Qualifying - Round 18:
Weather: Cold. Dry.
On a nice clean track the Scholarship Class boys were again first out for qualifying. From the back of the Rockingham grandstand there was a very fine view of around 95% of the circuit which allows the spectator to puzzle over the layout of this complicated track. Sometimes it wasn't easy to tell who was where on the track, or whether they were going round the right way even. On the ground, the drivers were finding the effect pretty hard to puzzle out too. The other thing they were having trouble with, perhaps inevitably this season, was the forest of floppy markers on the outside of Turn 1. Clivio Piccione (T-Sport) had a go at them first, and even Harold Primat (Diamond Racing) had a go. The marked exception to this was Jesper Carlsen (Essential Motorsport), who managed to go off at the hairpin, when he claimed to have forgotten to brake and "hit the ****ing wall instead!" He was able to drive back out of the gravel and make his way round to the pits without too much difficulty however; it could have been so much worse.
Billy Asaro (Sweeney Racing) was on the pace at the start of the session, as were his team-mates Adam Carroll and Robert Dahlgren, the two of them edging the Canadian out as they fought over class pole between themselves.
The session seemed to be getting into a nice rhythm with constant changes of position when suddenly there were red flags, although there seemed to be no real reason for it. Nowhere was there a car off the track. Ultimately, it seemed the officials wanted to replace the shattered floppy markers and had red-flagged the session in order to so do. Why they were bothering was beyond most observers; after all, the drivers would only knock them back down, seeming to regard this as a rather odd bowling session!
At the restart it initially seemed as though the markers were no longer under serious threat, which was good if we wanted to get through this session without any more delays. Carroll had slipped back down the order to 3rd ahead of Karun Chandhok (T-Sport), and David Clark (Team Park). Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was 6th, showing unusually well for him on what is pretty close to being one of his local tracks. 7th was Stephen Colbert (Meritus Racing) and 8th was Piccione who had slid down the order since the start of the session. Mohammed Fairuz (Fred Goddard Racing) was only 9th, struggling a little to begin with. 10th was Adam Jones (Team Park) and Gavin Smith (Meritus Racing) was 11th. Primat was 12th and Carlsen was last, still trying to get a sensible time out of his Dallara after his brush with the scenery.
However, there was still plenty of time for people to improve. Fairuz proved that by hauling himself up to 3rd, while everyone behind him reshuffled again. Carlsen managed a time that would bring him forward by a row, while Carroll was in 4th and trying to remedy the situation. Bizarrely, Sherwood then set a time that moved him to 4th, and Chandhok decided he didn't like the Turn 1 floppy markers anymore, managing to wipe out all but one of them, as well as the nose of his Dallara. The top two places were still held by Dahlgren and Asaro, while Carlsen was still fighting for a time that he liked, now improving to 6th. Chandhok, who had pitted for repairs after his attack on the floppy markers, was 3rd, and Jones was 4th, with Carroll now trailing in 5th.
The session was still a long way from over, although improvements were proving harder to come by now as the air and the track warmed up slowly. Normality was restored at the front of the grid though, when Carroll claimed pole, pushing the other Sweeney drivers down the order. Asaro had now gone seriously off the boil (suffering from an ill-fitting seat), and ended the session in 5th, while Dahlgren hung on to 2nd. A last minute improvement from Chandhok saw him move up to 3rd in class, ahead of Piccione. In 6th was Sherwood, still showing strongly, and 7th and 8th were Smith and Colbert, who should probably not be allowed to be together, given that they seem to keep hitting each other (OK, so Brands Hatch was Fabio Carbone's fault, not theirs, but there does seem to be a pattern emerging here). 9th was Jones, ahead of a deeply disappointed Carlsen. The final three places went to Clark, Fairuz and Primat.
A whole new set of nice shiny black floppy markers was erected before they sent the Championship Class cars out. As they got ready to go out, Derek Hayes (Carlin Motorsport) decided, for whatever reason, to slow to an absolute crawl as they edged towards the pit lane exit. The result was a gaggle of cars all bunched up and trying to get out on to the track, and a whole load of new members of the Derek Hayes Appreciation Society (probably founded by the people involved in his Macau shunt last year). Quite what he was trying to achieve with this remains a mystery; if he wanted to make space for himself, why do it in a way that aggravates everyone else, unless that's just the way he prefers to operate. After all, he had threatened to have Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) off if he got the chance. Robbie's response was that first Hayes would have to get close enough.
As a result perhaps of Hayes' actions, Mark Mayall (Alan Docking Racing) seemed to be in a very agitated frame of mind as he came round to start his first flying lap He promptly clipped the markers at Turn 1, got sideways on the kerbs and bounced across the track and into the wall at the exit from the pits. It looked as if it was going to be a red flag situation again, but in the end Mayall got out of the car and the marshals just pushed it out of the way, allowing everyone to get on with the session. This seemed a bit cavalier of them really, especially given the red flag in the first part of the session. Perhaps they had used up their quota for the day…
Mark Taylor (Manor Motorsport) was the early pace setter, but then he often is. His team-mates, too, were both looking a lot better than they had in the morning. Antinucci was 2nd for a while, until Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International) stormed up the order to take provisional pole in his class. By that time Ronnie Bremer, the third Manor driver, was also on a charge, and was 3rd. It was all change once Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport) got going though, the Finn anxious to add a second pole to his weekend's haul if he could. Despite this, Carroll was still up in 2nd overall, and his time would clearly be much harder to beat than his morning effort had been. Jouanny may have been 2nd in class by this stage, but he was still only 7th overall. Hayes was still a very long way adrift.
Jouanny improved his time to go 3rd overall, although there were yellows around Turn 1 while Mayall's car was being moved. Of course it was only the start of the session, so it wasn't easy to tell if the rest of them were paying any heed to the flags or not. Most likely they weren't, but no one would ever be able to prove it without a lot of argument and recourse to everyone's data-logging systems.
Antinucci was still looking pretty good, with a move to 9th, but then he was pushed down when Hayes went to 7th. He was pushed even further down the order when Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) moved into the top 10. Taylor was now down in 11th, behind Antinucci. Van der Merwe found some more time from somewhere and was soon up to 7th, seemingly determined that Hayes would not out-qualify him if he could help it. Hayes, on the other hand, was again dropping back down the order and was 11th. Carroll, meanwhile, was sticking to 2nd place like a limpet to a rock. His time really was taking some beating and he was more than happy that this was the case.
There was a further outbreak of shuffling in the order as Jeroen Bleekemolen (Team Avanti) started to show his pace, although it looked as if we might be in for another red flag to replace markers when Shinya Hosokawa (Formula Dream Team Carlin) promptly tried to demolish the whole lot of them. He did a very good job of it too. On a track littered with dead floppy markers, the remaining one that Shinya didn't get looked quite forlorn standing there on Turn One. No one got near it after that; maybe they felt sorry for it.
This time it seemed the markers could stay down (someone may have figured out that if this went on they would run out of markers before the end of the meeting) and so the session continued uninterrupted. At the front, things were now really hotting up, with Kerr grabbing pole and van der Merwe joining him on the front row. Carroll remained right up there, though he was now 3rd, from Kovalainen, Jouanny and Dahlgren. Oddly out of sorts and off the pace was the final Carlin car of Michael Keohane. Most people would have expected the Irish driver to relish a challenge such as that presented by Rockingham, but he just did not seem at all happy and he was stuck down on 14th as he tried to work out what to do about it. Even more out of sorts was Fabio Carbone (Fortec Motorsport), who was in a less than stunning 27th with less than 10 minutes of the session left. Matthew Gilmore (Promatecme International) was 30th, which was odd considering how well Jouanny was going. The Frenchman was now 5th, after Taylor took his 4th place off him, but things were about to change again.
Kerr and van der Merwe still made up the front row, while Kovalainen had dropped back to 12th. Hayes seemed to realise he had to act if he was going to live up to his words and beat everyone else, and he improved to 5th, but was pushed back to 6th when Kovalainen managed to go faster than Carroll for 2nd place, moving van der Merwe to 3rd. Jouanny then bettered Carroll's time to go 4th. Even so, the Scholarship Class front runner was still 5th overall, a position that shortly became 6th when Hayes grabbed pole from Kerr. And apart from Jouanny improving again to go ahead of van der Merwe, that was it for any changes of position at the front; Carroll would remain in 6th place despite the efforts of the supposedly faster Class A boys.
There were one or two improvements, but nothing of huge significance. Keohane moved to 11th though he was clearly still not at all happy. Gilmore also found some more speed from somewhere and was able to move to 10th. And just as the session was about to end, Antinucci dragged himself to a dismal 16th on the grid.