Changes - Round 15/16:
We have acquired a new Brazilian, in the shape of Tuka Rocha or possibly more correctly Cristiano Tuka-Rocha, the youngster joining Team SYR - possibly for the remainder of the season.
We have lost (temporarily) Rob Austin. The Menu Motorsport driver, an accident-prone sort of soul, broke his hand playing Rugby on Thursday night and will be out for 4-6 weeks at least. By the end of the weekend it was looking as if we might lose one or two more, but more of that later. For once the changes were few, at least as Saturday morning's first practice session got underway. Adam Carroll was still around, despite an apparently critical lack of budget, as was Robert Dahlgren. So we could all settle down and concentrate on trying to get round Rockingham without resorting to flying displays or anything else similarly horrible!
Qualifying Report - Round 15:
Weather: Very hot, sunny.
Europe is in the grip of a heat wave as I write and the cockpit of an F3 car was not a pleasant place to be - not perhaps as nasty as that of a GT car but unpleasant nonetheless. Even at 10 in the morning it was extremely hot out there, and most people had sensibly concluded that there wasn't much point in rushing out at the start of the session since you wouldn't last the full 30 minutes of the session on the available tyres. They would most likely melt just before you did.
Series leader Alan van der Merwe (Carlin) was certainly in no hurry to join in and sat in the pits for a very long time before deciding it was time to venture out. This is a pattern that he seems happiest with and it seems to be working fairly well for him. Also, he doesn't go back out again if his time is bettered after he's used up his tyres and done whatever he had intended to do. He's become very cool and collected about it all and this time he didn't emerge until a good seven minutes into the session.
Instead, Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport) was an early pole sitter, with Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) right up there with him, the Monegasque apparently having one of his better weekends. Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) was also on the pace in the Scholarship Class, grabbing second overall as the session got underway, just ahead of Tor Graves, who was looking oddly good around Rockingham.
Also in the Scholarship Class, Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was in a determined mood, chasing down Chandhok, while the other T-Sport runner Steven Kane was just trying to hang on. A kidney infection had laid him low after Oulton Park and he didn't look at all well. In addition, a bout of tonsillitis had made matters even worse. The B Class series leader was determined not to make excuses, but you only had to watch him out on the track to know that something wasn't right, and so it was wheedled out of him.
Elsewhere in the order, Nelson Piquet Jr. (Piquet Sport) was pressing on determinedly, keen to make up for his awful time at Oulton with some good results here. The main problem wit Piquet does seem to be his problems getting off the line at the start. At least this time he might be able to avoid the ignominy of being struck by the fire truck, as he was at Oulton. At the other end of the order from Piquet, and trying hard to make up for a lack of track time this season, Katherine Legge seemed to be spending a lot of time in the pits, her engineer taking a long time to do up her seat belts. wonder why that could be?
By this stage van der Merwe had decided to join in and was looking smooth as he tried to find his pace. Elsewhere, Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) was showing strongly, the little Italian finally starting to show some promise, after a year and half struggling to get to grips with F3. It makes you wonder what he might be capable of if he'd had a season or two in the lower formulae to build up his race-craft and his confidence. He was in the top 5, which is not usual. Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) was also looking quick too, but would be wondering why he'd bothered getting out of bed by the end of the weekend.
While van der Merwe crept up to 10th, Piccione was on provisional pole from Watts and Piquet. Meanwhile, one or two things about the track were becoming clear. The Chicane that replaces Turn 1 for "normal" circuit racing isn't really a Chicane; it can be taken close to flat out and the floppy markers that edge it do nothing to discourage drivers from doing that. The upshot is a marked tendency for the cars to take off if they get it wrong; air gets under the front wings and the next thing the hapless driver knows, he's looking at sky and his car is at an angle of about 45 degrees to the track. And sometimes it gets even worse than that.
The order was now Piccione, Watts, Piquet and the cash-strapped Dahlgren. To be fair, he did look like a man who was trying very hard to impress potential sponsors, though you could argue he really should have thought of that a lot sooner. He also looked like man who was keen not to be out qualified by his team-mate (Will Power). Another driver running well now was Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3). The Malaysian was taking some novel lines through the Chicane and did try to go around the oval instead at one point. This is actually not the easiest way!
With a good 20 minutes of the session left, the order changed. Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) was now on pole, from Piquet, Piccione, Watts, Dahlgren and Fauzy while van der Merwe had slipped down to 12th. In the Scholarship Class, Chandhok seemed to feel his pole position was pretty secure, so he got out in the pit lane and went over to watch the monitors on the wall. It wasn't an unreasonable decision, as Viso was 5 places further back and he was the nearest threat. It was far from decided in the Championship Class though and Piquet snatched pole from Green as Power shot off into the Oval area and nearly stalled it terminally.
Really at the front that was it. There was nothing that Green could do about the Brazilian and he probably knew it. Piccione would stay 3rd, while Watts and Dahlgren were trying to keep van der Merwe at bay. The South African was increasing his speed, but then slowed himself down by collecting a floppy marker or two in the Turn 1 Chicane. Meanwhile Viso also improved, which persuaded Chandhok that he should get back in the cockpit and start circulating, just in case. Watts meanwhile pitted, probably suspecting there was nothing more to come from engine or tyres.
At least this was all good practice for anyone doing the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort next weekend. News from the Netherlands suggests that the heat wave is set to continue, and it's often painfully hot at Zandvoort. Changes were few and far between but van der Merwe wasn't finished yet. In a final hard charging effort he dragged the Dallara up to 4th, but it was too late now - the tyres couldn't do much more and he would have to settle for the second row and just hope that Piquet and/or Green got it wrong at the start. He wasn't too happy afterwards, but at least he had a position. Adam Carroll (Menu Motorsport) was having a dreadful time, having managed one warm up lap on top of his out lap, before it all fell apart in spectacular fashion. After losing most of Friday's test session due to an engine failure, a second engine was lost when a flywheel disintegrated and destroyed the sump. Carroll would start from the back of the grid, which meant he would be worth watching.
Fauzy looked as if he would be worth watching too. He was now 7th, and seems to be back at the level he had managed at the start of the season, before the other Malaysians dragged him down to their level. It's good news that he's recovering his form now. Back at Fauzy's old team, Legge was looking a lot better too having finally had some testing time. It really does help to get some laps in!
With less than ten minutes left, the order was pretty well settled now. This was a shame for some people but there was nothing to be done. Rizal Ramli (Team SYR) managed to stall it in the pit lane, and had to be collected by the mechanics. This was a shame too; it's not much fun having to run all that way in this sort of heat. As Ramli was down in his usual 20th place, it was a miracle that they could be bothered.
As the flag dropped the order was Piquet, Green, Piccione, van der Merwe, Watts, Dahlgren, Bremer, Fauzy, Antinucci and Power. Fabi was 11th, from Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing), the Frenchman collecting floppy markers with some panache, which only slowed him down badly. Chandhok held off Viso for the Scholarship Class pole, though only just, while Kane was 8 places further back, and looked unlikely to challenge for victory. The best he could do was hope he would leave Rockingham with his championship lead in tact. As the gap to Chandhok was a mere 11 points, this seemed unlikely.
And just to make everyone's weekend complete there seemed to be a plague of wasps too. It was just to be hoped that they were not related to the ones at Wimbledon a month earlier that drove everyone there mad and kept stinging the competitors.
by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite, Guest Writers