It was another one of those odd Thruxton sessions, where the weather heats up to the extent that it becomes almost impossible to improve at all in the final third of practice, and even if you could squeeze any more life out of your Avons, it would do you no good anyway because the place is now full of people tripping each other up and failing to get through the Chicane in anything approaching good order.
It didn't start that way of course, but it did get off to something of an odd start when Will Power (Fortec Motorsport) wandered out on an out lap, but then dashed straight back into the pits. He came back out again pretty promptly but it was still all a bit strange. Some of the new boys were obviously struggling too. Can Artam (Promatecme F3) soon started to get to grips with the track, while the unfortunate Masato Shinoyama (Team SYR) didn't, by dint of not having a team-mate with any useful experience to help him. Power wasn't the only one who seemed disinclined to stay out on the track at this stage either. Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport) was another who did an out lap and then dived for cover.
The opening minutes otherwise remained somewhat quiet, with two out of three of the main championship contenders (Alan van der Merwe [Carlin Motorsport] and Nelson Piquet Jr [Piquet Sports]) seeming to have opted not to come out at all. Despite this - and the fact that if you go to the Chicane not a word of commentary is audible - there was plenty of entertainment to be had.
Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) was causing a lot of confusion by being out in a car that looked so much like the Carlin car he'd left behind - and which was now being driven by Michael Keohane. Judging by what happened later, he was still the same old Richard, especially when it came to frightening other people.
Really we were still in the early stages of practice, and there wasn't a lot happening, although Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was looking pretty wild, and the Team SYR drivers (Rizal Ramli and Masato Shinoyama) kept taking close looks at the Chicane. Shinoyama finally got too close to the polystyrene marker blocks and consequently had to be manoeuvred out of trouble by the marshals, who seemed to be somewhat panicked by the idea that they might have to do something while there were cars out on the track.
While insanity broke out on the track, two of the main contenders were patiently biding their time in the pits. Van der Merwe was continuing to play his usual waiting game, while Piquet seemed to think that he would follow the South African's example. Whatever the reason, they were both hanging back, waiting for the opportune moment, which presumably would be when everyone else stopped for new tyres, leaving the track clean and clear of traffic.
Meanwhile, the Chicane seemed to be troubling a lot of people more than would seem reasonable. Michael Keohane (Carlin Motorsport) was approaching it as if he'd never seen it before and taking some very novel angles, while Power lost it completely and had to be extricated by the marshals, which slowed everyone down for a while. It was all beginning to get a bit unseemly, and while all this was going on Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport) had claimed provisional pole, almost unnoticed by the rest of them. It was debatable whether he would be able to hold it for very long though, as van der Merwe and Piquet finally decided that it was time to join in, emerging from the pits in close formation. Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) took one look and wisely got out of the way.
The question that was still exercising most watchers, though, was "why are they having so much trouble with the Chicane?" It was a good question - there just didn't seem to be a sensible answer. Power was still stuck in there, and when Asaro got it all wrong as well, the officials decided it was safest to stop the session.
At this point Dahlgren had been bumped down the order and Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) was fastest of all, in spite - or perhaps because - of a seriously upset stomach (which he wasn't helping by eating fruit). It was beginning to look like it could be a good weekend for the Renault powered cars, just as it had been here last year when Heikki Kovalainen proved to be the man to beat (and ended up shaving his head as a result).
At the restart, Antinucci cut right across Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) at the exit from the Chicane, startling the Monegasque and the crowd that had gathered there to watch the action. Judging by the gestures Clivio made as he set off after the American, that's Richard off his Christmas card list for the foreseeable future.
While Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing) joined team-mate Watts on the front row of the grid, the Frenchman seemingly having got to grips with F3 at last, someone who looked quick but wasn't, was Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing). He was having what would turn out to be the start of a truly terrible weekend, which made you wonder how he could be in so much trouble when he ran so well at Croft earlier in the year on what is a very similar circuit. The answer seemed to lie in the fact that he was once again using Robbie Kerr's set-up and it just doesn't suit his driving style.
With a little under 10 minutes left, the Scholarship pole seemed to be well and truly sorted with Viso claiming it by the expedient of getting Piccione and Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) between himself and Steven Kane (T- Sport), the latter appearing to still be somewhat out of sorts this weekend. There was by now a tendency for most people to wander back into the pits and stay there, presumably on the grounds that there was very little life left in their Avons and so not a lot of point in flogging round Hampshire trying to get a tow behind someone who was going fast enough to help.
Maybe the tyres really were shot. They certainly were in testing but that was the wet weather ones, in use for the first time since pre-season testing and showing signs of becoming a major problem if the weather turned nasty. With Watts firmly settled in pole, van der Merwe looked confident in 2nd. No one really seemed to want to go out, though some were in more of a state of shock than others. Joel Nelson (Alan Docking Racing) had stepped down from European F3000 or some such category where you're lucky if a handful of other competitors turn up. To go from a field containing 11 other drivers on a good day, to this with 20-odd assorted and variously homicidal maniacs had come as a bit of a shock to the relaxed American. To be fair, he wasn't the only one who was having a bit of trouble with the circuit. If Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) wanted to stop van der Merwe running off with the title, he was going quite the wrong way about it. For one thing, he really did need to get a tow from someone, and for another he needed to stop over-driving, because it wasn't pleasant to watch. He was stuck down in 6th, and he looked decidedly unlike a potential champion as he came twitching through the Chicane towards the start/finish line.
Piquet was now in 5th, just behind van der Merwe, who had lost out to both Salignon and Dahlgren. Neither the Brazilian nor the South African were in any position to fight back either as an outbreak of waved yellows at the Chicane caused everyone to have to slow down. This time the culprit was Keohane, who was beached on the kerbs. In addition, Ronnie Bremer was off further round. With only 2 and half minutes left of the session, it was really all over for Round 17. Watts and Salignon had claimed the front row for Hitech, while Dahlgren (also Renault-powered) was 3rd. The remaining title contenders lined up next with van der Merwe remaining ahead of Piquet and Green. Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) was 7th from Carroll, Bremer, Keohane and Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing). In 11th was Power, from Asaro and Viso, Piccione, Fabi, Kane, Davison and Karun Chandhok (T-Sport), who doesn't seem to like Thruxton very much. Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) was next up, holding off Artam, Ramli, Sherwood, Nelson and Shinoyama, who was a very long way off the pace.
-Lynne Waite and Stella-Maria Thomas