Eric Salignon was back at Hitech Racing after missing the first two races due to illness. Fabio Carbone substituted for him at Donington, but his services were no longer required and he has gone back to the European F3 series. Jesse Mason ...
Eric Salignon was back at Hitech Racing after missing the first two races due to illness. Fabio Carbone substituted for him at Donington, but his services were no longer required and he has gone back to the European F3 series.
Jesse Mason (Performance Racing) was missing this race since his budget won't cover a full season. The Canadian was an interested observer and he will be out at Croft in three weeks time however.
Unlike at Donington, where there were a lot of complaints about traffic, the Scholarship and Championship Classes would have separate qualifying sessions. It probably wouldn't stop the complaints from the Championship Class boys though.
Qualifying - Round 3:
Weather: windy, very cold.
Once again, after a week of sunshine and unseasonably high temperatures, the first day of a British Formula Three meeting began in weather that was close to arctic. It was hardly optimum conditions for single-seater racing, with a strong wind whipping the cars sideways, a track temperature far lower than anyone could have expected after the test day on Friday, and air temperature that didn't feel much above freezing. It was not at all pleasant out there. Even so, Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) didn't appear to be at all daunted by what he encountered when he emerged from the pits. Whatever has happened during the off-season - including a sinus operation that means he's no longer plagued by headaches and infections all the time - he looks like a completely different man to last year.
Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) was the first of the front runners to make an impact on the timing screens though, the car looking to be handling far better than it did at Donington. His teammate, Salignon, on the other hand, appeared to be in a state of shock in the early stages. It can't be that he's never seen anywhere like Snetterton before, because some of the French circuits are not much better than this, so one can only assume that he is not yet 100% recovered from whatever was wrong with him.
Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) also seemed to be far more on the pace than he had been at Donington, which is just as well as Manor really need some decent results to remind people what the team is really capable of, and of their three drivers (Piccione, Stefano Fabi and Tor Graves), Piccione looks like their only real hope of points.
The pole bar was soon raised though, by Michael Keohane (Promatecme F3). The Irishman was a long way ahead of everyone else for a very brief period, but then it all started to change. Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing) hauled himself up to 5th, while Keohane's teammate, Ernani Judice was 2nd. Elsewhere on the track, van der Merwe unceremonially bundled Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) out of the way so that he could get a clear run at pole position. Green was struggling at this stage, and was an unexpected 20th, so it wasn't surprising Alan wanted to get ahead of him. After being largely overlooked at Donington, despite winning one race and being 2nd in the other, and leading the championship, he had a point to prove.
Another driver out to prove a point was Nelson Piquet Jr., who may be wondering why no one warned him England would be this cold, and for that matter this difficult. The teenager was 8th, but still looking for improvements.
The Alan Docking Racing pairing of Scott Speed and Davison were looking altogether better than they had at Donington too, with Speed 4th and Davison 9th. At the sharp end, Watts claimed pole back, with Piccione 2nd, Keohane 3rd and Robert Dahlgren in the sole Fortec Motorsport car, moving up to 4th. However, that all became academic when van der Merwe rocketed to pole. He wasn't about to slow down and relax after that either and was quite clearly winding himself up to go even faster and move pole out of reach of the others. He looked mightily impressive, as he proceeded to set a series of increasingly faster pole positions at a time when you might have expected his Avons to be completely shot. No one could get near him. The others were left to scrap for 2nd, with Speed briefly occupying that position, only to lose it to Keohane, while Adam Carroll (Sweeney Racing) was also a challenger in the Lola-Dome. He was now 4th, but there was still half the session left to run and anything could happen.
Which was probably just as well from Green's point of view. He was still a long way down the order, as was Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport), who was 17th and getting very sideways in his efforts to improve. Salignon was pretty distant from pole too, and seemed to have more arms than are normal in the car. Someone once remarked that when you can see more than two arms in the cockpit, the driver is about to crash (although this never applied to Jean Alesi - and it didn't apply to Salignon either this time).
The battle for second was intensifying, with Watts getting ahead of Dahlgren, while van der Merwe raised the pole time again. The Carlin boys otherwise were having a mixed time of it. Richard Antinucci was attacking the track in his usual manner, but could only manage 13th so far, and his progress was further impeded when one of the Team SYR drivers got it all sideways and was stuck in the middle of the road for a long while. Once he was removed Green was able to get a clear run to go 3rd, but he wasn't able to hang on to it for long, as the more experienced Antinucci finally got a decent time to go 2nd, with Ronnie Bremer in the last of the Carlin cars, snatching 3rd. It was a Carlin top three for a while, the effect spoiled only by the fact that Dahlgren had got between the three of them and Green. It was spoiled even further when a determined effort from Piquet Jr. saw him claim 2nd, while elsewhere Austin's run was spoiled when he went off. It wasn't serious though, and he was soon back on the track, but now he was getting in Green's way, which left the youngster in 7th, while Austin ended the session 8th. Carroll had put in a superb effort for 5th, especially as the handling of the Lola appeared to have changed completely since testing, and with only 20 minutes of practice to play with the team had struggled to find a set-up that worked. Watts, meanwhile, was satisfied with 6th, but the biggest smile was on van der Merwe's face. Considering all the hype surrounding Green and Piquet the South African was delighted to have outclassed them both, and on a track he really doesn't like much. Makes you wonder what he'll do on tracks he does like.
It had got even colder by the time the Scholarship Class came out to play. With only eight of them, you would imagine they would have no trouble at all finding a clear lap. Somehow, it didn't quite work like that as half a dozen of them came round clumped together. Maybe they get nervous on their own! Of course, there are times when a tow from another car can come in useful, although not usually in Formula Three. In Formula Ford, where a lot of them have come from, it's another matter. so maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Steven Kane (T-Sport) was keeping his distance, but it wasn't helping him. After a year off Steven admits he's having difficulties finding his rhythm in the car, and as he doesn't have the budget to go testing in between times he has to do his learning in public.
Karun Chandhok, Kane's teammate, has already done his learning in 2002 and he should be on the pace this year. Certainly he was the first to start setting competitive times, which is more than could be said for Ernesto Viso. The Venezuelan, driving for Sweeney Racing, came away from Donington with no points at all despite setting class pole for both races after getting embroiled with Bremer (race 1) and Antinucci (race 2). He needed to make am ends here, but the engine started out rough and got rougher as the session progressed, leaving him a long way down the order, despite some vigorous driving (including almost throwing it off at the Bombhole). He was never on it in testing on Friday, and things just seemed to be getting worse, despite the presence of most of Venezuela to cheer him on.
The man really setting the pace though was Christian England (Promatecme F3). The ex-Formula Ford man looked smooth and quick, and was soon inside the Championship Class times, moving into 11th place overall as the session ended. Ivor McCullough (Meritus Racing) was another showing a keen turn of speed, though he couldn't match England's pace. He and Kane were soon battling for 2nd in class, that honour finally falling to Kane, in 15th overall, the Northern Irish driver ending the morning a mere tenth of a second ahead of the southern Irishman. Chandhok would get the better of Viso, to go 4th in class, while Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was 6th, probably still trying to get over the shock of having to write his date of birth on the signing-in sheet. For a man who was born in 1973, its galling to see birthdates in the mid 1980s. Yet again, one of the last of the gentlemen racers could be heard to mutter "What am I doing here?"
He was ahead of Sergio Hernandez (Azteca Motorsport), the Spaniard finding the move from Spanish F3 to the British series to be very difficult to adapt to. He was 27th overall, and at least he was only two seconds off the overall pole position time, unlike Alex Pozzobon (Essencial Motorsport), the tiny Brazilian struggling to get anywhere near a reasonable time, and never looking at home in the car. He was last on the grid and probably only qualified because we were missing Mason for this race.
Qualifying - Round 4:
Weather: windy, very cold.
After the morning session, it surely couldn't get any colder, could it? Well, actually it could and it did. There were spots of something wet in the air that felt suspiciously like snow, but at least that stopped before the first F3 car of the afternoon was seen. And that was Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport). He'd claimed one pole position already and he wasn't hanging about in his attempts to get a second one. His teammate Ronnie Bremer was also out of the pits like a rocket, keen to capitalise on his form in the morning session too. Ronnie has been trying to claim that he was sandbagging in testing, waiting for the right moment to show what he can do. Maybe this was it. Keeping pace was fellow Scandinavian, Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport), also keen to make up for his Donington showing.
With most of the 2002 Fortec team apparently working for David Hayle at the newly formed Hitech Racing team, Danny Watts was also looking for improvements. The team needs results if it is to survive beyond its first season, and Watts appears to be the man who can provide them. At this stage of the season Eric Salignon is still having to learn both the car and the circuits, while Andrew Thompson lacks the experience having competed mostly in Scotland over the last four years.
Richard Antinucci (Carlin Motorsport) was the next to show a turn of speed, going fastest only to be pushed off the top spot by Dahlgren. However, van der Merwe as out on the track looking for a clear run, and a fast lap. His efforts were being frustrated by the Team SYR cars though. "Every time I got a nice clear lap, there was a Malaysian spinning in front of me. I think they think my name is Avon or Honda, cause they keep on seeing the side of my car!" Whether it was one of the two Fauzys or Rizal Ramli he wasn't sure, but he was getting a trifle annoyed by it all. Jamie Green was still struggling, at least to begin with, but he was soon showing speed to match his talent and was up to 5th. At the front it was still all change, with Dahlgren going fastest, followed by Scott Speed (Alan Docking Racing), and Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport). They were all bumped down a place by Adam Carroll in the Sweeney Racing Lola-Dome, but he in his turn was pushed from the top spot by Speed.
The other non-Dallara runner, the Diamond Racing Ralt of Will Power (Diamond Racing) looked somewhat unsorted around this tricky circuit and he was languishing in 13th place and looked likely to finish the afternoon a lot further back. Meanwhile, Bremer was the next to snatch pole, from Dahlgren, Piccione, Speed, Antinucci and Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport), who seemed far more comfortable than he had in the morning session. Elsewhere on the track, while Piccione again topped the times, van der Merwe seemed untroubled, though his run from Coram to Russell was enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck! This was awesome driving and it must surely pay off very soon.
It was as well that something was going right for Carlin, because Antinucci suddenly appeared in the pits with a car full of grass and gravel, and worse was yet to come. With Antinucci 15th, and Bremer slugging it out for a fast lap time only to slide down the order, van der Merwe was suddenly there, just as he had been in the morning. Behind him were Watts, Ernani Judice (Promatecme F3), Nelson Piquet Jr. (Piquet Sports), Green, Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing), Fairuz Fauzy (Team SYR), Austin and Bremer. Bremer wasn't about to be left behind though, and took 2nd, ahead of Fairuz who was unexpectedly 3rd, only to have Watts take it off him. Pole was now the subject of dispute as Green also hit his stride, setting two fastest laps in succession. However, van der Merwe wasn't about to give way to the new boy, and another blistering lap saw him go ahead again while Austin pushed Bremer back to 4th. Green fought back successfully but van der Merwe still had the answers and again went ahead, this time prepared to hang on to that pole position whatever it took.
Things were getting a bit rough about there as Piccione and Austin had a near miss. They both survived but it was close; it was also clear that Piccione wasn't prepared to have Austin in front of him if he could avoid it. Still showing unexpectedly strongly were Fairuz, who was 4th, and Davison, who was 9th. Green was back to pole again, but not for long it seemed, as van der Merwe started to wind himself up for another fast lap. As Antinucci improved to 6th, van der Merwe hurled the car through the first sector in the fastest time of the day. He obviously didn't encounter any spinning Malaysians this time either, and took pole back, proceeding to set a series of blindingly quick times, just as he had in the morning.
The battle for 2nd was once again all that was left. Piquet wanted it, but so did Green and Austin. Austin snatched the place only to have Piquet take it back, and Green go 3rd. Bremer was also winding himself up for a run, but would have to settle for 5th, ahead of Judice and Carroll. Just as Antinucci was looking to get back on course again things went badly awry for Green. Coming into Riches the youngster lost control of the Dallara in an accident that ended at Riches and involved a fair amount of grass and sky. With a minute left the red flags were out and that was the end of the session. Green was all right - though bruised and battered, though the car would require substantial rebuilding in order to get it ready to race on Sunday.
And so, having retrieved Green's car from the scenery, the Scholarship Class again went out. And once again they insisted on clustering together so they could complain about traffic later.
Once again Christian England (Promatecme F3) was the man to beat, and it soon became clear that he would not be at all easy to catch. Steven Kane (T- Sport) was doing his best but he couldn't quite match the Yorkshireman. Karun Chandhok, in the other T-Sport car, was 3rd but soon lost out to Ernesto Viso (Sweeney Racing). Viso was no longer plagued by a sick engine, and was determined to get back into contention if he could. He and Kane were soon battling it out, while England moved ever further ahead, only briefly troubled by Kane as Viso fell away.
With half the session gone, England was still in control and was 17th overall, two places ahead of Kane. Elsewhere, Alex Pozzobon (Essencial Motorsport) was taking some novel lines through Russell but they weren't making him any faster. Kane, meanwhile, moved up to 16th overall but he still couldn't catch England whatever he tried. That was further underlined when England set a faster time again and moved to 8th overall, ahead of the Promatecme F3 Championship Class car of Michael Keohane and only two places back from Judice in the other Promatecme car. England was delighted to find himself this far up the grid, 8 places ahead of Kane. In a surprise showing, Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing), finished the session 3rd in class just to show the youngsters a thing or two. Viso was 4th, ahead of Ivor McCullough (Meritus Racing) and Chandhok, while Sergio Hernandez (Azteca Motorsport) continued to struggle to get the hang of F3, as did Pozzobon.
-Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite, Guest Writers