At Zandvoort this afternoon, pole for the Tango Masters of Formula 3 went to Jules Bianchi (ART Grand Prix), winner of last year's Masters which was held at Zolder. Just behind him was his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas from Finland, with yet ...
At Zandvoort this afternoon, pole for the Tango Masters of Formula 3 went to Jules Bianchi (ART Grand Prix), winner of last year's Masters which was held at Zolder. Just behind him was his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas from Finland, with yet another Finn, Mika Maki (Signature) claiming 3rd though afterwards he was wondering what on earth it would take to beat the ART team. Formerly the ASM team, they have won the last five Masters outright and don't look like they plan on stopping that winning streak any time soon. Perhaps they ought to be made to start from the back... However, it probably still wouldn't stop them.
After a brief test session this morning, there was everything to play for in the first of two qualifying sessions for this year's Masters of Formula 3 race. The cars went out in two groups, with the odd-numbered runners going out first and the even-numbered ones going out next. The top ten from each of the two sessions would go into Group A for the next session, and would then contest the front ten rows of the grid. Anyone who didn't make it into the top ten would have no hope of qualifying any higher than 21st. Except that the rules changed during the break between sessions and it was decide that the top nine from each session would get through and the rest wouldn't, so it would be the first nine rows that got decided by the Group A qualifying session.
With the event now back at its rightful home after a two year exile on the Belgian track, the meeting usually poses something of a challenge to those who don't run on Kumho tyres during the season. That means the Cooper Tires British F3 International Series boys tend to start on the back foot and spend most of the weekend playing catch up and getting frustrated. Certainly that was the case this time, with only two runners from the British series making it into the top 9 in their individual morning sessions, and thus having a chance of competing for pole. That meant most of them were in the Group B session.
There had been a couple of offs in the test session, both Basil Shaaban (Prema Powerteam) and Cesar Ramos (Manor Motorsport) ending up in the gravel. However, they had been retrieved and repaired and were ready to go. Unlike in British F3, no one was hanging about. After a variety of spins and three red flags, the following drivers would make it to the Group A session:
. Roberto Merhi (Manor Motorsport)
. Renger van der Zande (Hitech Racing)
. Jules Bianchi (ART Grand Prix)
. Jean Karl Vernay (Signature)
. Alexander Sims (Mucke Motorsport)
. Sam Bird (Mucke Motorsport)
. Stefano Coletti (Prema Powerteam)
. Adrien Tambay (ART Grand Prix)
. Christopher Zanella (Motopark Academy)
. Mika Maki (Signature)
. Christian Vietoris (Mucke Motorsport)
. Valtteri Bottas (ART Grand Prix)
. Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin Motorsport)
. Henkie Waldschmidt (SG Formula)
. Atte Mustonen (Motopark Academy)
. Basil Shaaban (Prema Powerteam)
. Matteo Chinosi (Prema Powerteam)
. Tiago Geronimi (Signature)
About five minutes after the scheduled time, the 20-minute Group B session to decide the final 18 places on the grid began. The unlucky "losers" paid for their relative lack of pace or other indiscretions by having to go out first. A maddened Riki Christodoulou (Fortec Motorsport) was busy trying to make up for an awful morning and was soon on the pace, as were Walter Grubmuller (Hitech Racing), Carlos Huertas (Raikkonen Robertson Racing) and Victor Garcia (Fortec Motorsport), all of whom are regulars in the British series - and thus at a disadvantage here on Kumho tyres instead of the Cooper Tires rubber they are used to. The four of them merrily shuffled around the order for a while, settling to Grubmuller from Huertas, Garcia and Christodoulou, but then Huertas went fastest and his team-mate Daisuke Nakajima decide he wanted to join in to, claiming an early 3rd.
Esteban Gutierrez (ART Grand Prix) was another trying to make amends, in his case for burying himself in the gravel traps early on in first qualifying. The Mexican didn't seem to be having a good day. However, his first flying lap netted him 6th in the session, just as the rest of the boys came in for tyres. A further shuffle saw Garcia go 3rd, while Max Chilton (Carlin Motorsport) was an apparently baffled 10th and not looking at all convincing.
Manor Motorsport's Cesar Ramos, another to have had a gravel-filled morning, was in 16th while the tiny Samuele Buttarelli (Carlin Motorsport), who looks as if he still needs to grow into his overalls, was flinging the car round for temporary 4th while Andrea Caldarelli (SG Formula) hit 9th. For the time being Huertas stayed fastest while Garcia edged back to 3rd and Ramos claimed 12th. No one was using their newest tyres, probably very sensibly, because from the second half of the grid a driver's only hope of progress is to have new tyres so that they can capitalize when the front runners start to lose it a little. This is a long, hard race usually in hot sunshine and you need whatever advantage you can get.
Jake Rosenzweig, in one of six Carlin Motorsport entries, was now 13th, several placed behind the majority of the "British" runners, apart from Henry Arundel (Carlin Motorsport), and even Henry was now joining in, going 6th and edging out Chilton. While all this was going on, Caldarelli leaped up to 3rd and Marco Wittman (Mucke Motorsport) suddenly started to show. Wittman was another who had tried to bury his car in the gravel in the morning, and he had a point to prove. An initial flying lap for 4th in the session would go some way towards improving matters.
Pedro Enrique (Manor Motorsport) was now up there as well, but it was still a long way from over. Grubmuller now went fastest, while in yet another Carlin car Laurens Vanthoor was up to 6th. They were joined by Rosenzweig who went from last to 12th though the changes were coming so fast and furious now that if you looked away from the timing screens you'd miss at least one improvement or place change. Arundel came back to 6th and Gutierrez edged into 3rd, only to be pushed out by Wittman. Garcia then hit 4th. As an indication of how things were changing in this session, Christodoulou had now fallen back to last but one. He was still pushing on but team-mate Garcia seemed happier round this circuit in the dunes. He finally started to string it back together and gained 6 places just as Vanthoor leaped up the order to 3rd and Francesco Castellacci (Manor Motorsport) moved to 4th.
While Nakajima moved up to 9th, Grubmuller upped the pace, the Austrian setting the first time in the 1.32s. However, just as it looked as if more changes were on the cards, Gutierrez threw it off at the Masters corner for the second time today - perhaps he likes one of the marshals there, perhaps he should just have stayed in Mexico. Whatever the reason, the result was a red flagged session just as Vanthoor improved to 3rd. The order as they all returned to the pits to wait for the clean up to be completed was Grubmuller, from Huertas, Vanthoor, Castellacci, Wittman, Garcia, Enrique, Ramos, Nakajima and Chilton. The now deeply embarrassed Gutierrez was 11th ahead of Rosenzweig, Caldarelli, Christodoulou, Arundel, Buttarelli, Alexandre Marsoin (SG Formula) and Daniel Zampieri (BVM/Target).
With just over five minutes left at the restart, it was very much a case of a mad scrabble to get in a couple of flying laps before the chequered flag. On the first one Wittman went 3rd, and on his second he was fastest of all. That wasn't too surprising. Zampieri leaping up 7 places in the final seconds probably was. The only other two to improve were Caldarelli, who moved to 10th, and Christodoulou who wasn't about to quit if he could help it. A last ditch charge saw him end the session 5th, which would mean 23rd on the grid, which seemed small reward for the teeth- gritting effort he'd had to put in.
The two British Series runners who did make it through to the Group A session were proving very keen, both Renger van der Zande (Hitech Racing) and Daniel Ricciardo (Carlin Motorsport) getting out on track at the earliest possible moment. Mind you they soon came back in searching for fresher rubber. That meant that for most of the first half of the session we had the somewhat implausible spectacle of Basil Shaaban (Prema Powerteam) on pole, as most of the expected front-runners either skulked in the pits or went out only to come straight backing. He was ahead of Christopher Zanella (Motopark Academy), Stefano Coletti (Prema Powerteam), Atte Mustonen (Motopark Academy), Roberto Merhi (Manor Motorsport), Matteo Chinosi (Prema Powerteam), van der Zande and Ricciardo. No one else had actually set a time.
The first signs of progress came as we neared the halfway stage, with Christian Vietoris (Mucke Motorsport) going fastest, but the times were still relatively slow. As everyone finally rolled out onto the track the action became frenetic. Van der Zande rocketed onto provisional pole with a time that was 1.412 seconds faster than anyone else, illustrating his point that a 1:30 might prove possible. Maki edged his way into 3rd, and then Sam Bird (Mucke Motorsport) nabbed pole, "Small Person" making his third Masters' appearance. It was relatively short-lived, though the next changes were a little further back with Ricciardo claiming 5th to push Shaaban down a place. It kept happening too, as Adrien Tambay (Adrien Tambay) went 6th, Merhi demoted him by going 7th and then Tiago Geronimi (Signature) shoved him down a final place.
At the front Vietoris answered Bird's time, only to lose the place to Maki, which was enough to spur Bird on to reclaim the top spot. He didn't keep it for long either, with van der Zande going faster again. Jean Karl Vernay (Signature) was up to 4th, with Vietoris in 5th, and Alexander Sims (Mucke Motorsport) fighting Merhi for 6th. You sensed that the tyres were beginning to fade at this point, which Kumhos do eventually despite popular opinion. That signaled one last round of effort from the drivers, all of them trying to get that elusive pole position at one of the more important races in an F3 driver's career. Certainly Bottas was in hot pursuit of it, with a time of 1.31.726. That prompted Maki to come straight back at him, which is what you get when you have more than one Finn in any championship or event. And this one has three of them...
Sims was on the move again climbing to 4th, but he then experienced a plummet back down the order, which was what was happening to almost everyone this afternoon as the speeds increased. Vernay now improved to 3rd, while Ricciardo was 9th on his debut at this event. And then, as if from nowhere, from out of a clear, blue sky there was Bianchi. He appeared on the front row from somewhere close to last, in what initially looked as if it might be 2nd just ahead of Merhi. Meanwhile A1GP refugee Vietoris was 7th but that wasn't where the real interest was now. Although Mustonen was now only 15th, and looking as if he wouldn't find any more speed, the other pair of Finns weren't done yet. Bottas grabbed pole and Maki slotted in beside him and it looked for a few seconds as if it might be an all-Finnish front row, a fairly alarming prospect frankly. However, Bianchi was having none of that. A lap later and he was back ahead, making it an all ART Grand Prix front row instead. And that was it, really. Last year's winner had annexed pole and wasn't letting it go for anyone. And with the tyres having gone off, he didn't need to.
The only changes still to come where in the midfield, with Geronimi improving to 8th, while Vernay scrabbled his way back to 6th only to get shoved back down a place by Coletti. Sims joined in by going 8th, and the final improvement came from local boy Henkie Waldschmidt (SG Formula) who claimed 10th.
And that was it. Despite another five minutes of track time, nothing much happened (apart from Merhi bringing out the yellow flags after he spun and had to drive slowly back to the pits). Despite a minor scare when the ART team manager was called to race control, that was the end of it. ART had sewn up the front row yet again. Bianchi will start tomorrow's race from pole, ahead of Bottas, Maki, Merhi, Coletti, Vernay, Vietoris, Sims, van der Zande, and Waldschmidt. 11th will be Geronimi, from Bird, Ricciardo, Zanella, Tambay, Mustonen, Shaaban, Chinosi, Wittman and Grubmuller. 21st would be Huertas, from Vanthoor, Christodoulou, Castellacci, Garcia, Enrique, Ramos, Caldarelli, Nakajima and Daniel Zampieri. The final three rows will be occupied by Chilton, Gutierrez, Rosenzweig, Arundel, Buttarelli and Marsoin.
Weather: Comfortable, clouding over.