At Zandvoort this afternoon, Alexander Sims (ART Grand Prix) put in a blinding time to claim pole position for tomorrow's 20th running of the RTL GP Master of Formula 3, one of two races that put the seal of approval on an F3 driver's career (the other being he Macau Grand Prix in November each year). 2nd on the grid once more is Valtteri Bottas (ART Grand Prix), winner of this event last year and back to defend his title if he can. Starting 3rd will be Marco Wittmann (Signature-Plus).
With only 24 cars entered this year (largely due to the paucity of runners in the Euroseries for 2010) all the cars were able to go out together for qualifying with no need to split them into two groups. First out of the traps was Carlin's Jean-Eric Vergne, the current leader of the British F3 International Series fresh from a dominant weekend at Hockenheim and under pressure to perform given RedBull's involvement in this meeting. However, it's never easy for the British series runners given that they are not accustomed to the Kumho tyres used here and the Euroseries boys use them every weekend. With Vergne an outside favourite to do well here, the real attention was on the ART Grand Prix team as well as on Edoardo Mortara (Signature-Plus), winner of the 2009 Macau Grand Prix.
In the morning session, apart from Vergne the early pace-setters were Stef Dusseldorp (also with Signature-Plus) and Wittmann, both of them showing early speed, though everyone was around 2 seconds off the testing pace to begin with. As the temperature rose steadily, Bottas shot to pole from Vergne, but they were soon displaced by Dusseldorp and Laurens Vanthoor (Signature-Plus) as the times started to fall. With the 2009 pole time having been in the 1 minute 31 seconds range, there was still far more to come as the faster drivers were managing 1:34s now. There was little point in getting too excited for at least another 5 or 10 minutes. However, no one had told Daniel Juncadella that, the Prema Powerteam runner spearing off into the scenery for the first red flag of qualifying. At this point the order was Mortara, from Dusseldorp, Vanthoor, Wittmann, Bottas, Vergne, Roberto Merhi (Mucke Motorsport), Carlos Munoz (Mucke Motorsport), Jim Pla (ART Grand Prix) and Nicolas Marroc (Prema Powerteam). 11th was Lucas Foresti (Carlin), from team-mates Jazeman Jaafar and Rupert Svendsen-Cook, Antonio Felix da Costa (Motopark Academy), Sims, Wayne Boyd in the evil- handling Sino Vision Racing car, Matias Laine (Motopark Academy), Juncadella, Gabriel Dias (Hitech Racing) and William Buller (Hitech Racing). Rio Haryanto (C F Racing with Manor Motorsport) was 21st, ahead of Adderly Fong (Sino Vision Racing), Hywel Lloyd (C F Racing with Manor Motorsport) and Nigel Melker (Mucke Motorsport), who had been off quite heavily in the morning's test session.
At least the restart was soon on, as Juncadella was efficiently and quickly towed away. It wasn't long before Mortara started to push again; the Italian knowing full well that you really can't afford not to once the others start with the red flags - there's often a collective outbreak of madness after the first stoppage so if you don't want to waste your tyres, you need to set a time at the first possible opportunity. In the pack it was all happening as well, with da Costa improving to 10th, while Bottas shot back to pole, to be joined briefly on the front row by Svendsen-Cook, the pair of them being the first to break through the 1:33 barrier. Dusseldorp was showing good pace too and was next provisional pole sitter, while Vergne was now 3rd. Pla was not looking anywhere near as fast as his team-mates and was a mere 9th, compared to Sims' 3rd. Meanwhile Bottas came back to go faster, and Munoz grabbed 6th.
Vergne and Svendsen-Cook were now towing each other round to go 4th and 5th respectively, while Dusseldorp moved the bar for pole again, this time in the 1:32s. Further back, as Vergne made an early pit-stop, things started to get very strange. Fong, who is not exactly impressive in British F3, was in 11th, having switched to new tyres very early. As the rest of the pack pitted now with a around half the session left, the Hong Kong based Chinese driver started to appear ever further up the order, eventually reaching the dizzy if implausible heights of 5th place for a brief time, before resuming his usual plummet back down the field. It was all a bit odd, frankly.
Svendsen-Cook was still pushing on and was the fastest of the British Series runners at this point, in 2nd, with Bottas following on from Sims, Vergne, Munoz, Mortara, Vanthoor, Fong and Wittmann.
A thorough reshuffle followed, with drivers changing places faster than you could note them down, Melker making up for the work his team needed to do to get him back out there by going 3rd, while further back Boyd coaxed 15th out of his reluctant mount. Vergne was still in contention for a top place and was 2nd, while the other British series competitors were scrapping over 12th it seemed, Jaafar taking it first only to have Buller get it back. Needless to say the real interest was not with them though, but with the front runners. As Pla claimed 5th, Mortara snatched pole back from Wittmann and Melker improved to 5th. They were joined by Vanthoor going 3rd, and then Vergne rocketed round for pole. It didn't last, Wittmann finding more speed, as did Bottas to move into 2nd as the session began to wind down. Sims was also on the move now, and looking dangerous despite only being 4th at this point. Merhi was attempting to join in as well and was 3rd now, and it still wasn't over. Mortara made another bid for pole, while Vanthoor went 5th and Fong fell back to a far more normal 22nd that made you feel the world was back on its axis again. In the closing seconds Bottas hit the front and for a brief moment it looked as if the Finn might just start from pole this time round, but as the chequered flag was unfurled Sims beat him to the punch. All Bottas could do was wait for the second and final session and hope for slightly cooler conditions.
He didn't get them. The second session was run in weather that was even hotter. Even the slight delay caused by earlier mayhem in the various support race sessions didn't give the F3 boys enough of a pause to allow the engines to breathe. They would have to get out there and sweat it out. Needless to say although the times started to fall quite rapidly, they were all a long way off the morning session pace for a great deal of the session, no improvements being posted by anyone except Juncadella. He was trying hard to make up for lost time and was soon 2nd in the session, though it was only enough to boost him from last to 21st overall. Just as it looked as if the others might start to get close to their fastest first session times, the session had to be halted abruptly anyway. Fong had finally done what he had threatened in the morning and stuffed the car into the barriers, from whence he would be craned away. Of course that led to red flags and everyone had to warm the tyres up a second time.
With 18 minutes left of qualifying it was going to be a long time before we knew if anyone had the answer to Sims or not. And no one was looking too keen to leg it back out in the heat, with only4 or 5 cars actually circulating on the track and everyone else playing a waiting game in the pits. The clock continued to tick down until there was only 10 minutes left to run when at least Vanthoor, who had been in the pits with the team working on the car but had yet to turn a wheel, finally joined in the session. And that seemed to act as a trigger with everyone else seeming to suddenly wake up to the fact that there was very little time left to make an impression of any kind. There were one of two improvements initially, with Foresti and Lloyd both improving on their session times though not on the overall times. It was only in the last few minutes that things really started to happen, Sims now getting close to his morning times, as was Wittmann. Bottas was on the move too, digging deep to improve enough to claim pole with a very quick time. Suddenly it was all go! Melker shot up the order too, and then Buller improved, while Mortara was now 2nd behind Bottas. Just as it looked as if that might be enough, it wasn't. Where Sims found the time is hard to say but he rocketed over the line with a time of 1:30.956 for provisional pole. Juncadella moved up to 5th, and Wittmann improved to 3rd only to go off on the next lap. Munoz grabbed 4th, Buller went 7th and Merhi nabbed 4th. Just for good measure Vergne moved into 6th, still the fastest of the British series men, and then it all ground to a halt again, as the Wittmann incident necessitated another red flag stoppage.
The session order was Sims fastest, from Bottas, Wittmann, Merhi, Munoz, Melker, Mortara, Vergne, Buller and Pla. 11th was da Costa, from Juncadella, Jaafar, Dusseldorp, Svendsen-Cook, Dias, Marroc, Foresti, Laine and Lloyd. 21st was Haryanto, from Fong, Boyd and Vanthoor. By the time they restarted the session there was a little over 4 minutes left to run, which basically meant two flying laps at best. It wasn't enough and unsurprisingly there were no further improvements for anyone. When the times were combined most people's second session times were their best ones and Sims was on pole from Bottas, Wittmann, Mehri, Munoz, Melker, Mortara, Vergne, Buller and Pla. 11th was indeed da Costa, from Juncadella, Jaafar, Vanthoor, Dusseldorp, Svendsen-Cook, Dias, Marroc, Foresti and Laine. Lloyd will start 21st from Haryanto, Boyd and Fong.
Weather: Hot, sunny