At Oulton Park this afternoon, Jean-Eric Vergne (Carlin) put in a dominant performance to win the first round of the 2010 British F3 International Series. He was challenged in the early stages by local boy Oli Webb (Fortec) but in the aftermath of a Safety Car period, Webb was unable to hang onto the rapid Frenchman.
Third was another of the Carlin drivers, Adriano Buzaid, the Brazilian benefiting from a good start. The National Class was won by Menasheh Idafar (T-Sport) who headed home his team-mate James Cole.
Before the start there was some question as to whether Felipe Nasr (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) would make it out there at all. The Brazilian had embarrassed himself badly in qualifying by binning his Dallara on the out lap and knocking off all four corners without setting a time. The result was a desperate race against the clock involving all hands as the team worked to get the car ready for the first race of the year.
After the usual chaos that seems to be endemic when trying to line up a grid at Oulton Park, 20 drivers prepared to finally get out there and get racing. It was time for the talking to stop. And stop it did. As the lights went out, Vergne nailed the start and was off into the distance, pulling away as they swept down towards Old Hall for the first time. Behind him Buzaid was busy showing Rupert Svendsen-Cook (Carlin) who was boss, while Carlos Huertas (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) waited to pick up the pieces if it all went wrong. The Brazilian came out ahead of his young team-mate, and the Colombian went through as well.
At the front Webb recovered from losing out to Vergne at the start and was soon all over him, making the most of his local knowledge, while Buzaid was now tracking both of them. Further back, a mistake by the inexperienced Alex Brundle (T-Sport) saw the youngster to the back of the field, a position originally occupied by Nasr, the Brazilian now on his way up the order having gained 3 places on the first lap. He might prove to be worth watching. Another to be watched was James Calado (Carlin), the Racing Steps backed youngster having qualified quite badly. He was starting to move up the order too and was beginning to trouble the top ten. But what was really worth watching was the battle for 3rd, because Buzaid and Huertas had now been joined by Svendsen-Cook, the rookie trying to muscle in on the more experienced pair in front. It wasn't long before that became a four-way scrap with Daisuke Nakajima (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) also getting involved.
Ahead of them, Webb wouldn't let Vergne go, despite the new fastest lap of the race that Vergne had just set. Of course catching someone in F3 is one thing and getting past is another matter altogether. A lap later and Webb was right with the Frenchman, having bettered the fastest lap time. Towards the back end Nasr, meanwhile, was now on Max Snegirev's (Fortec Motorsport) tail and looking for a way past the erratic Russian and failing to find it. That had the look of a situation that could get quite messy quite quickly.
And then, like the first cuckoo of spring, there it was; the first Safety Car of the season. It came about after Calado tried to get past Hywel Lloyd (C F Racing with Manor) and made a bit of a mess of it. He ran into the back end of the Welshman's car and ended up stuck in the barriers. Lloyd managed to get going again and limped round to the pits for a quick suspension check before returning to the fray. While all that was going on, the marshals first hung out the yellow and red slippery surface flag at the site of accident, and then started decorating the place with SC boards.
The Safety Car duly took over the field, and everyone bunched up, Vergne probably cursing his luck. Webb was still 2nd, ahead of Buzaid, Huertas, Svendsen-Cook, Nakajima, Jay Bridger (Litespeed), Gabriel Dias (Hitech Racing), Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin) and Daniel McKenzie (Fortec Motorsport). 11th overall and still leading the National Class was Idafar, from Cole, William Buller (Hitech Racing), Snegirev, Nasr, Lucas Foresti (Carlin), Brundle, Adderley Fong (Sino Vision Racing) and Lloyd. You'd expect with the Safety Car now in control, all would be well. Not a bit of it. Running behind the Safety Car Foresti managed to have a bit of a moment and ran into the rear of Nasr, damaging his front wing and spinning. He then tried to regain his place, which wasn't too clever either. As he then pitted instead, along with Nasr, the problem was moot, but at least half of the Brazilians were not exactly having the best of days. Nasr's race was over. Foresti was at least able to rejoin.
At the restart, Vergne remained calm and collected, and controlled things beautifully, this time breaking the tow to Webb and streaking away from the pack. Cole, meanwhile, lost a place to Buller who now split the National Class boys. Buller then set about looking for a way to get round Idafar so he could set off after McKenzie, finally battling his way past on lap 12. Meanwhile, Brundle lost out to Fong, the Chinese driver's experience (two years of F3) proving far more use than two year's of Formula Palmer Audi. With around half the race run, the leaders were now lapping Foresti, who behaved impeccably in getting out of their way. That probably frustrated Webb, who might have hoped that something would slow that Frenchman down. It didn't. He simply went faster and opened up the gap even further. The others couldn't keep up any longer and in fact while Buzaid started to look more closely at Webb, Huertas was now having to hold off Svendsen-Cook and Nakajima for 4th. It wasn't the only interesting battle out there though.
Lloyd was the latest to have to try and sort out Snegirev and he wasn't finding it any easier than Nasr had. It got worse for the Welshman when Brundle finally found his way past Fong (by diving up the inside at Knickerbrook) and caught up with the pair of them. It wasn't long before Lloyd almost lost his nose as he tried yet again to get past Snegirev and had to back off abruptly. To make it even more interesting, Snegirev was now on Cole's rear wing, and the pack of them bunched up even more as a result. With less than two minutes left to run, there weren't many opportunities left for overtaking, but everyone from 8th back suddenly got promoted one place when Bridger suffered some sort of failure and speared straight off into the gravel trap, ending his race prematurely, an exit that would benefit Dias as it turned out.
However, that was for later when Vergne drew 7 out of the hat to decide his starting place for Race 2. That meant the man in 7th was promoted to pole and that man was Dias. For now though Vergne came home a convincing winner, from Webb, Buzaid, Huertas, Svendsen-Cook, Nakajima, Dias, Jaafar, McKenzie and Buller. National Class winner Idafar was 11th overall, from Cole, Snegirev, Lloyd, Brundle, Fong and Foresti.
Fastest laps went to Vergne and Idafar.
The second and third races of the new season with the new format will take place on Monday, April 5th. Race 2's grid will be based on a draw from race 1 results.
Weather: Sunny, dry, cold.