Qualifying Report: Weather: Windy. Dry. Damp track. After the morning's session, it was to be hoped we could get through this without interruptions from the weather gods, who really seem to have taken exception to British F3 this year. Perhaps...
Weather: Windy. Dry. Damp track.
After the morning's session, it was to be hoped we could get through this without interruptions from the weather gods, who really seem to have taken exception to British F3 this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the amount of cloud around, most drivers were out there at the first possible opportunity. The first to show pace was Rob Austin (Menu Motorsport), the now veteran F3 driver seeming to be enjoying himself round Thruxton, at least if his performance in the Ginetta he'd been allowed to play with all weekend was anything to go by. In fact, Austin's first flying lap (1.06.990) was so good he was unable to better it in the ensuing 20 or so minutes. And not many other people got anywhere near it either. All in all it was a remarkable effort on Austin's part, and a gesture of defiance in the direction of those who were trying to claim the Menu team didn't know what they were doing. Team boss Mike Baker put it a little more crudely than that, but you get the gist!
The reaction of the rest of the runners to Austin's blinder of a time was to dive for the cover of the pit lane and change to new rubber as quickly as possible. If the track conditions were that good, everybody wanted a piece of the action.
James Rossiter (Fortec Motorsport) and Fairuz Fauzy (P1 Motorsport) both pitted early, as did most of the field, Fauzy probably ruing the day he decided to jump ship from Menu, and probably also still trying to work out why it is that both Austin, and his new team-mate Adam Carroll are both faster than him. Carroll was also on the pace to begin with, and was 2nd for quite a while, though even he couldn't get out of the 1.07s to try and challenge Austin.
While the rush for the pits continued, Alvaro Parente (Carlin Motorsport) edged his way into 3rd place, only to get pushed back out by team-mate Clivio Piccione, the Monegasque claiming the place from the Portuguese on his first flying lap of the session. A lap later he was 2nd, but then entering Church a suspension failure gave him a scare, and he spent most of the remainder of the session in the pits, while the lads tried to fix the problem. As he admitted afterwards, snap oversteer at 240 kph isn't a lot of fun.
In the Scholarship Class, Stephen Jelley (Performance Racing) was a man on a mission. Having worked out that he hadn't been flat through Church when he thought he had, Stephen decided that the only way to nail it for sure was to put both feet on the loud pedal! He duly did just that, and found himself 13th overall, and on class pole as a result. But did he have to be so gleeful about it? Ryan Lewis (T-Sport) was close but not quite there, which pleased Jelley even more, as he reckons himself to be something of a specialist round Thruxton.
With the demise of Piccione's suspension, Rossiter was able to move up the order to slot into 3rd, while Lucas di Grassi (Hitech Racing) was really flying now, getting with 4/100ths of Austin's time and looking like the only serious threat out there. Nelson A Piquet, on the other hand, was having one of his deeply dispirited days, and was floundering round on a miserable - for him anyway - 7th place. It wasn't looking good for the series leader and he slowly slid even further back as the new tyres started to kick in for everyone else.
The top four, meanwhile, was Austin, from di Grassi, Rossiter and Piccione. However, Piccione was still in the pits, and Parente took advantage of his absence to snatch 4th from him. Marko Asmer (Hitech Racing), who is now looking far more confident in the category than he did at the start of the year, was up to 6th and looked as if there might be more to come. Austin had decided there wasn't much more he could do at present, and had come in for front suspension alterations. And with 10 minutes left, still no one except Austin had cracked that elusive 1.06 barrier.
In the Scholarship Class Jelley was still comfortably ahead of Lewis, especially as there were two Championship Class cars between them at this stage. Still, never write Lewis off, as he never seems to know when to quit. He was still trying hard, and there was always a chance that the Championship boys might find some more speed, thus moving Jelley to within his reach.
After all, just as it was starting to look as if Austin would take pole position, di Grassi banged in a terrific lap, breaking Takuma Sato's lap record (unofficially of course) and demoting Austin to 2nd all in one go. Austin seemed calm about the whole thing, probably aware that he didn't have the tyres left to attempt to answer di Grassi, and anyway at Thruxton it's something of a moot point as to which side of the grid you're better off on. Austin would hope that his experience would allow him to get the drop on di Grassi at the start of the race.
And so the order was di Grassi, from Austin, Rossiter, Parente, Piccione and Asmer. Danny Watts (Promatecme F3) seemed to be having a tottering time this weekend, and had only done five laps, none of them especially fast. Like Piccione, Watts seemed to spend most of the session in the pits, having a variety of adjustments made. The bizarre thing about it was that with very little of the session left, Watts was slower than his B class team-mate, Vasilije Calasan (which meant he was slowest of all, because Vas isn't exactly the fastest thing on wheels). Piquet was finally starting to show some speed, and had worked his way back up to 7th. It was to be hoped, for his sake, that he could go quicker yet. He didn't want to be the slowest of the Brazilians twice in a day! And sure enough, he wasn't. That dubious distinction went to Danilo Dirani, the Carlin Motorsport man throwing his car into the scenery at high speed when he got his wheels on the wet grass round the back of the circuit. The resulting crash left the Brazilian embarrassed and his Dallara banana-shaped.
As the seconds ticked down, Jelley was still ahead of Lewis, but he only had Dirani between him and the champion-elect. Still, it was a pole position, which is what counts. Ronayne O'Mahony (Performance) was just shy of Lewis's time, while Calasan, as usual, was bringing up the rear.
Piquet, meanwhile, managed another improvement in time, though it wasn't enough to move him up the order. A lap later, however, and he was sufficiently fast that he was able to push Rossiter out of 3rd place, which cheered him up no end. He was aided by this in that Carroll, the only other real challenger for the overall title now, was down in 9th, just behind Asmer. That only left Rossiter to worry about, and it seemed possible that the Brazilian would make the better start provided everyone in front got away smoothly on Sunday.
With five minutes left there was another drift to the pits, this time to wait out the end of the session. Jelley and O'Mahony were both in early, and they weren't alone. The only man still out and improving was Watts. Even so, it only moved him to 11th. It wasn't what he wanted though he was a phlegmatic as ever about it. If anyone knows how to make the best of a bad job in motorsport, it's probably Watts.
With the top 16 covered by a second, di Grassi would line up on pole for the second race on Monday. Austin was 2nd, from Piquet, Rossiter, a surprisingly competitive Andrew Thompson (Hitech Racing), Parente, Piccione, Asmer, Carroll and Fauzy. Watts was 11th, from a mysteriously off the pace Will Power (Alan Docking Racing), Marcus Marshall (Fortec Motorsport) and James Walker (Hitech Racing). Jelley was on Scholarship Class pole, with Dirani between him and Lewis, while O'Mahony was 3rd in class, and Calasan was last.
By: Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite