Changes: There were a lot of changes at Castle Combe. Perhaps it was just down to Midsummer madness - more likely, in the case of Promatecme F3, it was down to a combination of budget problems and mid-season disillusionment. Christian England...
There were a lot of changes at Castle Combe. Perhaps it was just down to Midsummer madness - more likely, in the case of Promatecme F3, it was down to a combination of budget problems and mid-season disillusionment. Christian England and Michael Keohane both seem to have concluded that they were not getting the results they wanted, and they have disappeared into the sunset, while Ernani Judice was back in Brazil trying to raise the money needed to complete hid season. So we were three cars down before we even started. In addition, the Scholarship Class was further reduced by the absence of Ivor McCullough (Meritus Racing), Sergio Hernandez (Azteca), and Jesse Mason (Performance Racing). The class now contained four runners only, in the shape of the two T-Sport drivers, Steven Kane and Karun Chandhok, P1 Motorsport's Ernesto Viso, and Justin Sherwood (Performance). If they could finish the race, they could score points with no difficulty at all.
On the positive side, Will Power had returned to the formula after his unhappy early season experiences with the Ralt at Diamond Racing. Taking no chances, he has stepped into the second Fortec Motorsport Dallara alongside Robert Dahlgren. It meant that there were 25 runners present at Combe, which is a shame given how healthy the field looked at Donington at the start of the year (when over 30 drivers were present).
Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport) was still around but he had changed cars and engines, dropping his attempts to develop the Lola-Dome and reverting to a Dallara F303, this time powered by a Mugen-Honda unit rather than an Opel- Spiess.
Race Report - Round 11:
Weather: Very hot, sunny.
It's an odd circuit, Castle Combe. It's mostly fast sweeping corners, with the exception of Quarry, which is very close to being a hairpin, without quite getting there. As it's the first corner the drivers encounter after they start the race, it usually causes problems and there are quite often race cars lost in the cornfield on the inside of the circuit when the dust settles. On one notable occasion in 1987 it took the best part of twenty minutes for the marshals to find a missing Formula Ford after the driver (oh, all right! It was Paul Warwick if you must know) got out and walked away from it and the crop simply sprang back up around it!
After a blazing hot practice day, which meant this years times never looked likely to get below one minute, the grid lined up in good order (although they did rather take their time about it), with Danny Watts (Hitech Racing) enjoying his first ever F3 pole position. At the drivers' briefing the Clerk of the Course informed the competitors that the starting gantry lights had been a little temperamental recently, and that if they failed to work the race would be started using the national flag. A number of drivers were unfamiliar with this procedure, so it was just as well it wasn't needed in the event.
The lights duly turned from red to green, and although Watts didn't make the best of starts, it was sufficient to allow him to power into the lead. Behind him, Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) made the most of hesitation on the parts of Adam Carroll (Menu Motorsport) and Robert Dahlgren (Fortec Motorsport) to jump from 4th to 2nd by the time the field streamed up Avon Rise towards Quarry. It was probably the safest place to be. Richard Antinucci (Carlin Motorsport) was caught unawares by Dahlgren cutting across him, and by the time he'd sorted himself out everyone else had gone, leaving him to trail round into the pits for a replacement tyre. Meanwhile, Karun Chandhok (T-Sport) tripped over Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing), when the latter braked to avoid everything that was happening in front of him. Thompson survived; Chandhok didn't, his car ending up deep in the corn. That left three Scholarship Class runners; if they all stayed out of trouble, they were at least guaranteed a place on the podium afterwards.
With Watts leading from van der Merwe, Carroll and Dahlgren, with Ronnie Bremer (Carlin Motorsport) in 5th, the front runners were already starting to break away. Everyone else was bottled up behind Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport), the English driver putting up stiff resistance despite the fact that his Dallara only had half its nose wing left. It was handling badly, but he wasn't about to give up if he could avoid it. Will Power (Fortec Motorsport) and Clivio Piccione (Manor Motorsport) had other ideas about it, but they weren't finding it easy to get by, particularly as just about everyone else was bunched up behind them.
It soon became clear that Watts' strategy was to push on as hard as he could and try and break away from the others. Van der Merwe was busy holding off Carroll, while Dahlgren and Bremer were fighting to be the leading Scandinavian. Austin was still holding up most of the rest of the field, with Power and Piccione being joined by Jamie Green (Carlin Motorsport), Eric Salignon (Hitech Racing), Scott Speed (Alan Docking Racing), Ernesto Viso (P1 Motorsport), Billy Asaro (P1 Motorsport) and Nelson Piquet Jr (Piquet Sports). The young Brazilian was having a very bad weekend. He'd qualified a long way down for both races, after a somewhat eventful testing session that concluded with his car catching fire! Sunday wasn't looking much better. At the back of the field were the usual suspects (Team SYR's three Malaysians, Fairuz Fauzy, Farriz Fauzy and Rizal Ramli) with Richard Antinucci at the very back having returned to the fray from the pits.
A lap later, while Watts continued to increase his lead, Power finally squeezed past Austin in a very decisive move, and while Austin wobbled a bit Piccione tried to go to, only to have to fend off Green, who was attacked in his turn by Salignon. Power immediately started to pull away from Austin, leaving the others to try and find their own way past the stricken Menu car. Meanwhile, Piquet got past Scholarship Class leader Viso, who wisely didn't try to make an issue of it.
Piccione was the next to pass Austin, and then Green got him too. Otherwise it was pretty much business as usual at the front. Watts was edging further and further ahead, while van der Merwe had pulled away from Carroll, Dahlgren and Bremer. It looked as if Watts was on course for his first victory, but then it all went horribly wrong for the English driver. Coming out of Camp Corner he was clearly pushing as hard as he could, when he clipped the kerb on the outside of the track, pitching himself into a spin and onto the grass on the inside of the circuit. He reversed off the grass and found himself sitting there waiting for the traffic to go past and hoping nothing would hit him. He was lucky in that respect, but he must have been kicking himself for throwing away a perfectly good lead. Van der Merwe, on the other hand, must have had a distinct feeling of déjà vu. After all, his first ever F3 win was at Combe in 2002 when he unexpectedly inherited the lead. He wasn't complaining. His championship lead was already healthy, and a victory now was just what was needed to reinforce that lead, particularly as the main opposition (Green and Piquet) were both a long way down the order.
Unfortunately for the South African, it suddenly got a lot more difficult. Watts, trying desperately to make up ground, went off terminally at Quarry, taking Tor Graves (Manor Motorsport) with him. Piquet overtook Speed just before the officials decided that the Safety Car was needed while they cleared Watts and Graves out of the way. Austin, meanwhile, pitted to get the damage to his Dallara put right. The Safety Car pulled out and - wonder of wonders this year - actually picked up the leader as he completed another lap. Although some people didn't appear to see the SC boards to start with, they all settled in eventually. And now the order was van der Merwe, Carroll, Dahlgren, Bremer, Power, Piccione, Green, Salignon, Piquet, Speed, Viso, Thompson, Asaro, Steven Kane (T-Sport), Stefano Fabi (Manor Motorsport), Fairuz Fauzy, Will Davison (Alan Docking Racing), Ramli, Justin Sherwood (Performance Racing), Farriz Fauzy and Antinucci. It was at this point that Antinucci decided it was time to quit, the Dallara's handling getting steadily worse as the race wore on.
Austin, meanwhile, rejoined the fray, three laps down. He could at least try for a point for fastest lap, as well as checking to see if the car was OK before the afternoon's race. Meanwhile, van der Merwe was unnerving Carroll by accidentally switching on his rear light while trying to adjust his dash display - he did apologise for it afterwards but it must have been disturbing for Carroll.
The Safety Car finally pulled off and the race restarted. Van der Merwe had it all very much under control, which wasn't really surprising considering how many restarts he took at Snetterton. Salignon, meanwhile, made an attempt to get by Green and ended up almost losing a place to Piquet instead. And so the top half dozen settled in for a run to the flag, van der Merwe managing to hold off Carroll despite repeated attacks, while Dahlgren and Bremer continued to slug it out. Power was unable to make much impact on the Scandinavian duo, but was safe from Piccione, while Green was holding off Salignon determinedly. Piquet was sitting back hoping for an opportunity, unthreatened by Speed. Viso had to give way to Thompson but he was still well clear of Kane, as Asaro was acting as a useful buffer.
Carroll dropped his wheels in the dirt, but was able to recover, though for a moment there it looked as if Dahlgren would get him. He didn't and the Irish driver continued on his way to 2nd. Meanwhile, at the wrong end of the pack, Davison was in trouble. Neither of the Docking drivers were having a particularly good day, and the worst of it was no one could work out why. Davison was floundering in company with the Malaysians, and was steadily going backwards, eventually dropping out altogether with a lap to go. It was probably just as well really - he wasn't enjoying himself one little bit.
Just before the end of the race it looked as if the whole thing would end in chaos. Clouds had been steadily forming as the morning wore on, and then the first spots of rain fell. Luckily it didn't turn into anything serious, because if it had, we might well have been looking at the sort of race we had at Oulton last year. It didn't happen and van der Merwe cruised to a slightly unexpected but nonetheless deserved victory. Consistency really does pay it seems, and he has now scored points in every race of the season so far. No one else can say that, and the up and down results of so many of the others merely make it easier for him to edge ahead.
- Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite, Guest Writers