At Macau this afternoon, Edoardo Mortara (Signature) finally claimed the prize he's been hankering for since this time last year, winning the Macau Grand Prix by a narrow margin from team-mate Jean-Karl Vernay. In 3rd, after a last minute overtaking move on Marcus Ericsson (Tom's), and a broken wheel for Valtteri Bottas (ART), was Sam Bird (ART Grand Prix), the winning threesome among the 16 cars that actually made it to the finish of a race that started with wholesale destruction.
The start of the race was a few minutes late, a major miracle given the mayhem of both FBMW and WTCC races. With Wayne Boyd (Hitech Racing) not taking part today, we were down to 28 drivers, but it was amazing how much chaos they managed to cause. Initially it all looked as if things would go smoothly, with Vernay making a great start, as did the other two Signature drivers, Mortara snatching the lead, while Bottas settled into 2nd and Ericsson fell back to 4th. And that was when it all fell apart, after Laurens Vanthoor made a mess of Lisboa, and took out Max Chilton (Carlin). Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin) clipped the barrier at Sao Francisco, and then ended up in the wall at Solitude. Various members of the chasing pack were clearly unsighted as they came on the scene of the Australian's accident, with the result that several other runners piled into him, blocking the track. The resulting carnage involved another of the Carlin runners, Brendon Hartley, as well as Daniel Zampieri (Prema Powerteam), Stefano Coletti (Prema Powerteam), Alexandre Imperatori (KCMG by Kolles & Heinz Union), Jake Rosenzweig (Fortec Motorsport), Michael Ho (Champ Motorsport/Manor Motorsport) and Daniel McKenzie (Fortec Motorsport). With the track completely blocked, a red flag was inevitable and those that could limped back round to the pits to see if repairs could be effected, while the others were hauled away.
Given how much damage had already been done, the officials took the decision to start the race behind the Safety Car this time, with the race to run 14 laps now. It was probably wise to take no more chances today, especially if they actually wanted to finish the race in daylight! And so, the remaining runners lined up on the grid in a very straggly formation, and the Safety Car eventually led them round for a lap before pulling into the pits and letting the race go live with just 19 out of the original 30 cars running. As the pack crossed the line it looked as if Mortara might have done enough to hold the lead, but Vernay challenged him and was close enough to slipstream past as they headed through Mandarin. Mortara fought back but he couldn't take it back from his teammate; Vernay may well be a Macau rookie but his three seasons of F3 were standing him in good stead as he held off the Italian, setting the first of what would be a series of fastest laps on his run to the flag. Elsewhere, Vanthoor was dead last at the start but at least he'd made it back out despite his first lap incident. And now he was on the move, gaining a place already. Bottas, meanwhile, was 3rd now and looked as if the pace of the Signature cars might prove too much for him; his hope had to be that the lead two would clash and hand the victory to him, though he was still pushing hard as they screamed round to start lap 4.
Vernay was still pushing hard, while Bird was busy fighting off Roberto Merhi (Manor Motorsport) as he tried to hang onto 5th. Yuji Kunimoto (NOW Motor Sports) had wrestled his was through to 10th, while Jules Bianchi (ART), who had somehow avoided all the mayhem at the first attempt to start the race was taking advantage of the mid-field sort out and was up to 15th. All eyes were focussed on the front though, where Vernay's best efforts were proving insufficient to shake off Mortara, the Italian looming large in his mirrors, and setting the latest fastest lap of the race as he did so.
A lap later and Mortara decided his chance had come, as he took a look hard look at Lisboa, jinking to the inside to try and force a way through. Vernay, however, was having none of it and responded firmly, despite Mortara setting another fastest lap. Behind the two of them, Bottas had his hands full with Ericsson, the Swede taking a look up the inside and trying to find a way past the Finn while Bird's attention was still occupied with Merhi. Meanwhile, Bianchi was still gaining ground and had despatched Koki Saga (Le Beausset Motorsports) with ease. Meanwhile, Alexander Sims (City of Dreams/R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing) dropped right down the order after an unscheduled trip up the escape road at Lisboa after he tried and failed to pass Kei Cozzolino (Toda Racing). By the time Sims got going again everyone had passed by. A lap later, and the lap record took another beating, this time from Vernay (2:10.792) as he continued to resist his team-mate's efforts to wrest the win from him. Mortara kept closing the gap but Vernay would then pull away again, flinging his Dallara into the corners with enough opposite lock that you feared tyre wear might prove his undoing before the end. It was very close at the front as they went through Moorish and Dona Maria, and Mortara came close to outbraking himself as they headed into Melco, giving Vernay a moment of relief before his rival recovered. Meanwhile Ericsson was closing up on Bottas again, and in the middle of the pack, Bianchi was still continuing on his way and had claimed 11th now. His next target was Kunimoto, but the Japanese was quite a way ahead and it would be a while before Bianchi could even think about getting into the top 10. Just for good measure, Vanthoor had also made up more ground, and was now running in 15th.
With well over half the race run, Vernay was soaking up the pressure, and sliding the car round with abandon, making Mortara's life pretty difficult. He still hadn't given up though; it would only need the slightest error on Vernay's part and his team-mate would be through. Bottas was still 3rd and had opened up a bit of a gap now to Ericsson, while Ericsson could see Bird in his mirrors, but didn't have too much to worry about yet. Bird's life had become considerably quieter when Merhi started to come under pressure from Takuto Iguchi (Tom's), the two of them well ahead of Renger van der Zande (City of Dreams/R?ikk?nen Robertson Racing), Mika Maki (Hitech Racing) and Kunimoto. Bianchi was still 11th, from Victor Garcia (Fortec Motorsport), Carlos Huertas (Manor Motorsport), Cozzolino, Vanthoor, Saga, Stef Dusseldorp (Kolles & Heinz Union), Sims, and the lone Carlin survivor, Henry Arundel, who had just been passed by Sims as the 2008 Autosport Young Driver award winner recovered from his escape road moment. It wouldn't be long, however, before Vanthoor found a way past Cozzolino and set off after Huertas.
On lap 12 everything changed. Mortara set a new lap record (2:10.732) and closed right up on Vernay after the latter made a mistake with his gear change at Melco, allowing Mortara to catch right up again. Mortara moved to inside and used the slipstream to slingshot through in a classic Lisboa overtaking move, and Vernay could do nothing but cede the position. Meanwhile, Bird had closed right up on Ericsson, which meant Bottas was left in peace for a while. It was more than Ericsson was, "Small Person" Bird hacking past the Swede to snatch 4th, while Sims continued to climb back up the order, passing Dusseldorp for 16th with ease. And then everyone had to back off in the 3rd sector, after Cozzolino crashed out at Black Sands, the driver leaping out and running away to safety while the marshals wrestled his stricken car out of the way. The flags weren't out for long, to the great relief of Mortara no doubt; the last thing he would have wanted now was a Safety Car period to allow Vernay time to regroup, not after he'd done the work needed to snatch the lead.
With two laps to go, Mortara was looking reasonably comfortable, as Vernay, though he clearly hadn't given up, couldn't quite get on terms with the leader. He had one more chance and as they tore round towards Lisboa for the last time, he kept to the right, trying desperately to find a way past. It was no use, and he had to settle back in to 2nd for what was left of the race. Behind him, Bottas had hit trouble with a wheel problem, and was passed first by Bird, and then by Ericsson, while Merhi spun out of 6th, handing the place to Iguchi. Sims also vanished with less than two minutes to go, leaving just 16 finishers still running at the end of a race that started out more like a demolition derby, but at least provided a thrilling battle for the trophy. And so, the winner of the 56th Macau Grand Prix was Mortara, from Vernay, Bird, Ericsson, Bottas, Iguchi, van der Zande, Maki, Kunimoto and Bianchi. 11th was Garcia, from Huertas, Vanthoor, Saga, Dusseldorp and Arundel. The last two classified runners were Merhi and Sims, both a lap down after final lap crashes.
Afterwards, Mortara was delighted to have won a "very, very hard race," and hoping that it will help revive the flagging momentum of his career after a less than impressive GP2 season. "So many things are going through my head I don't know where to start. I feel so, so emotional because I had such a difficult season this year, with so many ups and downs. I came here because VW phoned me to ask me to do the race, and I am sure some people were not 100% sure that I was able to do it. Actually, today, I proved that I am still competitive. After such a difficult season, to be on top again is unbelievable. It shows that you should keep fighting, and I am really proud of this victory especially after this difficult season in GP2. Before I came here I think everybody was thinking that I was pretty much dead, so re-opening my career with a victory in Macau will for sure help me."
Vernay, unsurprisingly, was bitterly disappointed, though he did his best to hide it on the podium. Afterwards, though, he was not happy with himself: "I was really pushing 150% but I knew that I couldn't make a mistake. I was really at the limit because I wanted to win. But when you are at the maximum like that, at some point you will make a mistake, and that is what happened. Yes for sure it is a good weekend, but when you are leading 12 laps of a 15 lap race and you lose the victory because of a mistake you can be angry. For sure it was a good weekend, though. I am really happy for the team, they did a great job and the car was fantastic as we were quicker than the other teams. And with Edoardo we did a good job to finish P1-P2 - that is the most important thing from the weekend. I'll come back next year for sure if I have the possibility."
Bird, meanwhile, was thrilled to finally make it onto the Macau podium: "Thank God for that! I thought I was going to get one last year and then didn't and I've waited a long, long time to get here... I love this place! I know I only came third, and I know the other two guys were a long way ahead, but for me this is fantastic. I was heartbroken last year because I was taken out almost before the race had even started. I was in third place and Roberto Streit put me in the wall before the Mandarin corner. I felt last year I had the speed to challenge Mortara for victory, but it wasn't to be. So I came back this year hoping to win. I didn't win, but after the difficult weekend I've had, my team ART and Mercedes have pulled through. I made a mistake behind Ericsson early in the race and there was a huge gap, so at that point I needed to really get my head down and the team were screaming down the radio - Sam push! Sam push! Sam push! I gritted my teeth and went for it at every corner of every lap. When I overtook Marcus I was screaming down the radio, I was so fired up with adrenaline. It was fantastic. It was a really enjoyable race." He could even spare some sympathy for team-mate Bottas. "It was a shame for Valtteri. He drove a brilliant race. He has been extremely quick all weekend, and I can only say that he must be extremely upset so I will give him a hug when I get back to the pits. What else can I say? Finishing on the podium is fantastic for me."
Fastest lap of the race, and a new F3 lap record, went to Mortara.
Weather: Cool, sunny, dry.