Once more with less Safety Cars. Well, hopefully anyway, although there was what looked like a small vulture circling gently over the grid before the race started so you had to wonder a bit. There were also a number of empty cars...
Once more with less Safety Cars. Well, hopefully anyway, although there was what looked like a small vulture circling gently over the grid before the race started so you had to wonder a bit. There were also a number of empty cars at Fortec Motorsport, as the Mansells, Greg and Leo, had gone home, but not before father Nigel had reportedly indulged in a tantrum directed at the team's other driver, Sebastian Hohenthal. And of course Walter Grubmuller was also at home, the Hitech Racing driver having crashed heavily in first qualifying.
Anyway, what remained of the field duly settled in for two laps behind the Safety Car before they could be turned loose. The idea was that the two laps would give them a chance to figure out where the slippery parts were and maybe, just maybe, we'd get away without having to neutralise the race when everyone got silly. You probably wouldn't have wanted to bet your shirt on it though. And true to form as soon as the Safety Car turned in, the drivers turned their brains off.
Michael Devaney (Ultimate Motorsport) made a vicious lunge at Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing) and bundled him rudely out of the way, the Estonian thinking better of resisting. Meanwhile, Maro Engel (Carlin Motorsport) tried to get alongside Atte Mustonen (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) then had to fend off Sam Bird (Carlin Motorsport). As they tore into the next corner, chaos broke out. Alberto Valerio (Carlin Motorsport) made a lunge at Stephen Jelley (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) in an attempt to snatch the lead. It was wildly over-optimistic and "a bit of a silly move" as Jelley later remarked. "He could see glory from back there." The two made contact, and Valerio was left to limp round with one wheel hanging loose, while Jelley recovered enough to get back on track, though his shot at victory was now long gone.
Or was it. The new leader was Mustonen, for all of a straight. Engel attempted to squeeze up the inside of the Finn, and had the door slammed in his face. They tangled and ended up beached on the kerbs, unable to continue. They got out and a bout of shoving on Mustonen's part showed he though the German was to blame. It was equally clear that Engel though the Finn had squeezed him into the wall. The upshot of all of this was that a somewhat bemused Bird inherited the lead. "It was Christmas for me!" he said afterwards. "We were behind the Safety Car and I thought why me, why here, but then the leaders ran into each other and the new leaders ran into each other."
It helped that behind Bird his team-mate, Niall Breen (Carlin Motorsport) had decided that it would be good to get some points, and was showing no inclination to stick his car in the wall in an attempt to snatch victory. Bird began to pull out a gap, while Jelley, who was now 3rd, started to try and reel in Breen. Behind them, Hohenthal, who had lost out to Breen at the start of the first racing lap, and Esteban Guerrieri were next up ahead of Michael Devaney (Ultimate Motorsport), Sergio Perez (T- Sport) who was leading the National Class but was keen not to get in the way of the Championship Class runners, Rodolfo Gonzales (T-Sport), Asmer, who was biding his time and John Martin (Alan Docking Racing), the latter running strongly for the first time this season and is now looking like the driver who impressed so much in Formula Ford last year.
As Bird pulled away a battle started between the two Ultimate drivers, Devaney passing Guerrieri only to see the Argentinean take the place back again very shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, as the crashed cars were removed and the race continued, Jelley was setting fastest lap after fastest lap in his attempts to get back on terms with the two Carlin cars. He was pushing as hard as he could, though catching them would be one thing and getting past quite another matter.
There was mayhem further down too, with Sean Petterson (Fluid Motorsport) having a tough time out there, driving the only Championship Class Lola chassis for the first time, and running on a street circuit for the first time too. A brush with "Frankie" Cheng (Performance Racing) saw him lose half of his front wing, and after that it was pretty much all over for the South African. Certainly the result was that Francesco Castellacci (Alan Docking Racing) was able to pass him easily, and Salman Al Khalifa (Promatecme F3) was all over him after that. In addition, Mario Moraes (Carlin Motorsport) was busy fighting his way up the order having started last, and the result was a general shuffle of the National Class in the Brazilian's wake. Albert Costa (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) was the main loser, getting passed by Michael Meadows (Newnet Raikkonen Robertson Racing) and then having to fend off Alistair Jackson (Raikkonen Robertson Racing). You wouldn't think these guys were all in the same team, frankly. Meadows then got shown the black and white flag for his troubles for cutting the Chicane and gaining an unfair advantage.
At the front, Bird was the next driver to set a new fastest lap as he tried to open up a comfortable gap, while Guerrieri was busy attacking Hohenthal, who had probably had enough of people picking on him this weekend what with the Mansells generally. While Jelley reclaimed the fastest lap, behind him it was all kicking off between Gonzalez and Asmer. The Estonian wanted to get through, but the Venezuelan was determined not to let him under any circumstances. Asmer pulled alongside, but couldn't quite get ahead. Cue an attack of wheel banging down the straight, followed by Gonzalez weaving violently from side to side to keep Asmer behind him. It seemed sufficient to call it excessive weaving, which is of course not permitted. All this meant that Martin, who was behind them, was ideally placed to take advantage as the pair of them slugged it out. A lap later he got his chance, nipping up the inside of the pair of them in a very nice move. It seemed they were so busy playing silly buggers, they'd forgotten he was there. As soon as he was through he started to really open up the gap, chasing down the front runners.
And then there was real trouble. As Guerrieri dropped back down the order, back in the National Class there was a big off, Costa and Meadows tangling and wiping the pair of them out. This time the Safety Car was needed, because they were going to take a lot of disentangling.
The order, at least as far as could be established, was Bird, from Breen, Jelley, Hohenthal, Devaney, Martin, Gonzalez, Asmer, Kennard and Moraes. 11th was Perez who was still leading the National Class from Jackson (who'd benefitted big time from Costa and Meadows making unscheduled exits), who was ahead of Cheng, Viktor Jensen (Alan Docking Racing), Castellacci, Al Khalifa, Juan Pablo Garcia Samano (Fluid Motorsport), Alex Waters (Promatecme F3), Ricardo Teixeira and Guerrieri who was in trouble now.
With 4 minutes and 4 seconds left on the clock, we finally got a restart. Unfortunately it was also starting to rain, and conditions were slippery than ever. Guerrieri, who had been sitting in the middle of the leading pack despite being a lap down now, shot past Hohenthal at the restart, and cut in so hard the Swede had to brake, which meant Devaney ran straight up his gearbox, costing them both a handful of places as Martin, Gonzalez, and Asmer all went through, the latter pair resuming exactly where they'd left off. In punishment for blocking Hohenthal, Guerrieri was given a drive through penalty, which he richly deserved. He wouldn't be the only one to get a slap from the official afterwards either because what Gonzalez was doing to hold Asmer off was nothing short of outrageous. He couldn't expect to get away unpunished.
Someone else absorbing some heavy duty punishment was Kennard, as Moraes attempted to salvage some points. He was all over the Double R driver and showed no sign of letting up as they raced to the final flag. With a lap left to run, judging by the remaining time on the clock, Jackson grabbed the National Class lead from Perez with a move that saw him lose control, bang into the wall and take out the unfortunate Castellacci into the bargain. The likeable Italian seems to be a magnet for other people's accidents this season, and this weekend has been no exception. That handed Perez the class lead back and promoted Jensen to second ahead of Cheng, which he hadn't expected. As he said afterwards, "it's not my job to watch out for the others."
And so, Sam Bird, on his first street race, in his rookie season, became the third winner this season. OK, so he was lucky, but he was also smart. Second and happy to gain some much needed points was Breen, from a disappointed but philosophical Jelley. Martin claimed a super and well- deserved 4th place from Gonzalez, Asmer, Devaney, Hohenthal, Kennard and Moraes, but this order was changed later when the Race Director handed Gonzalez and 5 second penalty and dropped him to 10th overall. Perez was 11th, claiming the National Class victory from Jensen, Cheng, Al Khalifa, Garcia and Waters, while in 17th was Teixeira, ahead of Guerrieri, Max Chilton (Arena International) in the Invitation Class, who was 2 laps down, and Petterson who was also classified but two laps adrift.
Fastest laps went to Devaney, Meadows and Chilton.
Next meeting: Snetterton, Norfolk, 2nd/3rd June 2007.