Race - Round 19:
Now the chips were really down. With 6 races left in this year's British F3 Championship, and 126 points still up for grabs, Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) arrived in Belgium with a 64 point lead over his only real rival (and team-mate) Jamie Green. The only other man who could possibly upset the applecart was Nelson Piquet Jr (Piquet Sport), and his chance was mathematical rather than realistic since it required him to win all of the remaining races and van der Merwe not to finish in the points. As the South African has scored in all but one of the previous 18 races that was pretty unlikely to happen. And as some people realised a couple of years back when he was a surprise (at least to some) winner of the Formula Ford Festival, van der Merwe is never more dangerous than when he senses that something he really wants is in reach. In addition, in his Formula Ford days, he had already proven himself as a wet weather expert though there are people who still choose to overlook the evidence of his ability.
Anyway, that ability was in little doubt once the race started. Piquet had another of his less than lightning quick starts from the front row, which allowed van der Merwe to get into Eau Rouge ahead of him. This time the Brazilian recovered well though, and by the time they reached les Combes he was ready to challenge for the lead. Slipstreaming towards the corner, he passed the South African under braking to go ahead, while Green was an interested spectator in 3rd. Behind him, team-mate Ronnie Bremer had snatched a place from Will Power (Fortec Motorsport), only to lose it again, and then started to build up his own personal traffic jam. Meanwhile Ryan Briscoe (Prema Powerteam) was bottled up behind Power and looking for a way past. His attempts to be the leading Aussie led to a rather grassy moment at Blanchimont, as the Euro Series leader briefly lost out to Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport) while he tried to get things back under control.
In the Scholarship Class, Karun Chandhok appeared to be well established in the lead (and in 9th place overall), but his T-Sport teammate Steven Kane was busy trying to give his title lead away. He failed to get off the line as the lights turned green and was now trailing around at the back trying to make up ground. The third title contender, Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was charging up the field, elbowing his way past the Championship Class boys seemingly with impunity, though he was a good 11 places behind Chandhok at this point.
At the end of the long first lap, Piquet still led from van der Merwe, Green, Power, Bremer, Briscoe and Parente. Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing) was just ahead of Chandhok, while Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) was 10th. Adam Carroll (Alan Docking Racing) had managed to get Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) between himself and Will Davison (Menu Motorsport), while Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) went right on wrestling his Dallara to something of a stand-off. Robert Kubica (Prema Powerteam), Robert Doornbos (Menu Motorsport), Clivio Piccione and Joao Paulo de Oliveira (JB Motorsport) were also blocking Viso's route to Chandhok. Joel Nelson (Alan Docking Racing) was 21st, ahead of Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Prema Powerteam), Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing), Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport), Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing), Rizal Ramli (the only surviving Team SYR runner, Masato Shinoyama having failed to make the start), the inevitable Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) and the embarrassed Kane.
However, it was a long way from over. At the front, van der Merwe was doing his utmost to get his lead back from Piquet, and at les Combes, he found a way, pulling a classic move on the youngster and slingshotting back into the lead. As Piquet was recovering from the move, Green took a run at him too and almost made it through.
It was enough for van der Merwe. Now he had clear air in front of him, he began to edge away, while Green made another attempt to follow him by passing Piquet. As they came into Blanchimont, Green, who could see his championship chances slipping away, leaned on the Brazilian, forcing him wide. It wasn't quite enough though, and the frustrated Green was still 3rd at the end of lap 2.
Meanwhile, Briscoe had fallen behind Bremer, who was setting about Power with great enthusiasm, while Briscoe sat back and shook his head at the Dane's antics. Another trip across the grass, possibly because he was too busy staring at what was happening in front of him, led to Parente getting past as well when Bremer dropped to 6th. Ryan was not having as good a time as he might have hoped. Nor was Joel Nelson, who became the first casualty of the race, falling off and burying himself deep in the gravel at Piff Paff.
Three laps in and things really started to fall apart. Chandhok was busy going backwards, while van der Merwe drove away from his rivals. Green was attacking Piquet wherever he could and Piccione coasted to a halt with mechanical problems. Graves, despite being at the back of the pack, managed to spin out and beach his car on the kerbs, when Ramli overshot the Bus Stop ahead of him and he had to take avoiding action. The marshals ran over to attempt to move the stricken Manor car to a place of safety. In the process they managed to break the rear wing, which led to a period of standing around wondering what to do next!
While the marshals pondered the situation, Piquet and Green were nose-to- tail through the Bus Stop. It was obvious that Green really wanted the place while Piquet equally clearly didn't want to give it to him. The battle was finally resolved, perhaps not unsurprisingly, at les Combes, when Green repeated the move that van der Merwe had used, and Piquet was left to fend off Power.
With the clouds getting denser and darker by the minute, van der Merwe was now being pursued by Green, but the Englishman's attack was about to fizzle out. The clouds did what Belgian clouds so often do and started dumping rain on the Ardennes.
With waved yellows all over the place, and the rain getting heavier, there were few places where anyone could pass, though this didn't prevent Power having a rush of blood to the head and barging past Piquet at - you guessed, didn't you - les Combes. He would be very lucky indeed if he was allowed to get away with that. Meanwhile the Scholarship lead was now in Viso's hands, Chandhok having fallen so far back he was almost in reach of Sherwood. At the front Green was having a go at van der Merwe when the Safety Car boards were shown, and every marshals post had yellows being waved. It seemed that the main aim of the interruption was to allow a snatch vehicle to remove Graves' car. Whatever the reason, it didn't signal the end of the mayhem, as Ramli, having been at the root of the original problem, decided he had to join in with a proper crash of his own. With the rain getting heavier by the minute, and a track littered with cars, a number of drivers took it upon themselves to dive into the pits for a tyre change. With Kubica, Hiranaka, Doornbos and Franchi all sitting in the pit lane, the rest of the field sat behind the Safety Car until the red flags were shown. They were then led to the grid, where they were left sitting for some while as the cockpits filled with rain. Needless to say, there was a general dive for the Clerk of the Course's office and eventually a decision was made to declare a result at the end of lap 5 (of an 11 lap race), and therefore only half points would be awarded. Quite why the officials didn't opt to leave the Safety Car out for another lap, and then show the chequered flag instead of the red one (in which instance two- thirds distance would have been completed and they could have awarded full points) is anyone's guess, but they didn't. And so Alan van der Merwe took his 8th win of the season, while Piquet (who was given his third place back) was now out of contention altogether (there were 105 points still available and he was 106 behind) and Green was beginning to look a lot less threatening than he had at Thruxton. The sound of the fat lady practising scales and gargling was almost audible in Belgium.
A stunned Viso came home to win the Scholarship Class from Chandhok, Sherwood and Kane, though he wasn't too happy when it turned out the organisers didn't have a copy of the Venezuelan National Anthem available and that he would have to content himself with being an Italian for the day!
-Lynne Waite & Stella-Maria Thomas, special guest writers