After a messy morning session for Round 17, this wasn't a lot better, though it was slightly different. At least this time neither Nelson Piquet Jr (Piquet Sports) nor Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) was prepared to wait for everyone else to clean the track before coming out to see what they could do. Judging by their morning qualifying positions, and by the general behaviour of all and sundry, neither of them could afford to risk not getting a sensible time early in the session. However, it soon became clear that to go fast around Thruxton, what you really need is a Renault- Sodemo engine bolted to your Dallara, not a Mugen-Honda. This was hammered home when Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing) put himself on an early pole, and just kept on going faster.
While he was doing that, Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) was busy scaring himself by slingshotting straight through the Chicane and out the other side, by some miracle managing to avoid everyone en route. Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing) was also still in trouble, though at least there was a chance of progress now; the team had thrown away all of the settings from the morning and were starting from scratch. This is usually a very bad idea, but frankly they couldn't have made the car worse, so they really had nothing left to lose now. It didn't seem to be a good day for Australians in general, as Will Power (Fortec Motorsport) again took one look at the track and dived back into the garages straight away. Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport) was looking better than he had in the morning, and was currently 3rd, from Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3), but no one seemed to be able to get near Salignon, not even van der Merwe, who couldn't quite match the Frenchman's pace to begin with. He soon buckled down and edged ahead, leaving Salignon and Fauzy to trade places, but the session had a long way to go yet. You wouldn't have thought so, as there was a pretty general rush for tyres again.
After fresh rubber had been applied, the squabble for places resumed. In 4th was Michael Keohane (Carlin Motorsport), Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) was 5th, underlining the point about Renault power. Green was 6th, and another Renault-powered driver, Andrew Thompson (Hitech) was 8th. Interestingly, Andrew had been very fast in testing too, which must have surprised quite a few people including us.
The changes now began in earnest. Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport) was now 4th, but then Piquet went 2nd, from van der Merwe. Salignon wasn't standing for that and promptly got between them, while Robert Dahlgren, in the second Fortec Motorsport car, seemed determined to trip up Green if he could. A determined effort in the first sector, and Salignon was back on pole shortly afterwards. The first sector times kept coming down, as van der Merwe went faster and snatched pole back again, only to see Salignon again go faster. Dahlgren was 3rd now, from Piquet, while Bremer and Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport) were occupying the third row. There was still a lot of the session left though, certainly enough time for Richard Antinucci (Promatecme F3) to catch up with Bremer. Whether there was enough time for Davison to get back in the running was a more vexed question. Certainly throwing all the settings away and starting over only seemed to have led to further difficulties and now he looked as if he was in serious trouble.
Asaro, on the other hand, appeared to be in fine fettle, and was now 3rd. Meanwhile it was getting a bit unseemly out there, largely because drivers in search of a tow to improve their times were tending to go round in close formation, which meant there was no room for error. As a result some people were really far too close together considering the nature of the territory. It was also leading to what seemed to be some pretty weird results. Even so, when Fauzy claimed a spot on the front row a lot of people were staring at the skies half expecting a squadron of flying pigs to pass overhead. There were fifteen minutes left and it was starting to look as if anything could happen.
The order now was Salignon, Fauzy, van der Merwe, Asaro, Dahlgren, Watts and Piquet. There was little trace of Green (down in a dismal 15th) who was still overdriving badly, though he wasn't alone in having trouble. Watts seemed to be fighting his car, while Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport) was all over the shop in his efforts to get clear of Steven Kane (T-Sport) and claim the Scholarship Class pole position.
Fauzy was still going well and seemed to be inspired by the presence of 2002 Promatecme driver Bruce Jouanny. There were some sceptics who suggested that perhaps it was Bruce in the car, but as the Parisian was clearly visible on the pit wall, that theory had to be abandoned promptly. Van der Merwe was still behind the Malaysian, and didn't seem able to do anything about the situation, even when he set a personal best in the first sector. The South African could console himself with that fact that Piquet wasn't looking at all impressive, and was outside the top ten, as was Green. With no one else in with a chance at the title, it meant van der Merwe didn't need to worry too much - the trouble was, he still wanted to win.
Watts suddenly found the Dallara had temporarily got the better of him, and had a heart-stopping spin at Chicane, only for everyone to miss him. He turned through two complete revolutions before he could get going again, the centrifugal force doing nothing for his upset digestive system. He looked quick but wasn't. Adam Carroll (Menu Motorsport), on the other hand, was looking pretty quick now, and Power was also starting to show some speed. If Promatecme were looking good with Jouanny's assistance, the Fortec guys had Kovalainen on hand if they cared to avail themselves of his experience round Thruxton.
While the Championship Class lads scrapped among themselves for overall pole, Viso had grabbed the Scholarship Class pole and was hanging onto it for dear life. As far as he was concerned it was his and he wasn't about to let anyone take it from him. Salignon clearly felt pretty much the same about overall pole. As the session wore on, Green was able to improve to 8th, but it wasn't going to be enough to save him. Piquet was 11th and had given up, pulling into the pits towards the end of the session. He was showing little interest in rushing back out, and had done exactly the same time as he did in the morning session, down to 1000th of a second, so he may well have been correct in assuming that there wasn't much more he could do. Van der Merwe quit the session with 8 minutes still to run and he was by no means the first to do so. Salignon pitted too, and there was a steady stream of drivers giving up. There was little to be gained from staying out there, so they mostly decided not to waste their tyres. There was simply no enthusiasm for continuing to slog round. Viso was still out there - along with a couple of others - when it all went pear-shaped yet again and the red flags came out.
When the session restarted - with around 3 minutes left - we were treated to the odd, and pointless, spectacle of Green circulating alone. Quite why he was doing so was anyone's guess. He managed three laps but they were a complete waste of time, even though the clock didn't actually start when it should have done, thus giving him some extra time. As none of his team- mates were out there, he was never going to get a tow, so he couldn't expect to improve (to be honest, if they had been out there it seems unlikely that any of them would have gone out of their way to help him anyway). Van der Merwe certainly couldn't see the point of going out and said as much. As he hadn't found anyone he could get a tow from all session he was happy enough with third place.
And so the flag finally fell and put an end to Green's chasing of his own tail. Salignon had kept pole, and was joined on the front row, however implausibly, by Fauzy. Van der Merwe shared row two with Asaro, while Carroll was 5th, ahead of Power, Dahlgren, Green, Watts and Thompson. Unsurprisingly, five out of the top ten were in Renault-engined cars. Piquet was a disappointing 11th, from Antinucci and Bremer. Viso was 14th, ahead of Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport) and Keohane. 2nd in the Scholarship Class was Karun Chandhok (T-Sport), while Piccione was another to disappoint at Thruxton, 18th on the grid. Davison was 19th, so clearly the rethink hadn't worked, and Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) was 20th. Kane was 21st, and 3rd in class, far more distant from Viso than he really needed to be, while Rizal Ramli (Team SYR) had for once actually out- qualified more people than just his teammate Masato Shinoyama to go 22nd. Can Artam (Promatecme F3), was 23rd overall, 4th in the Scholarship Class, while Joel Nelson (Alan Docking Racing) was still in shock and 24th on the grid. Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was 5th in the Scholarship category, while Shinoyama, perhaps inevitably, was last of all.
-Lynne Waite and Stella-Maria Thomas