For the 57th running of the Macau Grand Prix it seemed - at least at the end of first qualifying - to be business much as usual with the front row dominated by Edoardo Mortara (Signature), the 2009 winner back for another go, and Valtteri Bottas (Prema Powerteam), the Finn keen to add this title to his two Master of F3 trophies.
After a somewhat frenetic practice session that saw a number of drivers fail to collect much in the way of useful data due to their unfortunate tendencies to attack the walls, the barriers and any other inanimate object that presented itself to them, it was to be hoped that they had mostly got it out of their systems by the time the first of two qualifying sessions for the weekend started. Conditions in the morning had been good with a cooling breeze but the track was horribly dirty, which had certainly contributed to the problems many of the drivers experienced. By the time the session started the weather had heated up and it was sunny and hot out there. After Bottas had edged Mortara out by a mere 0.010 seconds at the end of practice it was to be expected that they would be among the front runners in the afternoon. What remained to be seen was who would be joining them. Certainly Jean-Eric Vergne (Carlin) could be expected to show better than he had in the morning, the Frenchman fresh from testing with STR in Dubai arriving in Hong Kong at 06:00 and thus only reaching Macau a couple of hours before practice started. Additionally the front runners from the Japanese F3 season were also keen to show their paces, especially Yuji Kunimoto (Tom's), this year's Japanese Champion.
On time the lights went to green on the timing screen and 30 cars went out only for one to come straight back in again, the only real "local" in the race, Michael Ho (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) seemingly deciding it was too soon to go out and mix it with the big boys. The other 29 drivers simply buckled down and got on with things. Marco Wittmann (Signature) was an early pace setter, from Renger van der Zande (Motopark Academy), while Antonio Felix da Costa (Carlin) was looking pretty quick for a man who was with Jev in only making it to Macau late this morning. Meanwhile Carlos Huertas (Hitech Racing) was another to continue with his early pace. But it seemed that Bottas was in no particular hurry to go out, the Finn eventually sauntering out onto the track as if he was out for a Sunday afternoon drive. While he was doing that, another Signature driver, Laurens Vanthoor, moved up to 2nd. It wasn't long, however, before Bottas was on the pace, and by a considerable margin, going 1.4 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, the only man anywhere near the 2 minute 14 second mark. Behind him, James Calado (Carlin) was getting on terms with Wittmann and was just slightly slower than the German, who was 2nd. Meanwhile Kunimoto and Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin) were both going well. Someone who wasn't as fast as expected, on the other hand, was Alexander Sims (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) though the change of team probably wasn't helping him much. The session was starting to heat up and Vanthoor went 2nd just as Bottas went even faster, with a stunning 2:13.181. Mortara was not about to be left out of the equation though and he was soon 2nd, just ahead of van der Zande, which was the point when the inevitable happened and someone walloped into the wall at Fisherman's Bend, on this occasion the offender was Daniel Juncadella (Prema Powerteam). The car was on the racing line which meant the officials didn't have a lot of choice but to hang out the red flags and pull the survivors back into the pits.
With 18 minutes and 44 seconds left on the clock, the order was still Bottas, from Mortara, van der Zande, Vanthoor, Wittmann, Calado, Kunimoto, Alexandre Imperatori (Toda Racing with KCMG), Sims and Jaafar. 11th was now da Costa, from Huertas, Felipe Nasr (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing), Vergne, Hideki Yamauchi (Hanashima Racing), Ryo Haryanto (R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing), Oli Webb (Fortec Motorsport), Daniel Abt (Signature), Yuhi Sekiguchi (Three Bond Racing) and Lucas Foresti (Fortec Motorsport). In 21st could be found Hywel Lloyd (C F Racing with Manor Motorsport), ahead of Adderly Fong (Sino Vision Racing), Rafael Suzuki (Tom's), William Buller (Fortec Motorsport), Kimiya Sato (Motopark Academy), the unfortunate Juncadella, Roberto Merhi (Prema Powerteam), Felix Rosenqvist (Performance Racing), Carlos Mu?oz (Hitech Racing) and a very distant Ho.
It took an awful long time to get the track clear and the barrier rebuilt and the wait didn't seem to improve concentration much, with Merhi having an off track excursion somewhere round the back that meant there were yellows briefly at post 16 while he sorted himself out. Shortly after that, the times started to really come down, with Wittmann up to 2nd and Verne into the top ten (9th). It didn't take long for Wittmann and then Mortara to both make it into the 2:13s while behind them it was all go with Nasr claiming 6th, Calado into 9th and Jev to 11th, just ahead of Sims. Mortara had his head down and was really charging now, snatching pole by 0.113 seconds, but then there was another accident, this time Jaafar. The Malaysian had hit the barriers out at Fisherman's Bend, the crash site de jour, and had littered the track with debris. The result was yellow flags in Sector 3, just as Vergne got back into the top 10. In effect no one should have been improving so there didn't seem to be a lot of point pressing on. In fact it would probably have made more sense to red flag the session and retrieve Jaafar, but that didn't happen and perhaps inevitably a number of drivers started to push on, with Merhi being the first of several to go faster. He was soon joined by Vanthoor and Sims, and then Calado and Vergne, the pair going 6th and 8th respectively. Just for good measure - and perhaps in solidarity with their fellow British series runners Buller and Webb also set better times, as did Sekiguchi, Huertas (improving to 4th) and Imperatori. The question was which part of yellows in sector 3 was not getting through to the teams? Bottas, on the other hand, aborted a lap that looked as if it had the potential to be very fast indeed. The others seemed to have no such qualms, as was demonstrated when Nasr shot up to 7th just before the session ended, and Yamauchi snatched 16th at the flag.
With most people expecting Friday's session to be faster, and fine weather forecast for the next few days, it probably didn't signify much that Mortara was fastest of all, just ahead of Bottas, Wittmann, Vanthoor, Huertas, van der Zande, Nasr, Calado, Imperatori and Abt. It provides a pointer, true, but the real work is still to be done. 11th was Webb, from Vergne, Buller, da Costa, Sekiguchi, Yamauchi, Kunimoto, Sims, Merhi, and the stranded Jaafar. 21st was Haryanto, another driver fresh from F1 testing, or at least HRT testing, the Indonesian followed home by Foresti, Lloyd, Sato, Rosenqvist, Mu?oz, Suzuki, Fong, Juncadella and Ho.
Afterwards, Mu?oz was disqualified from the session for failing to go to the weighbridge when directed to by the officials, and in addition was penalised 5 grid spaces for failing to respect the yellow flags, as were Huertas, Buller, Foresti, Webb, Munoz, Calado, Sekiguchi and Yamauchi. There were a number of others who could consider themselves lucky not to be included in their number.
So it was all to play for in today's session - except that today's session has had to be postponed until Saturday morning after a number of major incidents put the timetable so far behind that the F3 boys would have needed headlights to go out. Watch this space tomorrow folks!