Lidköping vid Vänern was the host for Grabko Grand Prix's latest preseason testing exercise, the Widell Driving Experience 10H LeMans Endurance Race, at the famous Lidköping Motorstadion Circuit, a recent staple on the Swedish National Championship calendar.
The team came late to the party, having only been given a chance to enter due to another team dropping out of the competition less than a week to the green flag. Team Principal Dan Grabko, never one to turn down an opportunity to give this fledgling team more experience in different competitions formats, jumped on the chance after learning of the opening and quickly sorted an entry. He struck a partnership with two young local talents, Erik Olsson and Viktor Sällsträm, as well as two former Directors of the Lidköping Karting Club, Pontus Rappéll and Patrik Fajersson. It was a strong combination of youthful enthusiasm and smooth experience, both needed in the long gruelling test of a 10 hour endurance event.
The format was relatively straightforward. A 10 hour endurance race with each team fielding a minimum of 3 drivers and a maximum of 6. Mandatory driver changes every 30 minutes and all registered drivers were required to drive an equal number of stints. For the final hour and a half, nighttime rules would be in effect, seeing stints shortened to 15 minutes, again requiring all drivers to take part in an equal number of stints. There would be two available refuelling stations to be used by all teams, which could only be reserved 1 lap in advance, and driver changes were not allowed in combination with a refuelling stop. A single 30 minute qualifying session would determine the grid order at the start, which would be a 100 yard sprint format. There would be no scheduled kart changes, and kart assignment would be determined by lottery during the drivers meeting. Also, no radio communication was allowed between the pit lane and the driver, making things a bit more interesting.
It was a strong field that turned out for the day, including over half of the top 10 finishers in last season's Open GP Electric Karting Championship, with champion Erkin Bour alongside Daniel Svensson, Jörgen Haraldsson, Adriano Voric, and Jonas Svanberg lining up on the grid, as well as former European Karting Champion Linus Lundberg.
The team drew kart number 3 in the lottery, which upon discussion with the local squad was not exactly a favourable outcome. Not disastrous, but according to Erik and Viktor, not ideal either. Word around the paddock was that karts 13 and 6 were the machines to have.
Upon the pre-qualifying inspection, Patrik and Pontus discovered excessive toe in on the team's machine, but there was not enough time to do anything about it before the session began, so the drivers were just going to have to deal with it until after qualifying. The team were going to have to rely on the experience of the local drivers on their home track to set a competitive time in spite of the limitations of the kart.
Dan started off qualifying for the team, which would see each driver go out in 4 lap stints so everyone could get a feel for the machine and track conditions as well as try to get in a decent time. Right off the bat, the suspicions of too much toe in were confirmed, as Dan noted a squirrelly front end, soft turn in, and regardless of seat position it didn't want to set itself on corner exits. The drivers had to wrestle it through and found it hard to get solid momentum out of the turns, especially in the critical turns 8 and 14 out onto the bridge and front straights, respectively. This meant slower straight line speed with a motor that also didn't have the top end to compete with the better half of the field.
Despite all of this Dan was able to set a respectable 1:12.467 during his first run, even with a lap 2 excursion onto the grass, getting too far wide into the marbles at the turn 4 hairpin while trying to find the braking limits and optimal lines. This left the team in 6th after the first few minutes of qualifying, but as expected, the times were going to drop dramatically before the session was over. Next up was Patrik, who showed his experience and grit, man-handling the racing machine around the track and extracting a 1:11.866, Vaulting Grabko Grand Prix to the 3rd best time momentarily. While Pontus came close to equaling Patrik's time, neither he, Erik, or Viktor were able to better it, and with time running out, Dan was about to have last gap go at it when time ran out for him on his out lap, and he was unable to set a time on his 2nd qualifying stint.
In the end it was still a decent finish, Patrik's time holding up to scrape out the final place in the top 10, but still over 1.5 seconds off the pole setting pace. So the team had it all to do right from the start to get into the top 5, the goal the team had set for itself leading up to the event.
As Dan brought in the kart to the pit lane for pre-race preparations, Patrik and Pontus were already alerting the track officials to the toe-in problems with the machine. Upon measurement, it was confirmed that the front end was set up with an over 15mm positive toe, over a centimeter over what was generally regarded as decent setup for the circuit. As the mechanics scrambled to make adjustments to the kart, the team held and internal meeting to decide driving order as well as driver change and refuelling strategy.
Patrik, having set the fastest qualifying time, would start first, followed by Pontus, Erik, and then Dan, with Viktor elected to take the crucial final spot. This left Patrik with the unenviable task of performing the 150 meter sprint from the starting grid down to turn 1 where the karts were lined up in reverse starting order.
All preparations made, there was no turning back, and it all came to the starting horn. The team lost one spot right from the start as while Patrik did an admirable job with the sprint, he lost a bit of time struggling with the mandatory safety belt. However, he wasted no time in setting about making up for it, setting the 3rd fastest pace of the opening stint, and gaining position after position as the laps began to tick off. When the lights at the start/finish line flashed red signalling the first mandatory driver change, he came in having moved all the way up to 4th position, setting a best time for the team that would hold through the entire rest of the race at 1:10.885.
As the stints started to pass by, Grabko Grand Prix solidified their 4th spot, with Pontus and Erik putting in solid and consistent efforts before Dan went out for his first stint. He had a bit harder go of it, trying to get to grips with the racing line on the unfamiliar circuit, averaging low 1:13 to high 1:12 laps, about a second off the pace of the first three drivers. The team also performed their first of 4 scheduled refuelling stops during Dan's stint, a well executed stop completed by the experienced Pontus and Patrik. Most teams waited to make their refuelling stops until after the the 2 hours mark, meaning that the team lost track position and was in 6th position when Dan jumped out of the kart and Viktor took to the track for his first stint. He was able to pick up the pace again slightly, and by the time the first full driver revolution had been completed 2.5 hours into the race, the team was looking good in a solid 4th position, in a tight fight with only 20 seconds separating 4th and 8th position.
The good form continued through most of the second driver stints. Patrik and Pontus delivered practiced smooth drives while Erik was beginning to show some real pace, setting a couple of personal best times despite the extra 12kg weight added to the kart for the competition. Dan was also able to improve his average lap times by over a half second, completing another efficient refuelling stop during his second outing, and when he handed over the reigns to Viktor on the 4.5 hour mark, the team was still in the fight having dropped one place to Adde Motorsport, now only a few seconds ahead on track as the young enthusiastic driver pulled out of the pit exit for his 2nd go.
That is when things got interesting. Two laps into Viktor's second drive, he had caught up to Adde Motorsport and was lining up for a pass to bring the team back into 4th position when right at that moment race officials ordered the first random and artificial "local rain shower" of the day, transforming turn 1 into essentially a lake, and spraying the neighbouring turn 9 as well. Viktor had already committed to his passing manoeuvre, getting himself alongside the Adde Motorsport kart down the front straight, and so was forced into taking the inside line on the corner, which normally would have been fine, but in the completely grip-less conditions, he had carried too much speed. He did his very best to let the kart ride out wide, but there was absolutely zero grip and when he was finally forced to turn in all the way to make the 2nd righthand corner, the inevitable happened, and he was essentially a passenger as the rear gave up, swinging him around. He ended up in the deep grass off of turn 2 facing the wrong direction and struggled to extricate himself as he watched in frustration as kart after kart passed him by. He got underway again back in 10th position.
Doing his utmost to put the incident behind him, the team being grateful at this point that there was no team radio, as he gesticulated, shook his head, and slammed his fists against the wheel. Despite his obvious ire, he immediately went about making amends. He put in several impressive wet lap times in a row, recording the fastest laps of the field, a 1:14.335 as a semblance of a dry line eventually started to appear again in turns 1 and 9. The young buck worked his way back up again to 8th, and again had lined up a passing opportunity down the front straight to get himself and the team back into 7th position.
Unfortunately, disaster struck again for the team, as Viktor wasn't able to quite get the exit from the final turn 14 he needed and thus wan't able to make the full pass on the start/finish straight. He elected to try to complete the move through the wet turn 1 in any case and was forced to make the attempt on the outside, where no dryer line had been established. He almost made a miraculous save in what would have been the passing move of the day, but probably not even the great Ayrton Senna could have done so and a second spin resulted. It was especially cruel on Viktor who had otherwise driven an excellent stint in extremely tough wet/dry conditions, but it did leave the team floundering in 9th place when he came in and Patrik took over for his third drive of the day.
His experience and race craft showed as he went about catching back up in his now familiar business-like manner. The wet/dry conditions seemed to suit him well, and during his solid stint action was taken on another front. Team engineers had been monitoring the engine performance of kart 3 and noted that it had been deteriorating from its already mediocre output for the last several hours. It was clearly evident that the team were at an unfair disadvantage down the straights, and Pontus finally had enough as he watched Patrik being passed by lesser drivers down the straights, only for him to catch up and pass again in the more technical sections of the track. After a slightly heated exchange between team and officials, Race stewards approved a kart change to kart 5 during the next driver change, and the improvement was directly palpable.
As Pontus went out for his 3rd go, times immediately improved by an average of 0.5 seconds, and the practiced driver continued the team's comeback. This momentum carried through as Erik went out for the 3rd time. He found himself entering the track at the same time as the race leaders, the EB Karting and Lilleman Racing partnership competing under the flag of Team 14 for the day. Gokartcentralen's Open GP Champion, Erkin Bour, found himself being hounded by the young Grabko Grand Prix driver, who was really turning on the form. He found an incredible rhythm that saw him trading fastest lap times back and forth with Bour, who despite his best efforts couldn't shake the young talent for the duration of the stint. His exceptional drive saw Grabko Grand Prix fight their way back up to 6th position by the time Dan got back into the hot seat for the 3rd time with 3.5 hours of the race to go. Despite continuing to struggle to match the outright pace of the team's local drivers, his stint was consistent, and competitive with the rest of the field. This, combined with another successful refuelling stop, helped to maintain the 6th spot for the team going into what would become yet another adventurous stint for the unlucky Viktor.
Again showing his true pace with a couple of solid mid 1:11 laps to start off his stint, the racing gods decided yet again to test his meddle. The fire engine sounded off and sure enough another artificial rain shower descended upon the racers. This time the water came down deeper into turn 1 and completely drenched turn 9, so it was going to be a treacherous run to get out onto the bridge straight, and this ended up being Viktor's downfall.
He started out extremely well, setting best lap after best lap of the stint in the again harrowing conditions, almost a second faster than the rest of the field, but was undone when he was unable to time his passing moves to good effect catching up to the kart in front of him at turn 8 and being just a bit too impatient, diving in to turn 9 in an out braking manoeuvre that left his with nowhere to go but into the tire barriers when he was just too quick through the apex. It was an agonising loss of time for the team, as he struggled to get the kart back on track and into the fight. Yet again, however, it was Viktor who drove a near flawless rest of his stint, holding to the best times of the field.
It was an exact mirror image of his last wet stint, and the team was still in 7th spot as he came down the front straight for the last time, and the red lights came on signalling the end of the stint. He gestured to the pits he would be coming for the driver change the next time around, just behind a lapped competitor. Again he went for the pass, seemingly determined to show he could make one of these wet corner moves stick, but again he ended up facing the wrong way. As the team tried to console the dejected driver while he left the pit lane after handing off the kart to Patrik, Grabko Grand Prix found itself in 9th place after 7 hours of racing.
It was now 7:00pm local time, and twilight was starting to descend on the circuit now, the famous long Swedish summer days shortening by almost 10 minutes with every 24 hours that passed as Autumn approached. It meant that soon darkness would take over the light, and the hectic night racing period would begin in earnest.
As the first driver, Patrik was strategically placed to drive the last official daylight stint of the day, and took well advantage of the new kart's much improved driving characteristics, putting them in back up to 8th place by the time he came in and left over the first official nighttime drive to Pontus, who took over for the first shorted 15 minute stint. Total darkness had enveloped the circuit by the time Erik was up, and during his stint, Adde Motorsport was forced into an unscheduled 5th refuelling pit stop, allowing Grabko Grand Prix to climb another position to 7th.
It was now a complete mystery as to what was happening out on track, as with no radio communication it became impossible to see how the drivers were fairing. When Erik came in for his change and Dan got back in the kart, the team was still in 7th position on the official timing screen. Dan immediately got down to it and in the almost blind darkness he gave his best performance of the day, showing his natural technical ability, and above all bravery. Lapping over a second faster than both the 8th and 6th placed teams, he was distancing himself from Adde Motorsport and also managed to gain back a lap on Nederlaget Racing, who had managed to put a 2 lap gap on Grabko Grand Prix during the wet stints earlier.
From here though, with only 45 minutes of race time left, it was an uphill battle. All the team could hope for at this point was for the team's around them to make more mistakes in the dark than they did themselves. Viktor's stint saw The team lose back the lap they had regained on Nederlaget Racing, the beleaguered driver having two more offs in the darkness, but Patrik and Pontus managed to bring Grabko Grand Prix home in 7th spot despite a couple of off track adventures themselves.
So all in all an extremely exciting day of racing in which the team felt it could have been much higher up in the results if only they'd have had a bit of luck and a bit more patience.
In the press conference afterwards, Pontus had this to say, "It really is a shame, because we could clearly see that kart 3, in addition to the horrendous alignment setup before the race, had an engine deficiency right from the start that got continuously worse as the day went on. I'm sure we lost at least 2 laps on that alone."
Dan answered the question of how he felt, "The thing is, we had the pace today to at least challenge for that podium. Our driver line-up was really strong. We had a great combination of young talent in Erik and Viktor, and experienced competitors in Patrik and Pontus. I was actually the big wildcard, having not driven here competitively in 3 years. The young guys were awesome, just a little bit more patience in the passing manoeuvres and things could have turned out a lot differently, despite our original kart assignment. Just a bit more development of that reach craft and we were a force to be reckoned with. I'm proud of all the guys today, it was a really fun experience and it was a privilege to drive with these gents. Look forward to doing it again next year!"
There you have it folks! Another fine outing by Grabko Grand Prix! Tune in next time as preseason testing continues in preparation for the Gokartcentralen Open GP Electric Karting Championship 2016/17!
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