Today's free practice session gave the Formula Renault 3.5 Series drivers their only track time before qualifying, and offered the chance for them to acquaint and reacquaint themselves with the Monaco street circuit. It was the championship's rookies who stole the spotlight once again, with Stoffel Vandoorne (Fortec Motorsports) setting the best time before later receiving a five-place grid penalty for dangerous driving. Vandoorne's fellow newcomer, Norman Nato (DAMS), also impressed by finishing third fastest, behind Antonio Felix da Costa (Arden Caterham).
Monaco is no place for late risers – especially on the Thursday before a Formula One Grand Prix. The 45-minute free practice session got underway at 08.30 sharp, with all 26 of the FR 3.5 Series drivers eager to get out on the track. Some interesting pre-drive rituals were on display, with championship leader Kevin Magnussen (DAMS) arriving at 06.00 and kicking off his day with a jog through the streets of the principality. His team-mate Norman Nato, by contrast, took a more laid-back approach, turning up to the paddock just a few minutes before the start with a beaming smile on his face.
The moment their visors went down, however, the drivers’ focus was set squarely on getting the most out of each and every lap. At the start of the session, every time was an improvement on the last. Competing this weekend in a one-off drive for Zeta Corse, Carlos Sainz Jr. enjoyed a prolonged stint at the top of the timesheets in the early stages. And apart from Mikhail Aleshin (Tech 1 Racing) going straight on at a corner, there were no major incidents before the cars returned to the pits.
Now on their second sets of fresh tyres, the drivers picked up the pace even further in the second half of the session. Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin) was the first to lap in under 1:26, before Britain’s Nick Yelloly (Zeta Corse) – also making a one-off appearance – went a few thousandths quicker, a lap after cutting the chicane at the exit of the tunnel section.
Seven minutes from the end of the session, Stoffel Vandoorne made the most of a clear lap to record the best time of the session in 1:24.711. Mikhail Aleshin, who had been second until that point, then found himself leapfrogged by Antonio Felix da Costa and, later, Carlos Sainz Jr.
With three minutes remaining, Matias Laine (P1 by Strakka Racing) crashed at Sainte-Devote, with Zoel Amberg (Pons Racing), behind, also coming to a halt. A few moments later, Stoffel Vandoorne did not slow down sufficiently on his approach to the incident and also went off. This prompted the red flag and brought a definitive end to the session. And after an investigation by the stewards, Vandoorne received a five-place grid penalty for the start of the main race.
Stoffel Vandoorne: "I’m a bit disappointed after the accident at the end of the session. I didn’t see the yellow flag and I was just as surprised as the driver in front of me. The most important thing, though, is that I set the fastest time. I thought it was going to be more difficult finish in front, as it was my first time on a street circuit. It’s good for my confidence."
Antonio Felix da Costa: "Everything went well. It was important to put together as many laps as possible, even though the conditions weren’t the same as they’ll be on Saturday."
Norman Nato: "I was in awe of the circuit for the first few laps, but I managed to complete the programme set out by the team. We’ve prepared well for this meeting, working in the garage with the engineers and in the simulator. That’s what allowed me to drive so naturally."