By: Lynne Waite and Stella-Maria Thomas, BF3 Correspondents
- BF3 Spa event listed as FIA F3 Int'l Trophy
- Disastrous tyre choices scupper Carlin
- Sakurai doubles up on Rookie Class pole
- Asmer shows strongly on return with Double R Racing
Roberto Mehri doubles up for overall Invitation Class pole
Foresti earns race 1 pole and Buller takes race 3 pole for International class
Changes: Because this meeting is also part of the FIA Formula 3 International Trophy there are nine Invitation Class runners and there’s no one in the “spare” Fortec or Hitech cars. The interlopers are Marko Asmer, who joins regular British Series team Double R Racing for the weekend, Van Amersfoort Racing from the German F3 series with a single car for Hannes van Asseldonk, and two teams from the Euroseries, Prema Powerteam fielding Roberto Merhi, Daniel Juncadella and Raffaele Marciello, and Signature who are here with Daniel Abt, Marco Wittmann, Carlos Munoz and Laurens Vanthoor.
At Spa this morning qualifying turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, at least for the first part with yellow flags meaning that the session never really came alive before a stop to retrieve two stranded cars. The resulting pause allowed the track to start drying out; the result was a desperate dash for the flag, with the last times of the session being the fastest. At the end of the session Roberto Merhi (Prema Powerteam) was on pole for Saturday’s feature race and today’s 30 minute race, just ahead of Marko Asmer (Double R Racing) and Marco Wittmann (Signature). The best placed of the non-Invitation Class boys for Race 3 was William Buller (Fortec Motorsport), who was 5th just ahead of Lucas Foresti (Fortec Motorsport) and Pipo Derani (Double R Racing), who was 8th overall. For Race 1, just after lunch today, Merhi again holds pole, this time from Foresti and Buller. 3rd placed of the regular series runners was Hywel Lloyd (Sino Vision Racing), who will start from 6th. In the Invitation Class Wittmann was 2nd (4th overall) and Munoz was 3rd (5th overall). Kotaro Sakurai (T-Sport) remains the lone runner in the Rookie Class and is therefore on pole for both Race 1 and Race 3.
The session started on time, with the Carlin team leading the pack out to play on the majestic curves of one of racing’s last great circuits. What they didn’t know was that it was all about to go very wrong for them. However, at this point it was all looking positive for the six-car squad, even though Buller was the early pace-setter, or at least he was until Merhi got in on the act and raised the bar considerably for everyone. There was a brief flurry of activity as the Invitation Class boys showed they had more than got to grips with the Cooper tires used for this series, with Wittmann going faster, and Raffaele Marciello (Prema Powerteam), Carlos Munoz (Signature) and Daniel Abt (Signature) all joining in. Vanthoor was proving pretty rapid too at this stage, but it seemed no one was respecting the track limits. The warning notice that flashed up on the screen covered Kevin Magnussen (Carlin), Fahmi Ilyas (Fortec Motorsport), Scott Pye (Double R Racing), Menasheh Idafar (T-Sport), Bart Hylkema (T-Sport), Merhi, Daniel Juncadella (Prema Powerteam), Abt, Wittmann, Hannes van Asseldonk (van Amersfoort Racing), Marciello and Jazeman Jaafar (Carlin). That seemed to lead to a general calming down, possibly aided by the fact that Harry Tincknell (Fortec Motorsport) had gone off on his 2nd flying lap, causing yellow flags that took some time to be withdrawn. The only driver to take no notice of the warning was Ilyas, who was shown the black and white driving standards flag a lap later. At this stage the lead British car was still Buller, who was 7th from Rupert Svendsen-Cook (Carlin) and Foresti, and that was unlikely to change while the marshals craned Tincknell away. Once it was cleared, it looked like we might see some action, but Idafar had other ideas and spun off on the way to Pouhon, causing renewed yellows followed by a red flag.
At this point Wittmann was leading the pack, ahead of Merhi, Vanthoor, Marciello, Munoz, Abt, Buller, Svendsen-Cook, Foresti and van Asseldonk. 11th was Jaafar, who could consider himself lucky that the team were able to rebuild the car after his testing shunt on Thursday left him with an injured knee and the car with far more substantial damage. Behind him came Carlos Huertas (Carlin), Pye, Idafar, Jack Harvey (Carlin), Hywel Lloyd (Sino Vision Racing), Magnussen, Juncadella, Yann Cunha (T-Sport), and Hylkema. In 21st was Derani, ahead of series leader Felipe Nasr (Carlin), Tincknell, Asmer. Adderly Fong (Sino Vision Racing), Pietro Fantin (Hitech Racing), Ilyas and Sakurai. With a little over 16 minutes left on the clock the session had never really got going, and at the restart there would be time for 4 or 5 laps at best so the drivers needed to focus and make it count. And that’s where it all started to go wrong, with Carlin in particular managing to mess up the tyre choices in a big way, drivers getting caught out on wets when the track was drying rapidly.
It didn’t look like a problem initially, with Nasr rocketing up the order to 8th, well aware that he needed to go for it if he wanted to be anywhere near the front of the grid. The next improver was Fong to claim 20th and Derani who improved to 21st. It wasn’t good but it was better than nothing. Asmer brought all his experience to bear and improved to 11th while it seemed that Harvey’s current run of vastly improved form was continuing when he slotted in to 7th, especially as the far more experienced Huertas could only manage 14th.
The track conditions started to improve rapidly and Magnussen was suddenly up to 9th, while Nasr snagged 3rd only to see Buller go faster for 2nd. A lap later and Nasr was 5th with Fong in an unlikely 3rd. The changes kept on coming though, and it was clearly a long way from over. Derani dug a little deeper for 8th while Asmer nabbed provisional pole from Wittmann. He was edged out by Harvey, who in turn had to watch Merhi go even faster with Foresti now just behind him. The fastest times were now in the 2 minutes 27 second range, but with less than three minutes to go, they suddenly increased in pace by a phenomenal amount. Nasr went 3rd while Buller was even quicker and it was starting to look as if it might be a case of last man over the line. Abt, who had been nowhere, was suddenly 4th, with Merhi again upped the ante to beat out Buller, Foresti, Harvey, Abt, Nasr, Fong, Pye, Svendsen-Cook and Asmer. Anyone wanting to beat the Spaniard was going to have to get their finger out because they now had two laps maximum in which to do it.
To get an idea of how dramatically things changed, Nasr was 5th just behind Lloyd, but the top two were running in the 2:21s while the 3rd placed man was still doing 2:26s. OK, it’s a long circuit but that’s a four second discrepancy, which is a lot. And in the very final seconds it all came down to tyres, with those who had changed to slicks coming off best. It was all change all the way down the field with Buller now 3rd and Foresti pushing him out for 2nd. Munoz went 5th just as Merhi found a 2:19 from somewhere (given that his old team Manor Motorsport always reckoned feeding him chocolate or anything with E numbers in was a bad idea he may have been at the Mars bars or something) to put himself well clear of the chasing pack. Buller reclaimed 3rd with Huertas edging into 5th but it proved impossible to maintain. Marciello was the next to briefly occupy 2nd place, while Vanthoor did enough for 5th. As the flag was hung out Wittmann came over the line for what he probably thought was pole, but Merhi thought otherwise and a 2:17.438 was the definitive answer as it turned out. Also at the flag Derani shot into 6th while Asmer’s last effort was enough for 2nd. Buller continued to look impressive to and was now 5th while Nasr ended the session a dismal 20th, not one of the Carlin boys making it into the top 10, a disaster for them on an unprecedented scale. Tomorrow’s race threatens be very interesting indeed.
Once the cars came back close study of the timesheets showed Merhi a dominant pole-sitter from Asmer, Wittmann, Munoz, Buller, Foresti, Marciello, Derani, Vanthoor and Lloyd. 11th overall was Huertas from Harvey, Fong, Hylkema, Jaafar, Magnussen, Cunha, van Asseldonk, Pye and Nasr. 21st was Svendsen-Cook, who beat Juncadella, Ilyas, Sakurai, Abt, Fantin, Idafar and Tincknell.