Jean-Karl Vernay (Signature) was the slightly surprised - and possibly surprising - winner of today's qualifying race at Macau. With an unusually low rate of attrition, it seemed as though the message about needing to survive this race in order to make it to Sunday's Grand Prix may have started to sink in. Pole man Marcus Ericsson (Tom's), who knows all about this place, ended the 10-lap battle in 2nd, while Edoardo Mortara (Signature) was 3rd, in a race that sadly finished behind the Safety Car.
Despite the grid being settled by the end of Friday, there was a small amount of reshuffling, with three drivers relegated to the back of the grid after engine changes. That meant that Daniel Zampieri (Prema Powerteam), Alexandre Imperatori (KCMG by Kolles & Heinz Union) and Carlos Huertas (Manor Motorsport) would be 27th, 28th and 29th respectively, with Kevin Chen (Champ Motorsport/Raikkonen Robertson Racing) barred from taking part by the officials, who had clearly come to the entirely correct decision that he presented a danger to himself and everyone else out on the track. Given his performances in British F3 this season, as well as the fact that the Taiwanese managed to crash out of every session so far this weekend, this is the best decision they could take.
Anyway, the race finally got underway with Ericsson on pole, and everything looked set for a terrific battle between the best of the current drop of F3 drivers. Vernay made a superb start and got the drop on Ericsson to snatch the lead from the slightly surprised Swede. Ericsson fought back and they were side by side at Lisboa, Ericsson pushing Vernay down to 2nd, while Jules Bianchi (ART) came close to ending Mortara's chances when he ran over the Italian's rear wheel and damaged his own nose in the process. Meanwhile there was a loose wheel rolling round on its own after Jake Rosenzweig (Fortec Motorsport) was caught out in the mid pack mayhem that saw a general reshuffle of the order. The young American ended up in the Mandarin Bend barriers, doing enough damage to require a safety car period. Additionally, Henry Arundel (Carlin) picked up some debris that punctured his radiator, a problem that meant a pit stop was desperately needed. Meanwhile Ericsson led the pack round, waiting for the race to go live again and desperately trying to keep his tyres warm in order to capitalise on the lead he now held.
The order at the end of the first somewhat fraught lap, then, was Ericsson, from Vernay, Mortara, Valtteri Bottas (ART) the Finn losing out to Mortara on the first lap, Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin), Laurens Vanthoor (Signature), Sam Bird (the ART driver gaining a place after Bianchi's little collision), Stefano Coletti (Prema Powerteam), Mika Maki (Hitech Racing) and Brendon Hartley (the Carlin driver gaining a lot of ground in the melee). 11th was Takuto Iguchi (Tom's), from Roberto Merhi (Manor Motorsport) and Wayne Boyd, the Hitech Racing driver rocketing up five places while everyone went mad around him.
Taking advantage of the Safety Car, Bianchi dived into the pits in search of a new nose at the end of the first lap, while Arundel had no choice but to pit as the engine temperature soared. Both cars were very soon being worked on frantically though Arundel looked like he'd be there for some time. Bianchi, on the other hand, was ready to go before the pack arrived for their next controlled lap. It didn't quite work out as he'd hoped when the Frenchman stalled in the pits and had to wait for the team to restart the engine for him. However, he made it back on track without losing a lap.
On lap four the race went live again, Ericsson drops back to try and take full advantage but Vernay went for it after holding off Mortara. He saw his opportunity and slipstreamed past Ericsson to nab the lead. Ricciardo, always quick to catch on, had a go at Bottas but he couldn't quite make it stick and ran wide, allowing the Finn to hold on to 4th, as well as allowing Vanthoor through for 5th while he gathered everything together. Meanwhile Colleti's less than stellar weekend continued unabated as he spun out of 8th place, presumably a victim of cold tyres after Hartley ran into him. Hartley had been pushing hard, setting the first of the fastest laps of the race, the Kiwi always fast on street circuits but he was suffering for his mistakes in qualifying and came round last.
Ericsson was now pushing hard with three laps to go and was closing up on Vernay, leaving Mortara behind for now. 4th was still Bottas, from Vanthoor, Ricciardo, Iguchi, Maki and Merhi, the last two scrapping fiercely as they completed the top ten. It was a sign of the pace being set (as well as the cooler than usual condition) that the lap record was not so much broken as smashed to pieces now, and it was further demolished by first Mortara with a 2.10:977, and then reduced to rubble by Vernay as he tried his best to escape from the threat of Ericsson (2.10:906). Luckily for him, Ericsson now has his hands full with Mortara, while further back what would turn out to be the decisive incident of the race occurred. Boyd, who had been fighting to get into the top ten, joining the battling Maki and Merhi. As Maki lost out to the Spaniard, Boyd went wide and ended up in the wall at the exit from Mandarin. The yellow flags were hung out promptly, as they always are by the incredibly efficient marshals here, and that put an end to any overtaking anyone might have had planned. It didn't stop Mortara going through on Ericsson for 2nd, but the Italian had enough sense to hand the place straight back once he realised what he'd done. With two laps of the race left, the Safety Car was out again, as the wreckage was removed. A lap later and the Safety Car was still leading them round. As this was the last lap, the race was effectively over.
In a slightly absurd twist, the Safety Car pulled off at the end of the last lap, leaving the field to run to the finish line on their own. Given that the rules do not permit overtaking until the start/finish line is crossed, it seemed a bit pointless. Perhaps they just didn't want to waste fuel...
Anyway, the order at the finish was Vernay, from Ericsson, Mortara, Bottas, Vanthoor, Ricciardo, Bird, Iguchi, Merhi and Maki. 11th was van der Zande, from Kunimoto, Sims, Garcia, Chilton, Cozzolino, Dusseldorp, Saga, Huertas and Zampieri. 21st - despite his pit stop - was Bianchi, from Coletti, Imperatori, Hartley, McKenzie and Ho. With the addition of Boyd, Arundel and Rosenzweig, that is now the order they will start the Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon. Expect a lot more mayhem in that race!
Fastest lap of the race - and a new lap record - went to Vernay.
Weather: Cool, windy