Watts dominates on the GP circuit
Last weekend's Brands Hatch GP rounds saw Robbie Watts command centre stage
Last weekend's Brands Hatch GP rounds at the Lotus Festival saw Robbie Watts command centre stage in his immaculate Team Fox Racing Dallara, taking two wins; both executed with ferocious precision. In fact this was the first time that Watts, a multiple single seater champion in other categories, has graced the top step of an F3 Cup podium, but his wins were so convincing this was very hard to believe.
Major supporting roles in the unfolding drama were played by James Heffernan,Tony Bishop,Stuart Wiltshireand Jacopo Sebastiani, but the season-long Championship points leader Shane Kelly had a torrid time in his University of Wolverhampton Racing Team Dallara and correctly concentrated on extending his narrow points lead over closest rival George Line.
As the house lights dimmed and the stage lit up for qualifying on Saturday the scene was set with the first five of Watts, Bishop, Heffernan, Wiltshire and Kelly disputing pole and ending up separated by less than a second around the very demanding Brands Hatch GP circuit. In a quality cast of racers Jacopo Sebastiani had a measured start to what was ultimately an excellent performance over the weekend, but points table challenger George Line showed that he would need to be persistent to come away with a satisfactory result. With the second Team Fox entry of Daryl Jones not surviving Friday testing it fell to the experienced Mark Harrison to work on providing Team points for Fox Racing's challenge to CF Racing's Oulton dominance. Welcome series returnee Wade Eastwood worked hard with his Omicron entry and really got onto the pace by the end of the weekend, as did regular Malcolm Scott who switched team allegiance at this event to Omicron Motorsport.
The first race saw Watts perform a faultless launch from pole, blasting away from the field before the rest had apparently even read their lines... no-one came close to matching his lap times until lap four, and by then he was three seconds down the road. At this point James Heffernan - on his first ever visit to the Brands Hatch GP circuit - again showed that he is a real force to be reckoned with and started to close Watts down. Over the next five laps he reduced the lead margin to 1.3 seconds, with Watts clearly aware of this developing challenge and the pit lane audience holding its breath. But Heffernan came unstuck on the super-fast Hailwoods corner and dropped the CF Racing Dallara into the gravel, undamaged but out of the race, leaving Watts to take his first F3 Cup win by a nine second margin over a very strongStuart Wiltshire(Chris Dittmann Racing Dallara); Wiltshire having managed to fend off the attentions of a fast-starting Omicron Jacopo Sebastiani from the first lap. Finishing in fourth place, Watts' fellow front-row manTony Bishophad dropped to this position by the end of the first lap ahead of Malcolm Scott who moved up the order by the same token.
Championship leader Shane Kelly found himself with a mountain to climb when he stalled as the lights went out. He focused on catching and passing his nearest points challenger George Line who had an uncomfortable first few laps before he found his rhythm. A quick-learning Wade Eastwood managed to split the two points leaders at the finish, in the process also staying ahead of more experienced rivals Mark Harrison and Malcolm Scott. In the Masters Class Geoffrey Hoodless couldn't be expected to match the pace of the Cup Class Dallaras in his lovely March 813, but nevertheless he consistently applied himself to reducing his laps times by over a second as the weekend progressed - it was a delight to see this stunning car back on track after a lengthy rebuild.
With the weather looking ominous the field assembled for the second race as track temperatures finally started to come down and the teams looked towards faster times. Wattsrepeated his Act 1 performance and demolished the field from the start, but this time it wasTony Bishopwho lead the pursuit. It should certainly be mentioned that Bishop's performance all weekend had to be judged against the background of a major accident only a month ago on the same circuit, when he was stretchered away from the wreckage of a last corner lead-dice mishap. To be pressuring for the lead of a super-competitive F3 race only four weeks later has to be seen as a strong performance. Unfortunately he suffered almost exactly the same fate as James Heffernan: After reeling off several quick laps he had closed leader Watts down to around 20 metres, when he dropped the car around one of the super-fast sweeps out on the GP loop, and that was that.
As this drama played out Jacopo Sebastiani took a very well deserved second spot on the podium after a tight race which included a brush while engaging with George Line, and passingStuart Wiltshirewith a couple of laps to go. James Heffernan also got ahead of Wiltshire in a last lap sort-out. Line, Sebastiani, Wiltshire, Kelly and Heffernan had all been key players in race-long crowd scene which was very entertaining to watch, but must have been hectic to drive, wheel-to-wheel at 150mph. Shane Kelly had again stalled on the line but was much closer to a front-running pace in this race and also again bested George Line, slightly extending his points lead in the process., Wade Eastwood continued to show how quickly he can climb a learning curve by beating both Harrison and Scott.
The upshot of this breathless performance was to leave Robbie Watts and Team Fox Racing bathing in the spotlight of a brilliant double win, but both Drivers' and Teams' Championship tables are in almost the same state as before the event. Any of the top six drivers can win the title over the next five rounds, and the outcome of the Teams' Championship is similarly an open question. Roll on Silverstone GP!
Words: Simon Davey