Drivers hoping for springboard to F1
THE Macau Formula Three Grand Prix has developed the uncanny knack of offering motor-racing enthusiasts a unique glimpse into the future of the sport.
Over the years, an international cavalcade of stars who now populate Formula One have cut their teeth in the Portuguese enclave.
No fewer than 17 of the current F1 cast have strutted their stuff in Macau.
Setting the pace for today's 30-lap, two-leg race around the scenic, 6.1-kilometre Guia street circuit is a German. Hard on his heels is a Brazilian, a Scotsman and a Belgian, underscoring the event's international appeal.
And even more significant is the fact that the same four drivers represent four international competitions, and not necessarily in their home nations.
Robert Lechner, 20, leads the way in his GM-DSF Team Dallara Opel-Spiess with a qualifying time of two minutes and 15.962 seconds, just outside Dutchman Tom Coronel's race record of 2:15.950, set last year.
Lechner was second in this season's German F3 series with two wins and is making his Macau debut.
Poised to exploit any lapse in Lechner's concentration is Brazilian Enrique Bernoldi, driving a Promatecme Dallara Renault-RS. The 20-year-old trails by .077 of a second and has the benefit of racing here last year.
Second in the British F3 series, Bernoldi came from eighth on the grid last year to eventually grab third place.
Peter Dumbreck underscores the nomadic nature of a young driver trying to carve a niche in the highly competitive world of motor racing.
The 25-year-old Scot struggled in the British F3 series but took a gamble and headed East with dramatic success this season.
The Kircaldy native swept all before him in the Japan F3 series, winning eight of 10 rounds and comes to Macau the favourite of many to win.
He competed here last year and didn't finish, but a third place on the grid and a time of 2:16.285 to his credit suggests he is in contention.
Belgian David Saelens didn't travel quite as far afield to pursue his career in the French F3 series but the result was the same - first with 12 wins to his credit. More significantly, he won the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort, the European Championship, so has the pedigree.
At 23, he has it all in front of him and his qualifying time of 2:16.296 puts him not even a heartbeat off the pace.
Saelens also knows what it is like to come from a long way behind to clinch victory. He trailed Franck Montagny for most of the French F3 series before pipping him in the final round. Montagny has qualified down in ninth place and shouldn't be ruled out of a podium finish if there is trouble further up the order.
In fact, Montagny had a series of wheel-banging exchanges with Saelens during the French season and Macau may well be the perfect place to renew the rivalry.
Hometown hero Andre Couto further underscores the international flavour. The 20-year-old, who moved to Macau as a four-year-old, put his Prema Powerteam Dallara Opel-Spiess into fifth slot and nothing would give the legion of local fans more delight than to cheer their pin-up boy home.