Race - Round 20:
As the cars lined up on the grid for Round 20 of the British F3 series the heavens had just opened, but the rain seemed to be passing over. There was a great deal of anxious staring at the sky going on, while people wondered whether to go with wet weather tyres or switch to slicks. In the end, everyone opted for wets, which turned out to be the most sensible choice they could have gone with.
With Robert Doornbos (Menu Motorsport) sitting on pole position alongside him on the grid, and his only remaining title rival, Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) back on row 3, some of the pressure was off Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport), although in these conditions he could not afford to make a mistake. His life looked as if it was about to be made even easier when Green was extremely late getting away at the start of the green flag lap. Anyway, when the lights turned green, van der Merwe made no mistake and took off from the line like a rocket. Doornbos, on the other hand, made a complete shambles of it and was lucky to hold on to 2nd. In the ball of spray that was the main field, Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport) got the drop on Green, while Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing), mugged Ryan Briscoe (Prema Powerteam) for 3rd. Bremer had to drop back, which left Green and Briscoe fighting for positions, while Robert Kubica (Prema Powerteam) got taken out of contention by Bremer, and ended up in the barriers. By the end of the lap, van der Merwe was over 2 seconds clear of Doornbos, and Green was 4th, having taken Briscoe in a brave move into la Source.
Equally impressive (or not depending on who you were) was Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport), who was now leading the Scholarship Class. This was after Steven Kane (T-Sport) got it all badly wrong in the first lap melee and found himself at the back of the field, seeming not to want to win the title. Only Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) and Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Prema Powerteam) - who had started from the back after failing to get away ahead of the Course Car on the green flag lap and had therefore started from the back - were behind the current series leader. Will Davison (Menu Motorsport) was another who was looking impressive in the atrocious conditions, and had hauled himself from a dreadful 22nd on the grid to 16th in the course of a lap.
Although it must have been rather like trying to race inside a washing machine on the rinse cycle, Salignon was still pressing on, and managed to edge Doornbos out of his way at the Bus Stop. Green saw the opportunity to go through as well, though he couldn't get the better of Salignon, and he had Briscoe on his tail looking for revenge for the first lap passing manoeuvre. Having taken Kubica out a lap earlier Bremer had his own personal accident and crashed out on lap 2, which was not that surprising really.
With van der Merwe pulling away steadily, the last thing the South African really needed was a change in the weather, but that was exactly what he got. The rain stopped falling and the track started to dry, which allowed Salignon to begin playing catch up. Of course the key question now was whether the wet weather tyres would survive the race distance if the track dried out completely. This thought was obviously playing on a number of people's minds, since the lines being taken became increasingly odd over the next few laps, cars jinking off the racing line to try and stay on the damp bits of track.
Elsewhere Nelson Piquet Jr (Piquet Sport) was trying to make amends for his poor (for him anyway) qualifying position and was now up to 6th, and charging as hard as he knows how. Viso was also still on the move, though Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) was now in hot pursuit, two places back, only Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) between him and his quarry. Kane was also on the move, but he was stuck behind Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) and Will Power (Fortec Motorsport), which meant he wouldn't be challenging Chandhok for 2nd in class anytime soon. His cause was assisted when Power fell off and out of contention, while Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) seemed overwhelmed by it all and spun out, though he was able to rejoin. Danny Watts (Hitech Racing), on the other hand, seemed to be having fun at last, scrapping with Piquet for 6th place.
Both Adam Carroll (Alan Docking Racing) and Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) were trying to get in on the act too. It seemed Antinucci had a plan; he certainly had a place in the top 10, and had hacked his way into 9th place ahead of Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport) when it all went awry and he joined the - oddly short - list of retirements so far.
At the front van der Merwe was beginning to look ragged as he too tried to stay away from the dry lines, which meant that Salignon was closing on him at an impressive rate - at least until the two of them reached the Bus Stop where Salignon would promptly lose a large proportion of the ground he had made up in the course of the rest of the lap. It was all a bit worrying, even so, especially as Salignon might well have been after some sort of payback for Thruxton. The nearly 4 second gap was now down to 1.79 and Salignon was working hard to reduce it even further. In response, van der Merwe started to push harder too, which was why he was looking increasingly edgy through some of the more complicated sections of this track. However, he quite clearly didn't feel too threatened by the Frenchman and was more than capable of maintaining the distance between the two of them as long as the track didn't become completely dry.
In the Scholarship Class, Kane's day wasn't improving any as Hiranaka overtook him, thus placing another Championship runner between him and any chance of improving his place. Viso, on the other hand, was untroubled by anything much as he still had Power between himself and Chandhok. Another man not having a good time was Carroll, who had a bit of a moment which dropped him back behind Davison, the one man he really wanted to beat to the flag. In fact, things got even worse, when Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) tapped him and he dropped out altogether. It seemed like an awful lot of effort for very little reward really.
At the front, things were getting tense now. Van der Merwe was still controlling it though Salignon was looming ever larger in his mirrors. It needed another determined effort from the South African to increase the margin to something more comfortable. Someone who didn't have the advantage of a comfortable margin was Green, who had Briscoe all over him as the two of them raced to the finish. In the end, Briscoe thought better of it. This really wasn't his fight - he wasn't eligible to score points, he was at Spa to learn about the circuit, and he was leading the Invitation Class. He backed off and settled for 4th, but not before he'd given Green something to think about.
And so, after a superbly controlled performance in difficult conditions van der Merwe took his second victory of the weekend to extend his series lead to 76 points. He now needs a single podium placing out of the next four races and the title is his. Salignon scored his best result of the season with a fine 2nd place, and Green looked as if he'd dropped a fifty-pound note and found 10 pence as he stood on the 3rd step of the podium. Winning the Invitation Class was Briscoe, who was reasonably happy with life though he felt neither he nor the team had ever managed to get on top of the Avons, while Doornbos was next up having managed to keep Watts at bay in the closing stages. Piquet headed Parente home, from Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport), while behind him de Oliveira (JB Motorsport) just got the better of Davison and Piccione.
Venezuelan Viso was a very happy winner of the Scholarship Class, despite 2nd placed Chandhok taking the point for fastest lap, end despite the fact that he had to endure a reprise of the Italian national anthem on the podium. This title fight is in no way over, with Kane still leading, but only by 3 points (from Chandhok) and 3.5 points from Viso. This looks set to go down to the wire, especially as Viso was particularly quick at Donington at the start of the season (though he crashed out of both races on lap 1) and that's where we go next.
-Lynne Waite & Stella-Maria Thomas