Roberto Merhi will start on pole position for Races 1 and 3 of the 2011 Formula 3 Euroseries this weekend after dominating the opening qualifying session at the Paul Ricard circuit this afternoon.

The Prema Powerteam driver topped the time-sheets by an impressive gap of over 7 tenths of a second ahead of last season’s runner-up, Marco Wittmann of defending champions Signature. The recent changes in format also mean that Merhi will start on pole position for round 3, as the Spaniard’s second quickest lap of the session was only 2 tenths slower, meaning he was still half a second ahead of the field.

Laurens Vanthoor of Signature will join Merhi on the front row for Race 1 on Saturday, as his second quickest lap time was enough to overhaul Mücke Motorsport rookie, Nigel Melker. Merhi’s team-mate Daniel Juncadella and Marco Wittmann line up 4th and 5th respectively. Melker’s pace was particularly impressive for the rookie, who was more than able to compete amongst the top 5 in his debut season.

For Race 3 however, whilst Merhi will remain on pole, the order behind him will see some changes – as the fastest lap times from each driver were used to decide grid position. Marco Wittmann will start alongside Merhi for the second 40-minute race of the weekend, with team-mate Laurens Vanthoor in 3rd, Daniel Juncadella 4th and Nigel Melker completing the top 5.

Merhi’s consistently fast performances during pre-season testing have continued into the start of the racing season, with evidence that Merhi and Prema Powerteam have both been able to extract the most performance from the highly-degradable Kuhmo tyres which were introduced for the 2011 season.

Merhi was pleased with his performance ahead of the weekend’s races: “In testing this morning, we were already really good and in qualifying, everything went fine as well. The car was good, the engine was good, the tyres were good: everything was all right. My goal for this weekend is winning as many races as possible.”

2010 runner-up, Wittmann was somewhat humbled by Merhi’s pace, but still took some positives from the session: “On Sunday, I am second on the grid, which makes me particularly happy because we are still having some slight problems with the new tyres. Neither Laurens nor I could match Roberto's time. Nevertheless, I am happy that the season finally gets underway again.”

The qualifying order for the shorter sprint race of Round 2 (also taking place on Saturday) will be a reversal of Race 1’s top 8 finishers. Meaning if Merhi’s takes the win tomorrow, he will start 8th for the second race and so on.

Race 1 grid:

Pos  Driver              Team/Car         Time       Gap
 1.  Roberto Merhi       Prema Dallara-Merc    1m51.649s
 2.  Laurens Vanthoor    Signature Dallara-VW  1m52.437s  + 0.788s
 3.  Nigel Melker        Mucke Dallara-Merc    1m52.607s  + 0.958s
 4.  Daniel Juncadella   Prema Dallara-Merc    1m52.639s  + 0.990s
 5.  Marco Wittmann      Signature Dallara-VW  1m52.791s  + 1.142s
 6.  Felix Rosenqvist    Mucke Dallara-Merc    1m52.824s  + 1.175s
 7.  Carlos Munoz        Signature Dallara-VW  1m53.226s  + 1.577s
 8.  Daniel Abt          Signature Dallara-VW  1m53.507s  + 1.858s
 9.  Jimmy Eriksson      Motopark Dallara-VW   1m53.509s  + 1.860s
10.  Kimiya Sato         Motopark Dallara-VW   1m53.715s  + 2.066s
11.  Kuba Giermaziak     Star Dallara-VW       1m54.042s  + 2.393s
12.  Gianmarco Raimondo  Motopark Dallara-VW   1m54.199s  + 2.550s

Race 3 grid:

Pos  Driver              Team/Car          Time       Gap
 1.  Roberto Merhi       Prema Dallara-Merc    1m51.511s
 2.  Marco Wittmann      Signature Dallara-VW  1m52.227s  + 0.716s
 3.  Laurens Vanthoor    Signature Dallara-VW  1m52.354s  + 0.843s
 4.  Daniel Juncadella   Prema Dallara-Merc    1m52.366s  + 0.855s
 5.  Nigel Melker        Mucke Dallara-Merc    1m52.440s  + 0.929s
 6.  Felix Rosenqvist    Mucke Dallara-Merc    1m52.723s  + 1.212s
 7.  Carlos Munoz        Signature Dallara-VW  1m53.193s  + 1.682s
 8.  Jimmy Eriksson      Motopark Dallara-VW   1m53.357s  + 1.846s
 9.  Daniel Abt          Signature Dallara-VW  1m53.365s  + 1.854s
10.  Kimiya Sato         Motopark Dallara-VW   1m53.708s  + 2.197s
11.  Kuba Giermaziak     Star Dallara-VW       1m53.710s  + 2.199s
12.  Gianmarco Raimondo  Motopark Dallara-VW   1m54.095s  + 2.584s

Race 1: Second fastest qualifying laps
Race 2: Reverse of race 1 top 8 finishing order
Race 3: Fastest qualifying laps