For the 56th running of the Macau Grand Prix, much was expected of the more experienced individuals, especially with fifteen rookie drivers taking part. Probably the most pressure was resting on Jules Bianchi (ART), but with a Ferrari F1 test in the offing in less than two weeks' time, the Frenchman seemed deeply distracted at Macau.
The man most likely to succeed now appears to be Marcus Ericsson (Tom's), this year's Japanese F3 Champion, and a man who has impressed on his occasional runs in the British F3 Series. At the end of two fraught qualifying sessions, it was the Swede who emerged on pole for Saturday's qualification race, ahead of Jean-Karl Vernay (Signature), and Valtteri Bottas (ART).
After a free practice session which saw Ericsson set the pace, and Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin) the best rookie, things finally got underway on a cool but dry afternoon. For one or two individuals Macau was already proving a tough challenge, with both Fortec drivers crashing out, Daniel McKenzie offing it on his second flying lap, and Victor Garcia bringing the session to a premature halt when he attacked the barriers at Fisherman's, costing everyone valuable track time. They were joined on the sidelines by Daniel Zampieri (Prema Powerteam), but at least he waited until the end of the session before hitting the Armco at Moorish.
With their minds now concentrated on first qualifying, there was a bit of jockeying for position as the exit from the pit lane. With the temperatures unseasonably low this year, everyone was keen to get out and set a good time, rather than waiting for Friday's session, which is what would more normally happen. The initial pace was set by Stefano Coletti (Prema Powerteam), who made the most of his experience on this circuit with a time well ahead of Ericsson's, despite the Swede getting a good run out of pit lane by virtue of being in the best placed garage. It didn't take long for everything to change though, Edoardo Mortara (Signature) taking a turn at the top; however it was still only the first flying lap for anyone. Meanwhile, another rookie showing well was Bottas who was now 4th, ahead of Brendon Hartley (Carlin), another experience Macau hand. They were followed by Jean-Karl Vernay (Signature), Jules Bianchi in another of the ART cars, and Ricciardo... It didn't take long for Ericsson to strike back, however, the Swede claiming 2nd, just as Bottas stormed round for provisional pole. He was pushing hard now, but Hartley, who has a proven reputation as a street racer, replaced him, causing a suggestion from the commentator that "the Kiwi is flying", not something that really bears thinking about... Meanwhile, in 3rd was Bianchi, who had matched Bottas' time exactly, just doing it later.
A little later and Ricciardo was 5th, while Renger van der Zande (City of Dreams/Raikkonen Robertson) was now 8th, ahead of Sam Bird (ART) in 9th. Now though, it was Mortara who was flying, and he edges ahead, getting into the 2.12s, well ahead of last year's pole position time. Interestingly some people were proving very fast through the first sector, but were then losing out elsewhere on the more convoluted sections of the track. Someone who wasn't losing out was Bottas, the Finn now firmly on Mortara's case, while behind the two of them it was all change again, with Coletti back up to 3rd, and Bird now 4th, Bianchi dropping back to 5th ahead of Hartley. New to the top ten was Alexander Sims (City of Dreams/Raikkonen Robertson), while another youngster doing well was Laurens Vanthoor (Signature).
While Ricciardo dropped down, it was Bottas who was now the pace setter, setting a very fast middle sector, and capping it by going fastest of all. However, he may have been trying too hard, because on his next lap he slid off onto the barriers at Lisboa, and couldn't keep the engine running. The marshals pushed him unceremoniously away to Sao Francisco, just as Ericsson went back to 3rd. It wasn't long before Bottas started to fall down the order, even with yellow flags out. And he wasn't the only one in trouble; there was a tangle at Lisboa between two cars, and initially it wasn't too clear who it was, but it seemed one of those involved was one of the slowest drivers, Kevin Chen (Champ Motorsport/Raikkonen Robertson), who could be seen limping back to the pits.
While the dust settled, Bianchi climbed up to 4th, just ahead of Hartley, but then everything went quiet. There was a general rush for the pits as everyone tried to avoid the slightly chaotic track. At least everyone had set a lap time, except for Zampieri, who was still waiting for the team to repair the damage from his morning shunt. As soon as the track was properly cleared, Coletti went straight back out and promptly went 3rd, while van der Zande edged ahead of his team-mate Sims, which was what you might expect given their relative experience levels. Someone who should have been further up the order for the same reason was Max Chilton (Carlin), but he was still only 16th despite being fastest in the first sector. Time was beginning to run out now, and not just for Chilton. It was beginning to look as if Ricciardo might have misjudged things too, and he had fallen back to 15th, but he might just have been biding his time. That was when Hartley again dug deep and rocketed back to pole, with a time of 1:12.222, far better than last year's pole, which seemed to inspire Ricciardo too, the Australian improving to 10th, ahead of a general reshuffle. Van der Zande was 8th overall now, while Mika Maki (Hitech Racing) started to show, though his best was only enough for 13th. Looking really ominous now was Ericsson, and his next lap was enough for 5th, though he looked as if there might be more to come. He wasn't the only one with something in reserve, something that became obvious when Bird grabbed 2nd just behind Hartley. They were joined by Mortara in 3rd and Coletti in 4th, while the fastest rookie was now Ricciardo again, as the Aussie claimed 5th, a mere 4/10ths of a second off pole. The top ten was rounded out by Maki, Vanthoor, Ericsson, Vernay and Bottas now, while Bianchi was only 13th and that in an ART car too! There were personal bests from Mortara and Maki, and van der Zande was on a charge to, while Sims moved up as well, but it was incredibly tight at the front, with less than one second separating the top 15, something unprecedented in recent years.
With the clock ticking down, it was time to really go for it, and Ricciardo did just that, going fastest of all just as Vanthoor crashed out at Moorish, in the aftermath of his own fastest lap. Ericsson was also through Moorish before the unfortunate Belgian crashed out, and that was enough to give him the advantage and in fact the pole position. And after that is was academic, as the red flag was hauled out with less than a lap's time still to run. Vanthoor was missing a front wheel, and had to be rescued - in the process he'd spoiled a lot of other people's plans, as well as his own.
And so, at the end of the first session the top ten was Ericsson, from Ricciardo, Mortara, Hartley, Bird, Vanthoor, Coletti, Maki, Vernay and Bottas. 11th was Carlos Huertas (Manor Motorsport), ahead of regular Manor runner Roberto Merhi, while 13th was Chilton, the Sims, Bianchi, van der Zande, Takuto Iguchi (Tom's), Kei Cozzolino (Toda Racing), Wayne Boyd (Hitech Racing) and Koki Saga (Le Beausset Motorsports). 21st was Jake Rosenzweig (Fortec Motorsport), leading Yuji Kunimoto (NOW Motor Sports), Stef Dusseldorp (Kolles & Heinz Union), Alexandre Imperatori (KCMG by Kolles & Heinz Union), local "hero" Michael Ho (Champ Motorsport/Manor Motorsport), McKenzie, Henry Arundel (Carlin) who was recovering from a stomach bug, Garcia and Chen.
Friday's qualifying session was - if anything - even more chaotic, which was no surprise. There seemed to be something in the air this afternoon, and the F3 boys were not alone in causing havoc. The WTCC runners had done their best to create mayhem too. Anyway, it didn't take long for the first improvements to come through, with Bird the first to improve to go 4th. He wasn't the only one on the move, as Mortara was still looking very determined and also very quick even on his first flying lap. This was starting to look as if it would, after all, be a much faster session, with Iguchi moving up to 10th from a long way back, and Dusseldorp and Garcia also making progress, though they both remained somewhat distant from the front runners. Unlike them, Mortara was right on the pace, while Vanthoor was making the most of everything he'd managed to learn from his more experienced team-mates and was now 2nd, getting ahead of Bird and Ricciardo. And just as it seemed everyone was getting up to speed, everything came to a grinding halt when Huertas crashed out in a big way, causing yellows in Sector 2 and a general slow down of what was now a very busy track. Finding that Huertas was occupying a lot of space, a general dive back to the pits ensued, as the officials had no choice but to red flag the session and crane the Colombian away, effectively putting an end to his hopes for the weekend.
As they all lined up to wait for the mess to be cleared away, the order was Mortara, from Vanthoor, Bird, Ricciardo, Vernay, Ericsson, Bianchi, Iguchi, Hartley and Coletti. 11th was Bottas, Kunimoto, Chilton, Merhi, van der Zande, Saga, Huertas, Cozzolino, Boyd and Maki. In 21st was Rosenzweig, from Dusseldorp, Garcia, Zampieri, Arundel, Imperatori, Sims, McKenzie, Chen and Ho. When the restart came, there were still almost 33 minutes on the clock, and as they all rolled back out onto the track, Hartley left it a bit late to go out and ended up getting in the way of people who were already on a fast lap. By the time they reached Mandarin Bend, he had a queue of four drivers behind him, including Ericsson. Bianchi barged his way past, but could probably take comfort in the fact that at least Hartley wasn't slow. And once they did get past none of them seemed to want to take the initiative. Vernay finally cracked and went for it, ending up fastest as a result, which meant that Signature were first, second and third, though whether they could hang onto it was another question.
With Vernay now in the 2:10s, the improvements started to come thick and fast. Mortara speeded up but stayed 2nd. Meanwhile, Kunimoto improved a lot, which was more than Bianchi was able to do; the Frenchman was still a long way back, which was unexpected to say the least. At the front of the grid it was Bottas who was now charging, the Finn up to 4th, presumable having recovered from yesterday's disaster. With the track still relatively empty, Hartley was now clear of the pack and able to get on with his own tactics. His next lap was good enough for 8th, and he was well placed to take advantage of the fact that most of the other front runners were still in the pits. As it turned out, the pits were the best place to be as trouble broke out again. This time Boyd went off at Dona Maria and was promptly craned away, while Rosenzweig smacked into the wall between the Esses and Police. Although he came to rest reasonably well out of the way, there were yellow flags at post 19 as a result, because water was seeping out from somewhere behind the barriers and running across an otherwise dry track. Once again the red flags were hauled out and the session was halted temporarily, this time with around 20 minutes left to run. The marshals were scrambled with an array of mops, brooms, and so on, and they set about swabbing the track, an operation that took well over 20 minutes to complete.
The order now was Vernay, from Mortara, Vanthoor, Bottas, Bird, Ricciardo, Merhi, Hartley, Ericsson and Maki who improved just as the red flags were hauled out. Kunimoto was now 11th, from Bianchi, Iguchi, Sims, Boyd, Rosenzweig, Cozzolino, Chilton, Coletti and van der Zande. Garcia was 21st ahead of Saga, Huertas, Imperatori, Dusseldorp, Zampieri, Arundel, McKenzie, Ho and - perhaps inevitably - Chen. After what felt like an interminable wait, the track was finally clear again and the improvements came straight from the start, Ricciardo going 4th and looking set to make a run at pole. Bird went faster but didn't improve, and was pushed down by Coletti. A lap later and Bird was down in 8th, despite managing to go faster. The times were falling rapidly now, and pole position was already the fastest an F3 car had ever been around Macau. In fact apart from the Jordan F1 car six year's ago, nothing had ever been that fast around Macau... And they weren't done yet. A sub 2 minute 10 second lap might even be possible. The cool weather had undoubtedly played its part, but it was still impressive.
The times just kept on falling, with Iguchi improving, and Chilton though he was still only 14th, which wasn't what Carlin were looking for. And then Bottas set the quickest time of all in the middle sector, which went a long way towards putting him on pole with a time of 2.10:862. He didn't get to keep it for long, because the next man to go fastest was Ricciardo, but he too was soon displaced, this time by Vernay, with a time of 2:10.081! They were just getting quicker and quicker out there. Unfortunately, despite - or possibly because - he'd just set a blinding lap, Ricciardo went off at Lisboa after leaving his braking slightly too late. He kept the engine going and limped back to the pits, still hanging onto 2nd. With Vernay ahead and Bottas behind the top three were Macau rookies, and extremely unusual event. With Vanthoor in 4th it was rookies all the way... At least so far. With 11 minutes left, Ricciardo made it back to the pits, only to be pulled over by the scrutineers, thus reducing the amount of time available to Carlin to fix the Dallara's battered looking nose and get him back out there. And all the while, the Australian was losing ground. He probably wasn't saying kind things about the officials right then...
The times were still coming down, with Ericsson now claiming pole position and that 2.09 looked ever more plausible given the pace out there. Bottas came through obviously on the limit, while Mortara was flying too. Pole was now 2:10.042 with about eight minutes of the session left. Mortara was still pushing hard and was up to 3rd now, only to get shoved back down a place by Bottas. It was all set to be all change, when Chen struck again. Having ended every other session so far by being carried away after assaulting the scenery, he crashed out yet again thus maintaining a perfect record at Macau. It didn't help anyone that Hartley also managed to clip the barrier at R Bend on what would have been his fastest lap had he actually managed to complete it.
At least no one was going to go faster now, not with the yellows at Chen's accident site giving way to reds as the marshals tried to drag the hapless Taiwanese away to a place of safety (somewhere with no race tracks would be favourite). With daylight fast running out, and the WTCC boys still needing to qualify, the officials couldn't allow the session to be restarted, even though almost four minutes was still on the clock which would have allowed most people one more flying lap. The effect of all this chaos was that Ericsson was on pole, ahead of fastest rookie Vernay, Bottas, Mortara, Ricciardo (who should probably go and thank Chen for saving him from further demotion), Vanthoor, Bianchi, Bird, Coletti and Maki. In 11th was Iguchi (who also got away quite lightly given he'd just gone off at Maternity and done a lot of damage), Hartley, Mehri, Sims, van der Zande, Kunimoto (the younger brother of last year's winner), Chilton, Boyd, Huertas and Rosenzweig. The final ten consisted of Cozzolino, Zampieri, Garcia, Saga, Dusseldorp, Imperatori, Arundel, McKenzie, Ho and Chen, who amazingly got inside the qualifying limit and will get to start tomorrow's qualifying race.