62nd Grand Prix Automobile de Pau - Pau, May 18th/20th Race: Weather: Hot! Air temperature approximately 360x3b20Track temperature 480x3b8a The air became steadily hotter as the afternoon progressed, and you could break into a sweat just...
62nd Grand Prix Automobile de Pau - Pau, May 18th/20th
Weather: Hot! Air temperature approximately 360x3b20Track temperature 480x3b8a
The air became steadily hotter as the afternoon progressed, and you could break into a sweat just sitting in the shade drinking coffee. This was going to be an extremely demanding race, so demanding that Simon Abadie (Arta-Signature-Elf) who had qualified extremely well, was unable to take part, suffering from a slipped disc. It would also be especially demanding for the Carlin boys (James Courtney, Michael Keohane, Alan van der Merwe and Shinya Hosokawa). Racing in the British F3 series, as they do, they rarely encounter a race that lasts longer than 25 minutes, and they certainly never come across this sort of heat. With the race scheduled to last around 45 minutes, they could be forgiven for seeming tense and apprehensive beforehand. As it was, they all seemed somewhat more relaxed than you would have expected. Pole position man Tristan Gommendy (ASM-Elf) also seemed pretty relaxed, despite stalling on the green flag lap - until the lights turned green at the start. At that point it all went badly wrong for the tall Frenchman. Despite all his experience, he stalled on the grid and could only hope that everyone would miss his stricken Dallara. For a moment or two it looked as if he would be lucky, but then both Julien Pressac (Signature-Elf) and Stefan de Groot (JB Motorsport) piled into his car, wiping all three of them out. Gommendy limped round and pitted at the end of the first lap, as did de Groot, who pulled into the pits with damage to the front end of his car, and a rear puncture. Pressac limped towards Gare but didn't actually get that far. And then there were 20! James Courtney and Bruno Besson (Saulnier Racing) were both fortunate in being able to avoid the carnage. Meanwhile, Renaud Derlot (Arta-Signature-Elf) took advantage of the mayhem to pull into the lead, Besson having been forced to give up the move he had wanted to try to pass Derlot when he found the blue-and-yellow car of Gommendy in his way. Amazingly, perhaps, the remaining 20 cars negotiated their way round the notoriously tight Gare Hairpin and then settled down for the long haul.
The dramas were not over yet however, with Olivier Maximin (Griffith's) the next casualty. On the third lap the inexperienced youngster fell foul of Foch and crashed out, and a lap later, not wishing to be outdone, J0x2a6die de Souza (LD Autosport) also made a mistake and went out a few hundred yards further up the track. If they kept on crashing out at this rate there wouldn't be enough of them left to finish the race. We were already down 5 cars, and the race was only five laps old. A lap later it was the turn of Vitantonio Liuzzi (Opel Team BSR), the Italian pulling into the pits with a terminally smokey Opel engine. And for a while, that was it for retirements.
At the front, Derlot was having to work incredibly hard to keep Besson at bay, not helped by the state of his right ankle. Having sprained the offending joint while jogging as part of his fitness-training routine, he was finding braking very painful. However, holding the lead helped no end in dealing with that particular issue. "With my injury I make one lap of two quick, one lap I push very, very hard and one lap I take it easy." Of course, what that meant was that he could never really open up a gap. However, Besson was having a hard time with Courtney in the opening laps too, so his ability to really challenge for the lead was hindered by the need to keep the Australian from passing. Luckily for Besson, Courtney had his own problems to deal with. "The start was all right. I bogged a little but I think it was just the tyre got quite hot because we did three laps before the race. Once I got going it was all right and I was able to match the guys in front, but then something happened in the rear of my car - I think maybe a shock, or a spring, or something, failed. I may have brushed something, but I don't like to blame myself!"
And so the leading trio, Derlot, Besson and Courtney, were circulating almost nose to tail. Behind them Bernard Auinger (Opel Team BSR) was holding off Yuji Ide (Arta-Signature-Elf), just ahead of Kousuke Matsuura (Prema Powerteam). The Japanese then held a watching brief behind the two of them, trying to figure out how to pass them. 7th was Olivier Pla (ASM-Elf), while Robert Doornbos (Team Ghinzani) was hanging on to 8th place, but seemed to be having horrible problems with the handling of his Dallara and looked unlikely to still be there at the end of the race. 9th was Derek Hayes (LD Autosport), with Laurent Delahaye (Signature Elf) just behind him. In 11th was Keohane, followed by Cesar Campanico (Prema Powerteam), and van der Merwe. Hosokawa, meanwhile, had found a friend; he and Kevin Nadin (LD Autosport) were battling furiously with each other. Battling with his Ford-Zetec engine was poor Geoffrey Dellus (Griffith's), who made repeated pit stops before finally conceding that the engine was having none of it and retiring finally after completing 14 laps by the time the others had managed 20.
Things were much calmer now, with most drivers realising they were in this for the long haul. Matsuura kept trying to find a way round Ide, but couldn't quite do it, and Hosokawa and Nadin continued their squabble for position. Inevitably perhaps, the Hosokawa/Nadin battle finally ended in tears on Lap 13 when they crashed at Foch. As a result there was a Safety Car period, while they were disentangled and their Dallaras removed from the racing line.
At the restart, Courtney had a look at getting past Besson, but then thought better of it as his car's handling suddenly started to go off badly. "Just as the Safety Car came out was when it started, so the last 25 laps weren't easy. At the restart, I was learning from England and all these guys seemed to be sleeping so I got a good restart but I didn't really have the confidence in the car to brake down the inside (to take Besson) and it was really soft in the rear and it kept locking in the front. It was a bit hairy going!" He settled back into place behind Besson, who had been unable to do anything about Derlot. Matsuura, on the other hand, was able to do something about Ide, demoting his countryman to 6th, before setting about Auinger. It would take him another three laps to get by, after which his next target was Courtney.
Doornbos, meanwhile, was forced to concede a place to Campanico when he went wide at Gare, the Portuguese squeezing through on the inside. He then proceeded to hold up van der Merwe and Keohane (who had lost a place to van der Merwe and clearly wanted it back) for the remainder of the race, to Alan's quietly expressed frustration.
With ten laps to go, Derlot was still holding on to the lead, while Besson was finding that Courtney had become less of a threat. The Carlin driver was now fully occupied trying to stop Matsuura from taking his podium place away from him and was having to drive a pretty wide Dallara to make sure he didn't lose 3rd place, despite the wheel-banging that was going on between the two of them. "I was struggling a bit towards the end. The last five laps or so I just slowed right down to make sure I'd finish, and just drove defensively to make sure he couldn't come past. I really struggled from the shunt that I had in testing and we were behind from the start. I know now for Macau what I need to do." In the closing laps, Pla too was feeling the pressure, with Delahaye trying to find a way past, until he was distracted by Hayes. Hayes mounted a late charge to try and improve his position, but really it was too late by then.
And so Derlot came home to win the Pau Grand Prix (the third victory in four years for the Signature team, that record spoilt only by Carlin and Anthony Davidson last year). Besson crossed the line less than a second behind him, while battle for 3rd went down to the wire. As Courtney and Matsuura appeared to take the chequered flag, they were side-by-side, Courtney just having the edge as they crossed the line, a mere 0.044 seconds separating the two of them after 36 laps of this demanding track. Auinger and Ide came in 5th and 6th, while Pla held off Delahaye and Hayes for 7th. Campanico was 10th, well ahead of the squabbling trio of Doornbos, van der Merwe and Keohane. The final finisher, a long way behind the others, was Rizal Ramli, his JB Motorsport Dallara looking truly undriveable in the closing stages of the race.
Afterwards, Derlot was clearly delighted, grabbing a flag from somewhere, and then celebrating all round the track. In fact, he took so long to come back there were spectators who thought he must have crashed on his victory lap. Actually, he was busy doing doughnuts and saluting the crowd!
Afterwards, he had this to say: "With my sprained ankle, my physical preparation was not as good as it should have been and I had some doubts about such a long race. It was a very difficult race, very hot. The air temperature was so high and I injured myself jogging and so to brake was difficult. It was necessary to push very hard because Bruno Besson is a very quick driver, James Courtney too, so it's never very easy. But I was able to cope; even though I could only drive every other lap hard. This is a great day both for me and the team."
Besson, too, was pleased with his performance, though he felt he could perhaps have won if the start had been different. "At the start I had to avoid Tristan, who was in my way and obviously that rather spoiled things for me. I made a few mistakes and I think the steering was a little out of true. After my crash at Beaumont yesterday, I was probably being a bit more careful through that section today."