2014 FIA F3 European Championship, Round 7 – Qualifying Report

FIA F3 European Championship
Round 7, Pau, France, May 9th/11th 2014
© Lynne Waite and Stella-Maria Thomas

Weather: Hot, sunny, dry.

Qualifying Report – Round 7: At Pau this afternoon Esteban Ocon (Prema Powerteam) was again on impressive form, claiming pole for the first of three races round the streets of the French town. This was despite two red flags that could have hindered his concentration, but not a bit of it. He simply buckled down and set his fastest time on his very last lap, moving into pole position as he took the chequered flag. Second place goes to Lucas Auer (kfzteiile24-Mücke Motorsport), while in 3rd will be Max Verstappen (Van Amersfoort Racing), the Dutch rookie demonstrating an almost uncanny ability to slam in a fast lap straight out of the box on cold tyres.

Sensibly, with 26 cars needing to qualify, the organisers split them into two, odd numbers first and even numbers second with a five minute break between the two twenty minute sessions. The only problem with this was that it meant there were 12 cars in the first session and 14 in the other. Even so it was probably a good idea, even though they’d all 26 been out in free practice. You could make a case that they’d been lucky to get through that with just two big crashes and one red flag to interfere with progress.

The first driver out was Antonio Fuoco (Prema Powerteam), the Italian youngster desperately short on track time after he wiped the front left corner off at Pont Oscar about ten minutes into free practice. He really needed to get some more mileage in, and looked likely to suffer for his mistake. He was joined shortly afterwards by Mitch Gilbert (Fortec Motorsport) and Richard “Spike” Goddard (ThreeBond with T-Sport), but no one else was in much of a hurry it seemed.

Goddard has always seemed to have an odd habit of peaking far too early in any given session, and so it proved. The Australian was soon topping the times, but as that time was still only in the 1 minute 18 seconds bracket – in other words around eight seconds off the morning pace – it was unlikely to stay as a target for long. It didn’t. Fuoco was soon faster setting a 1:17, though to be fair to Goddard he fought back and got down into the 1:14s. Auer was soon on a charge, however, and as all 12 drivers finally took to the track, Auer went 3rd, just behind Gilbert.

The Austrian had his head down now and was pushing really hard, reducing the provisional pole time to 1:12.119, with Tom Blomqvist (Jagonya Ayam Carlin) now getting in on the act, keen to qualify as well as possible because he is carrying over a 10-grid place penalty from Hockenheim for an engine change. Gilbert was still showing strongly in 3rd and now Nicholas Latifi (Prema Powerteam) joined in as well, improving to go 2nd.

As Blomqvist, Fuoco, Latifi and Gilbert traded times it became apparent that someone was missing from the times. Felix Rosenqvist (kfzteile24-Mücke Motorsport) had not yet set a time, the Swede suffering from engine problems again. It is hard to believe just how bad Rosenqvist’s luck seems to be at present. It’s starting to look like if he didn’t have bad luck he would have no luck at all.

Antonio Giovinazzi (Jagonya Ayam Carlin) continued on his much improved way to go 2nd, only for Blomqvist to snatch it back, and a lap later to move to provisional pole, just ahead of Felix Serralles (Team West-TecF3). Auer’s response to it all was simple to go faster yet, now chased by Jordan King (Carlin), the latter enjoying himself hugely on this tricky track. He was quickly displaced by Serralles though, and the Puerto Rican was equally rapidly pushed down a place by Latifi. And still Rosenqvist had not set a time.

An outbreak of yellow flags in Sector 1 when someone decided to investigate the escape road at Gare slowed everyone down briefly, but the driver was soon sent on his way again by the very effective marshals. When the track cleared again, Latifi was fastest briefly before Auer came back into play.

Giovinazzi improved to 5th, behind Auer, Latifi, Serralles and King, and then Blomqvist went 3rd, only to be beaten back by King, and Rosenqvist finally got out on track, setting a time that would only move him up one row to 11th. And then, just to add to his misery, the session was red-flagged with 1 minute and 27 seconds left on the clock. Auer was fastest still, ahead of Latifi, King, Blomqvist, Serralles, Giovinazzi, Goddard, Riccardo Agostini (Eurointernational), Gilbert, Fuoco, Rosenqvist and Jules Szymkowiak (Van Amersfoort Racing).

At the restart, there would be enough time for one flying lap if you were really lucky, and it would be on cold tyres at that. There were ten seconds left when the first car crossed the line to start a timed run, and in the end only Fuoco and Giovinazzi got to try a flying lap; it was all a bit pointless and neither of them improved.

Five minutes later the second session started, right on time, and Verstappen immediately banged in a 1.13 on his very first timed lap. He was ahead of 2nd placed John Bryant-Meisner (Fortec Motorsport) by a good three seconds, and the Swede wasn’t exactly hanging about. Edward Jones (Carlin) was next to set a useful time, moving in to 2nd himself, ahead of Michele Beretta (Eurointernational), the other driver to crash heavily at Pont Oscar in free practice.

Verstappen was a man on a mission at the front though, and he promptly shaved another 2 seconds off his time. Meanwhile Dennis van de Laar (Prema Powerteam) went 3rd but was demoted by Hector Hurst (Team West-TecF3), who was in turn bumped down a place by Ocon. Jake Dennis (Carlin) was next to show, up in 2nd, but it was still all change, with Jones soon up at the sharp end again, and van de Laar briefly occupied 3rd. Felipe Guimaraes (Double R Racing) was up to 6th, but all eyes were on the front as Ocon slipped into the mid-1.10s, just as Roy Nissany (kfzteile24-Mücke Motorsport) binned it at Gare and brought out the red flags.

As Nissany remonstrated with the marshals, and appeared to shove one of them, the TV captured the incident. It seems likely that the Clerk of the Course will be having words with the Israeli driver about proper respect for the volunteer marshals without whom there could be no racing.

At this point Ocon was fastest but still slower than Auer, with Jones, Dennis, Verstappen, van de Laar, Bryant-Meisner, Gustavo Menezes (Van Amersfoort Racing), Sean Gelael (Jagonya Ayam Carlin), Tatiana Calderon (Jo Zeller Racing), Guimaraes, Hurst, Nissany, Alexander Toril (Three Bond with T-Sport) and Beretta. The clear up operation was completed rapidly once Nissany calmed down, and with a little over ten minutes on the clock the track went live again.

As soon as the out lap was complete, that man Verstappen was on it again, going 2nd on cold tyres. That seemed to spur Ocon on, and he was obviously looking for the limit now. While Toril improved to 9th, the French teenager continued to push on. Guimaraes found some time to improve to 8th, while Van de Laar was still unusually high in 3rd, but the fight was between Ocon and Verstappen, the Dutch racer just 0.052 seconds behind. Dennis improved to 4th while they were battling for the front row, and van de Laar improved to reclaim 3rd and then it all went pear-shaped again.

Jones came through Foch at a very odd angle, got further up on the kerbs on the inside than was wise, and went straight on into the barriers on the outside of the track, necessitating another red flag. The order now was Ocon, just 0.006 seconds away from wresting pole from Auer, with Verstappen 2nd, then van de Laar, Dennis, Jones, Bryant-Meisner, Menezes, Beretta, Gelael, Guimaraes, Toril, Calderon, Hurst and Nissany.

At the restart the remaining time was 4:24, so a handful of laps were possible. Gelael wasted no time hauling himself up to 7th while behind him Calderon – enjoying the circuit immensely – was up to 9th. Guimaraes nabbed 7th from Gelael who responded by grabbing 6th and pushing the Brazilian down a place as a result.

With time running out, a great effort from both Ocon and Verstappen saw both of them improve massively, Ocon setting a last lap time of 1.10:072, while Verstappen ended the session just 0.024 behind the Frenchman. Dennis was an impressive 3rd, from van de Laar, Jones, Gelael, Bryant-Meisner, Menezes, Guimaraes, Toril, Calderon, Beretta, Hurst and Nissany.

The faster session – the second one – would provide the pole man and the odd numbered grid slots, which means Ocon starts from pole, ahead of Auer, Verstappen, Latifi, Dennis, Blomqvist, van de Laar, King, Jones and Serralles. 11th is Gelael, from Giovinazzi, Bryant-Meisner, Goddard, Menezes, Agostini, Guimaraes, Gilbert, Toril and Fuoco. Calderon starts 21st, ahead of Rosenqvist, Beretta, Szymkowiak, Hurst and Nissany. Of course Blomqvist will be dropped ten places to 16th, so be on the lookout for some fierce overtaking from him, Fuoco and Rosenqvist in tomorrow morning’s race.