Finally the moment the team have been preparing for and longing after all Summer long had come. It was time to kick off the 2016/17 Gokartcentralen Open GP Electric Gokart Championship, the Swedish West Coast's premier electric karting series!
A lot of controversy had blown up in the media in the weeks building up to this first round of the championship, with many of the teams having reacted negatively to the changes made to the circuit, the new adjusted completion format, and most prevalently, the driving characteristics of the new racing karts.
To their credit, the series leadership and circuit engineers had taken a lot of the commentary on board, and had worked exhaustively leading up to race day to remap the the power units to squeeze out as much top speed as possible within the limitations of the entire package. Racing drivers are a simple and single-minded breed, they don't want to hear excuses, be they valid or not, they just want performance, performance, performance!
In an open brief submitted to the teams by Open GP officials, they explained that there was a known issue with cooling on the new homologated race chassis, which prevented race engineers from being too aggressive with the power units, and that while they were working tirelessly on a viable solution to the problem, it would affect performance for at least the first round of the championship.
On that backdrop, Grabko Grand Prix arrived to the circuit for the free practice sessions not really knowing what to expect. The team's race driver, Dan Grabko, spoke at the driver's press conference, "Listen, everyone involved, from the teams to the circuit engineers and race stewards, to the Championship's leadership group, are all aware that we're not exactly where we want to be at the moment in terms of raw performance. You're hearing a lot of grumbling and complaining from the teams and drivers, but the reality is that everyone wants the same thing, and that is flat out, hard racing at a high level. Everyone can agree on that. I have faith that the cooling issues will eventually be solved, I mean these guys here are working their butts off to find a fix, and in the meantime, everyone is racing under the same conditions. As a driver, all I want is a challenging track and karts that test my skills. As a team owner, I think the best thing for everyone to do is get their heads down and get on with the job. Let's get through the first part of the season and then we can reassess the situation after a few rounds have been run." Measured words then from the Grabko Grand Prix Principal.
And...back to the racing!
The free practice session was actually an encouraging one for the team. For FP1, Dan drove kart 3, reporting good turn in, relatively speaking, and much improved grip levels than his last time out, which had been almost two weeks previous. He managed a promising 37.183, and almost 0.6 second improvement over that last testing session. It would prove to be the 3rd fastest time in free practice. However, the FP2 session was not quite as successful, the team driving kart 13 to a slower time of 37.437, complaining that the kart was having trouble turning in on right hand corners, suspecting that front alignment may have been off, either too little toe in on the front left or too much on the front right. The team noted that times in general were not decreasing as expected, rather a slight trend in the opposite direction was developing. Almost none of the other teams were able to improve their times during FP2. As qualifying approached, the team was trying to understand the reasons for this unexpected result. However, the support race schedules meant that no access to the karts was possible and they could only go by the data collected.
It was concluded that the temperature gremlins had already started to manifest themselves, and unfortunately to varying degrees. Ideally the team would be allotted a kart with warmed up tires, but with engine temperatures within a specific window, not too cold and not too warm. Looking at the data, it was possible, but completely out of the team's hands.
Qualifying was a tense affair. The new format allowed for only 6 laps to set a time in each of the two sessions, so the pressure was on right from the start, with no room for error. Grabko Grand Prix was slotted into group 1, thought to be filled with the fastest of the drivers. This proved to be the case for the most part, but Dan had a very hard time. After the encouraging FP1 time, it was disappointing to pull into the pit lane after Q1 having only managed a 37.619 best lap. Grabko had been allocated kart 13 again, and the right hand turn steering had not been corrected, causing the driver to fight against the kart throughout the session. It left the team in 7th place in the group, and by the time Q1 had been completed the time was only good enough for 10th overall, with the Haraldsson Motorsport driver, Jörgen Haraldsson, setting the pace at 36.933 closely followed by Jonas Svanberg of Hesus Racing and Daniel Svensson of Lilleman Racing rounding out the top three after the first sessions had been run.
So now the pressure was really on Dan to get into the top 7 and secure an automatic spot in the feature race. The projected cut off time was right around 37.450 so an improvement of 0.2 of a second was required to ensure qualification. Grabko would go out in kart 2 for Q2 and the session started out well, with Dan putting down a 37.492 on his 2nd flying lap. However, he was unable to improve on this during his final 4 attempts, and had to settle for that time, reporting in with irritation that he felt the kart had let him down, losing a bit of drive in the final laps of the shortened session. Indeed, the time was good enough to move him up one place to 6th for the time being, ahead of Team Horridin driver, Mattias Horridin by 0.08 of a second. However, there was no room for error as there were still 2 qualifying groups to run, with some quick drivers keen to get themselves into the feature race as well.
In the end, it was another near thing, Dan missing out on 7th place by a mere 0.006 of a second, and thus ended up 8th overall, and would be sitting on pole in the qualifier B final race, and would have to take the long road home yet again if he was to race in the feature. It was not an unfamiliar position for team or driver, and would require a focused and clean drive to take home the checkered flag, especially with other quick drivers around him also gunning to move on to the feature race.
However, Grabko got away cleanly and built an early lead, running an efficient race, and taking his two mandatory joker laps at strategic intervals to avoid getting caught up in traffic. His execution could not be faulted, but he couldn't manage the outright pace he'd achieved earlier in FP1. He emerged from his 2nd joker lap only a few seconds ahead of a hard charging Mattias Horridin, who had rediscovered his own earlier free practice pace after a disappointing qualifying saw him finish just 11th overall and thus started 4th on the grid for this qualifying heat. Now, however, he was lapping 0.2 to 0.3s faster than Dan, and closing in fast.
With 2 laps to go he was right on The Grabko Grand Prix driver's rear bumper, trying to force him into a mistake. Dan's nerve held, however and he crossed the finish line first after a tense 2 lap battle that had the crowd on their feet, in which he was forced to defend desperately to keep the quick Team Horridin driver behind.
So it was the first part of the job done - making it into the feature race. However, if the team couldn't find the pace they knew they were capable of, Dan would have it all to do to gain any places from his final grid position.
It was an extremely enjoyable race to watch from a neutral perspective. Straight from lights out there was drama and excitement. Every time a driver dove in for a joker lap, the crowd held its breath.
For Grabko Grand Prix the start was promising. The team had been allocated kart 18, and right away it showed it was lively off the line, as Dan gained a place to 7th before the first turn 2-3 chicane complex. Modin Motorsport's Mikael Modin got caught out missing the apex at turn 2 and getting squeezed out with nowhere to go at turn 3, watching helplessly as the field passed his by. As they entered turn 4 for the first time, Edo was now right in front of the Grabko Grand Prix driver, Dan right on his bumper, 3rd in a 3 way fight for 5th place, the position being held at the moment by Adde Motorsport's Adriano Voric. On lap 4 Dan received word that he was to try to get by the duo in front by taking the joker lap earlier than planned. Unfortunately things unraveled at this point. Almost bumper to bumper, Edo decided at the last second to dive in for his joker lap just ahead of Grabko, Dan forced to take last second evasive action to avoid contact and became wedged in, forced to back up in order to make the corner as the collision had left him facing the wrong direction. It was an incident that cost the team about 8 seconds, and any realistic chance at finishing better than 8th.
However, in the first round, with a new track, new karts, and a new format, anything can happen, and it did. Dan set about trying to recover his lost time and in a bid to change his strategy went in for his 2nd joker lap just two laps later. When he looked up at the live timing board after lap 8, he noted to his surprise that he was already back in 7th position, with both Haraldsson Autosport and Adde Motorsport drivers having had incidents of their own during their joker laps.
Haraldsson was now projected to be several seconds behind Dan on track when he made his second mandatory joker lap, after having been in a fight for the lead prior to his incident, and Adde, who'd had a couple of more minor encounters with the barriers entering the joker lap zone for his second time through the alternative loop of the circuit, was still ahead on track, but had damaged his power unit in the process, and was overheating, causing him to slow considerably.
It didn't take long for Dan to catch up to Adriano either, Voric a sitting duck in his crippled kart number 7. Even so, catching up is one thing, overtaking another, especially on the twisty tight turns of the new track layout. The move needed to be made quickly as well, because Haraldsson was making up ground and the window for successfully completing the undercut maneuver was closing fast. Coming up on the Adde Motorsport rear bumper into the circuit's 2nd chicane complex at turns 4 & 5, Grabko was able to get a good exit and get a decent run down the back straight. Voric is no pushover though, and Dan was forced to the outside, which under normal circumstances would have been the end of the passing attempt. However, the Grabko Grand Prix man had other plans, and came barreling down the outside of turn 7, coming up alongside Adriano at full speed, fully committing to making the move. There was a nail-biting moment as it looked like Dan had overstepped the mark and left braking too late, but he somehow managed to keep it together and get the kart turned in, beating Voric to the apex and completing the overtaking move.
It was arguably the overtake of the day, and it boosted Dan as he pulled away from the slower kart 7 with ease, and tried to put in the fastest laps he could to maintain the projected gap to Haraldsson. Unfortunately, the Grabko Grand Prix machine also started to develop noticeable overheating issues of its own, and despite Dan's faultless efforts, as he crossed the start finish line for lap 11, the projected gap had shrunk down from 5 seconds to just 3.
The team radioed in to its driver that Haraldsson was diving in for his joker lap this time around, and to push hard. When Jörgen emerged from the joker lap exit back onto turn 3, Dan had comfortably cleared him but was only a few seconds ahead on track just exiting turn 3 himself.
So it was a repeat of the qualifying final, but this time in a fight for 6th position instead of the win. Frantic radio traffic between team and driver requesting updated status on the power unit was traded back and forth, with Grabko complaining the pace was deteriorating with every corner exit. At the same time, team engineers were getting information that Haraldsson's kart was also starting to slow with the same power unit heat issues, but that his kart was only just in the initial stages of the problem. There were officially 5 laps to race, and the situation was looking dire. During the next 3 laps, Haraldsson was nudging up against Grabko's bumper trying to force a way through with Dan desperately defending, doing all he could to keep the quicker man behind.
Up and down the paddock, teams were reporting in to race officials that karts were overheating and there were serious concerns that karts would begin shutting down completely, or that permanent damage could be done to the brand new power units. On lap 13 the word came down from the race stewards that the checkered flag would come out 2 laps early, on lap 14, instead of the scheduled 16 laps.
Grabko managed to keep Jörgen behind him and cross the line in 6th place. It was a good way to start the season, especially in such difficult and uncertain circumstances, and even though it was overshadowed by technical difficulties and race incidents on track, it was still the team's best ever result and it came at the first race of the new season.
Further ahead, Mikael Modin took home a comfortable 5th place, essentially running alone after the early lap 1 incident with Dan at the joker lap entrance. Taking the 4th spot was Edo Karts, a sour note for the team, as it was felt that's where their battle should have been had it not been for the Joker Lap incident. The top 3 was Lilleman Racing's Daniel Svensson in 3rd, with Jonas Svanberg of Svanberg Autosport taking home 2nd spot, and JackJack Karting taking home a surprising but deserved win by over 4 seconds in their feature race debut. It was a superb and completely incident free drive by Jack, so all congratulations to him.
So there you have it folks! With all the intrigue, politics, controversy, and on track incidents, not to mention great entertaining racing, there was just slightly bit more than anyone bargained for in the first round of the Gokartcentralen Open GP Electric Gokart Championship!
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