Final qualifying for this weekend's 55th Macau Grand Prix ended in drama with a last lap dash by Carlo van Dam (Tom's Team) landing the Dutchman on pole for Saturday's Qualification Race. He was ahead of Sam Bird (Manor Motorsport) on the timing...
Final qualifying for this weekend's 55th Macau Grand Prix ended in drama with a last lap dash by Carlo van Dam (Tom's Team) landing the Dutchman on pole for Saturday's Qualification Race. He was ahead of Sam Bird (Manor Motorsport) on the timing screens, but Bird was then penalized for yellow flag offences and was dropped three places to 5th, thus allowing van Dam's team-mate Keisuke Kunimoto onto the front row, just ahead of the man who had set the best times in every session prior to this, Edoardo Mortara (Signature Plus).
The second - and final - qualifying session actually started on time, give or take a minute, which was a miracle after the morning's mayhem. The F3 practice session scheduled for 11:15 started 50 minutes late after the locals in various tin-tops repeatedly brought out the red flags. By 14:45 they were back on track. It was impressive bit of clawing back on the part of the organizers, frankly. Anyway, pretty much everyone likely to be a front runner headed out and it soon became obvious that it would take a while before anybody got close to Thursday's lap times, especially if the likes of Laurens Vanthoor (RC Motorsport) would insist in crashing out and causing yellow flags while still on their out laps.
The first improvement eventually came from Jon Lancaster (Manor Motorsport), the youngster improving on his grid place to move up to 20th. That seemed to open the floodgates, although as James Winslow (Ombra Racing) then spun and rejoined it wasn't just for improvements. They came from Marcus Ericsson (Carlin Motorsport) who improved to rocket up the order along with a load of other people, most of whom have names starting with C for some odd reason. Kei Cozzolino (Now Motor Sports), Cong Fu (Franky) Cheng (Signature Plus), Stefano Coletti (Prema Powerteam) and Max Chilton (Hitech Racing) all suddenly got faster, the latter pair ending the lap 9th and 10th. They were soon displaced by Oliver Turvey (Carlin Motorsport) when he slotted into 9th from 11th. Meanwhile, van Dam improved his time but stayed behind Mortara. Jaime Alguersuari (Carlin Motorsport) improved to 5th despite the team only finishing rebuilding the car after the Spaniard's practice shunt. Coletti was sill on a roll though, and a lap later he was 3rd, while Bird began to appear near the top of the screens, with a time that would put him 9th.
Brendon Hartley (Carlin Motorsport) was beginning to show as well and a determined lap moved the Kiwi back to 4th, just ahead of Streit, Turvey and Alguersuari. And then finally van Dam seemed to find the answer to Mortara, a time of 2:12.250 being good enough for provisional pole. And that was when the yellow flags blossomed again, after Atte Mustonen (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) went off at Police. There was a flurry of activity as the Finn was rapidly hauled away on a crane, and Hartley improved to 3rd, which may or may not have been done under yellows, as might Turvey and Streit's times that moved them to 3rd and 4th, only for Ericsson to shove the Brazilian down a place, the Swede digging deep to find enough pace to remove him from 17th. Roberto Merhi (Hitech Racing) was also now showing pace, proving faster than his team-mates Max Chilton and Walter Grubmuller yet again. The youngster was 10th which may have provided a wake up call for Chilton, the latter suddenly appearing in 3rd after languishing near the bottom of the order for most of the session.
Meanwhile Jules Bianchi (ART Grand Prix) was also pushing, perhaps rather too hard as it turned out shortly afterwards. However his best lap so far put him 8th. We were now getting on for halfway through the session, and there was something of a rush for the pits as those who had new rubber available came in and fitted in, and the rest just had further adjustments made. As they all went back out again Masaki Matsushita (PTRS by Ombra) crashed out up near Police, and brought out the yellows again while he was removed to a place of safety. The organizers announced that they would be leaving him where they'd put him, and everyone was able to start pushing again. Actually, leaving him out there was no problem - he'd already been banished to the back of the grid for failing to report to the weighbridge when told to do so in yesterday's qualifying session.
While all this was going on, Mortara grabbed pole back from van Dam, with an advantage over the Japanese series champion of 0.206 seconds. For a while he was the only driver to improve, but then Bird got back on it, moving up to 10th. It looked as if "Small Person" might just be considering a run at pole. He wasn't the only one. Streit was also still on the move, re-learning how to handle an F3 car to great effect (and 3rd place so far). A less impressive improvement came from Grubmuller, who was at least now visible on the first page in 20th. At the front, of course, we were more or less back where we'd started, with Mortara leading from van Dam and Streit. However, the session then came to grinding halt with yet another of those classic Reservoir Bend exits. This time it was Bianchi who had pushed it too hard and destroyed his car.
Everyone duly trooped back to the pits, with Mortara still on provisional pole from van Dam, Streit, Chilton, Turvey, Ericsson, Hartley, Coletti, Bianchi, Bird and Renger van der Zande (Prema Powerteam). In 11th was Cozzolino, heading up Merhi, Alguersuari, Kunimoto, Cheng, Kazuya Oshima (Manor Motorsport), James Jakes (ART Grand Prix), Daniel Campos Hull (HBR Motorsport), Grubmuller and Lancaster. 21st was Mika Maki (Signature Plus) who had been passed fit by the medics after his Thursday morning shunt, Basil Shaaban (HBR Motorsport), Winslow, Mustonen, Vanthoor, Koki Saga (Le Beausset Motorsport), Matsushita, Michael Ho (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), and Nicola de Marco (RC Motorsport).
We got a restart with 11 minutes 33 seconds left on the clock, which suggested it would be hard going for anyone who wanted to improve. Turvey was certainly giving it his best with a personal best time in the 2nd sector on his first flying lap, and he was not the only one. Streit was also going for it. Possibly so was Ericsson, but the effect was that the Swede shot off the track and up an escape road, which was embarrassing but didn't cause a stop. Kunimoto, on the other hand, must have been studying van Dam's data, because the baby-faced Japanese was suddenly 4th.
Bird had just snatched pole from van Dam, who had just snatched it from Mortara, Meanwhile the Carlin Motorsport boys were mounting a combined campaign, with Alguersuari moving from 11th to 4th, which became 5th when Turvey got ahead of him, the pair of them just shy of Kunimoto's time for 3rd. Jakes had also clearly recovered from his Armco-banging exploits of the day before, and went 5th, only to get demoted by Merhi. And then there were red flags yet again, as Cozzolino decided to follow the current fashion and wallop the barriers at Reservoir Bend on the run to the start/finish line. There were bits of car everywhere - apart from attached to his Dallara as they should have been, and the long-suffering marshals sprang into action one more time, clearing the debris and getting the driver out of the way.
The order at this stage was Bird, from van Dam, Mortara, Kunimoto, Merhi, Turvey, Jakes, van der Zande, Alguersuari and Streit. Coletti was 11th, from Chilton, Ericsson, Hartley, Oshima, Bianchi, Cozzolino, Grubmuller, Cheng and Campos Hull. In 21st was Winslow, ahead of Lancaster, Maki, Shaaban, Saga, Mustonen, Vanthoor, Matsushita, Ho and Marco. And that, it seemed was that. Except that it wasn't. A restart was announced, despite the fact that there were less than four minutes left on the clock. This would be a one lap sprint to the flag, with just enough time for an out lap and one flying lap before the end of the session.
At the restart Bird got stuck behind a slow-moving Grubmuller, so it was really down to what the rest of them could manage. And this was the moment when the gods of motorsport smiled on van Dam. A lap earlier he'd glanced off the barriers and deranged the steering slightly, which meant the car just didn't feel right any more. However, he was able to string an impressive lap together for his final run, just as most of the rest of the field ended up in a massive car park at Police Bend. Coletti had hit the barriers and ended up sideways across the track and no one could get through, starting with Chilton, Merhi and Grubmuller. And while they were being disentangled, the ones who had been fortunate enough to be ahead of Coletti pushed on. Kunimoto was flying now and ended up 3rd just behind Bird, but ahead of Mortara, who had lost out in the chaos. Streit also moved ahead to claim 5th, having been 10th at the last stoppage. The biggest loser was Jakes though, who saw van der Zande, Turvey and Alguersuari all overtake him. He ended up 10th behind all three of them. Further down Hartley got the better of the stricken Coletti and Chilton. 14th - also after a last lap dash - was Maki, the Finn beating out Ericsson, Oshima, Bianchi, Cozzolino, Grubmuller and Cheng. Maki has also got the better of Winslow, who was still 21st, and Lancaster, while Shaaban, Saga, Mustonen, Vanthoor, Matsushita, Ho and Marco filled the final places. Afterwards, just to add to the confusion, Bird was bounced three places for a weighbridge offence in the morning practice session and of course Matsushita will start dead last for the same fault but in qualifying on Thursday.
It remains to be seen what will happen in the 10 lap qualification race tomorrow, but luck seems to be on van Dam's side, even if he says you can make your own luck. Streit was taking a philosophical view of his first F3 race for a year, saying he felt like a rookie. His plan was to avoid trouble at the race start, because, as he says, there's always some fool who thinks he can win the race at the first corner.
Weather: Hot, sunny. Humidity 68%.