BF3

Spa: Round 21 qualifying report

Changes and Additions: At Spa, despite the fact that this was billed as the FIA F3 European Cup, there was a distinct shortage of entries. Of the various foreign competitors invited to take part, only the Opel Signature Plus team, of Nicolas ...

Changes and Additions:
At Spa, despite the fact that this was billed as the FIA F3 European Cup, there was a distinct shortage of entries. Of the various foreign competitors invited to take part, only the Opel Signature Plus team, of Nicolas Lapierre and local boy Greg Franchi had deigned to join us (partly because they had to give up some of their already limited test days if they came out to play here), and we were down a number of the regular runners too. Menu Motorsport had opted not to make the trip to Belgium, and we had only one Fortec Motorsport car; this was not unexpected as Marcus Marshall is back in Australia playing with V8s, as had been planned from the start.

Carlin Motorsport had a full contingent of cars, however, for the first time this season, as Brazilian Alexandre Negrao finally stopped testing with the team (after a season of Sudam F3, which he is leading at present) and is now racing. Australian Barton Mawer has returned and makes his debut in the Championship Class at T-Sport, in the car vacated by Karun Chandhok.

Also in the Scholarship Class, we now have Adam Smith, in the Alan Docking Racing Dallara 301. So we now had a stunning total of 22 cars. It didn't look likely to be enough.

Qualifying Report:
Weather: Fine, dry.

After a free practice session on Friday that was perhaps more interesting than some people appreciated, it was time for the actual qualifying session. With the weather remaining damp, but on a drying track, and under skies that were cloudy but with the sun breaking through, 22 cars attempted to take to the track. In other words it was just another normal day at Spa. It wasn't normal for the British series runners in any other respect though. For this meeting there would only be one qualifying session, to set the grid for Round 21. The grid for Round 22 would be decided by the finishing order in Round 21. All this was rather unusual, and it increased the pressure to get a good run in the session.

First out of the pits were Clivio Piccione (Carlin Motorsport), and his teammate Danilo Dirani, who seemed a bit surprised by the weather here in Belgium, insisting that it couldn't possibly rain. He'd never been to Spa before - did we have news for him. With Piccione setting an initial lap time of 2 minutes and 38 seconds it was also clear that as the track dried out it would get a lot faster, though at that point no one suspected just how much faster it would be possible to go. Nelson A Piquet (Piquet Sports) was the next to set a target time, undercutting Piccione by around five seconds, so really what was happening on the screens was academic at this juncture. Ryan Lewis (T-Sport) was 2nd and it seemed unlikely that the Scholarship Class Champion would finish the day that high up the order. Local man Franchi was 4th and was looking as if knowing the track well might be helpful. Someone on his first visit was Stephen Jelley (Performance Racing), and he was experiencing some difficulties, having a spin on his first flying lap. He collected it all back together and went on his way, but was soon in trouble again.

Meanwhile, Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) was on provisional pole, from Jelley's teammate, Ronayne O'Mahony, though the Irishman was almost immediately bumped back down the order by James Rossiter (Fortec Motorsport). With the times tumbling further and faster with every car that crossed the line, Marko Asmer (Hitech) was the next to go to pole, but then Piquet went a second faster and Lewis shot back up to 2nd. Adam Smith (Alan Docking Racing) was trying to join in as well, but was experiencing some difficulties leaving the pits. He'd stalled in the pit lane exit and the marshals were busy trying to shift the stranded Dallara. Meanwhile, Jelley was staking a claim for Scholarship Class pole, and had moved up the order to 8th, while Piccione was dropping down the order like a stone and was now 16th. While all this was happening, Lewis had managed to spin somewhere out the back of the circuit, and was stuck in gravel. Jelley joined him in the "hors de combat" stakes almost immediately afterwards, when the latter attempted to go flat through Eau Rouge on his third lap, while the track was still damp. It was not a smart move, and the Performance car revolved violently before going into the barriers hard, gearbox first, at 132 mph. It was time for a red flag while Jelley could be rescued and the debris collected together in one place.

Everyone else made their way back to the pits, while the mess could be cleaned up, which took surprisingly little time all things considered. The order at this stage, with over 30 minutes still to run, was Piquet, from Asmer, the two of them both in the 2 minutes 19 seconds bracket, then Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport) in third place. 4th was Franchi, from Rossiter, Thompson, Lewis, Lucas di Grassi (Hitech Racing), O'Mahony and Mawer. Danny Watts (Promatecme F3 was just outside the top ten, in 11th in the Lola-Dome, ahead of James Walker (Hitech Racing), Jelley, Lapierre, Will Power (Alan Docking Racing), Adam Carroll (P1 Motorsport), Dirani, Piccione (who was in the pits having his car put to completely dry settings), Fairuz Fauzy (P1 Motorsport), and Negrao, the new Brazilian in town struggling somewhat at this stage. Vasilije Calasan (Promatecme F3) was 21st and Smith had set no time as yet, stranded as he had been in the pit lane. When the session restarted he was able to remedy that situation immediately.

Meanwhile Lapierre was on the move, and was now 6th, proving that the time he set in testing was reproducible. Carroll was also showing signs of progress and was closer to the action in 12th, while Piccione put in a respectable lap to go 7th, having slipped to 21st, but he picked up a puncture at the same time and had to retreat to the pits to get it dealt with. That let Dirani in as fastest Carlin driver, at least for the time being. He moved up to 7th, while Rossiter raised the pole time to a 2.18. Thompson leapt up the order unexpectedly, by grabbing 2nd from Negrao, who was further demoted by Piquet. What was clear was that the times would most likely continue to fall, and sure enough they did, almost everyone speeding up from lap to lap, with the exception of Jelley, of course, as he'd been carted off to the medical centre for a check-up, while the Performance lads scratched their heads and tried to figure out how to repair the considerable damage done to the Dallara in time for the afternoon's race. Watts was beginning to find a rhythm round the tough Belgian circuit too, and proved it by snatching pole from Rossiter, only to see Franchi edge ahead of him. That didn't last long either though, and Piquet again upped the stakes, calling everyone's bluff with a time in the 2.17s. Of course, there was still plenty of time left, as demonstrated by Lapierre banging in a 2:17.315, which suggested that there was still a lot more to come.

Meanwhile, in the mid-field area, Piccione had climbed back up to 12th and was now at least ahead of the Scholarship Class leader, Lewis, who was 13th. The battle for pole was still running though, with Parente trying to get a look in but only managing 3rd, and Watts taking that off him, just in time for Asmer to elbow both of them out of the way. At the very top, Piquet was still determined that pole would be his, while Asmer charged round to go 3rd again, just behind Lapierre. The order just kept on changing, with Dirani now 7th, and Carroll right behind him. Piccione, on the other hand, who you would expect would be fast here, slipped back to 17th, just as Piquet went faster still, edging inside the best time set by Lapierre in free practice. And then things went quiet for a while, mostly because most of the top runners were in the pits having new rubber fitted and getting things like wings adjusted.

None of this seemed to be doing Rossiter a great deal of good as the session wore on, and his promise that he wasn't going to give up the championship fight was beginning to look ever so slightly hollow at this point. He was now 9th, and not showing any signs of improvement, while everyone else was still speeding up. Di Grassi, for example, was now 6th, while Dirani went 3rd, maybe because he was trying to convince himself that he was right about the weather and every one else was wrong. All of this shoved Rossiter down another place to 10th, which would be a relief to Watts who has had to fight the youngster for positions more times that enough this season. The Lola driver was now 5th, which meant Rossiter probably wouldn't trouble him this time out.

And so, with fifteen minutes of the session left to run, the top ten was Piquet, from Lapierre, Dirani, Parente, Watts, Asmer, di Grassi, Fauzy, Power and Franchi, Rossiter having lost yet another place. It got even worse for him, when Piccione woke up, finding three seconds from somewhere on one lap, and two more on the next lap to propel himself to 2nd on the grid. With Fauzy improving to 4th, Rossiter was now a miserable 12th and didn't appear to have a solution. The battle for pole was being fought without the man who lies second in the championship. In fact, at present it seemed to be down to Piccione and Piquet, the former now with two tenths of Piquet's time. But then Fauzy threw a spanner in the works, and pushed his way to 2nd. Local man Franchi was still showing well too, and was 5th, just behind di Grassi.

Piquet wasn't done yet either, and pulled out all the stops, getting down into th3 2.15s, well inside the fastest testing time, and also well inside last year's pole position time. It was a phenomenal lap, and it looked as if he'd sewn up pole position. Surely no one could get close to that time? Well, actually, Carroll could, and promptly did, also breaking through the 15-second barrier to grab a close second. It had to be over now. But it wasn't, not while Piquet had life in his tyres, or for that matter while Piccione still had clear space around him. With Clivio now 3rd, on a 2:16.140 it was still looking uncertain for Piquet. And sure enough Carroll made a tremendous effort to produce a 2:15.555 from somewhere to push the Brazilian down a place. Fauzy seemed to give up the fight at this point, especially after Lapierre shoved him out of 5th place, and shortly after that he clipped the wall, putting an end to his chances. Watts was alongside him too, so the odds on him holding his place at the start seemed slim too. Piquet, on the other hand, was a long way from giving up, and another stupendous lap from the series leader saw him well clear of Carroll, with a 2:15.216. Surely not even Carroll could match that? As it turned out, no, he couldn't. Instead it was Lapierre who speeded up, getting closer to Piquet than anyone else could.

With the tyres starting to go off big time, and people still pushing as hard as ever, the inevitable spate of accidents followed, thus causing a rash of yellow flags and thus putting a stop to any improvements, at least in theory. Parente spun but was able to get going again, while Thompson went into a gravel trap and found he couldn't get back out. Mawer was off elsewhere, and while all this was going on, Rossiter improved to go 10th, presumably because yellow flags don't apply to him (well, they haven't all season, so why start now). Meanwhile, Dirani and di Grassi had swapped places, so perhaps Dirani should have been given a slap too, but not as much of one as Rossiter, who went even faster on his next lap to claim 7th place.

And with less than two minutes left, Piquet made a bit off a fool of himself and threw it off into the gravel at Rivage, ending the session stuck there. It didn't matter; he had pole, and no one could take that from him. In 2nd was Lapierre, with Carroll and Piccione behind him. Watts would share the 3rd row with Fauzy, while Rossiter was 7th, ahead of Dirani, di Grassi and Asmer. Parente was having a rough time and was 11th, ahead of Franchi, Power, Thompson, Negrao, Walker and Mawer. Scholarship pole position man was Lewis, from O'Mahony, Calasan, Smith and a very battered Jelley.

By: Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite

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