First Qualifying (Thursday November 13th):
Weather: Warm, sunny, slightly overcast.
After an interesting albeit relatively restrained free practice, which saw Lewis Hamilton (Manor Motorsport) put out of commission at the last moment when he collected Tatsuya Kataoka (Tom's) or was collected by Kataoka depending on who you want to believe, it was looking like James Courtney (Tom's) might well be the man to beat, the Aussie putting in an apparently effortless fastest lap, to end the session three quarters of a second ahead of the nearest other runner, Pierre Kaffer (Superfund TME Racing), returning to this race for the third time. The fastest rookie was also Australian, in the shape of Ryan Briscoe (Prema Powerteam).
The session finally got underway thirty-five minutes late after a local hero in a Porsche did serious damage to the Armco at the exit to the pit lane, which left the officials with a major rebuilding job to do. The session was scheduled for forty-five minutes and it was to be hoped that they would all try and behave themselves or the timetable would get seriously out of joint. As it turned out, so much for hope!
As the first drivers emerged from the pits, both Nico Rosberg (Carlin Motorsport) and Nelson Piquet Jr (Hitech Racing) indulged in a spot of jostling, Rosberg seeming very keen to get out ahead of Piquet if he could. It wouldn't make a lot of difference - after all, this is a very long circuit (6.1 kilometres) and there's plenty of room for everyone, but it mattered to them. The custard tart making contest the day before had brought out the same sort of fiercely competitive behaviour, which had ended with most of the F3 boys soaked to the skin in a water fight and young Rosberg looking more than a little sticky and covered in custard and pastry.
Even the two sons of former World Champions weren't first out on the track though. That distinction went to Ernesto Viso (Promatecme F3), the Venezuelan rookie seeming very keen to get to the first bend ahead of the opposition. Briscoe, perhaps wisely, was hanging back, waiting to see what would happen.
Robert Kubica (Target Racing), the under-financed Polish driver, was first to the top of the timing screens, just ahead of Viso and Danny Watts (Alan Docking Racing). They didn't get to stay there for long, because Kataoka moved into 2nd, only to get displaced by Courtney and Fabio Carbone (Signature Plus), the pair of them grabbing the front row, just ahead of Richard Antinucci (Hitech Racing) who went 3rd. Briscoe's was the highest placed rookie and was now 4th, though he didn't get to keep it for long, as his team-mate Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Prema Powerteam) edged him out. It was all change at the top but they were all clearly still a long way from what was possible. Hiroki Yoshimoto (Swiss Racing Team SRT) moved into 3rd but Courtney was proving difficult to shift. This didn't stop Viso from having a go, and he was temporarily fastest, while Lewis Hamilton (Manor Motorsport) moved up to 4th, and then got pushed back down a place when Nicholas Lapierre (Signature Plus) grabbed 2nd. The Signature Plus boys were on fine form, as Carbone proved when he hit the two minute 16 seconds barrier and snatched pole, leaving Courtney and Antinucci in 2nd and 3rd.
And then it started to get silly. Fairuz Fauzy (Promatecme F3) had been up the escape road at Moorish Hill but had escaped unscathed, but then his team-mate Viso made a mistake on the run to Dona Maria, at Police Bend, and ended up sideways across a narrow bit of track. Kubica arrived very close behind, tried to avoid the stricken Venezuelan, clipped the barrier and bounced into the nose of Viso's car. We now had a completely blocked track, and the others arrived to frantically waved yellows to find they had no option but to stop dead. A car park quickly developed and the officials red- flagged the session while they removed the bottleneck. Viso wasn't going anywhere without outside assistance now as he no longer had the requisite number of wheels, and Kubica looked like some major surgery was going to be needed before his Dallara was race-worthy again.
Ten minutes in, then, the order was Carbone, from Courtney and Briscoe. Paolo Montin (Three Bond Racing) was 4th, from Antinucci, Viso (who would slip down the order as a result of his accident), Lapierre, Hamilton, Yoshimoto and Piquet. Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport) was 11th, at this point the fastest of the three Carlin drivers, ahead of both Rosberg and Narain Karthikeyan (who was waiting for the FIA doctors to tell him whether he has glandular fever or not). The wreckage was cleared quickly and effectively, although the resulting car park took a little more time. Eventually the session restarted with 35 minutes left to run - and everyone hoping that was the end of the lunacy that can grip the drivers at Macau. Courtney promptly went faster though he stayed 2nd, while Montin moved up to 4th, just ahead of Antinucci. Viso was still 6th but he couldn't expect to stay there. Of those who might have been expected to be faster, Robert Doornbos (Menu Motorsport) was very slow and was in the pits for major setting changes. Whatever the team had done to change the car from free practice, they seemed to have gone completely the wrong way.
The changes now began to come thick and fast, with Lapierre going 3rd, and Rosberg in 8th. Pierre Kaffer (Superfund TME Racing) started quietly but now hit his stride to go 4th, while Piquet shot up to 3rd. Carbone was still hanging on to pole, from Courtney, Piquet, Lapierre, Kaffer, Antinucci, Briscoe, Rosberg and Parente. Antinucci then managed to raise the stakes by going straight to pole and edging into the 2.15s. He was now ahead of Kaffer, Carbone, Karthikeyan and Courtney. Piquet broke up the K- sounds pattern by going 3rd, but then Courtney, who was looking very relaxed, went ahead by half a second.
And then we lost another couple of cars. Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing) had been overcome by the urge to look up the escape road at Lisboa, despite being told there was nothing there apart from a roundabout. At the same time, Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport), who was having more than a little trouble learning the circuit, came a cropper at Maternity Bend. Thompson continued, Austin didn't and was later heard to mutter "So many corners!" in a despairing way. The car was craned away and the session continued.
Courtney was still looking good for pole and went further ahead, having a comfortable margin of 0.7 seconds from Kaffer. There were still more improvements to come though, the first of them from Tatsuya Kataoka (Tom's) who was now 2nd. The hapless Viso was now 19th and would be lucky if he was still in the top 20 by the end of the session. Courtney was still leading the chase though, from Kataoka, Kaffer, Antinucci and Karthikeyan.
Lapierre was still going strong and was now 2nd, but Courtney was still half a second ahead of everyone, despite the Signature boys trying everything they could think of to catch him. Lapierre managed to improve again, as did Carbone, who was now 0.101 seconds off Courtney, and could see pole from there. His efforts to speed up were somewhat hampered when he and Hiranaka tripped over each other at Lisboa and took to the escape road. They were both able to continue, which was more than could be said for Pedro Barral (Swiss Racing Team). He crashed at Dona Maria and, as with Viso's exit, ended up blocking the track. Again we had a blocked track, which inevitably led to the second red flag of the session.
As everyone regrouped in the pit lane, the order was Courtney, Carbone, Lapierre, Piquet, Kataoka, Kaffer, Antinucci, Parente, Doornbos and Karthikeyan. Both Briscoe and Karthikeyan were sitting calmly in the pits at the time of the chaos anyway. At the restart, it began to look as if the pit lane was the safest place to be. Having been knocked out of the morning session, Hamilton was now in the barriers at Lisboa. And Kataoka, who may have been the one who hit him in the morning, was stuck behind the Manor car having avoided the accident. The marshals had just about cleared all of that away when Karthikeyan over-steered up the escape road before rejoining.
And that wasn't the end of the trouble by a long way. Piquet was the next to hit trouble, in his case in the form of the barriers at R Bend. Having ripped a wheel off in the process, he was going no further. And no one else was likely to speed up much either, as there were yellow flags being waved just about everywhere. Once the mess was cleared away there were less than five minutes left. Kaffer made the most of the situation by snatching pole from Courtney, only to have Courtney grab it back with a lap in the 2.13s. Behind him, Doornbos was now running well to take 4th, while Kataoka edged back to 3rd. Briscoe offed his car before he could improve from 12th, hitting the barrier at Police, shortly after Lapierre pulled exactly the same stunt. Carbone briefly occupied provisional pole, but Courtney was having none of it and took it back on his very last lap. It was all still to play for with a second session on Friday afternoon though it was beginning to look as if Courtney and Carbone would be among the main contenders. There was also the possibility that the track conditions would militate against improvements, if the weather heated up as was promised.
-by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite