Weather: Windy, changeable, dry track.
After the mayhem during Round 21, Adam Smith (Alan Docking Racing) was a non-starter, because the team didn't have enough parts left to fix the car after it was taken out of contention by Fairuz Fauzy (P1 Motorsport), who had a somewhat odd accident on the opening lap of the race.
Just as they did yesterday, the Fortec Motorsport guys were making adjustments to James Rossiter's car even as he lined up towards the back of the grid. With the competitors lining up for Round 22 in the order they finished Round 21, Rossiter was going to have his work cut out if he was going to get on terms with Nelson A Piquet (Piquet Sports), and Adam Carroll (P1 Motorsport), the Brazilian starting from 6th and thus having very little chance of taking the British title this weekend, while Carroll started from pole after a fine victory the day before. Anyway, from where Rossiter was last minute adjustments couldn't make matters any worse, though it also seemed unlikely that they would help him any.
Without further ado, the race started on time, this time with everyone making a clean getaway at the front. Further back, Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) made an awful start, as did Nicolas Lapierre (Opel Signature Plus), but at the front Carroll didn't hesitate and was away and into the lead before Clivio Piccione (Carlin Motorsport) had a chance to think about stopping him. In fact, Piccione was fully occupied having to fend off Danny Watts (Promatecme F3) during the opening lap, after Watts snatched 3rd place from Danilo Dirani (Carlin Motorsport) as they all charged through les Combes for the first time.
The infighting for 2nd place worked to Carroll's advantage, and the P1 driver used the distraction behind him to try and break away from the pack. It was certainly working, as he ruthlessly banged in a couple of very fast laps. The battle of the Brazilians was proving most entertaining, with Piquet losing ground to Lucas di Grassi (Hitech Racing) at the start of the race. However, Piquet was able to fight back when di Grassi went wide, allowing the series leader to barge past. That got Piquet back into the top 6, which was further back than yesterday's pole man should have been, but was still good enough to maintain his lead. Meanwhile Watts and Dirani were fighting furiously for 3rd, with neither of them prepared to give ground. They had Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing) as a cushion between themselves and the charging Piquet, but you had to wonder just how long the Estonian would be able to hold out if Nelson was determined to take his place. Behind di Grassi, Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport) was also having a hard time, in his case because Will Power (Alan Docking Racing) would keep attacking him for 8th. Just behind them, Rossiter was trying to pass Greg Franchi (Opel Signature) for 10th on the road, but he Belgian was not being especially cooperative. As it turned out, the matter resolved itself rapidly, because Franchi was called in for a stop/go penalty for taking to the grassy bits to overtake. As the rules were quite clear about going over the kerbs (to the extent that the drivers' briefing notes contained photographs demonstrating what was and was not permissible) you have to assume he wasn't listening at the time.
By the start of lap three, Carroll had a lead of over two seconds, and was showing little sign of slowing. Piccione was now clear of Watts, largely because Watts was still suffering the attentions of Dirani, while Asmer was now being pressured severely by Piquet. A little further back, Lapierre was making up for his lowly grid position and his tardy start, and was now cutting through the field like a hot knife through butter. Three laps in, he was already 14th, and he seemed to have sufficient momentum to keep moving up. It didn't take him long to despatch Negrao for 13th, and he kept right on chasing, aiming for James Walker (Hitech Racing) next.
After three laps, the order was Carroll, from Piccione, Watts, Dirani, Asmer, Piquet, di Grassi, Parente, Power and Rossiter. Franchi was about to pit to serve his penalty, which left Walker 11th, ahead of Lapierre and Negrao. Ryan Lewis (T-Sport) was leading the Scholarship Class, with three Championship Class cars between him and the 2nd placed driver, Ronayne O'Mahony (Performance Racing). The trio acting as a cushion were Fauzy, Barton Mawer (T-Sport) and Thompson. Vasilije Calasan (Promatecme F3) was 3rd in class, while Stephen Jelley (Performance Racing) was last, after one of the rear wheels started to work lose on what could only be described as a tank-tape special. It was a miracle the car was drivable at all, and it was held together largely by sheer bloody-minded determination. It didn't look pretty even when it wasn't moving, being a mix of new unpainted spares, any old bits that were still reasonably serviceable after two heavy crashes yesterday, Ronayne O'Mahony's spare rear wing, and an awful lot of tank tape. After a pit stop Stephen returned to the track just to make sure the car was working, and to pick up whatever points were available. It was all he could do really.
The battle for third was still raging, with Watts losing the place to Dirani at les Combes, but simply taking it back again straight afterwards. In addition, after initially dropping back, Piccione was now catching Carroll, though it may simply have been that Carroll was easing off a bit. Certainly a lap later he'd opened out the gap again, and was charging away. It wasn't the battle that was occupying everyone anyway. That was Dirani and Watts. The next time round Dirani left his braking incredibly late at the Bus Stop, making a determined lunge at Watts, but it wasn't quite enough to carry him past. A lap later he did it again, and this time he made it stick. That wasn't the end of the story for Watts, who was suffering from a decided lack of straight-line speed in comparison with the Dallara drivers (in other words, everyone else) and had to make up for it with sheer aggression and nerve. Piquet had despatched Asmer the lap before and now he was right behind Watts and wanting to be in front of him. Piquet bided his time and then pulled what seems to be the classic F3 overtaking manoeuvre, going up hill at les Combe. Watts tried his best to fight back immediately, but to no avail. Piquet wasn't going to give the place back if he could possibly avoid it. It didn't alter the fact that Watts was still trying, but that's because he's a racer through and through.
Piquet was also being aided in his title chase by the fact that Rossiter was now falling away, and was back down to 14th, while Lapierre had forced his was up the order to 10th. With four laps to go, Watts made another spirited attempt to get back ahead of Piquet, with a mad dive up the inside at la Source. He was now glued to the rear wing of the Brazilian, and they were side-by-side into les Combes. Watts still couldn't get past Piquet, but he wasn't about to say die. He would fight all the way to the flag, and actually appeared to be having the time of his life out there.
At the front, Piccione could see Carroll now, and was starting to catch him at an increasing rate. Third was still Dirani, but that was mostly because Piquet couldn't shake Watts off, though he was making a determined effort. A new fastest race lap was the result, the time exactly matching that of Piccione, but neither of them would get the extra point, because Rossiter may have fallen back, but he had managed to set the fastest lap of the morning. Nonetheless, the effort caused Piccione to get very close to Carroll, who promptly woke up and rocketed round to increase the gap by eight tenths of a second in the course of a single lap. The other effect was that Piquet had finally shaken Watts off, and was now in pursuit of Dirani. With only two laps left it was possible that Piquet might be able to snatch the place from Dirani, but it would be pushing it a bit even for Piquet.
Even so, Piquet had a go at the Bus Stop entrance, getting somewhat out of shape in the process. He had to back off again afterwards, but he kept right on trying all the way to the finish line, trying everything to pass his compatriot before the end of the race. Meanwhile Asmer was now being plagued by another Brazilian, this time his own team-mate, with di Grassi taking 6th place away from him on the last lap of the race.
And then it was all over. Carroll came home to another fine victory, and is now 2nd in the series, with an outside chance of taking the title from Piquet in three weeks time at Brands Hatch. Both have been so erratic this season that it would be a brave person who would dare to predict which one will be the ultimate winner. Piccione was 2nd again, and Dirani took his second 3rd place of the weekend. Piquet was 4th, from Watts, who should definitely be named the man of the meeting by anyone's standards. 6th was do Grassi, from Asmer, Parente and Power. Lapierre won the Invitation Class this time, as Franchi wasn't classified. 10th in class (11th on the road) was Walker, with Negrao just missing out on another point. Rossiter was 12th with one point to show for his weekend in Belgium, while Thompson and Mawer brought up the rear. Lewis again won the Scholarship Class from O'Mahony (who again got a point for fastest lap). Calasan was 3rd and Jelley 4th, so at least he'd salvaged 10 points from the shambles that his weekend became.
Adam Carroll was also crowned FIA F3 European Cup champion, for the combination of his superb pair of victories in Belgium, and his terrific run to 3rd place in the Marlboro Masters last month.
Next Races: Rounds 23 & 24, Brands Hatch, Kent, October 2nd/3rd
By: Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite