At Macau today, Marko Asmer set the standard for the others to beat, claiming provisional pole for Hitech Racing just ahead of hotly tipped favourite Romain Grosjean (ASM F3). Yelmer Buurman and Sebastian Buemi made up the top 4, with Esteban Guerrieri just behind them. There is a second session still to come, so obviously this could be subject to change.
The World Touring Car Championship runners should have been out today but are currently missing in action - or at least in Beijing, which was where most of their tyres and tools were last seen when they should have been loaded on a boat for onward shipping to Macau - so the weekend schedule has had to be reshuffled slightly. The only effect on the Polytec Formula Three Grand Prix of Macau (the 25th F3 race here) is that the second qualifying session will start 15 minutes later than originally scheduled tomorrow, which means we all get a bit of a lie in.
The charge on to the Macanese streets was led by Bruno Senna (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), returning to the formula after a year of GP2, at the invitation of the Macau Grand Prix Committee, who wanted the Brazilian here because it's 25 years since his uncle, Ayrton, won the inaugural race around these very same streets. Given their position in the pit lane, it was no surprise that he took his team-mates, Stephen Jelley, Jonathan Kennard and Sebastien Buemi with him. In fact he was immediately joined out there by all the other 29 runners, with the exception of Sam Bird (Carlin Motorsport), after the pocket-sized Rookie of the Year in the British F3 series slammed into the Armco during the morning's untimed session. Basically, he reckoned he'd outbraked himself in the run down to Lisboa, and the resulting contact with the barriers took several corners off his Dallara. The team was still working feverishly to fix it as the session got underway. At least he now knew that the outside line there was very slippery. He wasn't' the only one in trouble in the morning session, though he was the one who sustained the worst damage. Jelley had an off of his own, and bounced back into the path of the 2007 Euro Series champion, Romain Grosjean (ASM F3), meaning both cars were in need of a lot of work, and Walter Grubmuller (Hitech Racing) forgot which gears he was supposed to be using when he couldn't remember where he was on the circuit, and crashed out on his first flying lap. They all had quite a bit of catching up to do. At least the Austrian now thought the track was "cool" as opposed to seeming to be scared stiff of the place.
On the newly resurfaced track the first real time came from Buemi, who was marginally faster than Nico Hulkenberg (ASM F3) at the end of the first batch of flying laps. Needless to say, they all shuffled round shortly afterwards, with Roberto Streit (Prema Powerteam), getting ahead, from Yelmer Buurman (Manor Motorsport). However, the times were still relatively slow, in the 2 minutes 18 seconds bracket, which meant there was far more to come from most of the drivers.
Atte Mustonen, racing for Signature-Plus this weekend instead of Double R (Senna has his car) was an early casualty, coming in with his tyre walls nicely redecorated with paint from the barriers, and presumably matching suspension damage, which meant he would spend most of the session in the pits when he should have been out getting to grips with the circuit. Possibly digging holes in snow (he's in the middle of six months of compulsory military service back in Finland) might not have seemed too bad an option at this point! He wasn't the only early pit visitor (though he stayed longer than most). Franck Mailleux (Manor Motorsport) was in for a tweak or two, while the world briefly turned Double R, with Buemi, Kennard and Jelley heading up the order. That didn't last long either, but after the pounding the British series runners took at the Masters this year, it was reassuring.
Kamui Kobayashi (ASM F3) was now into the 2.15s, while Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing), looking coolly confident this time out, was 2nd. He was pushed back down by Streit, back for his third run at this race, while Kodai Tsukakoshi in another of the Manor Motorsport cars was 4th. Bird finally got to join in, while Oliver Jarvis (Team Reckless Tom's) wrestled one of only two non-Mercedes powered cars in this race to pole, by a mere 0.003 seconds. A whole lot more shuffling followed, before it was back to Streit and Asmer swapping places, the Brazilian edging ahead only to lose out to the Estonian. That dropped Tsukakoshi back to 3rd, with Buemi 4th. With a third of the session gone, Asmer was pushing hard, increasing the pace to claim provisional pole by around half a second, though it wasn't over yet.
A further effort saw Buemi back to 2nd, with Yelmer Buurman (Manor Motorsport) just behind him, but the fact was that Asmer was hanging on to his lead and seemed utterly determined that this year he would add the Macau title to his British championship victory.
The order, with half an hour left, was, therefore, Asmer from Buemi, Buurman, Streit, Kobayashi, Hulkenberg, James Jakes (Manor Motorsport), Jelley, Jarvis and Kazuya Oshima (Team Reckless Tom's). 11th was Kennard, from Senna, Edoardo Mortara (Signature-Plus), Carlo van Dam (HBR Motorsport), Renger van der Zande (Prema Powerteam), Niall Breen (Carlin Motorsport), Brendon Hartley (Carlin Motorsport), Bird, Mailleux and Esteban Guerrieri (Signature-Plus). 21st was the first of the locals, Michael Ho (Hitech Racing), from Rodolfo Avila (HBR Motorsport), Cheong Lou Meng (Swiss Racing Team), Takuya Izawa (Fortec Motorsport), Lei Kit Meng (Carlin Motorsport), Grubmuller, Jo Merszei (Swiss Racing Team), Mustonen and Grosjean. Obviously both Mustonen and especially Grosjean would bear watching when they could get back out and get motoring.
The next thing to happen though was that Tsukakoshi shot to pole, though Streit fought back, only to have the Japanese edge ahead again a lap later. It had been a trouble-free session, which is unusual, so perhaps it was no surprise when the trouble started. It began innocuously enough, with Hulkenberg briefly clipping the tyres at Lisboa, leading to waved yellows while he sorted himself out and drove slowly back to the pits to check for damage. Around this time Asmer, who was now 3rd, came into the pits, sitting impassively while the team changed tyres and got him ready to go back out. With Jakes, Jarvis and Jelley fighting for 7th, and Buemi heading the order again, Hulkenberg made it back under his own steam. In fact it was getting quite busy in the pits as we neared the halfway mark in first qualifying. It was also becoming obvious that some people still had a lot of work to do. Senna, despite announcing that the car was superb at Pembrey, and that this is the best race in the world, was looking pretty distant at this point, just ahead of Bird in 15th, and Breen in 17th (but they're rookies so they have an excuse). The best placed rookie was Mortara just now, the Italian youngster in 7th.
Certainly Bird wasn't going to be challenging for best rookie any time soon. There was a car in the wall at Fisherman's, and it soon became apparent that it was Bird. Meanwhile, possibly in a spirit of solidarity, Senna hit the tyres at Sao Francisco, and was joined almost immediately by Izawa, after a couple of near misses from some of the other more experienced runners. It was all a bit messy, to say the least, and the officials clearly thought so too, because they hauled out the red flags and stopped the session while the mess could be cleared up. At this point the order was Buemi, from Streit, Tsukakoshi, Asmer, Buurman, Kobayashi, Mortara, Jakes, Jarvis and Jelley. 11th was Hulkenberg, from Guerrieri, Oshima, Kennard, Senna, Bird, Breen, van Dam, van der Zande and Hartley (who seemed to have too many arms in the cockpit). 21st was Izawa, from Mailleux, Ho, Grubmuller, Avila, Lei, Cheong, Merszei, Mustonen and Grosjean (who must have been wondering what he had to do to get a clear run now he was back in action).
With 18 minutes and 53 seconds left to run once they cleared the mess up, the marshals finally hung out an oil flag or two, and everyone that could went back out to play. There was a little over quarter of an hour available to them once they completed their out laps, so it looked like being pretty hectic. Buemi was still leading, and still setting the pace, being the first driver into the 13s. No one seemed likely to join him that quickly either. However, Grosjean was now on the move and was improving rapidly, initially leapfrogging into 14th from 30th and looking set to do more. Kennard also managed a big improvement to go 9th, while Oshima shot up the order to 5th, only to find Grosjean just behind him in 6th seconds later. Buurman was still pushing ahead and was back to 2nd, while a fresh effort from Asmer moved him into 3rd ahead of Jakes and Jarvis. While Avila bounced off the barriers on the way to Melco - spinning through 180 - Asmer moved back to provisional pole, this time by over half a second. It didn't seem to slow Buurman down any, the Dutchman pressing on in pursuit of the Estonian, and edging Buemi out of 2nd, while Kobayashi was now 4th.
With yellow flags in sector two things went quiet briefly, though that didn't prevent Mustonen actually managing a proper lap at last. It was only enough to move him up to 21st, but it was a definite sign of progress. Now all he had to do was use the five minute he had left to pull a good time out of the hat. At the front, Asmer still seemed to be in control, although Buurman was closing the times down, just not quite enough. Meanwhile, Grosjean was getting ever faster, and was now 4th. To further perturb the Estonian, Buurman and Buemi were both still pulling faster times from somewhere too, but they stayed 2nd and 3rd, while Tsukakoshi moved up to 5th. Elsewhere, Mustonen was still looking for improvements too, and was now 14th, which was progress so long as you didn't compare it to Grosjean's stunning pace. Meanwhile Kennard was out, another to fall victim to the walls; it was getting busy at Double R. However, all eyes were now on Grosjean, who was pushing as hard as he knows how. With a minute left, he was 2nd, but he was still 0.207 seconds off Asmer's pace. Could he do it? Only time would tell.
Asmer must have felt like a swimmer in shark-infested waters by now. He could see the fins, he just didn't know if they could quite reach him or not. As it turned out, they couldn't. When the flag dropped, Grosjean was still second, and would stay there, just behind Asmer, but ahead of Buurman (who'd also clipped the barriers) and Buemi. A late improvement from Guerrieri saw the Argentinean claim 5th place, ahead of Tsukakoshi, Kobayashi, Jakes, Streit and Jelley. Jarvis was 11th, the fastest of the two Toyota-powered cars, leading Mortara, Oshima, Hulkenberg, Breen, Mustonen, Kennard, van Dam, van Der Zande and Senna. Bird was 21st, heading up Mailleux, Hartley, Grubmuller, Izawa, Avila (the fastest of the locals), Ho, Lei and Cheong. At the moment Merszei, who was 30th - and last - has failed to make the required qualifying maxima and may be out of the race if he can't improve in tomorrow's second, and deciding, session.
Whatever happens in second qualifying Mustonen, Hulkenberg and Kobayashi will all start three places back as penalty for pit lane infringements, while Cheong has been reprimanded, presumably because he'll likely start at the back anyway if today's effort is anything to go by.