The 2016 racing season has been such a whirlwind that I have no idea where to begin. This is my softmore season in Rotax Senior, and while the number of entries is noticeably dropping, there's still an incredible caliber of talent. At any one time, so many people can win a race. It makes for a competitive and fun race day.
Things have changed this year, specifically to tyres, and this has made a large impact. At the ECKC level events, rather than getting a new set of tyres for each day, we are handed 6 tyres to use as we please. At the club level, there are two types of tyres that can be used: the vega compound, or the mojo compound. Until this year, only the latter was acceptable, but now the vega has become the popular choice as it can run anywhere from 4 tenths to a full second a lap quicker depending on the track. Another change is that the races held in Quebec use heat races, and then have both finals on the Sunday rather than the typical one race on Saturday/one race on Sunday.
Logistics aside, it's the racing itself that is far more interesting. The season started off with ECKC Goodwood. While my performance on Saturday was nothing spectacular, bringing home a 7th, what I really remember was the comeback I made in the Sunday final. I had qualified decently, but in the prefinal had been involved in an incident which sent me into the wall in corner one. Refusing to let this deter me from another top ten, I worked my way through the field with another driver and finished 9th. It wasn't the way I wanted to start my season, but it would do.
Due to exams, I couldn't race the ECKC at ICAR, and rather spent some time to focus on some club level racing (and actually getting my diploma). In preparation for ECKC Mosport, I was often electing to run on the mojo tyres as that is the spec tyre. While I had the occasional podium, it was obvious there was a significant difference in speed.
Then, I had the weirdest club race of my life. The night before, I had been at my graduation ball, so I had talked to the race officials and told them that I would likely be late. I just made it in time to do one lap for qualifying - with my hair still in an updo with 40+ hairpins in it. I qualified in 5th, but this was the rare opportunity where I could run on the vega tires. The session began as a test to see the difference, but suddenly I noticed I definitely had qualifying pace. At the end of the prefinal I was leading, until being taken out last lap. While I was definitely not happy with that, I knew I had the ability to at least make it onto the podium from a last place start. Also, how hilarious would it be that I showed up to a race late, with hair and makeup still done, and still pull off the win starting from last place? As it turns out, that's exactly what happened. I was thrilled, to say the least. It was my first race win in rotax senior, and to happen in the circumstances it did just made it all the better.
The next major event in my schedule was the ECKC race in Mont-Tremblant, which wasn't initially on my schedule for the year. With ECKC ICAR being reduced to one event due to severe weather conditions, I thought it could be my drop for the year and I could complete the championship with 6 races. Unfortunately, Tremblant had other plans for me. While the weekend looked like it would go well with a 5th in qualifying, from there it just got worse (in retrospect, my engine blowing up on Friday practice was not a good sign). Aside from a 6th in one heat race it was miserable, with rain, and there were mechanical failures galore. Seriously, there would be downpours that made you feel more like you should've been out swimming with dolphins or rowing a boat. As for mechanical issues, in the last heat, I didn't get to even make the start as my chain was thrown in the warm-up lap. Not something that could happen twice, right? Wrong. Both of the final races were on Sunday, but luck would have it that my kart couldn't make it to the start yet again with another chain thrown. I brought home a 7th in the second final, but it wasn't exactly the weekend I was going for.
The last ECKC event was held at Mosport. I was hoping for a really solid weekend where I could make a statement and perhaps even get my first ECKC podium. In qualifying on Saturday I ran relatively well, coming out 5th. I was confident in my driving, and maintained that position through the prefinal consistently keeping up with the leaders. The final was not so kind to me and by the end of the first lap I was far behind the leaders after significant contact from behind in turn two. While this was not how I wanted Saturday's race to go, I still had one race left to show my true potential.
Waking up Sunday morning I knew it was a good day. The air seemed electric and all I wanted was to get on track after having a track walk before drivers meeting. Practice was nothing special, but I still had my two new tyres left to use in the final so I wasn't worried. Rolling up to the qualifying grid, I realized most of my competitors had put on their two new tyres. This meant my expectations were lower in qualifying, especially with my tyres in the used state they were. I went on track and was astounded to see that I ran two consecutive laps that were 3 tenths of a second, if not 4, faster than I'd run all weekend. I assumed that the track had to have gotten faster, but was thrilled when I pulled into the scaling area and was told I need to go to technical inspection as I had qualified 2nd! This was a first for me, as until that point the best ECKC qualifying spot I had achieved was a 4th. I was excited beyond belief, and couldn't wait for the prefinal. While the nerves definitely set in, it was also a huge confidence boost to have a result that showed genuine speed. Unfortunately, in the prefinal, I fell back to 5th after having a difficult start (being on the front row is hard!), but still stuck with the leaders and was optimistic for the final.
Then it rained while we were on grid. And it didn't stop.
When the final before us finished, the officials went to inspect the track to decide whether or not to declare it a rain race - as if it's not declared, no one can run on wet tyres, but if it is its drivers choice. Time was passing and no answers were being given, so to say the least there were definitely some miscommunication. Finally, it was declared a wet race, and we had 15 minutes to decide what to do. The radar indicated that it was going to end, but for the time being the rain was pouring. The safe call was to put on the wet tyres, but at the same time, I wanted to think outside the box (practice for studying engineering, I guess?). With three minutes to go, after the wet tyres had been mounted, I threw caution to the wind and we were going dry. Honestly, I don't know why, but it was one of the more stressful decisions I've ever made. Rolling up to grid, there were 4 other people on dry tyres, so at least I wasn't alone. All I had to do was keep it off the grass in the opening laps, and hoped it dried up. While the first three laps were definitely making me question my decision, I fell back to 11th, suddenly I realized I was starting to get a lot faster, and the track was no longer wet. I was making my way through the field and there was a breakaway of four karts... That I was a part of. While I wanted to be conservative enough to finish on track, I still really wanted a podium. There was so much dicing back and forth for the rest of the race, and I had gone from 2nd to 4th on the last lap. I was not willing to take that, and made the pass for 3rd to stay there. With it was my first ECKC podium in a set of crazy circumstances, and I've never been happier.
The weekend’s excitement didn’t stop there. The following day, I was back at Mosport, but on the car track this time. As part of a fundraiser for the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, I was given the opportunity to instruct drivers as they took their street cars around for a track day. It also meant there should be occasional instances where the owner of the car would ask for a professional to drive (which was me)! While I was too short to take the Smokey and the Bandit car out, I had a great day lapping in an Audi R8 and a Dodge Hellcat. I’d also like to give an incredible thank you to Alan Sanders for inviting me out to the event as it has certainly been a highlight of my year.
After having two weekends off, the first in a long time, I went to the Champions Ron Fellows Karting Challenge. Finally, now that ECKC was over, I went out on the (faster) vega tyres, and looked to be competitive. While I qualified off pole by only 6 thousandths of a second, I was confident that I was going to be quick all day and work forward. Sadly, my prefinal didn’t get off to the start I was hoping, and I was pushed back into fourth. From there it was a matter of working forward. I was back in second mid race, but would not go any further forward than that. The stewards later decided that the competitor in front of me had done excessive blocking, thus being penalized a position and giving me the pole position for the final. After there it was no contest, from the first corner I lead the race and started putting in consistent laps to build a gap. Twelve laps later, I had won my first CRFKC race and set fast lap by three tenths of a second. At podium, I was honoured to receive the award for the PFAFF Motorsports Senior Driver of the Day, which nicely paired the victory I had secured. The following day I raced in the Briggs Summerfest, which was a low-stress day but a lot of fun. Although I spent my fair share of time driving through the dirt, I also got to run near the front of the pack which was a pleasant surprise given my lack of experience. While a flat tyre ultimately ended my day prematurely, it was definitely something I’d consider doing again.
I have one more weekend off and then it’s back to Tremblant for the Canadian Nationals! After the Nationals are complete, I will move into residence and begin my first year of university... and it's all coming so fast that I hope I can savour every moment.