Qualifying - Round 20:
After the wet weather tyres became a bit of an issue (a tendency to disintegrate in anything less than a monsoon is somewhat disturbing) Avon were allowing the teams as many of the damn things as they wanted. At least that was one less issue to worry about, especially as the second session of the day was much drier than the earlier one, though it still wasn't bone dry. In fact as the first car edged out onto the track, the rain looked set to start again. However, after a few feeble spits, it stopped, leaving the drivers to cope with a rapidly drying racing line that still had some nasty damp patches here and there.
Adam Carroll (Alan Docking Racing) was first out, just as he had been in the morning. He was quite clearly keen to prove a point or two, the key ones being that Menu Motorsport were wrong to drop him, and that there's nothing at all wrong with the Docking car (in fact Adam later said it wasn't very nice, but he could live with it - he'd driven lots of horrible cars in his time and this wasn't really that bad). At the other end of the scale of eagerness, Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) was as cool as ever. He might be on the verge of clinching the title, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. He was certainly in no hurry at all to slither out of the pit lane, and was the last of the 30 drivers to emerge.
However, by the time Carroll had come across the start/finish line for the first time, Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) had barged his way past and was heading the times with a 2.23.130, which was markedly quicker than anyone had been in the morning. Needless to say he didn't stay there long, because Carroll's teammate, Joel Nelson was next across the line, and consequently faster as the track dried. He was replaced by Robert Kubica (Prema Powerteam), who was then displaced by Carroll. The man who would have been Carroll's teammate, Robert Doornbos (Menu Motorsport) was next to pole, pushing Kubica down a place, while Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) got between the Polish driver and Viso.
The next man to show his pace was Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport), the Dane heading something of a Carlin charge as temporary team-mate Alvaro Parente set the 4th fastest time to date. Kubica promptly grabbed pole back but all this was a sideshow as far as van der Merwe was concerned, and a sure-footed performance from the South African saw him topping the tables pretty much as he had in the morning. It looked as if he might just take pole position for the second time that day.
Of course, if Nelson Pique Jr, (Piquet Sport) had his way, it was likely to be a different story altogether. However, his first determined effort fell just short of what he needed, and he was 2nd. The Fortec Motorsport pairing of Robert Dahlgren and Will Power were looking a lot quicker than they had earlier, and now went 4th and 5th, only to have Ryan Briscoe (Prema Powerteam) decide to join in and claim a spot on the second row. It looked as if the invitation class boys were getting the hang of Avons now. The times were beginning to reduce significantly now, with 2.17s being the order of the day. Viso was still out there in a determined mood and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, at least until he found a wall he could bounce off! Luckily for him he was able to rejoin almost immediately with no serious damage, but it showed what an overdose of exuberance could do if you weren't careful.
Despite Viso's lesson, the Carlin drivers seemed pretty exuberant, Bremer snatching pole from van der Merwe, only to lose it to the fourth Carlin driver, Jamie Green. With the times coming down every time a driver crossed the Start/Finish line it was getting difficult to keep track of who was where, until van der Merwe managed another ultra-quick lap which must have left the others wondering what they could do to beat him. The next man to try was Doornbos, who managed to have a slight off in the process, but not enough to stop him moving into 2nd place. As Briscoe went 3rd, the red flags came out. Antinucci had tripped over Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3), or vice versa, and they had gone off into the nearest available gravel. It didn't take much to extract the pair of them and they both came back under their own power, which meant the break was a very short one. It did allow the track to dry out further as well, which was no bad thing.
At the restart Kubica shot up the order again, to slot into 2nd, from Doornbos and Briscoe. It was beginning to look as if inviting these guys might have been a bad idea! Parente, meanwhile, had slipped down the order but was able to claw his way back to 10th in the rapidly changing conditions. While he was busy with that, Power was in the gravel and having to extricate himself, and in between the resulting yellows from that and from Masato Shinoyama (Team SYR) going off, Doornbos managed to upset the applecart big time, getting a tow first from Green and then from van der Merwe. The resulting time was sufficient to propel him to Menu's first pole position of the year.
While the marshals rushed round waving yellow flags and trying to rescue the hapless Shinoyama from his Zen garden, Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Prema Powerteam) was proving that his countryman was an aberration, and had quite clearly learned a lot since the morning. He was now 9th and pushing to try and catch up with his teammates. Just to prove that anyone could come to grief, Piquet pushed a bit too hard and promptly fell off at Pif-Paf - which for some reason seemed to be a popular spot for attacking the gravel traps. As with most of the off course excursions, Piquet was soon back in action but he'd pretty much blown his chances of a front row position now.
With Doornbos still topping the times, van der Merwe seemed to have decided that he didn't really need to do anymore. Green was 5th and Piquet was just behind him, and there was no need to really go for pole. Doornbos could score points but it didn't really matter to Alan, so long as his only real rival was behind him and stayed there. His position was strengthened when Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing) found some extra speed to go 3rd and dropped the others down another place, while Doornbos went faster at the front, only to spin again. The Dutchman seemed to be having more fun than is strictly advisable, but he was able to catch the Dallara before he did any damage, and anyway no one was getting anywhere near him.
Meanwhile, in the Scholarship Class, life was going oddly pear-shaped for Karun Chandhok (T-Sport). 3rd in class at that point, while his team-mate Steven Kane was on pole, he ground to a halt out on the circuit with a mechanical failure. Afterwards, "Bubbles" was a long way from happy with his life and was being grumpy, something he does with some style! That left Viso in second place in class and looking increasing more threatening as the season wears on.
In the closing minutes of the session the improvements seemed to dry out along with the Tarmac, as the air got too warm. The only two to improve at all were Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) and Danny Watts (Hitech Racing). Piccione's mother was threatening to take him away to be a golfer, but that may have been more because she hated the weather than anything else. Anyway, he staved off the threat - temporarily anyway - by setting a time that moved him from the lower half of the grid to 12th, while Watts wrestled the Hitech car round and into 8th, though he was obviously still not happy with the handling (and kept corkscrewing his arms round to demonstrate the way the Dallara was behaving).
The session was now coming to an end, which was just as well. The last few seconds saw a spate of spins, with Nelson ending up parked in the tyres, while Bremer found a gravel trap he liked the look of and Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) went off too.
As the chequered flag fell to end the session, Doornbos was still on pole from van der Merwe, Salignon, Kubica, Briscoe, Green, Bremer, Watts, Piquet Jr. and Parente. Antinucci was 11th, ahead of Piccione, Hiranaka, Dahlgren, Davison, Carroll, Gregory Franchi (Lucidi Motors), de Oliveira, Kane and Power.
Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport) was 21st, Nelson 22nd and Viso 23rd. Behind them, Fauzy was seriously off the pace, as was Chandhok. Even worse was Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) who could sure have expected to be quite a bit further forward than 26th after his impressive run at Thruxton two weeks previously. Graves was 27th ahead of Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) who was 4th in the Scholarship Class. The last two spaces were occupied by the increasingly hopeless Rizal Ramli (Team SYR) and his apparently terrified teammate Shinoyama.
-Lynne Waite & Stella-Maria Thomas, special guest writers