This was my fifth Rotax Grand Finals and it was a little bit different to any other that I had raced before. Not only was this my first time in DD2, but it was the first time that I would be representing another country in Canada.
This created a little bit of pressure on me without sounding too wimpy. Having moved away from the UK/European racing scene this was the first time that most of the European guys had seen me race since last years Grand Finals. Now having swapped countries to represent Canada I felt like it put a little bit more pressure on me as the guys from Europe would be watching to see how I was getting on, especially now that I had moved into DD2 (thanks to Rotax’s offer for me to switch my ticket), which in Europe doesn’t have the reputation that it has here in North America. DD2 is seen in Europe as a Masters class or for drivers that can’t win in Senior. This made me feel like the people I had used to race against would expect me to win because they see it as a easier class. When I know and so does most of North America that this is not the case and that DD2 is harder in many ways. Not only did I feel pressure because of this, but I also created pressure on myself, because since the start of the 2011 season, every championship I had entered whether it was a one of race or a full championship I had won. This made me worry that the World Finals would be that race were I wouldn’t win for the first time in two years. This may sound like nothing but for me it meant that before the event had even started, in fact before I had even left Canada for Portugal I was feeling the pressure.
We left on the Thursday night before the week of the Grand Finals from Montreal to London Heathrow and then to Lisbon. This I find is the worst flight possible, not because of the connection but because of the time changes. The night flights to Europe I find the worst, because no matter how much I sleep on the plane I also feel like the walking dead when I get off the flight. What made it worse was seeing everyone I was travelling with, sleeping like babies, especially Pier Luc Ouellette!!!
We arrived at the Rotax hotel on the Friday night ready to head to the track on Saturday for registration. This is always a good day as you get time to see and meet people for the first time in a year. Also you get to see where you were pitted and how everything was set up. Like Al Ain last year everyone was under one big tent which I think is great because it creates a great atmosphere. After registering in the DD2 slot in the afternoon we (Bryce Choquer, Zach Robichon Keith McCloughry and Pier Luc Ouellette) had all decided to go a do a few laps in the rental karts “to get a feel for the track”. Well that was the aim but that lasted half a lap and then as usual, rental karts turned into bumper karts!!! At the end of the day back at the hotel we had time to have a few games of ping pong/table tennis. Bryce and I especially had a few heated rallies.
Sunday came around and that meant it was time to get a little bit serious. The kart raffle was in the afternoon, which meant that it was our first time to get a look at the Mach 1 kart and then time to strip the kart down and prepare it all ready for the week ahead. In the evening there was the first of three Rotax parties with the Welcome party and the qualifying heats for the Mojo Tyre changing contest. This was the highlight of the night watching all the guys rushing to change tyres, especially when Keith McCloughry attempted it.
Monday was the day for the first session on track. Like last year I had my own plan of what to do with in the first session, and that was not to do too many laps to destroy the tyres when the track is still green. After the session I had a slight problem with the brakes on the kart so we went to Mach 1 for them to bleed to system ready for the next day. Also even though I had only completed a few laps on track the kart felt really unbalanced so we decided to move the seat after we had only just installed it. Once this was finished it was then time to clean the kart ready for the next day and go back to the hotel.
Tuesday was testing again with two on-track sessions. This was now time to actually do some laps and start to feel the kart out properly. Also it was important to set some fast laps as we all now had transponders on the karts, so it was time to see who was fast and who was not so fast. As always you want to be setting the fastest time in your session but I didn’t do this in the two sessions on Tuesday. I set the 4th and 3rd fastest times in the two sessions. By the end of the day I had started to get a feel for the kart, and with the long sessions I was able to make two pit stops in each session to change something and then get an immediate feel for the change. We had gathered a good amount of data from the day and we was then able to set the kart up to what we would think best for the last session before qualifying on Wednesday.
Wednesday was qualifying day. We started off with the last practice session and this was the time to set down a marker and to see whether what we had down with the kart the night before worked. As it turns out it did as I set the fastest time in my group and in fact overall. This gave me some good confidence before the qualifying session. When I got into parc ferme and started to put on my race tyres I noticed that one of the tyres was out of air. So I went and pumped air into it and check the tyre in the buckets of water supplied and noticed I had a default in the tyre and the air was rushing out one of the joins. So then it was a mad rush to get onto the grid because the grid was closing in 5 minutes. I spent easily a minute or two trying to get across to see the scrutineers to get them to change the tyre. As it was the parc ferme was fenced off so much that I couldn’t get through to the scrutineers, so I decided to jump through the tyre bay to go and get the scrutineers. Once I got the tyres confirmed that there was a fault, the scrutineer Paul Klaassen radioed through to the clerk of the course Nigel Edwards to let them know that there was a problem with my tyre. Before I knew it Daryl Smith from Rotax was in parc ferme with a new tyre and was changing the tyre for me. We then mounted the new tyre and put it on the kart and rushed onto the grid whilst doing the tyre pressures. We put the kart down as the session started and then we were off into the session.
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all the officials for helping me out then.
Once the sessions started it was all about finding the right space to get a good slipstream down the straight. I got this on one lap and I got to the next fast section of the track when I caught up a slow driver, this driver then braked in front of me in a flat out corner causing me to brake and slowing me down on what I thought would have been my best time. It turned out that this driver happened to be the slowest guy on the track which didn’t help. I qualified second in group and then I had to watch second group qualify. After this I ended up 4th overall meaning that I would start all the heats in P2, not the best position to start but it was still a front row start. I was disappointed because I had never qualified pole at a World Finals before and I was confident that I would have been able to this time around.
The heats were held on the Thursday and Friday with two on Thursday and one on Friday. I knew it was important to get a good result on the board for the first heat to make sure that I had a result that I could rely on incase anything happened in the other two heats. The start of the first heat was not to bad, but I was held on the outside with no space to get the inside. This then meant that I had to pull off what I personally think is one of my best overtakes. I held the outside on the second and third corner knowing that if I could pull it off I would have the inside for turn four. Luckily I had one of my friends alongside me Shaun Slavin from Scotland who I knew would race me hard and fair and not drive me off the track. This happened and I managed to get into the lead and hold onto the win. The only problem was that I had watched the first DD2 heat and seen the time of the winner Xen de Ruwe from Belgium and I was three-tenths slower than that, so there was some work to do before the second heat. We made quite a few changes for the second heat and it worked. I managed to win the race after dropping into third after the first lap and making a huge mistake when leading the race later on.
Leading into the final heat on Friday, I had taken two heat wins and I had worked out that I needed to finish third or better in the last heat to take pole for the pre final. We woke up on Friday morning and the weather had changed. It was no longer cold, windy and sunny. It was cold, windy and wet. The warm up in the morning was damp so we decided to go out and run in the wet tyres incase on the rain come back. It turns out that only the parts of the track that we could see were damp, most of the track was dry. So after one slow lap I came straight back into the pits and let down the pressures to make sure we didn’t kill the tyres. After completing two more laps the track was then too dry and decided to call the session. It was looking like the third heat was going to be dry when the sky opened up and the rain came down. So then it was time to change the kart from dry set up to wet set up. With the rain coming down, I started to become anxious as I had never driven a DD2 in the wet before other than the morning warm up where it was basically dry and a few laps at SRA Karting on slicks. I know it seems like there should be no difference, but there is a slightly different driving style in the wet because of the all four wheel braking. Anyway the time came around for the heat and as it turns out it was the easiest race of the weekend for me. I got into the lead at the first turn and then started to pull away. I ended up winning the race by 8.7 seconds which I think is the furthest I have ever won a race by. After the heat is was time to clean the kart of all the water and dirt after the wet conditions and then watch the LCQ races then back to the hotel to get an early night ready for the big day.
I have to say that night was one of the worst nights sleep I have ever had. I had gone up to the room very early to watch TV and try to take my mind off of the next day. That seemed to happen but when I fell asleep all that was going through my mind was the next day and the finals.
So finals Saturday came around and the nerves were building up slowly. Not so much for the pre final, but for the final. The pre final went reasonably well, turning the pole position start into a good gap, but by the end of the race the fast Belgium driver Xen de Ruwe was on my tail and I had to defend the last three laps reasonably hard. It turns out that even though I won, I was not fast at all, one of the slowest in the top 10. The kart really didn’t feel great and this didn’t help my nerves. We made a few changes for the final hoping that it was the track that had lost the grip due to the rain the day before.
During the lunch break it was time for the drivers presentation, which is always impressive at the World Finals with everyone wearing their nations colours. I really felt like part of a team with all of Team Canada wearing the same clothes and laughing and joking together, well mainly laughing at Parker Thompson doing his best to flirt with the grid girls. This all took my mind off of my nerves and off of the final.
So the finals came around and I was able to watch all the finals before mine. I have to say that some of the races in the finals were great to watch. In fact all the races were great to watch with plenty of overtaking and excitement. This only added to my nerves. Soon it was time for my final and I was really hoping that the track and the changes we had made to the kart would help. The start went really well as I got a good jump at the start allowing me to use my line on the first lap to open up a good lead, but a two laps later was when I realised that this race was going to much harder than I had hoped for. Within four laps that pack had caught me up and it was easily a 7 or 8 kart battle. I then quickly realised that I did not have the pace to win the race and that I would have to fight.
The first major incident in the race was when I had dropped back to third and coming out of turn four the leader Xen de Ruwe stopped causing second place to be held up and this allowed me to go around the outside of them both. I have to say that if Xen de Ruwe had not have broken down I don’t think that the race would have ended how it did. Xen was the fastest driver on the track and I feel like things might have been a little different if he had not have stopped. Any way the race went on and after this incident I found myself with another healthy lead, but knowing that the guys behind would probably soon catch me up, which they did. I dropped down to second for a couple of laps and I was hanging on in there when the leader made a slight mistake meaning that I could get close enough to take back the lead. I did this, but knowing that I wouldn’t have the pace to win, it meant that I had to try and control the race from the front of the field. I spent four laps driving a defensive line hoping the guys behind would fight giving me a break, this didn’t happen and I dropped back into third. This was when I thought my chances of winning had gone as the two in front pulled away by a few kart lengths. Then the second place driver took the lead allowing me to get back onto the back of them. I took second straight away and had a little look over my shoulder knowing that the pack was there, I knew that I had to make my move to try and make the guys behind me fight. I did this into the tight hairpin, causing the group behind to fight and go three-wide. This left me with six laps left and one-second or so lead.
Knowing that I was slow I had to drive the most perfect laps of my life to make sure I didn’t give the pack behind a chance to catch me. By the last lap I think the pack were within six-tenths of me, but the number of laps were in my favour. Coming across the line I couldn’t help but scream in my helmet with relief. It had to have been the hardest race of my life considering how slow I was and that I had to fight so hard for the win. And I don’t mind admitting that I did have a little cry in my helmet on the in lap, but when Zach Robichon (my teammate at SRA Karting, colleague at Karting Jim Russell and good friend) came past me blowing kisses it soon made me laugh. I was so relieved after the race that it was over. It has to be the hardest race of my life and I cannot wait to see it on TSN/RDS in the next few months. After coming off of the weight scales I gave my mechanic Gabor “Gaga” Galos a hug and said to him “I was so slow”. I turns out that I had the 17th fastest lap time in the final, so it really shows that it doesn’t matter whether you have the best engine in the world or the best chassis, you can manage to win somehow. Leaving the parc ferme it was great to see everyone waiting for me. The first person waiting there was Pier Luc so that was pretty cool considering he had had such a bad weekend. Even between the pre final and final he had told me where he thought I was loosing out. Then it was time to see my family, my Mom, Dad and Grandmother, my girlfriend Kim and everyone who was standing there.
I found out at the podium that Canada had finished second to the UK in the Nations Cup. It just had to happen that way and I have to say thanks to all the team UK members that shook my hand sarcastically when the got up on the podium!
When we eventually got back to the hotel it hit me how much the week had taken out of me. I was so tired that I could have gone to sleep as soon as I got back. I’m glad that the hotel had lifts because I wouldn’t have been able to walk up the stairs. But of course I couldn’t sleep because it was off to the Rotax Party in town to have a few drinks. The highlight of that would have to be Bryce Choquer splitting his pants whilst bending over!
Overall what I can say about the Rotax Grand Finals is that it is such a great event. It truly is the Olympics of karting, but it does take it out on you.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the Rotax organisation and everyone at Autodromo do Algarve for putting on such a great event as always.
Also I would like to thank all of Team Canada’s sponsors, Sofina and the Latifi family (for the fantastic clothing), Jim Russell, Ron Fellows, SRA Karting, Door Doctor, Canadian Tire and of course Paul Cooke and ASN Canada.
Finally to everyone that has helped me personally for an amazing last two years. SRA Karting, Academy Karting Jim Russell, KMS Motorsport, Birel Spa, HRS Racing Engines, Tillett Racing Seats, 77sevenscolor, Arai and R’s Design.