First Practice - Thursday Morning: Weather: hot (27ÂºC), high humidity levels (87%) After several days of investigating the circuit from the relative safety of a Macanese taxi, or walking round and examining the corners at close quarters, the ...
First Practice - Thursday Morning:
Weather: hot (27ºC), high humidity levels (87%)
After several days of investigating the circuit from the relative safety of a Macanese taxi, or walking round and examining the corners at close quarters, the first practice session of the Macau Formula Three Grand Prix didn't get off to the most punctual of starts. This was due to the damage done by the local heroes as they practised for the Tourism Office Cup. By the time they finished, the track workers needed to carry out extensive repairs to the tyre wall at the infamous Lisboa Bend, which should have been much easier to negotiate after it was resurfaced overnight. By the time they had finished, we were already running 10 minutes late and so the drivers were left to cool their heels and wait before they could get out there and put their theories into practice on this tremendously demanding street circuit. The garage doors finally opened to reveal the extent of the Carlin.Kolles hook-up, which at first glance looked more like a complete take-over. There were five Dallaras running in a rather stylish black, gold and white livery (for Narain Karthikeyan, James Courtney, Alan van der Merwe, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Michael Ho Hon Keong, hereafter to be known as Michael Ho). In addition they were receiving help (or not, as the case may be) from Anthony Davidson, who was racing in the Guia Touring Car race. Van der Merwe's nose was proving a bit of a problem though, after a sinus operation put him out of action for most of the run up to this race, which meant he had not been able to test or even work out in the gym while he recovered.
As in previous years, the entry was healthy for this event, with 30 drivers taking part, among them the 2002 Champions from France (Tristan Gommendy - ASM), Britain (Robbie Kerr - Alan Docking Racing), Japan (Takashi Kogure - MugenxDome Project), Italy (Milos Pavlovic - Target Racing) and Spain (Marcel Costa - Team Ghinzani). Sadly we were missing Gary Paffett, the winner of the German series pleading budgetary constraints although there were people who unkindly suggested that he preferred to avoid the possibility of being beaten in a bigger arena.
When the tyre wall was finally repaired to the satisfaction of the officials, the cars were finally released from the pit lane and the drivers were sent out to see for themselves whether all the research was about to pay off. Oddly, many of them chose to go out in a clump, perhaps in case of the rookies in the hope of finding someone who already knew where the track went so they could following them for a while.
Anyone planning to follow Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport) was going to be sadly disappointed, however. Suddenly the Finn was all alone out there, because almost everyone else was caught up in a traffic jam at the Melco Hairpin. This was caused by Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Tom's), the rookie Japanese arriving at quite the wrong angle to actually get round. He ended up stuck across the hairpin and no one else could get through until the marshals got him pointing the right way and sent him on his way. He was very lucky not to do damage, or to have it done to him, as Fabio Carbone (Fortec Motorsport) arrived before the marshals could get the flags out. Luckily the sight of men in orange frantically waving their arms at him alerted the Brazilian and he was able to stand on the brakes in time to avoid a crash.
All of this meant that Kovalainen was the first man to set a time, with a first lap in the 2 minutes 26 seconds bracket. It was soon overturned by Paolo Montin (Tom's), the rapid Italian having shown a tremendous turn of speed here last year was keen to repeat that part of his performance, and started the bidding with a 2.21. Elsewhere, another rookie in a bit of bother was Ronnie Bremer (Manor Motorsport), the Dane having shot up the escape route at Lisboa. He was able to rejoin but was also claiming that he had done it so he would know where to go to avoid the chaos of the almost obligatory first lap shunt on Sunday! Robbie Kerr was in even more trouble however, the British Champion not actually setting anything that could be considered a lap, after he went off at Fishermen's Bend. Afterwards, he said he had turned in normally (although as it was only his first ever flying lap round the place, how does he know what's normal) and that the rear end had snapped out. He didn't know why but he did know that he had substantial damage to the suspension and rear wing and would take no further part in the session. He then spent the rest of the time while the car was repaired trying to convince himself that a lack of track time wouldn't matter. There was always a chance that he would be playing catch up for the rest of the weekend as a result.
Once they really got moving you could spot the drivers who had been here before, at least in the early stages of practice. Karthikeyan was getting so close to the wall that it was hard to believe he could continue to get away with it (his record here is not good, crashing out at Maternity Bend on two occasions, once when he was actually leading the race). However, get away with it he did, to the surprise of many, probably including himself as he claimed he was still trying to get used to driving an F3 car again. Most drivers don't clip the barriers when they are just trying to reacclimatize, but try telling that to Narain.
Liuzzi, on the other hand, didn't get away with it and promptly went off, damaging both left-hand corners on his car and retiring from the session on the spot. Montin, on the other hand, was more than capable, moving to the top of the time sheets, just ahead of Gommendy and Kovalainen. Of course, they have all been here before, which certainly seemed to help. In the course of the next few minutes it was all change at the top, as the three of them shuffled around, Gommendy bringing the times into the 2.19s. There was clearly more time to come, however, bearing in mind that last year's winner, Takuma Sato, set a time in the 2.13s, and the fastest race lap was a 2.12.
To prove that anything Tristan could do, he could do too, Montin joined him in the 2.19s, only for Tristan to speed up again, and move things to a fresh level. Montin too was soon in the 2.18s, while Kovalainen was still third even though he was nearly three seconds slower than the leading duo. He was looking to progress though and would not stay there for long. Bruce Jouanny, back for a second shot at this race after a rough ride in 2001, moved up to 4th in his Promatecme Dallara, but was promptly shoved back down by Yuji Ide (Arta-Signature-Elf), only for both the pair of them and Kovalainen to get displaced by Karthikeyan, the Indian skittering round in an alarming manner.
With 10 minutes left, Montin was leading the order from Gommendy, Ide, Karthikeyan and Jouanny. Kovalainen was next up, from Tatsuya Kataoka (Swiss Racing Team), Milos Pavlovic (Target Racing), Kosuke Matsuura (Prema Powerteam), Olivier Pla (ASM), Bremer, Courtney, Carbone, Robert Doornbos (Team Ghinzani), van der Merwe, Renaud Derlot (Arta-Signature-Elf) who confessed he was struggling, and Lei Kit Meng (Manor Motorsport). 18th was Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Tom's), Takashi Kogure (MugenxDome), Richard Antinucci (Promatecme International), Hiroki Yoshimoto (Now Motorsport), Ho, Liuzzi, Costa, Cesar Campanico (Prema Powerteam), Joseph Merszei (Alan Docking Racing), Cristiano Citron (Target Racing), Marchy Lee (Manor Motorsport) and Shinya Sato (Swiss Racing Team) was 29th proving he's no relation to Takuma. Kerr, needless to say, had failed to set a time.
Another of the rookies was soon in trouble, when Yoshimoto stopped at Teddy Yip Bend, while Sato had encountered mechanical problems and was off at San Francisco. As he hadn't exactly been fast before that, it didn't look as if it would matter much. Ide, on the other hand, was still pushing hard, to the extent that he went off at Lisboa and had to extract himself from the escape road before he could continue. Gommendy hadn't given up either, and just like Karthikeyan, he was getting alarmingly close to the walls of this daunting circuit. The result was that he clipped the barrier although he was able to continue round to the pits under his own steam. It was enough of an opening for the others to get in though, and suddenly Ide was fastest of all, with a time that bettered Montin's by almost half a second. Montin was not going to let it go at that though, and as he crossed the line to take the chequered flag he set the fastest time of the morning.