Qualifying - Round 23:
Weather: Cold. Windy. Dry (18ºC)
And once again, we find ourselves at a circuit with little or no commentary audible anywhere due to the state of the public address system. In this instance it was more a case of the speakers being turned away from the areas where people were likely to be standing (in one instance, they were pointing out over the track instead, which didn't help people to hear what was being said). Oh well, it seems to be standard practice now, so maybe we should just try and ignore it! Mind you, you didn't need a commentary team to see that in the Scholarship Class part of the session, there was, as there had been at Oulton Park, a distinct Sweeney Racing line, as opposed to the line everyone else seemed to be taking. Unfortunately for the Sweeney boys, in the early stages of the session that line seemed to involve completely messing up the Chicane... Billy Asaro was first to miss the corner altogether, then Robert Dahlgren managed to spin off there. He was soon going again, and didn't seem to be letting it affect him too much. Not to be outdone, T-Sport's Karun Chandhok was also having more than a little difficulty with the Chicane, perhaps because he was being closely observed by his friend Narain Karthikeyan, who was also more than a little prone to spinning off on occasions in his F3 days. In fact, after Chandhok had a brief spin of his own, it began to look as if this might be more than a little contagious. Clivio Piccione (T-Sport) was having a bit of a wobble too, although he soon had it under control. Dahlgren, despite his early wobble, was quickly on the pace, taking an early pole and hanging on to it despite everyone else's best efforts. Asaro was 2nd, while Stephen Colbert (Meritus Racing) moved up to 4th. Piccione, on the other hand, was struggling this time out, and was only 9th by the halfway stage. Mohammed Fairuz (Fred Goddard Racing) was running far more strongly than of late, and pushed Asaro out of 2nd place temporarily. By contrast, Gavin Smith (Meritus Racing) was an unhappy 8th, which is further back than usual. It soon became apparent that these were mere blips, however, and normal service was soon resumed, at least at the top. Newly crowned Scholarship Class champion, Adam Carroll (Sweeney Racing) simply could not get his car running the way he wanted, and was in 5th, which was hardly what he was looking for in his last few races. The fact that he was using a new chassis and engine seemed to be contributing to the problem, rather than alleviating it. A last minute pit stop didn't really help much either - in fact it seemed that nothing he could do was going to make any difference now.
The improvements had pretty much evaporated now, as the weather got colder and windier. Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing) was now 8th, while Piccione was up to 4th, managing to glean a slight improvement in time but not position. Meanwhile, Asaro had thrown his car off again in his efforts to go faster, but it wasn't helping him much either; in fact he had now flat-spotted his tyres and was effectively out of contention as far as this session went. Of the Sweeney drivers, only Dahlgren seemed able to make any progress and he was already fastest in the session anyway. If the situation at Sweeney was a little unusual, it was as nothing compared to the fact that Fairuz had fallen back behind Harold Primat (Diamond Racing), Harold not being exactly the fastest driver on the circuit. Even so, Harold was 9th now and Fairuz a miserable 10th, unable for some reason to get to grips with this track. Only Pedro Barral (Diamond Racing) was slower and he had never seen Thruxton before (apart from in testing).
The Championship Class also produced its share of dramas, beginning even before the start of the session, when it was decided that the fifth Carlin Motorsport car, which the team was going to field for Karthikeyan, was withdrawn from the entry list for one reason or another - and there were several suggestions being bandied about from an unsuitable engine to his sponsors declining to let the young Indian play. Believe whichever you prefer! The drama continued in the early stages of the session when newcomer to British racing Stefan de Groot (Menu Motorsport) caused an outbreak of red flags when he discovered what happens when you hit the bump at Church at full speed. The car was a very long way off the track but even so, it was decided to stop the session and rescue him. After all, anyone else going off there was likely to travel a similar distance, and might even hit the Dutchman's car in doing so. They brought the car back looking fairly sound all things considered, though it appeared to be full of grass and gravel, there was a bit of the diffuser hanging off and the tyres were woefully blistered. It looked as if de Groot's session was over. Meanwhile, Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport) had been fastest to this point and was itching to get back out on the track. So was Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International), although the Frenchman came close to becoming an inadvertent victim of de Groot's off when he arrived at the Chicane rather late after the flags had been shown, only to find the breakdown truck coming the other way, straight at him. It was debatable which of the two drivers was more surprised, but fortunately no harm resulted to either vehicle. Just as well really - it could all have been deeply embarrassing really.
To the surprise of all and sundry, de Groot was soon back on the track when the session restarted, as were both Jouanny and Kovalainen, the Frenchman soon pushing the Finn down a place. And then he got pushed down another place as Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport) grabbed that 2nd place slot. Meanwhile, de Groot was also pushing on, seeming to spur Austin on as well. It's fair to say that Austin seems to have been invigorated by the presence of de Groot, perhaps the effect of a fast teammate is causing a rethink in his own driving. Certainly his results have improved to come back up to the sort of level he was achieving at the start of the season now.
With Jouanny locking up alarmingly all over the place, and Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing) now on provisional pole, James Courtney (Carlin Motorsport) finally ventured out to see what he could do to stop Kerr having things all his own way in the final sprint for the title. However, the weather appeared to be about to play a part. The sky had darkened during the session, and the air was now heavy with moisture, which wasn't quite turning into rain - yet. It was pretty weird weather really, and no one could afford to wait to try and set a time. Stefano Fabi (Team Avanti) soon joined the ranks of those who were not enjoying the Chicane, but then he doesn't seem to be enjoying any circuits this year as he struggles to get to grips with F3 and with a bunch of circuits he doesn't have any racing experience of.
At Carlin things were not going quite according to plan either. Alan van der Merwe, in 6th, was faster than Courtney (10th place now), which was wonderful for Alan but wasn't going to help James claw back his championship lead from Kerr, who was sitting on provisional pole. The irony of this was that Alan and James were using the session to try and provide a tow for each other, and while it seemed to help Alan, James didn't really seem to benefit from it that much. Courtney was going to have his work cut out if he wanted to keep his championship challenge alive beyond this meeting. The result was that he was bouncing all over the kerbs in his efforts to make up ground. Another unhappy driver was Mark Taylor (Manor Motorsport), the Englishman having his hands full trying to hold off de Groot, which shouldn't have been happening, at least from Taylor's viewpoint. Another one in trouble of sorts was Stefan Hodgetts (Motaworld Racing). He used to be a Sweeney driver and suddenly he was driving as if he still was, attacking the kerbs and taking what seemed to be the Sweeney line straight across the Chicane. None of this actually helped much, and it was no surprise when he ended the session in 14th. Moving up to 8th place was Michael Keohane (Carlin Motorsport), who looked incredibly committed as he came across the line to start a new lap. And then, as with the Scholarship Class runners, the improvements stopped for most people. The only likely candidate for a change of position was probably de Groot, who was down in 15th but had managed to establish that the car had not suffered too much for its excursion off the track earlier on. On his next lap he was up to 13th and had settled into a steady rhythm at last. Despite the state of his tyres, he might be able to salvage something from his morning.
Someone else who was struggling was Fabio Carbone (Fortec Motorsport). An announcement that there was something yellow off the track around the back came as no surprise, and then he nearly lost it at exit of chicane too. 10th was the best he could manage after that. Kovalainen was now 3rd and had decided there was nothing to be gained from staying out on the track any longer. He pitted very early, because he knows that once the tyres reach a certain point he won't go any faster. Jouanny, on the other hand, was able to squeeze a few more fractions of a second from his Avons and promptly took pole away from Kerr to set his first ever F3 pole. He deserved it after his terrifying flying session here last year and seemed genuinely delighted with his achievement.
Which is more than Mark Taylor did. After a Chicane-skipping skid the Englishman ended up 12th, sandwiched between his less experienced teammates, Richard Antinucci and Ronnie Bremer. It was not a good day for Manor, yet again.
It wasn't a particularly good day for Fabi either, but then they seldom are. On his way to 23rd place on the grid, he managed to trip up John Antoniades (Duma Racing), who was a good half dozen places ahead of him despite having only joined in two meetings ago and not having seen the circuit before. Another man proving that if you have talent experience of a circuit is not necessarily essential was de Groot, who made the most of the closing minutes of the session to haul himself up to 5th, just behind Courtney. It made you wonder what the Dutchman might have achieved if he had not had his earlier off. It even brought a smile to Alain Menu's face, the Swiss for once present to see how the team that bears his name is getting on.