Changes - Rounds 17 & 18:
And once again it was all change in the world of British F3. We have lost count both of the number of drivers some teams have had this year and of the sheer numbers who have stepped in for one or two races and have then vanished without a trace, leaving behind nothing but bad debts in some cases.
At least this time it wasn't all new faces. Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was back in the Scholarship Class after a number of weekends away competing, for some odd reason, in the German F3 series. However, Richard Antinucci was the surprise mover of the week, quitting Carlin Motorsport to go to Promatecme F3 (last year he left Manor to go to Promatecme, but at least he waited until Macau to do that. This time, you had to wonder why he didn't go to Promatecme at the start of the season, which was pretty much what we expected him to do. As a result, there was a spare seat at Carlin, which was duly taken by Michael Keohane. The Irishman left Promatecme in the first half of the season, and in joining Carlin is now back in the team he was with for most of 2002. Are you following all this? I wouldn't blame you if you weren't.
At Team SYR things were even more confusing than usual (this after all is a team fronted by Malaysians, but seemingly staffed mostly by Brazilians who only speak Portuguese - well, Carlo claims to speak English but it's not easy to understand him when he does). Halfway through the week one of their spare cars was going to be in the hands of a Brazilian driver, but suddenly at Friday's test session a Japanese, Masato Shinoyama, turned up. Meanwhile, deputising for the sickly Scott Speed, American Joel Nelson was driving the number 2 car at Alan Docking Racing. As he has been racing in European F3000, where there are normally only about 12 cars at each race, this was not going to be an easy experience. When asked about it afterwards he said it wasn't so much a case of stepping down and of stepping into. We don't think he was trying to be complimentary.
Race Report - Round 17:
A suggestion that this wasn't exactly going to be a normal race came early on. Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport), who should have been occupying the Scholarship Class pole position, failed to get out onto the grid because he'd decided he needed to go to the toilet at completely the wrong moment. By the time he got back, the pit lane was already closed and Ernesto was left looking a bit embarrassed. He was also left looking a bit distant, having to start from the back of the grid.
Just to complete the misery at P1, Ernesto's Championship Class teammate Billy Asaro staggered back into the pits after the formation lap, his car in urgent need of attention. He too would have to start from the back, if they could get him back out there in time. Roly Vincini must have been wondering why his team had made the trip to Thruxton. Someone else who could have been forgiven for being in the gents' before the race started was Danny Watts, the Hitech Racing driver suffering from what he diagnosed to be "a bad belly!" As it was, he was on time and sitting in pole position, waiting for the lights to go green.
When the race started, Watts grabbed his opportunity, but so did series leader Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport), rocketing from third row of the grid up the inside along the pit wall to take 3rd before they even got to Allards. The loser in all of this was Eric Salignon, Watt's team mate. The Frenchman seems to have finally settled in to F3 and had qualified on the front row. He was 5th by the time they sorted themselves out. Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport) was 2nd, and his teammate was 4th. There was probably an element of needle in all of this, as David Hayle, who now runs Hitech, used to run Fortec for Richard Dutton. Certainly there seemed to be some ill feeling in the wheel banging that went on as Dahlgren tried to take the lead from Watts going into Campbell. Watts hung on, Dahlgren lost out and van der Merwe seized the opportunity to go 2nd. If Watts thought having the championship leader behind him was going to make for a quiet life, he was seriously misinformed. Van der Merwe was instantly on the attack, trying to get around the outside of the Englishman at the Chicane. He got the door slammed in his face for his troubles, but it didn't put him off in the least.
Elsewhere in the field, Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) was already out of the race, having been shoved off at the Complex. Viso, on the other hand, was going great guns. This wasn't too surprising given the nature of his start. Rather than coming to a complete halt at the back of the grid, he slowed and before he was actually stationary the green lights came on. Not wanting to miss out, he sensibly, if not strictly legally, floored the throttle and was on his way, leap-frogging up a number of places before the rest of the field was really moving. He was certainly doing better than Asaro, who was at least now on the track and was trying to work his way up the order if he could.
The following lap, the field was thinned out further when Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) was collected by newcomer Nelson. Afterwards Graves was annoyed at what had happened: "He seemed to think I was in his way!" was all the aggrieved Manor driver could say. At the front van der Merwe continued his furious attack on Watts. It was becoming clear that just getting a good points score was not what he had in mind this time. Before the race, when everyone was advising him to exercise sense and stay put if he had to, he merely insisted that he wanted to win. He obviously meant it. Considering that Watts was no threat in the title chase, risking it all fighting him might have seemed unwise.
Back in 4th place, Salignon was now setting about Dahlgren, while Watts was clinging on to his lead with everything he'd got. Suddenly, Salignon made a mistake and rather than getting past Dahlgren, lost his place to Power, only for Power to obligingly go off when he got collected by Antinucci and Nelson Piquet Jr (Piquet Sport). In spite of waved yellow flags at various points around the circuit, van der Merwe was still looking for a way past Watts, and was causing palpitations among his friends and supporters, especially as it meant he lost a place to Dahlgren.
It was getting kind of busy in the pits too, as Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing), arrived pointing at the front end of his car, caused by Antinucci spinning in front of him. Then, as Davison rejoined, Antinucci limped in followed by Power. Power got out of the car, signalling the end of his race, and stomped up the pit lane to have a word or two with Antinucci. It was a waste of time because the American was still in his car, with his helmet on, while the team checked the car over. The third participant in the drama, Piquet, might also have had something to say but he was still stuck out on the circuit.
Not surprisingly, all this mayhem led to a Safety Car period, as Piquet's car needed dragging to a safe place, as did both Graves' and Nelson's. With Watts in the lead, the rest of the top five was now Dahlgren, van der Merwe, Salignon and Green. In 6th was now Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3), who had been having trouble keeping Adam Carroll (Menu Motorsport) at bay. 8th was the only surviving Manor driver, Clivio Piccione, and in 9th was Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport). Steven Kane (T-Sport) headed up the Scholarship Class, in 10th overall. Just behind him was Viso, who had wasted no time capitalising on his slightly dodgy start, which meant that 3rd in class, and not all pleased about it, was Karun Chandhok in the other T-Sport car. Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) was in 13th, with another Scholarship runner, Can Artam (Promatecme F3) just behind him. In 15th place was Keohane, with Asaro - who was at least a lap down - between himself and Rizal Ramli (Team SYR). Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was bringing up the rear, while Davison had rejoined at the back of the pack, while Shinoyama became the latest competitor to dive into the pits. It was debatable whether there was more action on the track or in the pit lane. The pit lane got a little less crowded when Antinucci finally rejoined, possibly figuring it was safer than staying where he was with an angry Aussie about. He was rapidly replaced by Asaro, who came back in to have quantities of grass removed from the sidepods of his Dallara. It was all getting a bit silly. Asaro soon rejoined, as did Shinoyama, though you really felt like asking why.
And so, for another three laps, everyone held station behind the Safety Car. When the race finally went live again, Watts managed to hang on to his lead, and for a whole lap there was little in the way of trouble. Antinucci finally pitted for keeps - maybe hoping that Power would have forgotten all about him and wandered off by then - it was three laps later, after all!
Anyway, out on the track, Dahlgren got up the inside of Watts to take the lead. Van der Merwe attempted to go through too, but Watts had had enough. One getting through was enough. He wasn't going to lose a second place. With the door again slamming shut, van der Merwe came very close to losing another place, this time to Salignon. Instead, though, he found himself passed by Green. And they say there's no overtaking in F3... There was about to be even more, as Salignon fought back, getting his revenge a lap later to retake 4th. Meanwhile, Davison was back in the pits, while Piccione spun himself out of contention at the Complex after an attack on Carroll. He managed to get back into the race, but at the cost of scattering debris all over the place. At the front of the order, van der Merwe again attacked Watts and again got pushed back. Watts really didn't want to lose another place. The South African's next attempt to pass also came to nothing, the Carlin driver having to back off in order to keep the nose of his Dallara in one piece. He wasn't done yet by a long way though.
The Scholarship lads were having a bit of a rough time too, but in their case it was because they now had Thompson, and Keohane, in their midst, the two of them having their own private fight. Viso was trying to find a way past Kane, and Chandhok was trying to avoid being wiped out by the Championship Class runners. It wasn't easy in the middle of the field.
By the midway stage, Carroll was also missing, the midfield runners disappearing at a high but steady rate. The way things were going, there might not be enough drivers left to allocate all the points! This was emphasised by what happened next. Van der Merwe once more went for Watts. This time neither of them would back off, and they touched. Van der Merwe got through while Watts lost out badly, slipping back behind Green, Salignon and Fauzy. It was no surprise to see bits of sticker flapping wildly on the Carlin car's wing end plates as it came past next time round.
A lap later and Salignon saw what he thought was his opportunity, the Frenchman trying to squeeze Green out. Green wasn't going to give though and Eric settled back in to 4th. Meanwhile Davison finally threw in the towel, his Mugen-Honda starting to smoke like a freshly lit barbie! His car therefore had some grounds for being covered in what at first sight appeared to be fire-extinguisher powder. Closer inspection revealed that it wasn't; it was, in fact, the cement dust that the marshals had sprinkled around liberally after each of the numerous incidents. All the cars looked like that at the end of the race, and there would be a lot of polishing needed if any of them were to go out looking their best in Race 2.
Green still had to defend himself against Salignon, who was now mounting a vigorous campaign to relieve the English driver of a podium placing if he possibly could. He tries to get round the outside at the Chicane, which doesn't normally work, and didn't this time either. He kept on coming back though, finally taking 3rd place on the penultimate lap, only to lose it once more - this time for keeps - on the last lap.
Elsewhere, the casualty rate looked as if it might rise further. Thompson was now going steadily backwards, whilst Asaro had been in and out of the pits yet again. The pit lane was so busy it was starting to look like your local high-speed tyre fitters, but at least Asaro was once again on the track and would be able to complete the race.
With two laps left to run, things seemed to have calmed down after a race that was certainly more Formula Ford than Formula Three in style. Apart from Salignon being passed by Green, the only notable events on the final lap were van der Merwe's attempt at fastest lap - He didn't get it but it was worth a try - and Thompson's car giving up the ghost just as he crossed the start/finish line.
Afterwards Chandhok, who ended up third in the Scholarship Class, was incensed about a number of things, starting with the fact that Viso had - as he saw it - been allowed to jump the start and get away with it, and ending with the fact that Keohane had got involved in the Scholarship Class battle. But then, Karun's quite often incensed about a lot of things, sometimes rightly, sometimes not so.
It had been an eventful race. It had to be hoped that the second race, Round 18, would be much calmer.
-by Lynne Waite and Stella-Maria Thomas. Guest Writers