After a long mid-season break, The 2016-17 Gokartcenter Winter Le Mans Series was back in action for the 4th round of the endurance race championship, and Grabko Grand Prix was keen to get the second half of the season under way the same way it had the first, with another trip to the top step of the podium.
It had been tough going for the team since its maiden win in the first round, and now the team was keen on tasting the sweet nectar of victory once again. However, not all was well. In a freak accident during a routine martial arts training session, racing driver and team principal, Dan, sprained his ankle badly. The injury came less than 4 days before the 4th round race, and the verdict was no driving for 2 weeks, putting him out of contention and leaving the driving duties to the teams two Autumn signings, Erkin Bour and Daniel Svensson.
Despite this setback, the team was very determined and optimistic about their chances. In free practice beforehand Erkin set a fast time of 24.89s at competition weight in kart 10 after only a 5 minute session with the machine. Svensson was equally impressive, posting a 25.08 in kart 1 during the same stint.
Having only 2 drivers at their disposal wasn't all bad for the team. Race engineers were able to take a more straightforward approach to strategy, and it was quickly determined that Erkin would take the green flag, meaning he would also be taking the last driving stint as well.
Another blow to the team came, however, when kart assignments were announced by race officials at the pre-qualifying race briefing. Kart 9 was a wildcard, having not been included in the race machine pool for the last two rounds, while championship leaders, The Team GP, were dealt kart 3, a known solid performer. Team Horridinis were given kart 2, another known overachiever, while Hesus Autosport was allowed kart 7, a middle of the road machine. NFJF Racing got hold of kart 10, a good draw, with Nissine pa Lavene received kart 8, another mid pack performer. Two newcomers to the series, Dynamite GP, and Hog Riders KRT, were dealt karts 6 and 1 respectively.
So the team didn't know what to expect going into qualifying and Daniel Svensson was left with the unenviable task of feeling out an unfamiliar racing machine during live qualifying. Unfortunately his dissatisfaction with the kart was obvious over the team radio, it was suspected that not enough toe on the front axle combined with either too high tire pressure or not enough camber on thewas making the handling very difficult and unstable. The kart would bounce through the long fast corners and twitch its way through the slow tighter sections, never sitting and squatting properly under load, and the left rear tire had a tendency to lift off. As it was, Daniel acquitted himself well in what was an extremely competitive qualifying session in which his progress was hampered by several local yellow flags due to spins by the new teams. So, after the first 5 minutes, Grabko Grand Prix was 3rd on a 25.08 time, just 0.02s behind Hesus Autosport with a 25.06 and 0.04s adrift of Horridinis who managed a 25.04s lap.
As an irritated Daniel got out of the car, Erkin hopped in. After several laps trying to get to grips with the adverse handling conditions, he was able to clock in a few solid laps, culminating in the team's best lap of qualifying, a 24.99s lap that to the team's relief was just good enough to claim pole position.
So for the 3rd time in 4 races, Grabko Grand Prix would start at the very front of the grid. The team had only been able to convert one of these pole positions into victories, however, so there was obviously still all to do for the championship contenders. It was an interesting starting grid, with series leading The Team GP only managing a 4th place qualifying spot, beaten out by both Horridinis on their 25.04s lap time and Hesus Autosport, who claimed 3rd, their 25.06s lap good enough to fend off The Team GP's disappointing 25.36s effort, which saw them fighting in the middle of the field with fan favorites NFJF Racing 5th on 25.48 and Nissene pa Lavene right on their rear bumpers at 25.49. Rounding out the field were the two series newcomers, Hog Riders KRT on 26.06s, and finding the going tough on their debut was Dynamite GP managing a slow 28.37s time, 3.5s off the pace.
As the green lights flashed to signal the start, both Grabko Grand Prix and Horridinis got off to flying starts, Erkin and Matthias taking the fight for the early lead to a two horse race for the all important early race track position. Hesus Autosport's Jonas Svanberg bogged down at the start and was embroiled in a vicious battle for third position with The Team GP almost right from the start.
Grabko Grand Prix man Bour was being hard pressed by Horridin behind, who was, as usual, using his strategic weight advantage to the fullest in the first stint, and by lap three Erkin was instructed to let him by at the final hairpin to avoid losing too much time driving defensively to those chasing him from behind, as the long term race strategy took priority. It turned out to be a wise move, as lap times improved immediately.
Further behind, drama was unfolding as The Team GP lost patience in their battle for 3rd and were desperate to make up time against the teams fighting for the lead. They shunted their way past Hesus Autosport, who were defending aggressively, and were duly adjudged to have caused an avoidable collision and given a 5 second time penalty by the race stewards. Despite this, Hesus Autosport felt aggrieved, which would come back to haunt them in the middle stints later on in the race.
Meanwhile at the front, the much lighter Horridin had opened up an almost 5s gap to Bour, who was struggling with the temperamental kart 9 chassis to find any sort of consistent groove or rhythm. This was where the gap stayed as the lights for the first driver change lit up.
Chaos ensued as almost all the teams came in simultaneously. Erkin was informed to stay out an extra lap, and the strategic decision really paid off. Horridinis, Hesus Autosport, and The Team GP were all caught behind back-markers, and the new teams who had not had a chance to perfect their driver change technique, were holding them all up in the pit lane. By the time Erkin came around again the pit had cleared and the team was able to perform a clean change, Svensson thus accelerating out of the pits ahead of Horridinis and back in the lead.
The fortuitous circumstances became key as the second stint unfolded. Andre Palm of The Team GP had managed to get by Horridinis driver Anders Karlsson and was now closing in on Svensson a couple of tenths a lap. The Grabko Grand Prix driver was setting good times despite the karts failings, but was slowly being reeled in by Palm despite his best efforts.
However, Daniel's string of early bad luck in the series unfortunately would not end today. As he was coming up on the rear bumper of debutant team Dynamite GP to put them a further lap down, the newcomer felt the pressure and spun entering the Pizza Slice complex. Svensson tried to avoid him on the outside, but became trapped between the wrong facing kart on the inside and the barriers on the outside. He lost 7 seconds waiting for the last placed kart to get moving enough to let him go and was helpless as he watch Palm speed by and take the lead in the intervening seconds.
Now it was time to get his head down and maintain the gap, and get by the racy and talented Karlsson of Team Horridinis. It was a more straightforward affair this time around, given their previous scuffles for position in recent rounds of the championship, Daniel able to pass cleanly into the turn 9 left handed hairpin and take up his chase of Andre and The Team GP.
He did very well in keeping the gap down to just under 6s by the time the track lights flashed red for the 2nd time, marking the next mandatory driver change. Again, expert communication and driver judgement, along with a healthy dose of luck, saw Grabko Grand Prix take a huge time advantage during the pit stops. A miscue during their driver change by Hog Riders KRT saw all the front runners but Grabko Grand Prix stuck in the pit lane for almost 10s, and Svensson was able to take full advantage, putting in his fastest time of the race at 25.03s and had a clear pit lane to enjoy as he and Erkin completed another flawless change.
They gained a whole 12s in the exchange, going from being behind 6s on track to being 5s ahead, and Erkin immediately set about extending that lead during his second stint. He went about his work in a typically unassuming manner, putting in consistent lap times and as he seemed to come more to terms with the kart's less than optimal setup. He seemed to have found a rhythm and was able to flow through lapped traffic smoothly and without losing time, whereas The Team GP was having a tougher go of it. Bour passed Hesus Autosport's Adriano Voric cleanly under the blue flags, but two laps later when The Team GP came around it was a different story. Adde still felt aggrieved at the first stint incident earlier, so after being passed by the second placed kart going into the first section of the Pizza Slice complex at turn 3, he allowed himself to overshoot the apex and nudge out The Team GP into the outer barrier. The incident cost The Team GP another 4s of track position against the leaders, and Adde was duly given a 5s time penalty by the stewards. The grudge match behind only played to Grabko Grand Prix's advantage, however, and Erkin was now 10s ahead of the 2nd placed team on track, and 15s total, including The Team GP's earlier 5s time penalty.
The Team GP recovered from this point however, and Erkin was unable to stretch out the gap any further, and so when the lights came on for the 3rd driver change of the day, It would be up Svensson to keep the team in the lead.
This proved to be a much harder task than hoped. After both teams made clean pit stops, unhindered by any other mishaps out of their control, the race was on. Andre Palm was back in the race seat for The TeamGP and he drove like a man on a mission, cutting into Daniel's lead by 0.4s a lap initially, and was projected to catch Svensson on track with about 2 minutes of the stint to go. This is almost exact what played out as well, despite Daniel's best efforts. However, Svensson is no pushover and at this point he was not going to give up the lead without a fight. Palm closed in on him with about 3 laps left to go in the stint, but despite his best efforts could find no way around Daniel's steely defensive posture, despite giving him a few unfriendly nudges from behind going into the key braking zones at turns 3 and 10, causing the stewards to take a hard look at the incidents, before ultimately taking no action. Svensson held his nerve, however, and when the lights came out for the 4th driver change, it was still Grabko Grand Prix in the lead with The Team GP hot on their tail.
Yet again, Erkin and Daniel timed a flawlessly executed pit stop, and this time they would be staying out front for good. Bour had taken full advantage of the driver change advantage, and had quickly stretched the on track advantage to over 9s, that lead stretching out to over 14s with The Team GP's 5s time penalty taken into account.
So after 60 minutes, the race began to stabilize for Grabko Grand Prix, and with a healthy gap to work with, Erkin was able to relax and look for those elusive few tenths to get under the 25s mark. He duly delivered, recording the team's fastest lap of the race at 24.94s. It was only good enough for the 4th best time of the day, Matthias Horridini claiming the fastest lap of the race, a scorching 24.62s in the very racy kart 2. But it was consistent pace and a well executed pit strategy that had allowed the team to open up a 20s gap by the time Svensson sat himself back in the driver's seat for his final stint.
In similar fashion to Erkin before him, Daniel took advantage of the generous gap down to 2nd placed The Team GP to experiment slightly with racing lines and try to extract all he could from the disagreeable kart 9 chassis. This allowed Andre Palm to close the gap by a couple of seconds but at this point the chase was almost purely academic, barring any disastrous mistake by Grabko Grand Prix, they were heading to their 2nd win of the season, and keeping the championship race very much alive going into the final 2 rounds of the series.
The last bit of excitement came in the final stint of the race when Team Horridinis driver Matthias Horridin, who had been in true speed demon from the entire race, was able to pass The Team GP and bring himself back on the lead lap with 8 minutes of the race to go. The Team Horridinis man was lapping almost a half second faster a lap than The Team GP, but there just would not be quite enough time left in the race for him to make up the 25s needed to challenge them for a chance at taking the 2nd step on the podium.
In the end, Erkin Bour took home the checkered flag for Grabko Grand Prix, marking their 2nd victory of the season, and concluding what had been their most complete race from a strategic and execution perspective.
Erkin had this to say afterwards, "Really happy with that one, I have to say. We had that blow of Grabko being out, then we had to deal with yet another unlucky kart allocation, so it felt almost like it was going to be another one of those frustrating days. But then we got some luck on track with position and incidents that happened around us, and really used the driver changes to our advantage. We put our heads down and despite the inferior material we won by what ended up being a pretty comfortable margin. So hopefully next round we will be back to full strength, get a decent kart lottery, and really be able to show what we can do. One race at a time."
During the post race press conference, Daniel Svensson was asked about the tussle with The Team GP's Andre Palm at that crucial point in the race, "It was pretty intense, he was putting real pressure on me, and was a little bit quicker at that point of the race - I think he just misjudged the braking points a bit at the end of the stint, nothing intentional, but I was lucky not to have been caught out by that. It didn't feel nice to get a shunt from behind under braking, especially at the pizza slice. There was no way I was letting him through without a fight though, and it was vital we kept the lead at that point of the race. It worked out for us and thankfully it was the closest they got the whole race."
Dan Grabko agreed with the sentiments of his fellow drivers, "Yeah, it didn't feel good being on the sidelines today, but we got the result we wanted, and I can't wait to get back in action next round! These guys are champions for a reason and you could see how we went about their business today, despite circumstances being against us. We did well to make our own luck with the driver changes and wrestled the race into our favor that way. Great drive by Svensson in the middle stint there to keep Palm behind, I think that ultimately won us the race today. Bour was immense, as usual. We're really privileged to have these guys on the team, and now it is a matter of getting our heads down the next round to really put pressure on The Team GP. They are still leading the championship after today, so we're going to enjoy this today and tomorrow, and then get right back to work for the next one!"
So there you have it, folks! Another great race day for the team!
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