After a full week of action at the Al Ain Raceway in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Team USA found themselves with five contenders left at the 2011 Rotax MAX Challenge Grand Finals. Going into the last day of competition, Jake Craig (Junior MAX), Stepanova Nekeel (Senior MAX), Kiel Spaulding (Senior MAX), Erik Jackson (DD2 Masters) and Rene Martinelli (DD2 Masters) were the only Team USA drivers with karts still in the huge pit pavilion.
The fact the six of our drivers didn’t even make it to the Finals just underscores what a challenging event the Grand Finals is for everyone. It stands to reason that if you put top drivers from around the world in identical equipment you’re going to have extremely close competition. As a result, if you’re just a fraction off in qualifying you’ll be starting the heat races back in the pack where desperation often outweighs logic.
Because of this, there were a lot of incident where our drivers got taken out while they were trying to move up. It must be noted, however, that just because there were many incidents where our team members got knocked out of the way, it’ wasn’t always malicious. At this level of racing every place in the field is fought over very hard. The racing is just more physical and that’s an area we will improve in over time.
The Junior MAX drivers were the first race of the day as they took to the grid for their Pre-Final. Team USA's Jake Craig was looking for a great run as he was starting 11th. At the start of the race he was on the inside going into turn one. Normally this is the safe place to be. However, on this occasion he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up getting chopped. The contact sent him into a spin back to the tail of the field. From that point he collected himself and put in a great race to climb back up to 18th it he 34-kart-strong field.
In the Junior MAX Final, Japan's Ukyo Sasahara won his second Grand Final title. The young Japanese driver was the 2009 champion in Egypt and so becomes the only Junior MAX champion to ever regain the championship. American Jake Craig had a good start in the middle of the pack and took a couple looks at moving up. however, going into turn one on the third lap he had to check up slightly and the kart behind him locked it up a bit under braking and slid into him. The resulting contact sent Jake into a spin which sent him back near the end of the pack. As the race progressed, he made some progress back up through the field.
On the last lap, just to make this week complete he got knocked off the track again and ended up 23rd. Although it wasn’t the finish he’d hoped for, Jake ran well all week and handled himself extremely well in a very tough situation.
Junior MAX Results:
1 Sasahara, Ukyo Japan
2 Mawson, Joseph Australia
3 Singleton, James United Kingdom
4 Van Moorsel, Jordi Netherlands
5 Fukuzumi, Nirei Japan
23 Craig, Jake United States
The DD2 Masters Pre-Final saw both Team USA drivers making awesome starts and it looked like some good fortune was headed our way. But before we could see our guys come home, both Erik Jackson and Rene Martinelli got used as extra braking force for some other drivers and ended up at the back on the pack. Neither driver was happy, but both were going to use it as motivation for the Final.
In the DD2 Masters Final, Erik was starting 25th and Rene 28th. Both drivers knew they had a long way to go to get on the podium, but at least they had some time on their side as the race distance was 21 laps. Going into turn one, the DD2 Masters defending champion, Canadian Scott Campbell, had a most unusual stroke of misfortune as his left front wheel hub broke. In the aftermath of the failure, the wheel bounced up onto his kart and he was able to grab it and was holding it in the air while trying to navigate his way out of the pack. It was one of those “now I’ve seen it all” moments that left everyone wondering how the heck it happened.
While Scott was having his troubles, Erik Jackson proved to be a master of race starts as he continued his trend of advancing up the grid when the green flag dropped. In the end, Eric worked his way up to 11th from his 25th starting spot. Rene came in 25th in what can only be described as a frustratingly difficult week for the hard-working driver from Tampa, Florida. When Rene came in after the Final, the frustration was evident on his face. But there’s no need to be discouraged. He gave it all he had but some things just didn’t go his way.
To win the Grand Finals you need more than speed. You need to to have every aspect of your game “on” the entire week. And, this year, the one who did that the best in DD2 Masters was South African Cristiano Morgado. The 32-year-old from Durban was the man to beat all week and proved it on race day with a dominating performance. This is Cristiano’s second Grand Finals Championship as he was also the champion in Senior MAX in Egypt back in January 2004.
DD2 Masters Results:
1 Morgado, Cristiano South Africa
2 Brand, Danny Belgium
3 Berteaux, Guillaume France
4 Hargitai, Gerry Hungary
5 Coghlan, Brent Australia
11 Jackson, Eric United States
25 Martinelli, Rene United States
When Senior MAX Pre-Final started, our guys, Stepanova Nekeel and Kiel Spaulding were sitting 16th and 22nd respectively. For once both of our drivers had relatively clean starts and ran most of the race in good position. For Stepanova, the race was a good one as he was able to move up some to a very solid eighth place finish. For Kiel, the finish wasn't as enjoyable. Like other times during the week, Kiel was the victim of contact that knocked him back to 30h at the end.
The Senior MAX Final turned out to be the best one of the week for Team USA. Stepanova started eighth and Kiel was 30th after their Pre-Final finishes. After getting good starts both drivers were looking good and both were moving up. At the end of lap two, Stepanova was up to fifth and it looked like this could be his day. After a few laps he started falling back and it seemed to be the end of his charge. Around mid-distance, he gathered it up and worked his way back up to seventh on the track at the end. After the race concluded, two drivers ahead of Stepanova were assessed 10-second penalties which moved him up to fifth place for the best Finals finish of the week for Team USA.
Kiel Spaulding's race ended early on the eighth lap when a mechanical malfunction brought him into the pits. In a rare incident, the fuel tank on his kart came apart spilling fuel on the young driver. Keeping his wits about him, Kiel came straight into the pits and got out of his K1 race suit before the fuel had a chance to soak into his skin.
The race for the win was over early as the UK’s Ben Cooper was able to make a break and other challengers got held up in the pack behind. At the halfway mark, Australian David Sera, who was representing both his home country and the Florida Winter Tour, broke free and set about chasing Cooper down. David gave it his best but was only able to close the gap to just under a second at the finish. For Ben Cooper, this was his second Grand Finals championship as he also won in 2008.
Senior MAX Results:
1 Cooper, Ben United Kingdom
2 Sera, David Australia
3 Sasaki, Hirotaka Japan
4 Finkelstein, Alexandre France
5 Nekeel, Stepanova United States
Other Team USA:
29 Spaulding, Kiel United States
The day of the Finals ended with the DD2 class on track. With no Team USA drivers in the field, there wasn’t as much emotion for our team but we were still out in force to cheer on our neighbors up north as Team Canada had two drivers starting on the front row. On pole was 2007 DD2 Champion Pier-Luc Ouellette and starting next to him was Nicholas Latifi. In 2007, Pier-Luc checked out from the field. But this time around, the competition was on from the drop of the green flag.
For a while, Nicholas Latifi took his place at the front of the field. This was an incredibly strong performance for someone that’s only raced karts for just over two years. With a few laps to go it looked like Canada could come home with a 1-2 finish. That is until Nicholas got drop kicked on the backside of the course and finished 7th. Coming out of the last corner on the last lap Pier-Luc held a slight lead over Australia’s Jason Pringle. The two rocketed towards the checkered flag side-by-side, each willing their CRG DD2s ever faster. As they crossed the finish line Pier-Luc took the win by a few inches over Pringle for a very satisfying and emotional victory. With his win, Pier Luc became the fourth repeat champion in all for divisions this week at the Grand Finals.
1 Ouellette, Pier-Luc Canada
2 Pringle, Jason Australia
3 Vann, Georg Estonia
4 Ward, Damian Australia
5 Murray, Marc South Africa
After the race’s conclusion, the podium celebrations were held and the awarding of the Nations Cup went to Australia. The strong team from down under did not win any of the four championships, but was at or near the front in all the qualifying sessions and races that counted towards the cup. Canada was second and South Africa third. Team USA came in 13th.
After our second in the Nations Cup just two years ago in Egypt, and with further enhancements in the near future, we know we can win this championship. Perhaps that will come next year in Portugal as it was announced during the closing party that the 2012 Grand Finals will be held in Algarve. As always, there will be great racing and a lot of fun to be had at that event as well so now is the time to mark your calendar to attend the 2012 Rotax MAX Challenge Grand Finals.
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