If the first race of the day was pretty dull, to say nothing of predictable, this one was anything but. In fact, it might well be the weirdest F3 race some of us have ever seen. The reason for the strangeness was the weather. After a day of relatively pleasant conditions in what has been an abysmal summer, those pesky weather gods were at it again. Black clouds bubbled up in the distance and then race across the sky towards Stowe. Just before the pit lane opened to let everyone out for their two exploratory laps, you could feel the wind switch directions, and the temperature dropped abruptly, and then it started to rain heavily. It lasted for about three minutes, soaked the track and threw everyone into a complete quandary. There were more clouds lurking in the distance. Did they contain more rain? Who could tell? Nelson A Piquet's car was up on the jacks, no tyres on at all. Other people were scratching their heads and staring into the distance, trying to second-guess the conditions. Finally, the decision had to be taken and as a second wash of rain lashed across the grid, most people went for wet weather tyres. The only exceptions were Marcus Marshall (Fortec Motorsport), and Vasilije Calasan in Promatecme F3's Scholarship Class car. Considering that Marshall was starting from 14th, it could be argued he could take a risk; he had nothing to lose from back there. Calasan also probably felt he had nothing to lose going on slicks.
And with no other exceptions, everyone set off on the formation lap on wet weather tyres. However, at the end of the lap, both Alvaro Parente and Danilo Dirani of Carlin Motorsport dived into the pits to change to slicks. It meant they would both start the race from the pits rather than their grid positions, and it suggested that if they were right about the weather this race was going to get very messy very quickly. Certainly many of the drivers were saying that the track was dry round the back. Of course, it all got a bit chaotic at Carlin with two cars in at once, but they managed the changes pretty quickly and the cars were at the end of the pit lane very soon after the start.
The start was a bit of a shambles, not surprisingly. Adam Carroll (P1 Motorsport) looked as if he was about to get a good start, but then bogged down. Meanwhile Piquet got off the line very well and seemed to be intending to set about trying to open up a gap while his tyres held. Except that he bargained without Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport). The Englishman was off like a rocket and out dragged Piquet and James Rossiter (Fortec Motorsport), who was passed back by Carroll. It was all a bit messy. At the back, Parente was the first to get out of the pits, Dirani trailing him by a second or two. The next thing we knew, Piquet was trying to retake Austin, but he couldn't quite do it, and promptly fell into Carroll's clutches, while Will Power (Alan Docking Racing) decided he wanted to play with his friend Rossiter and would fight him for 4th place. Meanwhile, as the leaders went under the Bridge, Carroll was all over Piquet, but suddenly had to concentrate on Power, who seemed to have not noticed the conditions.
Calasan, meanwhile, was last, but of course he was on slicks and it was still damp and was now spitting with rain again. The slick tyre decision was beginning to look a bit questionable now. While the scuffle at the front continued, Ryan Lewis (T-Sport) lost his Scholarship Class lead to Stephen Jelley (Performance), but a lap later he squeezed Jelley onto the grass at Luffield and took himself out of contention at the same spot two laps later. So still not champion then.
Fairuz Fauzy (P1 Motorsport) was the next to decide that he was on the wrong tyres, and he took an early decision to pit for slicks, while Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) had gone missing somewhere out on the track.
While all this was going on, and despite spots of rain still dotting the track, Parente was quietly getting on with the job of catching the field up, and he was a second a sector faster than the leader, Austin. That ought to have sounded a few warning bells in other drivers' heads, but no one seemed to paying a lot of attention. Back at the front Austin ran wide at Luffield and found he had Piquet right with him, while Rossiter was trying to get round the outside of Carroll. At the first try he couldn't quite manage it, but it didn't take long before he was able to make it stick. Piquet hadn't given up either. Just because Austin is no threat to him in championship terms didn't mean he wanted to finish second to him. On lap three he took the lead back, ran wide and found Austin trying to edge back alongside. This time he couldn't do it, and Power wasn't helping any either. With the top three trying to go side-by-side it had the potential to get very messy. It didn't, and they sorted themselves out, Power having to drop back to 3rd, while Austin lost out to Piquet again.
In the Scholarship, we suddenly had Ronayne O'Mahony (Performance Racing) back in the lead, even if he knew he wouldn't be able to keep it if the track continued to dry out the way it was doing. Calasan was beginning to get the benefits of his slick tyres, having survived the early laps without falling off, and he was catching the wet-shod Irishman at an unbelievable rate. Unless it started to rain again - and that was looking very unlikely now - it was just a matter of time.
The top half dozen were still fighting it out, with Power taking 2nd from Austin, only to have Austin fight back. Watts, meanwhile, was chasing Rossiter down, and at the back of the field, an unseen menace. Parente had caught the tail-enders now and was making short work of them, as was Dirani. In addition, Marshall was now a man on the move as well, and he looked very strong as his tyres started to kick in and the racing line dries rapidly. Carroll, on the other hand, was now going backwards and had clearly made the wrong choice. He wouldn't be the only one to find his tyres going off badly, but he was among the first.
Marshall's choice had been inspired, and he was now in the top 6 and charging forward, seemingly unstoppable. A lap later he was second, while Fauzy, also on slicks, was just ahead of him and busy unlapping himself. Piquet was still leading but there was nothing he could do to stop the Australian. From being a regular "just out of the top ten" runner, Marshall suddenly found himself leading an F3 race! It was a shock to everyone. Piquet was clinging on to 2nd place, and probably knew by now that his days were numbered. He couldn't have been unaware of Parente and Dirani, who were both hacking through the field like knives through butter. It hadn't taken them long to get to a position where they could start to move up the points positions, and no one was in any position to argue with them. They wanted a place, they took it; it really was that simple. Two laps after he lost the lead to Marshall, Piquet lost a further place to Parente. Wisely, he didn't even try and fight the Portuguese. Piquet wants to be champion, and if he has to use his head to do it, he will. It was a mature drive, you might even say the sort of drive you would expect from a champion. He lost a further place, inevitably, to Dirani a couple of laps later, but as none of them are in a position to challenge his points lead, the teenager could smile and let it go.
Further down the order, di Grassi had seen the way the wind was blowing and had pitted for slicks, as had Carroll. It was a little too late, but in Carroll's case it at least got him a point for fastest lap at the end of the afternoon. You couldn't help feeling if any one of the former front- runners had opted for slicks - and if you were standing on the Hangar Straight the decision not too seemed very odd - there might have been a very different result.
Clivio Piccione, meanwhile, who was the only Carlin Motorsport driver not on slicks, had also pulled into the pits, though not to change tyres. His engine had begun to run dry and he'd called it a day, knowing he wasn't going to get a good result now whatever he did. And just to make matters even weirder, Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing), had been overhauled by Calasan in the closing stages, as the Frenchman claimed his second Scholarship Class victory of the day.
With a lap to go, it looked as if things might be about to get even stranger, or more normal depending on how you view these things. Marshall was still leading, but Parente was catching him hand-over-fist, and as they started on their final lap it was clear that Marshall was beginning to lose the advantage, running very wide in some of the corners. He only needed to get it that little bit further off the racing line, and there was a real threat that Parente would come through; he certainly wouldn't wait for a second invitation. As it was, from Marshall's point of view, the race ended just when it needed to. He crossed the line just ahead of Parente, and Dirani. Ironic really that the top three started from 14th, and last between them. Piquet clung on to finish 4th, ahead of Austin, Power, Rossiter and Watts. In 9th overall was Calasan, ahead of Asmer and di Grassi who'd pulled himself back into the points despite stopping for a tyre change. Just out of the points again was Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing), the recovering Fauzy also with a pit stop to his name, James Walker (Hitech Racing), James Winslow (Reon Racing), O'Mahony, Jelley, Carroll and Lars Sexton (Planet Racing).
Next Races: Rounds 19 & 20, Thruxton, Hampshire, August 30th/31st
By: Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite