Race Report - Round 16:
Weather: Very hot, sunny.
With Scott Speed (Alan Docking Racing) already out due to illness, we lost Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) for this race. Ten green bottles was beginning to look like the theme tune for the day.
Series leader (and 4th on the grid) Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) was again the last driver to emerge from the pits when the pit lane opened, once more trying to stay cool until the last possible moment. The field finally lined up in front of the biggest crowd Rockingham has ever seen, 44,000 people crammed into the grandstands around the motor speedway. They were about to be treated to quite a spectacle when Round 16 of the 2003 British F3 Championship finally got underway.
As they all lined up, Will Power (Fortec Motorsport) was sitting on the second row of the grid, his Dallara at quite an acute angle in case 2nd placed man Nelson Piquet Jr. (Piquet Sports) should fail to get off the line when the lights went to green. Van der Merwe seemed to have similar ideas, and was set to go up the middle of the pair in front of him, Piquet and Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport). His teammate might be in front of him, but that wouldn't necessarily stop van der Merwe in his hunt for the title. As it turned out, Green made a very good start this time, van der Merwe made his move to go up the middle, and Power closed in on Piquet from the other side. The Brazilian had to back off, dropping back to 4th, but so did van der Merwe who lost out to Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) and Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport). That hadn't been part of his plan, that much was for sure. While Green hung on to the lead, in the middle of the grid Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) and Adam Carroll (Menu Motorsport) had come to grief when Carroll stalled and the unsighted Watts cannoned into him, wrecking the rear suspension of the Menu car and ripping a wheel off his own Dallara. With a shortage of marshals, this looked as if it was going to take a while to clean up. Just to complete the misery at Hitech, their only remaining driver Eric Salignon sustained damage in the first lap fracas as well and pitted for keeps. David Hayle must have been wondering why he had bothered to come to Rockingham.
Inevitably, the Safety Car had to be scrambled while the mess was cleared away. The order behind the car was now Green, Power, Piccione, Piquet, Bremer and van der Merwe. Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport), Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport), Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) and Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) rounded out the top ten. Richard Antinucci (Carlin Motorsport) was 11th ahead of Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing), Rizal Ramli (Team SYR) and Scholarship Class leader Karun Chandhok (T-Sport). Cristiano Tuka- Rocha (Team SYR) was behind the Indian, with the final five places taken by Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport), Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport), Steven Kane (T- Sport), Katherine Legge (Team SYR) and Can Artam (Promatecme F3). They all dutifully sat behind the Safety Car for three laps before the track was clear enough to race on again. At the restart, Green hung on to his place, while van der Merwe attacked Bremer, getting the better of the Dane a lap later and squeezing through to set off after Piquet. Another man on the move was Tuka-Rocha, the Brazilian proving to have a useful turn of speed, especially for a man who hadn't raced in the British series before and therefore didn't know the track or the nature of the opposition. He was not daunted, and took to the grass as he savaged Davison. Eventually the Brazilian got through, and Antinucci took advantage of the move and tried to go with him, having slipped past Graves shortly before. It only took Davison a lap to get back ahead of the less experienced driver though.
Meanwhile, Viso had grabbed the Scholarship Class lead from Chandhok although there were suggestions that it had been done under waved yellow flags. The officials obviously eventually decided this was not the case, though with a serious observer shortage who knows? Elsewhere Fabi had come to grief, and Legge had run into the back of Kane, damaging her car sufficiently that she had to pit for investigation. Kane continued despite badly bent suspension, while Legge was eventually, perhaps unwisely as it transpired, sent back out again to play.
At the front, Green and Power were quietly getting on with the job, but third placed man Piccione was suffering the attentions of Piquet, who really wanted to get on the podium. With van der Merwe breathing down Piquet's neck it wasn't going to be easy, but eventually Piquet found a way though. What he didn't manage to do was shake of van der Merwe, the South African easing back into 4th place. Elsewhere, Fauzy had found a way past Dahlgren and was looking to get past Asaro. Things seemed to be settling down at last, until Bremer spun away 6th place, and Viso lunged round Tuka- Rocha, who had just passed Davison again, the later going out of the race. Suddenly the crowd were on their feet, a collective gasp of alarm escaping them. Legge had gone off big time at the Turn 1 Chicane, her Dallara taking off and flipping over, only to land on its wheels and slide back down to the infield. As 44,000 people held their breath the Englishwoman clambered out of the wreckage and scrambled to safety. Luckily, she was unhurt. Unluckily, we needed the Safety Car again. As we were beginning to run out of cars, there were suggestions that perhaps it should just stay out there to make sure some of them got to the finish.
The order was now Green, Power, Piquet, van der Merwe, Piccione, Asaro, Fauzy, Dahlgren, Bremer and Antinucci in the top ten. Viso was 11th from Tuka-Rocha, Chandhok, Ramli, Artam and Kane. There was no one else left. For the next few laps, as the Safety Car led them round, van der Merwe kept nosing alongside Piquet "just to wake him up!" At the back, it was clear that Kane was struggling badly but as there were points in it, he wasn't going to give up while he had an ounce of strength left. When the race ended and he climbed out of the car, he looked utterly drained.
As the Safety Car period came a close, Green slowed right down and Piquet almost had to stop to avoid hitting Power. Van der Merwe saw that as an opportunity and attempted to slip through but the gap wasn't big enough and he had to back off. While Green and Power banged wheels for the lead, Piccione took 4th back from van der Merwe, while the South African tried to keep control of his Dallara. He recovered to strike back, taking the place from Piccione in a very Formula Ford-style move! The battle for 7th overall was hotting up too, with Dahlgren having his hands full holding off Asaro. The result of this for the Canadian was that Viso caught up with his Championship Class teammate and promptly set about him. Eventually he got by, possibly because Asaro didn't want to fail to finish and preferred to let the tiny Venezuelan through, as it wasn't going to cost him any points. Bremer, meanwhile, seemed to have lost the will to live and the Dane pulled into the pits and out of the race.
At the front, Piquet finally managed to find a way round Power for second and was now in hot pursuit of Green. Maybe he could still snatch victory from the Carlin driver. More likely he would run out of time. He was game to try for it all the same. Another game individual was van der Merwe, who was pressurising Power in the hope of forcing a mistake from the Australian. A move round the outside into Turn 1 seemed to do the trick, the Australian spinning away what would have been his first podium placing as the two of them catapulted into the Hairpin. Van der Merwe gratefully accepted third place, his 16th points finish from 16 races, a quite remarkably consistent record. Even as the race drew to its close, Piquet was still catching Green hand over fist, as Green pushed hard to get away, sliding his car into the corners and having to gather it all together on the exits. He had done enough. Piquet had to settle for second place, the top three in the series taking the podium places this time out.
Van der Merwe, though, still leads the series by 81 points. There are 8 races left with a maximum 168 points available. It would be a brave person who would bet against the South African, though he would be the first to admit that it's not over yet.
by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite, Guest Writers