At Zolder today, in front of 15,000 spectators instead of the usual 60,000 we've come to expect at Zandvoort, Nico Hulkenberg was the slightly unexpected winner of the 17th running of the Masters of Formula Three, after his ASM Formule 3 team-mate...
At Zolder today, in front of 15,000 spectators instead of the usual 60,000 we've come to expect at Zandvoort, Nico Hulkenberg was the slightly unexpected winner of the 17th running of the Masters of Formula Three, after his ASM Formule 3 team-mate Romain Grosjean made the most awful start from pole position, bogging down as the field left the grid. Second place went to Yann Clairay for Signature-Plus with Jean Karl Vernay in another Signature car finishing 3rd. The Nations Cup was won by Germany, thanks to the efforts of Hulkenberg and Maro Engel (Carlin Motorsport), the latter managing more overtaking moves than the rest of the field put together it seemed.
The 17th running of the Masters of Formula Three saw drama before the race even started. In the Carlin Motorsport's garage Sam Bird's mechanics had fired up the Mercedes engine only to have it blow. The result: an incredibly fast engine change, followed by a start from the back of the grid for the Englishman. It wasn't what he wanted in what was turning into a character-building weekend for Bird. In addition, Michael Devaney (Ultimate Motorsport) was still struggling with the Dallara that he was driving in place of his usual Mygale. The team was gathered together on the grid, which was being rapidly reshuffled after Bird's demotion, and everyone was staring at the steering wheel, so that was slightly worrying. The state of the Kumho tyres that everyone was due to run on was also causing a certain amount of concern. Some of the rubber was looking seriously second hand, and with the track temperatures going sky-high, it was questionable as to how long the tyres would last - 28 laps seemed like a very long way suddenly.
Anyway, the field lined up for what we all suspected would be a dominant win for ASM Formule 3 and their pole sitter Romain Grosjean, only for the world to shift on its axis. The lights came on, and went out again so fast that if you blinked you missed it, which seemed to be what happened to Grosjean. As both Nico Hulkenberg (ASM Formule 3) and Franck Mailleux (Manor Motorsport) took advantage of what seemed to be a lack of concentration on Grosjean's part, Grosjean bogged down, finally getting away in the back half of the field.
By some miracle, while he was trying to get away, no one hit him, but he did inconvenience a number of drivers very badly, among them Maro Engel (Carlin Motorsport), and by the look of it also Kamui Kobayashi (ASM) and Tom Dillmann (also ASM), neither of them surviving the first lap. Another who was not long for the race was Michael Patrizi (Prema Powerteam), who was off in the gravel at the Villeneuve Chicane and thus instantly out of the running. So an ASM car was leading this event but it wasn't the one we'd expected. However, as Hulkenberg is being touted as something of a star this shouldn't have been too big a shock. He was leading Mailleux, and Yann Clairay (Signature-Plus), Mailleux having a bit of a go but not looking like he could really make it stick. The leading UK runner was Jonathan Kennard (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) who was in a less than stellar 10th place, looking for a slice of the action, but not finding it. There was a moment when Atte Mustonen (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) looked like he might start a bit of a charge too, but instead he slipped backwards slightly after a good start.
Two guys in real trouble were Dani Clos (Signature-Plus), and Edoardo Mortara (also of Signature) who were bundled out of the way by Yelmer Buurman (Manor Motorsport) and Renger van der Zande (Prema Powerteam), who were locked into a slightly alarming battle to be best Dutchman in the event. Meanwhile, James Jakes (Manor Motorsport) was under investigation for an incident when he'd apparently overtaken under waved yellow flags. He was given a drive through penalty, which dropped him down the order comprehensively. He would rejoin in 20th.
Meanwhile, further down the order, Devaney retired on lap 3, while Bird had shot up to 25th after a terrific start, while team-mate Niall Breen (Carlin Motorsport) was having an interesting time too, getting his wheels in the dirt as he endeavoured to improve on his disappointing start position. He wasn't the only one skittering very wide, as was proven whenever you looked at Ricardo Teixeira (Performance Racing), who was also progressing well despite a poor grid slot.
Meanwhile, Hulkenberg was breaking away from the pack and had already set the fastest lap of the race. The other half of the German Nations Cup team, Engel, was back up to 21st now, having recovered a lot of ground after the start. The trouble was he had Grosjean glued to his rear wing and he couldn't seem to shake him off.
Someone who must have made a far better start was Alberto Valerio (Carlin Motorsport) because somehow the lanky Brazilian was now 16th and moving up the order. The mid-field battles were proving altogether more interesting than the ones at the front, as was also demonstrated when Clos lost a place to Tim Sandtler (Jo Zeller Racing) on lap 7, and Engel and Grosjean spent a lap trading places before Engel got the better of the Frenchman.
British fortunes took a further beating when Kennard ran out of room, and lost several places, promoting series leader Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing) to 11th and highest placed British series runner. By the time Kennard recovered he was 17th. Meanwhile, Mustonen got by Filip Salaquarda (HBR Motorsport) and Grosjean dropped back from Engel in pursuit of a run at fastest lap, giving the German some breathing space at the same time. The run into Sterrenwacht was proving to be a bit of a problem now, with a lot of sand on the track. John Martin (Alan Docking Racing) had fallen victim to it, and now Bird did as well, flat-spotting a tyre and picking up a puncture that would lead to an impromptu pit-stop for the Carlin driver. He wasn't having the sort of weekend he'll want to remember, with the luck really running against him. The really annoying thing was he'd been on Grosjean's tail when it happened, thus proving he had the pace.
Engel meanwhile was back up to 18th, having passed both "Frankie" Cong Fu Cheng (Manor Motorsport) and Kennard, who was now behind Grosjean as well. And while all this was going on, Hulkenberg was getting away, though behind him the battle was close, at least down to 9th. It was mixed up further when Salaquarda lost another two places to the battling Valerio and Sandtler. The order got shaken up even further when, somewhat late in the day, Mailleux got a penalty for jumping the start, thus moving Clairay up to 2nd and promoting Jean Karl Vernay (Signature-Plus) to 3rd.
It at least promoted Asmer into the top ten, though he was several seconds distant now from the front-runners. Towards the back those who knew what to look for were also being treated to the rather odd spectacle of Teixeira playing with Alistair Jackson (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), as they fought over 24th place. It was a bit odd, not least because it's the last thing you would expect. They moved up a place when Walter Grubmuller (Hitech Racing) exited the race and was pushed away to the pits. They made further progress when Breen "hit some Russian bloke," that bloke bring the unfortunate Sergey Afanasiev (HBR Motorsport). Bits of the Russian's rear wing went everywhere, he retired on the spot, and Breen went into the gravel, and staggered out to retreat to the pits and out of the race. To add to the chaos, Mailleux had been waiting to serve his penalty till the last possible moment, and now finally came in.
While he was going through the pits and ruing what might have been, Engel got past Clos for 17th, and Grosjean finally passed Cheng, which had taken some doing. Meanwhile Asmer was up to 10th and had managed to catch Harald Schlegelmilch (HS Technik). Mailleux finally got back on track but was now a very long way down, and was embroiled with the British series runners. It was getting a bit messy in the pack, particularly as Esteban Guerrieri (Ultimate Motorsport) and Mustonen were now running very close together. It's fair to say that of all the things you could see in your mirrors, one you'd really rather not have is the Finn. However, there he was. The next things he was ahead and Guerrieri was busy with a somewhat gravelly moment, the state of his tyres before the race making this no surprise. By the time he had sorted himself out he was back in 18th. This let Mustonen, Valerio, Sandtler, Salaquarda and Engel through as well as Clos and Grosjean, and that was the moment that Engel chose to get Salaquarda. That put the German driver back up to 14th, which was where he'd started from. He wasn't too happy about it. Grosjean was also on the move again and he too passed Clos to improve his position. He followed it up by passing Salaquarda a lap later, and with five laps to go he was right on Engel's rear wing again.
If that was tense, it wasn't as nerve-wracking as the Dutch battle for supremacy, with van der Zande trying all sorts of frankly alarming tactics to get ahead of Buurman for 5th place. It must have been a bit of a surprise for Buurman to meet someone who is as mean as he is, but he was hanging on all he was worth, despite the way van der Zande kept on attacking him. And with just over a lap left the inevitable happened. Buurman was punted off by his rival at the Villeneuve Chicane, getting going again back in 8th. The stewards looked at what had happened afterwards and decided that van der Zande's actions were not acceptable. He was awarded a penalty that would bump him back to 9th place, two places behind Buurman. Meanwhile, Valerio made a dive at Mustonen that didn't quite work and ended up stuck on the kerbs at Sterrenwacht. The Brazilian walked away looking utterly stricken, having thrown away 12th place, while the Finn carried on unscathed as he often does. Perhaps that earlier comment about there being a lot you can do in 28 laps was a bad idea.
That was the last incident, although Engel still couldn't shake Grosjean off and had to put up with him all the way to the flag. Hulkenberg came home in what was a whitewash by the Euroseries teams. Second was Clairay, from Vernay. Brendan Hartley (ASL Team Mucke Motorsport) was 4th after a relatively quiet afternoon, and the two Edoardos, Piscopo (ASL Team Mucke Motorsport) and Mortara (Signature-Plus) inherited 5th and 6th after the Dutch imploded. 7th was Buurman, then Schlegelmilch, van der Zande and Asmer. 11th went to Mustonen, from Sandtler, Engel, Grosjean, Clos, Salaquarda, Mailleux, Guerrieri, Cheng and Kennard. 21st was Jakes, who also set the fastest lap of the race, from Jackson, Stephen Jelley (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), Teixeira, Rodolfo Avila (HBR Motorsport), Francesco Castellacci (Alan Docking Racing), Bird, John Martin (Alan Docking Racing) and Valerio. The Nations Cup went to Germany, with the team of Engel and Hulkenberg, after the French effort failed, consisting as it did of Mailleux and Grosjean.
Hulkenberg was a well-deserved winner, but you couldn't help feeling that one half of the field had been incapacitated by the tyre choice. Whether anyone of them will come back next year remains to be seen. Unless the regulations change, there seems to be no point.