F3000 REPORT

Wilson pulls away

The Hockenheim Formula 3000 event may end up being seen as the event which decided the Formula 3000 title in favor of Justin Wilson. The Yorkshire driver was leading the championship when the teams gathered at Hockenheim - but not by much. He was four points clear of Mark Webber. But on the first lap of the race Webber's hopes took a plunge when he ran into the back of Darren Manning at the first chicane. He went back to the pits but the damage was done. Mark went home with no points. Wilson took six and so increased his lead to 10 points with only three rounds remaining. The quest is not hopeless but it is going to be tough unless Wilson makes a mistake.

Webber had high hopes on Friday when he set the fastest time in the first of the two qualifying sessions but in the first lap of the second session he ran over a curb and (it was later found) damaged a rear damper.

"It didn't feel like a major drama at all," said Webber. "I was a bit puzzled that we were unable to improve our lap times, but later in the evening we found the problem."

As Webber was trying to figure out what was wrong everyone was improving and by the end of the session he had slipped back down to seventh on the grid.

Pole position provided a surprise as it went to Brazilian youngster Ricardo Sperafico in his Petrobras Junior Team entry, outrunning his highly-rated team mate Antonio Pizzonia (who ended up sixth on the grid). Wilson was second just a couple of tenths clear of his Coca Cola Nordic team mate Tomas Enge. There was another surprise in fourth place with Andrea Piccini finally showing well in his European Minardi entry.

"We knew the potential was there because we were in the top five of both recent F3000 tests," he said, "but it was great to translate that into a good performance in qualifying."

There was further good news for European Minardi as the second car, driven for the weekend by Tomas Scheckter (standing in for the injured David Saelens) was in ninth place.

Fifth on the grid went to Arden Team Russia's Darren Manning, while the back half of the top 10 featured Silverstone winner Sebastien Bourdais (DAMS), Scheckter and Webber's Super Nova Racing team mate Mario Haberfeld.

The first lap was action packed with Justin Wilson making up from an average start to take the lead by the end of the first lap chased by a fast-starting Pizzonia, Sperafico, Enge, Scheckter, Manning and Patrick Friesacher (Red Bull Junior Team). There was a mess in the midfield when Piccini was punted from behind and then Webber ran into the back of Manning.

"That wiped off my front wing," said Webber, "and effectively it was game over. I crawled back to the pits but there was too much damage to the car for it to be repaired on the spot. It was a typical racing incident and a hangover from qualifying, because if you start from the fourth row you are always going to be exposed to a greater level of risk in the first-lap sort-out."

Manning's race was short-lived after the assault from Webber and he spun into retirement in the course of the second lap while Pizzonia began to mount a challenge to Wilson. One attempt on lap three failed but later in the lap the Brazilian got into the lead. A lap later Enge moved to third by passing Sperafico. Things then began to settle down a little although there were various spills in the midfield.

The next major change did not come until lap 9 when Enge spun at the first corner and Sperafico moved back into third place. At the same time as that was happening Scheckter was overtaken by Bourdais for fourth place. The South African dropped behind Enge soon afterwards and headed for the pits where he reported that his differential was misbehaving and retired.

Enge's recovery drive continued on lap 12 when he overtook Bourdais to get back to fourth and in the laps that followed the Czech closed in on Sperafico once again. Up at the front Pizzonia was well in control with a three second lead over Wilson. On lap 20 of 22 Enge made his bid for third at the fast corner into the stadium and the two cars touched. Both stayed on course and the next time around Enge tried again. This time he overshot and went bouncing across the sandtrap which meant that by the time he has regained the tarmac he had dropped back to fifth place behind Bourdais. The final point went to Bas Leinders (KTR) with Astromega's Giorgio Pantano giving himself a confidence boost with seventh place from 19th on the grid.

The next round of the series will be in three weeks in Hungary and Webber knows that if he is going to be a serious challenger to Wilson he is going to have to win in Budapest.

"I might be 10 points behind Justin," he said, "but that's just the situation I was in after the first race of the year. I won the next event and brought the gap back down to a single point, so I don't see any reason why I can't do something similar again."

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