubmuller. Correa was 21st and Snegirev, as ever, was 22nd and last.
Fastest laps of the race went to van der Zande, Dias and Bianchi.
Next Rounds: Brands Hatch, Kent, September 19th/20th 2009.
Weather: Hot, sunny.