Race Report - Round 22:
Weather: Cold, windy, dry.
After what had happened so far during the Snetterton weekend, the odds against getting a clean race with no biting in the clinches looked pretty poor. It was with some trepidation that the SBS (Sick Bunnies Society) convened on the inside of Riches, fearing further mayhem. It looked as if it was about to break out again, although pole man Robbie Kerr made a superb start yet again. Behind him, Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International) was nearly caught out by a fast-starting Ronnie Bremer (Manor Motorsport). The two narrowly missed each other before Bremer fell back and Jouanny turned his attention to Robert Dahlgren (Sweeney Racing), who was between him and Kerr. At this point Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport) tried to go with the Frenchman, only to lose ground to Stefan de Groot (Menu Motorsport), the newcomer to the series getting a blinding start to claim 4th (3rd in class) before the race was a lap old. As far as chaos was concerned, we had already lost Matthew Gilmore (Promatecme International) and Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing). However, no one had driven into anyone else, so we seemed to be making progress as regards behaviour!
The battle for the Scholarship Class Title was apparently over before the first corner too, when Clivio Piccione (T-Sport), who at least theoretically still had a chance of stopping Adam Carroll (Sweeney Racing), stalled at the start and was still there when the field came round at the end of the first lap. Oddly, despite the fact that the grid was full of marshals trying to shift the stricken Dallara, no one sent the Safety Car out, which seemed inconsistent with the earlier decisions. We have to assume the officials know what they are doing, but now and again it seems unlikely. Finally they got the T-Sport car moved, and Clivio was left fuming in the pits. Technically, with Carroll only needing to score 6 points from the remaining five races, and Clivio having to win and claim fastest lap in all of them, there was never much doubt about the way the championship was about to go. Given that Piccione was now out of the running, all Carroll needed to do was stay well out of trouble and bring it home where he was (4th in class, 10th overall) to be assured of the title. Of course anything could happen in the next 20 laps...
One of the things Carroll really needed to steer clear of was James Courtney (Carlin Motorsport). Having qualified in 10th, the Australian was going to have to work hard to make an impression on the points table this time out. Wisely Carroll didn't make an issue of it when Courtney tried to come past, and just let him go, having too much to lose not to. His teammates, Shinya Hosokawa and Alan van der Merwe had been equally helpful. Others would not be so obliging, starting with Mark Taylor (Manor Motorsport), who was James' next target.
A lot further down the order, Stefano Fabi (Team Avanti) was effectively out of the race, though you could argue that he'd never really been in it. His car was in the pits, possibly while the team considered pulling him out of the cockpit and letting his Dad, Teo, get in and have a go. Even after all these years in retirement, he couldn't possibly be any slower! Just to prove it was a bad day for Italian speakers, Fortec Motorsport's Fabio Carbone (yes, we know he's Brazilian, but he and Richard Antinucci can sometimes be found together practising their Italian on young Mr. Fabi) was in trouble too after a spin, finally getting himself back together to slot in just ahead of the field. Kerr soon dispatched him, but thereafter he sat behind the leader, unable to unlap himself, but fast enough not to lose any further ground and also fastest enough to claim a point for the fastest lap of the race.
The leaders were now running at a fairly steady pace, with Kerr pulling out a gap, and Dahlgren holding up Jouanny. Behind them, de Groot was holding off Kovalainen and Bremer, while Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) and Stephen Colbert (Meritus Racing) were fighting over 2nd place in the Scholarship Class. In their wake, Taylor and Courtney were slugging it out, with Courtney passing Taylor on the run out of Riches, only for Taylor to retake the place almost immediately. It took Courtney several laps to finally find a way past the Manor driver. In the meantime, John Antoniadis (Duma Racing), had gone off into the field at the exit of Riches, his green car disappearing into the maize growing there. Perhaps unfortunately, he then emerged from the field, leaving the car behind. You had to wonder how long it would take the marshals to locate the Dallara afterwards, and for that matter how many corncobs it contained when they did! It was all getting rather agricultural...All of this made no difference at all to Kerr, who was continuing serenely onwards towards the flag.
Elsewhere, there was activity in the ranks. De Groot had finally had to give ground to Kovalainen and Bremer, but he had certainly put in a strong showing, his pace increasing as he got to know the circuit, and at least he gave the Menu team something to cheer about, their other driver Rob Austin having gone out in the early stages of the race. The Carlin pair of Hosokawa and van der Merwe had swapped places, the Japanese getting the drop on the South African, and taking Antinucci with him. A little further forward, Kerr's archrival, Courtney, on the other hand, was finally done with Taylor, who also slipped back behind Carroll in the aftermath of losing out to the Carlin driver. Dahlgren was losing ground too, as first Jouanny, and then Kovalainen, forced their way past. Bremer also finally found a way past the Swede when the Sweeney car suffered a drive-shaft failure and retired from the class lead. That meant that Chandhok and Colbert were now fighting for that honour, which was probably going to make life more than a little unnerving for Courtney, who was now closing in on them very rapidly. With a mere handful of laps to go, Courtney was able to pass Colbert, overtaking Chandhok shortly afterwards to move into 6th place. All weekend, Courtney had driven with great attack and enthusiasm, indicating that here was a man who was not about to give in just because qualifying had gone badly, especially not now, when there was a championship at stake. It was probably just as well for Courtney that he was ahead of Chandhok and Colbert as the field came through Riches on the penultimate lap. Colbert decided that victory in the Scholarship Class could be his, and tried to take the lead from Chandhok. With Colbert attempting to go up the inside, contact was probably inevitable. When it came, it wiped both of them out, handing Scholarship Class glory to a somewhat surprised Carroll, who took it and the title gratefully, having done everything he needed to in order to ensure that he didn't throw it all away at the last minute. It is a pity that some of the others couldn't learn from his commendable restraint!
And so, Kerr came home to victory, and would leave Snetterton with a 21-point lead over Courtney. Given the Australian's qualifying positions it could have been so much worse for him, if only because Kerr had failed to finish in one of the three races. There is a maximum of 84 points still up for grabs in the last two meetings of the season. Courtney and Carlin Motorsport are unlikely to make the same mistakes at Thruxton and Donington as they seemed to have done at Snetterton. On the other hand, Alan Docking Racing and Kerr are so close to the title now that they must almost be able to taste it. In the end, it could still go either way and it may come down to who has the best luck in the next four races. It has been an absorbing battle and the tension shows no sign of easing just yet.