One thing about the Grand Finals that made it feel so different to any other race I had ever done was simply how long the event was! I arrived in Portugal on Saturday morning and probably slept a total of 45 minutes that night on the plane. The first day at the track started a full week before the race and was time to get registered for the event. First thing I noticed when I got there was that apparently my name was too long for Rotax! They had shortened my last name to Robichon to make it fit on the timing sheet but luckily Patrick Moreau sorted that out and I was able to have my full name for the rest of the week. Once registration over, Bryce, Pier-Luc, Ben, Keith and I went out on track in the rental karts to have a little fun and took the opportunity to learn the track. The first night at the hotel felt like the longest night of my life because I was still so tired from the lack of sleep the night before so a nice early bedtime got me energized for the rest of the week!
Kart raffle day! What a sight to get to the track and see all the karts lined up on track. Although I’ve seen plenty of pictures from past years, nothing really beats getting to see all those karts lined up for yourself. Following the kart raffle it was time to get the karts ready for action for the coming week. At the end of the day it was the first party at the Grand Finals and also the opening round of the mojo tyre changing contest. The party was a great time to get to know different people from different countries and really great to have everyone eating and hanging out together.
Monday was the first time we got to try out the Mach1 kart. In the morning we had to finalize the kart preparation, then had our first drivers meeting of the event. They told us a few of the rules for the practice session and also gave us some surprising regulations as far as jetting for the event. They told us the minimum jet would be 198 in the break-in session and then 192 for the rest of the event. I couldn’t believe this considering in Canada we normally run between 178-185 jet and very rarely go any higher then that! The first on-track session was supposed to be a break-in session but I couldn’t believe how many drivers just jumped out on track and went straight to pushing the karts as fast as they could! I took it a little easier because I had never driven the track so I really just wanted to spend the session learning the track and making sure to get a feel for the kart and the engine. Everything seemed good on the engine side of things but the chassis definitely took some getting used to and I could tell that we were going to have our hands full all week trying to get to grips with the Mach1 chassis. Monday night was time for the Team Canada party and all the family and supporters for all the drivers got to meet each other and have dinner. Following the party a few of the drivers got together to have a little ping-pong tournament.
The first time we had timed practice was on Tuesday so that was the first time all the drivers would see where they stacked up in the field. In the first practice session the kart felt good and then we tried making a major setup change half way through the session to see how the kart would react and we seemed to take a step backwards. Although I was still trying to get to grips with the track, I still managed to post a 20th overall time in the session. In the second session we again had plans to make a mid-session adjustment to see how the kart would react, but the session was interrupted by a red flag about 2 laps in. Before the session we had debated on making a major change and we had opted against it, but during the red flag we decided we would make the change and once the session resumed the kart felt great for the first 3 laps. Afterwards it started to fall off dramatically. So although we had found a relatively fast setup, it wasn’t one to keep since the speed couldn’t be maintained and the kart dropped off a lot. That put me 18th overall for the second practice. Following the practice sessions we got everything cleaned up for the next day and went back to the hotel to eat the ‘delicious’ supper (yes, read sarcasm), again followed by a few games of ping-pong. By the end of the week I was going to be good at ping-pong, I could tell.
Qualifying day. For the first time it was official and where we qualified would place us for all three heats. No pressure right? First off we had a one last practice session that seemed to go pretty well. I ended up 16th overall but still never felt completely comfortable with the kart and was making lots of mistakes because of it. Then came qualifying time. In the other classes the draft was playing a huge role because there was so much wind blowing out on track and in though it didn’t play such a big role in DD2 it was still quite important. I timed it perfectly to screw myself up completely! I managed to find a place where I would get no draft and not only that, I spun out on the first lap all by myself! More than a little embarrassing, I must say. After that I just didn’t drive very well. That’s basically the only way I can put it. I would love to blame something else but sometimes you just can’t! So I posted 38th overall, and landed in Group B, starting in the 10th row for all the heats. They were going to be interesting heat races if I was going to avoid the last chance race!
After a quick morning warm-up we jumped right into our first of two heat races on the day. My first heat race went exactly the way I didn’t want it to; got caught up in a first corner crash and fell back down to eventually finish 31st. After a few penalties were handed out I ended up 28th and little did I know that every single point would be important in deciding whether I would make it without going through the last chance race. At this point I had basically told myself I was going to be going into the last chance for sure, so for the next two races I was just going to try and be as aggressive as possible to try and at least get a good starting position for the last chance race. Thursday afternoon it was time for the second heat race and this one went much better. After making it cleanly through the first few corners I set my sights on whoever was in front of me and just took the opportunity to pass as soon as I could. With the amount of skilled drivers and how close everyone was in times, it really was a matter of making the move on the driver in front of you or risk getting passed by the driver behind. From my 19th starting position I managed to move up to 10th, and following a post-race penalty to a driver in front of me I moved to 9th on the final result sheet! Although this was just a heat race, it was possibly one of the best races I have ever driven.
Friday was the third heat race and the LCQ. Again, a quick morning warm-up, this time in the rain. I knew that if I were to have a chance to skip the LCQ race I would have to drive a perfect heat race. Starting from 19th in the rain I probably drove more aggressively than I ever have before and moved up all the way to 9th in the first half. Following that I had a gap in front of me and behind me, and eventually reeled in the drivers in front of me but ran out of time before I could make some moves. I had thought that the 2nd heat race might have been my best race, but this one was even better! Following the race I had never been so nervous in my life. Running around trying to figure out if I would have to do the last chance race people probably thought I looked like an idiot but hey, I just wanted to know! After what seemed like forever, the results came out and I just squeezed into the final in 27th! After the first heat I basically thought for sure I was going to be in the LCQ, so getting directly in made it feel that much better that I managed to get through. Friday night I went to bed early because Saturday was the day we had all been waiting for.
Saturday morning I was fairly relaxed. In fact, I was surprised with myself about how relaxed I was. I had kind of given myself the mentality of, ‘hey, you’ve made it this far, just go out and do the best you can.’ So, without really setting myself any goals I rolled out on track for the Prefinal. And what a race it was! From my 27th grid position I got half spun in the first lap and fell into 31st! From there on I just pushed as hard as I could and as soon as I would catch up to someone I would go in and make a move . I constantly battled through the whole race and managed to finish 14th! This meant it was probably the third race in a row that was the best race of my life! After the Prefinal was the first time since the practices that my goal of a top-ten finish seemed realistic. I knew I had the speed and the racing skills to crawl into the top ten and it was just a matter of having a good, clean race to make it happen. The start of the Final was good for me. A few drivers ahead got caught up in an incident but I managed to avoid all the action and start racing. The final race was again a constant battle with the drivers around and I always felt like we were swapping places for those final spots in the top ten. I made a few mistakes in the Final and lost a few positions because of them on overly optimistic passes, so this meant that I had to fight back for a few positions I had already gotten. After all was said and done I ended up 8th! I was really happy with that because a lot of people had counted me out after qualifying and I fought back to finish 8th in my first ever world final. Additionally, if I didn’t get to win, the person I would have been cheering for did! So I have to congratulate Ben because he deserved it more than anyone and drove an amazing race to win his third Grand Final. After the podium ceremony and the kart had been given in, it was time to celebrate at the Rotax After-Party and it was a great way to cap off the whole week.
In concluding I just want to say a quick thank you to all my family who came out to Portugal to watch as well as everyone who followed the racing online! Also, I would like to thank everyone from Team Canada and Rotax that helped organize the event, and SRA karting, Academie de karting Jim Russell, Canadian Karting News and P1 fitness for helping me achieve what I did.