As part of CKN’s massive coverage of the 2014 Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals we bring you a four part series by 3-time Rotax Grand Finals Champion Ben Cooper. Recapping his most memorable experiences at the Rotax Grand Finals, Cooper gives CKN an inside look at the highs and lows of his six trips around the world to compete in the ‘Olympics of Karting’.
Part 1: My First Grand Finals
By: Ben Cooper for CanadianKartingNews.com
My first year trying to qualify:
In 2004 I competed in two championships that had the opportunity to qualify in Junior. The UK hadn’t been so involved in the Grand Finals before, so the British Championship, Super One, didn’t have tickets to the Grand Finals. Therefore the Rotax importer in the UK created their own small series, which only consisted of a couple of races, for a chance to qualify to the Grand Finals, with the winners taking the ticket. There weren’t many people that raced the series, as the Grand Finals wasn’t very well known as it is now and when it came to the last round there were only a handful of drivers who competed. I eventually missed out on the ticket by finishing second in the series behind a driver named Adam Christodoulu.
During that year I had also been competing in the first ever Rotax Max Euro Challenge. I had had an up and down year, but I was in with a shot of the championship win at the last round in Braga Portugal. I had to finish first in the final to win the championship, but at the start of the race, which was wet, I took a spin by hitting a huge puddle in one of the chicanes. That put me to last so the chance of the title was all but gone. I eventually raced my way through to third, but that ultimately wasn’t enough. That year the tickets went to the first two in the series and that third place finish put me third in the championship also, missing second and the ticket by just one point. To rub insult to injury, in all the other categories, Senior and RM1 (DD2) the third place had earned and invitation. The reason for this was because, back then, the driver used to take the first ticket you won during that year, as apposed to what series was ranking the highest. So in the other categories the first or second had taken their ticket from their national championships. This meant that I was the only driver on the championship podiums not to be going to the Grand Finals.
My First Grand Finals:
I first qualified for the Rotax Grand Finals in 2005 in Langkawi, Mayalsia. It was the second time that the Grand Finals had been to the Island of Langkawi, the first being in 2001, which was the second ever Rotax Max Grand Finals.
The first thing I remember about that race was how long the flight was!!! It was over 15 hours to Kula Lumpa and then a small flight to picturesque island of Langkawi. I had never been on such a long flight before, and with it being my first Grand Finals, I wasn’t in any mood to relax and be calm on the flight. Of course I’d done the usual of watch a movie, eat, watch another movie, eat, but that only took up about four hours, with another ten or so to go. Eventually my dad (aka Papa Ben), did his usual and started making conversation with other passengers heading the race. One of whom was the famous voice of the Rotax Grand Finals and Euro Challenge, Ken Walker. This is one thing I remember very clearly, we were all talking for some time and it must have been during the night part of the flight as it was dark and others were sleeping. So we were talking away, or should I say, Papa Ben and Ken were talking and I was listening when a stewardess came over to tell them to please be quiet and return to their seats as others were trying to sleep. I remember the look on Papa Ben and Ken’s faces, almost as if the schoolteacher had told them off.
The Island of Langkawi:
Eventually we got to our destination of Langkawi. I remember when we came into land the run way was right next to the circuit, so I saw the track from where I was sitting. The excitement started again. It was a tiny airport, one of those airports where you had to walk down the steps onto the runway to then walk into the terminal. When we got off the plane there were all these Malaysian women standing on the runway dancing and welcoming all Rotax Competitors. I thought it was awesome, I felt like a Formula 1 driver. There were posters up all around the airport and in fact all over the island.
The island of Langkawi is actually pretty small and there wasn’t much there. Just a few really nice hotels, restaurants and beaches, don’t forget the kart track too. Every body on the island knew about the event and when practice came around all of the islands children where in the grandstands watching. It was a surreal experience.
The format of the grand finals back then was pretty much that same as it is now, with all the categories being on a one make kart. In 2005 the juniors were in the Swiss Hutless kart, the seniors were on the CRG kart and the RM1 were on, well, the RM1 Kart. For those of you who don’t kn0w what the RM1 is, it is basically a DD2, but it was made a single make category.
Tropical Rain Storm:
Once the event was up and running, everything starting getting more and more intense when the rains hit. We have to remember that we were in the tropics and when it rained, it rained!!! I have never seen rain like it and still to this day I have not seen rain like it, which is impressive considering I am from the UK. Everything flooded, the paddock, the track, the roads, everything. What was crazier was that we were still in shorts and t-shirts and it was still boiling hot. The humidity was intense and we wasn’t necessarily wet from the rain but from the humidity in the air. The event was postponed for sometime while the islands fire department and volunteers helped to clear the water. During this time Papa Ben got his creative head on and started to make paper boats that we sent floating around the paddock area, it wasn’t long before everyone got involved in this and there were paper boats all over the place. Finally the track was cleared and we were straight into the heats.
The racing started and the first heat was in the wet as the track was still not dry after the rain. I remember dropping back to second or third and following a driver who was slightly faster for a few laps to learn his lines and then on the last few laps I took the lead and won the first heat. The track dried and I went onto win the remaining heats and the pre final. I don’t really remember being nervous for the Final as we were at the drivers parade in the sweltering heat and immediately after we were on the grid for the final. I don’t think there was really any time to be nervous.
As many of you might know Papa Ben and I was are still are a father and son team and that was no different in Langkawi. We had been pretty quick all through testing and obviously the heats and pre final, but this is where our inexperience would backfire on us. At that time in the Grand Finals we were only allowed two sets of tires. One set for the practice, all the way through the qualifying and heats including the pre final. Then for the final we would get a new set. As you can imagine the first set of tires was pretty worn out by the time the pre final came around. We had got the kart working really well on the old tires, but had not taken into consideration that the new tires would effect our set up so much, but obviously it did and of course with the new tires we had way too much grip in the final. I was in a race long battle for second and third places with the leader disappearing into the distance. At the end of the race I was to come across the line in fourth, which was a huge disappointment considering we had won every race except the final, but that comes with the experience. We learn from our mistakes and move on.
Being a Tourist:
The day after we became tourists for the day, before our flight home the day after. We took a trip around the island and the surrounding islands on a boat. The only way I can describe it is to imagine looking at a holiday brochure and seeing the nice white beaches and blue oceans, the perfect paradise. It was truly incredible; the only sad thing was that my Mum wasn’t with us that day as I have since found out that at the Rotax party the night before she had had a little too much to drink. We ended off the day by going to an extinct volcano; full of monkeys and in the middle was basically a big swimming pool. The best part about this however was not the pool or the monkeys themselves, it was the monkeys stealing everyone’s clothes when they were swimming in the water.
In Part 2, Ben relives his first Rotax Grand Finals Title in Italy 2008 and the feeling he had standing on the top of the world. You won’t want to miss it!
Through the month of November CKN has full coverage of the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals and Team Canada. CKN will be trackside in Valencia, Spain from November 23-30 to bring you all the action on http://canadiankartingnews.com and on our social networks: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.