Jamie Chadwick snatches pole in most exciting W Series qualifying at Le Castellet
Jamie Chadwick emerged on top of one of the most exciting W Series qualifying to date, beating Beitske Visser, Nerea Marti and Marta Garcia by thousandths of a second in the final minute of the session.
Since the morning practice session, it was clear that more than one driver had a realistic chance to score pole position in the fifth round of the W Series season at Circuit Paul Ricard, possibly breaking the reigning champion's utterly dominant streak. And indeed it turned out to be one of the most closely fought sessions in a very long time for the all-female series, as four drivers continued to alternate on top of the leaderboard throughout the 30-minute qualifying. Beitske Visser had topped practice by the tiniest margin of 6 thousandths of a second, preceding a super fast Marta Garcia and Nerea Marti. Jamie Chadwick couldn't do better than fourth, while Belén Garcia – who had some traffic in her last lap – was right up there in fifth place, making it three Spanish drivers in the top five ready to battle for pole position later in the day. After a slight delay caused by a red flag in the F2 qualifying, the 18 W Series drivers hit the track at 19:25 local time, still under the scorching temperatures of the South of France. Practice showed that drivers with prior knowledge of the very technical Le Castellet track had a clear advantage, as front runners Alice Powell, Abbi Pulling and Emma Kimilainen – all at their first race here – struggled to make it into the top five. That trend carried on into qualifying, as Marta Garcia – who had tested in April at the venue with team CortDAO – set the early pace after two timed laps, already beating the practice benchmark. Belén Garcia and Nerea Marti followed closely, in a Spanish 1-2-3. Visser and Chadwick then slotted into second and third – showing that it would again be a battle between those five drivers. Nerea Marti improved and went at the top of the timing screen by 0.004 of a second – but her time was deleted for track limits. Visser briefly led, before Marti found a cleaner lap and set again provisional pole with the fastest third sector overall, just before cars headed back to the pit lane for a mid-session break. Everyone bolted on a new set of tyres and times started to drop again in the 10 hectic final minutes. Marta Garcia was the first out on the new rubber and significantly improved - but positions changed by the second at the top, with Beitske Visser, Marta Garcia and Nerea Marti putting on an absolute show. The top four were at one point separated by 8 hundredths of a second, with Chadwick in the mix but not quite enough to demote her rivals from provisional pole. After an outstanding lap with 90 seconds to go, though, the two-time W Series champion showed everyone her talent and snatched pole position by 0.011 of a second, preceding Beitske Visser, Nerea Marti and Marta Garcia in their final attempt.
"I was surprised to get P1 to be honest", said Chadwick after the intense qualifying. "I was really pushing. I was struggling for the whole session and I'm happy to get it at the end." The result, though, currently remains provisional, as Chadwick is under investigation for allegedly crossing the white line at pit exit. The incident is being investigated by the stewards and we will report on potential changes.
"It was a good qualifying with the front row", Visser commented. "Obviously we tried 100% extra to get pole position, but it was very close and we're back up there so I'm excited for the race and hopefully we can have a good start and fight for the win".
"I'm happy with my third place, but to be honest I wanted more", added Nerea Marti. "Before putting on the new tyres I was confident, I had a good feeling with the car and everything was perfect" - she explained. "But it's P3, by only two tenths. We have a really good pace for the race so the focus is now on tomorrow". The strong Spanish trio was rounded out by Belén Garcia, whose really solid performance gained her fifth on the grid for tomorrow's French GP. Abbie Eaton had a great final lap and moved up into sixth place, ahead of Fabienne Wohlwend, Jessica Hawkins and Sarah Moore. Always in contention for the podium, Emma Kimilainen has had a difficult first day at Le Castellet and couldn't do better than P10. The Finnish driver has never raced at the circuit and seemingly struggled to find the perfect car setup. In similar condition were also Alice Powell – eleventh, struggling with rear locking – and her protegé Abbi Pulling, who will line up in P12. The two Alpine F1 Team associated drivers will have to charge from the sixth row of the grid tomorrow. Bruna Tomaselli had a positive run to P13 and will line up alongside a really impressive Juju Noda, P14 and the best of the rookies. Tereza Babickova and Emely de Heus both improved significantly after practice and were 15th and 16th fastest, while Chloe Chambers and Bianca Bustamante – who had an off track moment at Turn 3 and a lap deleted for track limits – will start from P17 and P18. The first ever W Series race on French soil will get underway tomorrow, Saturday 23rd July, at 14:50 local time. Jamie Chadwick is on a six race winning streak – and has converted all her previous pole positions into victories this year. Following the tightest qualifying in a long time – will anyone stop Chadwick at Le Castellet?