Race Report - Donington Park, Rounds 3-5
The second weekend of the year saw a new face dominate the proceedings
It was "All Change" for the second weekend of the 2015 F3 Cup Championship on the sweeping, but technical, Donington Park National circuit. The event format was new - with a shortened qualifying session and three races; two of the leading runners were absent for unavoidable reasons; and a front-running newcomer to F3 Cup stamped his authority on the weekend in no uncertain terms.
Oulton Park double winner and championship leader Henry Chart very sensibly gave priority to his university exams and reluctantly decided to miss Donington. Louis Hamilton-Smith, who had a terrible start to the season at Oulton with a wheel-retainer problem, is a known performer around Donington, but his team's race truck expired with clutch problems at the last minute and couldn't get the Jigsaw Motorsport car to the circuit. Meanwhile, Tony Bishop's absence gave Teams Championship leader Chris Dittmann Racing the opportunity to put their Duo BRDC Formula 4 driver coach Kieran Vernon into the car to see if he could practice what he preaches - and he certainly did.
With the new triple-header format the bright, late morning qualifier was a short 15 minutes so it was important to get into the groove quickly. The four leading drivers all dipped into the 1:04s or better - in previous years a race winning pace in F3 Cup - but it was Kieran Vernon who shook the regulars with a stunning lap in the high 1:02s to take the pole fromStuart Wiltshire. Stuart is becoming more used to the pleasurable surprise of his newly acquired CDR-run F308 and getting to show what an effective and competitive racer he is, now he has the right car under him. It was a bit of a surprise to see Aaron Steele's Grays Motorsport car line up behind him in third, but the outcome might have been different if Aaron had not thrown the car at the apex kerbing at Coppice a little too enthusiastically mid-session, being fired into the gravel trap as a result. Harmlessly beached, he had to sit out the quickest part of session. Jacopo Sebastiani lined up fourth, his time in the 1:04s amply demonstrating his continuing climb up the learning curve in the Omicron-run F311. Talking of learning curves, Daniel Tapinos had a mountain to climb in his CF Racing F308, as he had never even seen the circuit until race morning. He showed tremendous commitment in getting to grips with the unfamiliar layout, and his efforts were justly resulted in winning the Sunoco "Driver of the Weekend" award. Adrian Holey's immaculate F301 was well on the historical pace for the Trophy Class, and in fact took a new Trophy lap record during what was to be a truncated weekend of racing. Matt Paynegave his very smart Mercedes-engined F305 its 2015 debut, having been away from the circuits for over a year, and played himself steadily in over the weekend.
Race One nearly started with a disaster when Aaron Steele found he still had a dragging clutch and nearly hit the back of stalled pole-man Kieran Vernon, who had reportedly never tried a racing start in an F3 car before. Everyone missed him and Aaron still managed to lead on the road at the end of lap one. However his clutch drag had earned him a 10 second penalty so he was relegated to fourth at that point, just behind a quickly recovering Kieran. Meanwhile Jacopo Sebastiani was actually the leader with a very strong opening three laps, but he succumbed to the CDR Vernon/Wiltshire train on lap four, with Kieran taking a lead he was to maintain, overtakingAaron Steeleto also take the lead on the road on lap 11, although in this race he didn't quite match his qualifying lap times. That wasn't the case for Adrian Holey who dipped into the 1:06s and a new Trophy Class lap record on his way to the class laurels. Daniel Tapinos had an adventurous race he really pushed the limits of what can be done with limited experience of Donington's technical challenges, returning from exploring the gravel on more than one occasion.
Race Two was initially a rather calmer encounter with Kieran Vernon drawing steadily away from Aaron Steele and Stuart Wiltshire. Kieran used the more orderly conduct to get his sights on setting a significant new lap record, which he duly did, in the mid-02s. At the same time, Jacopo Sebastiani turned in an excellent mid-race sequence to close in on third-placed Stuart Wiltshire, only to spin and then stall mid-track at Redgate, getting going just in time to avert a safety car deployment. Daniel Tapinos thus took a well-deserved fourth, having had a drama free race. Adrian Holey pulled off when all the drive disappeared and as this proved to be an insoluble clutch problem, his weekend was over. Matt Payne pitted the F308 when he saw the water temperature rising, but he and father Joe were able to fix the culprit, a split water rail, for the third race.
After Race Two it became clear that despite the team fitting a new master cylinder before the race, Aaron Steele's clutch problems were still there, and he elected to start Race Three from the pit lane. Amazingly Kieran Vernon again had problems getting away cleanly at the start and a determined Stuart Wiltshire blitzed into a lead, which he was to hold until lap five when his recovering team-mate came past, followed in short order by Aaron Steelewho was on a damage-limitation exercise in his clutchless Grays car. Daniel Tapinos showed how much progress he had made by initially holding second before first Vernon and then Steele passed him, and he eventually also lost out to Jacopo Sebastiani who had to spend the whole race recovering from a time-consuming incident on lap two.
At the end of the day Kieran Vernon had dominated the weekend's racing, and taken a new lap record to boot (earning the IWI Watches Fastest Lap Award along the way), but it was Aaron Steel's three gritty drives that had delivered a strong championship points lead from Stuart Wiltshire. This season's newcomers Jacopo Sebastiani and Daniel Tapinos are third and fourth respectively in the table while Adrian Holey holds sway in the Trophy Class. Chris Dittmann Racing's decision to put Vernon alongside Wiltshire paid dividends with three strong team scores putting them in a strong position in the Teams Championship already.
Attention now shifts from Donington's sweeps to the much more intense bowl that is Brands Hatch Indy, and with a repeat of the shorter qualifying/three race format the pressure will be on both drivers and teams.
Words: Simon Davey