Lining up for the start of qualifying, there were a lot of questions hanging in the air. Could Paolo Montin (Ombra), back for his 6th attempt at this race, actually carry it off this time? Could the Mercedes-powered runners be stopped? Would the Japanese spec Mugen-Honda in Robert Kubica's Carlin Motorsport car actually be faster than the apparently unstoppable German engines? Who would be first into the scenery? All of these answer and more would have to wait, as the session was delayed while the marshals worked frantically to rebuild the barriers. Jonathan Cocker had crashed his Porsche and heavily modified the railings. It led to a 20 minute delay, while the F3 boys all sat in their cars getting hot and bothered. It didn't exactly bode well, especially as most of them had behaved impeccably in the morning session (though Dan Clarke in the Prema Powerteam car for the first time was briefly stuck at Melco, and Edenbridge Racing's Cheong Lou Meng swiped a barrier and wiped the name off one of his tyres). The one thing the untimed morning session did suggest was that you maybe didn't need a Mercedes engine, though you could definitely do with Montin. Of course, that could all change in a split second.
Once the green lights were illuminated, there was something of a rush to get out there. Not everyone was in such a hurry. In fact, Carlin seemed to be actively hanging back, as did the TOMS Toyota boys. Bruno Senna (Double R Racing), on the other hand, seemed very keen to get out, as did Taku Bamba (Now Motor Sports) and Daisuke Ikeda (Zap Speed). They were joined by Stephen Jelley (Menu Motorsport), who was also keen to get on track; to be honest, after his morning session, he clearly needed as much mileage as he could get. At the other end of the scale, Kazuki Nakajima (Signal Media TOMS) was the very last driver to emerge from the pitlane. Inevitably, perhaps, Bamba was thus the first man to set a pole time, the violinist being quickly supplanted by Ikeda, though they were both soon elbowed out of the way by a the hard-charging Montin. Another likely front- runner soon topped the order, Fabio Carbone (Signature), in the SLC going ahead until Naoki Yokomizo (Three Bond Racing) crossed the line. Rookie Guillaume Moreau (Signature Plus) then moved the goalposts with a brave effort.
Someone else looking brave even this early in the day was Danny Watts (Team Midland Euroseries). He was soon 2nd, and looked like he had plans to try and stay there. For a man having only his 2nd F3 race of the year (though he's been out in everything from go-karts to a World Series Renault car), Watts was looking very confident. However, the next time we looked at the screen, Lo0x0135val (ASM F3) was on pole, with Kubica right beside him. Edging up the order into 3rd was the highly-rated Franck Perera (Prema Powerteam), but at this point no one was getting near Duval, who was fastest by one and three-quarter seconds, a phenomenal amount even around this incredibly challenging track. The order was constantly shifting, though Duval looked pretty comfortable at this point. Further back, British series Rookie of the Year, Charlie Kimball (Carlin Motorsport) was in 9th, while Watts was two places ahead of him. In fact, a lap later and Watts was on provisional pole, which suggested that maybe Duval wasn't as secure as he would have liked. The time to aim at was now 2 minutes, 17 seconds or less, a good five seconds slower than last year's fastest times. It was obvious that there was a lot more to come. And come it did, with Lucas di Grassi (Manor Motorsport) shooting up the order to go 3rd, only to get edged back down when Montin slotted into 2nd. That man Duval wasn't about to give up without a fight however, and proceeded to set a new pole time, his lead now over 3 seconds!
With Joao Paulo de Oliveira (Signal Media TOMS) aiming for pole and just missing, the Brazilian charge seemed to have started finally. This appeared to rattle Carbone, who slotted into 4th, while behind him there was much reshuffling of the order. Clarke fought his way into the top ten, while Kohei Hirate (Team Rosberg) edged up into 8th. Kubica was still trying, and was on the second row by the time he pitted. The team made a number of adjustments, including to his seat, and sent him back out. Meanwhile, he'd been replaced in 4th by the latest Wunderkind, Sebastian Vettel (ASM F3), the baby-faced German proving spectacular and fast, at least at this point. Australian Karl Reindler (Alan Docking Racing) was unexpectedly high up the order for a man with as little experience as he has, and was 12th. With around a third of the session gone, the order was Duval from Montin, di Grassi, Watts and de Oliveira.
Of course the order promptly changed again. De Oliveira was the next to challenge Duval, getting to with 0.3 of the Frenchman. A lot of drivers were starting to push hard now, including Christian Bakkerud (Carlin Motorsport), the Dane moving into the top ten and having the time of his life. "This place? It's fucking awesome! I drove every lap with a smile on my face!" This was in contrast to Mike Conway's extra-restrained response when he was asked what he thought of the place. "It's good," was all he could be persuaded to say. Another lap down and Nakajima was 3rd, while Moreau was pushing so hard he was locking up all over the place. Conway, despite his apparently laconic attitude, was also doing well and was now 10th. However, Duval was still King of the Mountain, and no one seemed able to get near him. In fact it was the bottom half of the top ten that seemed to be most changeable. While Kimball came into the pits to have his Mugen-Honda looked at, everyone else was battling away.
Yokomizo was the next driver to claim 10th. Vettel was the man looking spectacular now; it was one of those drives that looked as if it was likely to end in the wall, but at this point he was the fastest of the Macau rookies. The slowest driver on the track - apart from Kane, who'd been struck by an oil leak at the start of the session and spent most of it in the pits - was, perhaps inevitably, Cheong Lou Meng (Edenbridge Racing), who was on his fastest run of the session when he encountered the barriers at San Francisco and put an end to his session.
At the halfway stage the top ten was Duval, from de Oliveira, Nakajima, Montin, di Grassi, Carbone, Watts, Vettel, Moreau and Kubica. This wasn't over by a long shot. It did all calm down temporarily, though Kubica gained 5 places while everyone else was busy in the pits. Perera improved to 7th, while Romain Grosjean (Signature-Plus) and local boy Rodolfo Avila (HBR Motorsport) both improved their times but not their positions. Conway had dropped down the order but was now on the move again, reappearing in 14th and bumping Bakkerud down a place, the Dane convinced for some reason that Kane had blocked him... A lap later Grosjean was up to 12th, but then it all slowed up again, just after Kubica rocketed into 2nd. Nakajima had attacked the barriers at Moorish, damaging the front suspension and putting himself out of the session. He'd also caused an outbreak of double waved yellows, so no one should have improved while the car was being craned away.
There were 15 minutes of qualifying left by the time the wreck had been removed and the flags withdrawn. The order was now Duval, Kubica, de Oliveira, Nakajima (who looked likely to slip down the order now he was out of action) and Montin. Most people still had time for a number of flying laps, so anything could happen. Perera moved up to 7th, while Conway was 10th, just behind Watts. Yokomizo moved up a place or two and pushed Watts down a place. Duval also suddenly got pushed down a place, when di Grassi put in an extraordinary effort and snatched pole with a time of 2:13.11.
Meanwhile, Kimball was back in the pits yet again and had the engine people swarming over his car while they tried to get to the root of the Mugen-Honda's malaise. It wasn't looking good for the American at this point, though at least they thought the problem was now solved. "It was fine for the last two and a half laps, and least we haven't used any tyres!" he remarked afterwards. It didn't alter the fact that he's going to have a lot of work to do on Friday. Conway, meanwhile, had apparently decided he wanted to be the fastest Macau rookie, and went 5th, two places ahead of the spectacular Vettel. And while all this was going on, Kubica was edging closer to pole, with a time that was only 0.04 off di Grassi. In fact, it seemed just about everyone was improving. Bakkerud was back to 10th, while Grosjean leapfrogged to 8th. Watts edged ahead of Carbone for 4th, while Hirate was 8th. Meanwhile, Bamba had lost his nose, and Michael Ho (Team Midland Euroseries) was in the wall at Lisboa. The marshals got him moving again, and he didn't slow anyone down too much. He certainly didn't slow Kubica, who was now 0.027 off pole.
Carbone managed another flyer, and went 4th. Meanwhile, Montin had limped to a halt on his fastest lap when the gearbox broke, and left him badly hampered. Di Grassi speeded up in an attempt to secure provisional pole, but Kubica was still out there and still dangerous. Duval got within a hair's breadth of the Brazilian, just as Kubica crossed the line for the last time to claim the lead with a time of 2:12.754, making him the only man to break into the 2 minute 12 seconds bracket. It was enough to give him the position from di Grassi by 0.327 seconds. Elsewhere in the order Yokomizo thought he'd grabbed 4th on his last lap, but then Carbone pulled off one of his infamous last lap charges and took it from the Japanese. And so, on Thursday afternoon, the order was Kubica, from di Grassi, Duval, Carbone, Yokomizo, Watts, de Oliveira, Conway, Hirate and Perera. Nakajima could consider himself lucky not to drop further back than 11th, from Vettel, Grosjean, Montin, Bakkerud, Moreau, Senna (who couldn't understand quite why he was losing time), Ikeda, Kimball and Reindler. Bamba was 21st, from Clarke, Fillip Salaquarda (HBR Motorsport), the highest place local Avila, Ho, Jelley, Lei Kit Meng (Swiss Racing Team), Jo Merszei (Double R Racing), Cheong and a deeply disappointed Kane ("And after I kept it out of the wall all morning too!"). However, many of the potential front-runners have saved their new tyres for tomorrow. Almost anything can happen, and most likely will.
After the session, all of Perera's times were disallowed because he failed to stop for a weight check when requested to do so. As he'd arrived in the pitlane with the car smoking, and seemed unable to stop, this seemed a bit harsh.