As the lights turned green to signal the start of the first qualifying session, Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) seemed to be in no hurry to get into his car and go out. The same could not be said for Manor Motorsport's Ronnie Bremer, who...
As the lights turned green to signal the start of the first qualifying session, Alan van der Merwe (Carlin Motorsport) seemed to be in no hurry to get into his car and go out. The same could not be said for Manor Motorsport's Ronnie Bremer, who was among the first drivers out of the pits. He may have regretted he enthusiasm later because he got no further than San Francisco bend, where he promptly put it in the barriers. Just to compound his misery, Yuji Ide (Arta-Signature-Elf) narrowly missed him, while Hiroki Yoshimoto (Now Motorsport) clipped the barrier but was able to get going again without much delay. As a result the first driver to cross the line and start a flying lap was Kousuke Matsuura (Prema Powerteam). The tendency to chaos continued when Tatsuya Kataoka (Swiss Racing Team) clipped the barrier just before the Melco Hairpin. He limped back to the pits with suspension damage. Just for good measure the start lights at the end of the pit lane had somehow stuck on red, so the teams were instructed to ignore them and go out when the marshals said they could. Otherwise, the practice session could have ended somewhat abruptly once everyone made their first pit stops.
Narain Karthikeyan (Carlin Motorsport) was soon looking very fast, which was no great surprise for a man on his fourth visit to this circuit. He has, after all, been very rapid round this circuit in the past, although the last time he was here he managed to crash out of the lead of the event at Maternity Bend, which was where he had crashed out on his first attempt too. As he was driving for Carlin each time, he was very keen not to do that again, since the team, inevitably perhaps, has never allowed him to forget it! Heikki Kovalainen (Fortec Motorsport), who made his Formula Three debut here last year, was not feeling at all well and came straight back in after his out lap for adjustments to be made to his car. James Courtney (Carlin Motorsport), a Macau rookie, promptly went second, ahead of another rookie, Olivier Pla (ASM) and his teammate Tristan Gommendy, who was another driver taking a third shot at this race.
Even three tries paled into insignificance next to Paolo Montin's experience levels however. The Tom's driver was now on his fifth attempt to win the Macau Grand Prix and he wanted it so badly he could almost taste it. His times soon started to come down as he set about the task. Matsuura grabbed provisional pole very briefly only to have Montin take it off him almost immediately. In 2nd now was another rookie, Robert Doornbos (Team Ghinzani) who looked very confident. In 5th was Bruce Jouanny (Promatecme International), who was hoping to have a better time than he had in 2001. Fabio Carbone (Fortec Motorsport) was 6th and also looked confident (or perhaps over-confident) on his Macau debut. Not wanting to let Montin have it all his own way, Karthikeyan took pole position back, but Gommendy was having none of it and moved into the 2 minute 19 seconds bracket, which gave him a half second advantage over Matsuura.
Elsewhere in the order, the 2002 Italian Formula Three champion, Milos Pavlovic (Target Racing) was now 8th despite a serious lack of budget, which meant the car was pretty bare of stickers. At least it made him easier to spot in the melee. We were now in the situation where Gommendy was leading from Matsuura with Doornbos in 3rd. That was all turned on its head when Montin put in a real flyer to move ahead of Gommendy by over one- and-a-half seconds. The Italian was clearly going to take some stopping. Kovalainen was keen to give it a try, however, and was now 3rd, while Gommendy was also in pursuit of Montin, cutting half a second from his lap time next time round. Only another second left to find!
Carbone now moved to 3rd pushing Kovalainen down a place. Gommendy was still pushing on though, and was now only a fraction off Montin's time. This meant that only the two of them were in the 2.17s, with Ide a distant 3rd and Kovalainen 4th. There were two thirds of the session still to go, however, so anything could happen.
The top ten was now Montin, Gommendy, Ide, Kovalainen, Carbone, Matsuura, Doornbos, Courtney, Karthikeyan and Pavlovic. The next ten positions were held by Takashi Kogure (MugenxDome Project), Renaud Derlot (Arta-Signature- Elf), Katsuyuki Hiranaka (Tom's), Michael Ho (Team Carlin.Kolles), Richard Antinucci (Promatecme International), Jouanny, Cesar Campanico (Prema Powerteam), Pla, Marcel Costa (Team Ghinzani) and Robbie Kerr (Alan Docking Racing). The final section of the provisional grid was made up of Yoshimoto, Marchy Lee (Manor Motorsport), van der Merwe, Lei Kit Meng (Manor Motorsport), Shinya Sato (Swiss Racing Team), Cristiano Citron (Target Racing), Joseph Merszei (Alan Docking Racing), Tatsuya Kataoka (Swiss Racing Team) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (Team Carlin.Kolles). Bremer was at the very bottom of the pile having failed to set a time after playing pinball with the barriers at the start of the session.
Gommendy's efforts to go faster than Montin were finally rewarded, while Kovalainen recorded a time of 2.18.000 exactly to go 3rd again. Towards the other end of the order, van der Merwe shot up the screens from almost last to 16th, while Montin cracked the 2 minute 16 second barrier to demote Gommendy again. Others were also on the move now, with Matsuura displacing Kovalainen, only for Kovalainen to grab 3rd place back again. Montin now led from Gommendy, Kovalainen, Matsuura, Doornbos, Ide and Carbone, with Karthikeyan and Courtney next up. And then everything briefly went quiet, though Hiranaka missed the tyre wall at Lisboa by millimetres. He went off up the escape road anyway, but he was able to rejoin. Matsuura moved up to 2nd, while Courtney went from 7th to 3rd only to be shoved back down again by Gommendy. There were less than 15 minutes of the session left when insanity seemed to break out. Kerr went off at Lisboa and hit the barriers but got going again. Van der Merwe then went off into the wall at Dona Maria Bend, one corner on from where his great friend Anthony Davidson went off in 2001 and put himself out of the event. This led to a yellow flag and an oil flag, but before anyone could react Lei Kit Meng went off in a big way. There was oil and debris all over the place. The officials didn't hesitate and the red flags were promptly shown to bring the session to an abrupt temporary halt.
When the track had been cleaned up, the session restarted with around 13 minutes left to run. For a moment it looked as if the session might have to be stopped again, when Montin promptly went down the escape road at Lisboa. Some of the tyres making up the tyre wall appeared to be loose, or else they were debris left there by someone else. However, all appeared to be well. Suddenly it was all change. Karthikeyan grabbed 5th on his first flying lap, while Derlot, who had appeared to be struggling, got into the top 10 too, setting 8th fastest time. Kovalainen then took 3rd back yet again, while Doornbos went faster to 7th, then to 4th. With five minutes left of the session, Gommendy's run was over. He pulled into the pits after having brushed up against the wall at R Bend and damaged a wheel. Montin had just gone faster as Tristan pulled into the pits. This left the door open to the rest of them and they were not slow in coming forward. Ide jumped up to 3rd, while Matsuura was 5th but clearly had more to give. A determined effort by Kovalainen saw him go 2nd while Pavlovic dropped back to 13th. Pla was now 8th, when Matsuura shot up to pole with an advantage of about half a second. Jouanny was not looking too happy in 10th, while Kataoka crashed at Dona Maria Bend, and Citron went off at the Melco Hairpin with a mechanical problem and had to be towed away. This caused waved yellows with 5 seconds left to run and Matsuura seemed to lift as he went past. Even so, his final lap was enough to get him into the 2.15s and onto provisional pole. At the last minute, Ide took second place, while Courtney was 3rd, pushing Montin to 4th ahead of Kovalainen, Gommendy and Karthikeyan. Doornbos, Pla and Jouanny completed the top ten, but there was a long way to go yet.