Every year since 2000 Rotax has hosted a Grand Finals, this years’ boasting a combined 360 drivers from over 50 nations. Referred to as the “Olympics of Karting”, attending the RMCGF’s has always been a goal of mine ever since I started karting. The 2017 Grand Finals marked my second time attending this event. Last year I competed in the DD2 category, and the race was held at Circuito Internazionale di Napoli near Sarno, Italy. For this year’s 18th edition of the Grand Finals, the venue was set in Southern Portugal’s Algarve region at the amazing Kartódromo Internacional do Algarve facility, just outside of Portimão.
One of the most unique aspects of the Rotax Grand Finals is that every driver competes on the same equipment. This becomes a logistical nightmare for the organization and chassis sponsors, as they have to prepare and transport hundreds of brand new karts all the way to Portugal, just to have them abused by 360 drivers for 6 days. The shear amount of planning and capital behind these Grand Finals is substantial, adding to the value of this event. Not to mention that all of the equipment (Chassis’, Engines & tires etc.) is provided for free to the drivers by Rotax and their chassis sponsors. This allows Rotax to separate itself from other world championships to create an event like no other.
This year, I qualified for the Rotax 125 Max category by finishing 2nd in the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship (E.C.K.C.). Contrary to DD2 category, the 125 Max is a single-speed class that ditches the gearbox and front brakes, making it a different animal to drive. The 125 Max is the original engine from the first Grand Finals and arguably the most popular category offered by Rotax. 72 drivers qualified for the 125 Max category and for the third year in a row, Sodi Kart was the class sponsor. This brings us to Day 1 of the event.
Day 1 (Sunday): Chassis and Engine Raffle
This is definitely one of the most exciting days of the week, as everything starts to feel real. 360 brand new karts complete with engines are lined up on the front straight, creating a jaw dropping view. When it was time for the 125 Max raffle, all of the drivers in the class gathered on the front straight for their turn at the raffle. When called, each driver gets their credential scanned and a number pops up on the screen allocating them a chassis. Chassis’ are arranged numerically, with chassis #1 at the near end of the front straight and chassis #72 at the far end. I was assigned kart and engine #62; the long walk really put into perspective how many karts there are!
Once we returned to the paddock area the work began. The drivers and mechanics work together to assemble the kart to their liking. From seat position/mounting, to the fine-tuning of pedals and wheel angle, everything will be looked over and built to preference to optimize the drivers’ comfortability. Same as last year, my mechanic for the week was Darren White. He is the owner of Energy Corse North America, which is the team I drive for. As 2008 Canadian National Champion, he has a lot of experience in the sport and many more championships under his belt. He has also attended the Grand Finals 6 times, 3 as a driver and 3 as a mechanic. His knowledge of the event is a very valuable asset to learn from.
Our kart prep went to plan, and nothing too concerning came up. Since I’m taller than the average driver and my teammates, we found ourselves having to compromise by mounting the seat a bit further back than what was recommended by Sodi. After analyzing the track we found we could get away with the seat position because it was mainly high-speed flowing corners. If we had any difficulties rotating the kart in the few tight corners that existed we could address the problem if and when it arose. With the seat, pedals and chassis adjusted to Darren’s and my liking, we were ready for Monday!
Day 2 & 3 (Monday and Tuesday): Practice Sessions 1-4
Monday marked the first day for the drivers to get on track and shakedown their equipment. We got only 2 practices per day, 15 minutes each. The first session is essentially a write-off. It is mandatory to leave the spec gear and carburation while the engines are still being run in, so as a driver you’re just trying to get a feel for the track and chassis. I had never driven a Sodi prior to that day so I was interested in feeling it out. With limited track time it is important to get the most out of each session even with the spec settings. I used the first session to observe the track. I walked it the day before, but you will always see it differently and notice new details once you’re behind the wheel. Creating references for braking/turn-in and feeling the surface helped eliminate some work for the next session. The second session we were allowed to let it rip, open gearing and jetting (within the given range) which allowed everyone to get to pace. For me it was an extension of the first session – yes getting up to speed is important – but it is equally as important to focus on yourself and make personal gains. I was struggling with feel in the brakes, I couldn’t find a happy medium so threshold braking was difficult. At the end of the first day, I was in the bottom half of the field lacking overall pace.
Tuesday gave us another opportunity to make some gains. After bringing the kart to Sodi, they found there was a problem with the master cylinder in the brake system. After swapping it out for the next session the brakes became solid and predictable, and I was able to continue working on my consistency in the sessions. Getting into a rhythm/flow with the track is essential: I knew from last year that the lap times at this event are very tight. You can find big gains during the races if you are able to match your times as close as possible, which is why perfecting your own rhythm is so important. We felt that our pace was steadily increasing after making a few gearing and carburation changes. Going into the last session of the day we wanted to see how we ranked overall, meaning we needed to get a good lap in. A draft lap was necessary for this, especially at this track.
Exiting the last corner all the way on turn 3, the draft was on average anywhere between 2-5 tenths of a second depending on your run. This may not seem like much but when 80% of the field is within 1 second, it can be the difference of tens of positions. Knowing how big the draft is, no drivers wanted to lead the pack. It was very difficult to get a clean uninterrupted lap without encountering traffic in practice sessions. In the final practice we showed good pace and consistency, which I was happy about. We didn’t get our “golden” draft lap, but we managed to be in the top half of the field with the kart feeling very balanced.
Day 4 & 5 (Wednesday and Thursday): Qualifying and Heats #1, #2, #3
With new tires mounted we were ready for the second most important session of the week, qualifying. As mentioned earlier, it is crucial to get a solid draft lap in. The qualifying session was 8 minutes in total and nobody wanted to lead, 95% of us sat on grid until the 5 minute mark where we were all forced to go on track in a frenzy, leaving us with only a couple laps to post a flyer. For my qualifying session there were a lot of people racing so track positioning was not ideal, running out of laps I had no time to reposition myself and I needed to post a timed lap. I managed to complete one fairly clean lap which placed us 6th in my group and 16th overall. This gave me an 8th place grid position for the first 3 heat races. At the Grand Finals all the karts are fitted with a “CIK drop-down front bumpers” designed to decrease front-to-rear contact. The bumper gets dislodged from the fittings if there is significant contact strong enough to displace it. As the penalty for having your bumper dislodged was a hefty 10 seconds and not susceptible to protest, it is very important to not receive a penalty in the heats; it could throw you way down the order.
We raced heat #1 later that afternoon and took a risk by setting low tire pressures. Being the first heat race of the week, we expected the opening couple laps to be very defensive. This would’ve allowed us to defend while our tire pressures were coming in, giving us our grip in the second phase of the race when everyone started to settle in. This however did not happen, and there was little to no blocking at the beginning. As a result, we dropped a few positions at the start. Once the tires came in we showed good pace and drove to 10th place, completing heat #1. I was amazed by how significant the draft was; there was such a strong headwind that drivers could come from 4 kart lengths back and make passes with such an over-speed that was impossible to defend. After the race Darren pointed out a place on track where I could find a good chunk of time. If I fixed the corner up we would have much better rolling speed leading down the straight which would all add up going into corner 3. Since we were overall pleased with how the kart was working, we decided not to change anything on it for heat #2.
Thursday was sunny and noticeably less windy. During morning warmup I tried out what Darren suggested and we made some gains. Heat #2 was one of my favorite races. I was shuffled back a few positions off the start from starting on the outside and was as low as 14th. The kart felt very balanced and when the tire pressures came in we were very quick. I started to pick off a few drivers per lap; we were matching the leader’s times mid-race and we got even stronger at the end. We finished the heat in 8th position which I felt was a good recovery, but I was even happier with our pace and consistency. Darren and I chose to make a small tire pressure and carburation change to try in the final heat race. The changes helped, resulting in a good pace from the get go. I had some really challenging battles with a few drivers, which made the race exciting. We were once again fast at the end of the race, finishing strong in 4th position.
Day 6 & 7 (Friday and Saturday): Pre-Final and Final Day
Friday was pre-final day. The accumulated points from the 3 heats were used to re-grid the field with new starting positions. The pre-final is essentially heat race #4, as the points from all 4 races are used to determine the grid order for Saturdays final. With the points tallied up, I was 11th overall – this put me in a 6th place starting position for the pre-final group A. We kept the same mentality as all the heat races. Surviving the start and making it through the race cleanly was top priority, as an incident on track or penalty would’ve shuffled us way down in the order. Our start was okay; the inside row got a good jump but I slotted into the first gap I had. We finished the first lap in 8th and as the race went on the kart got better and better, I battled my way back into our original starting position of 6th and that is where I finished. The chassis handled the best it had at weekend and the only place we felt we were losing some time was the straights. I was very strong in the infield’s technical corners but we had difficulties escaping the draft down the long straights. That night, we decided to try dropping 1 tooth on the rear gear for morning warm-up to gain some top speed to see if that would help our situation.
Saturday was Finals Day; the 72 drivers in the category were narrowed down to the top 36 who made the Grand Final. After all 4 heat races I had accumulated 28 points (10th, 8th, 4th & 6th), which meant I would start the final in the 11th position. We had a short morning warm-up that we used to scrub in our new tires. Nobody wanted to put unnecessary laps on their tires, so we all did about 1 or 2 timed laps. This wasn’t ideal because we wanted to test the gear change and how it affected our infield section. Combined with a few other drivers from Team Canada and USA, we decided we would all test the gears and compare data afterwards to help come to a conclusion. During warm-up I felt the lower gear was marginally stronger in the top, overall better in the mid-range and the same if not a bit worse in the bottom. When we compared data we found that the other drivers noticed the same, the bottom end was no different but we had improvements everywhere else in the power range. With 4 hours until the final we all spent the time deciding what would be the best decision. Scared of being swallowed up on the long straights we all chose to race on the lower gear.
At 2:15pm local time we were lined up on starting grid. Darren gave me his last few words of advice and encouragement before the mechanics had to clear the track. I knew the first couple laps would be full of eager drivers jockeying for positions trying to move forward. The beginning of the race would be very defensive “pass or be passed” type racing, so if we got through the early phase of the race without losing spots, I thought we would be in a good position for the rest of it. I could hopefully continue to be strong late into the 20-lap race.
At the drop of the green flag, I followed my Canadian teammate Ryan MacDermid who started one row in front of me. We got through the first couple corners cleanly, joined the top 10 and began to defend. After lap 1, I sat 12th place in the train of 36 karts. The leaders kept defending which bunched us up even more. It was nose to tail and if a driver left a door open they were overtaken, which meant we were forced to run very narrow blocking lines. Lap 5 the leaders were still defending heavily and we all continued to run defensive lines, our gearing change wasn’t helpful at this point. My fellow teammates and I who had chosen to change the gear struggled to get off tight corners while we compromised our lines. Blocking makes the lap times in the race significantly slower, but if everyone is doing it you have no choice not to. The minimum rolling speeds at apexes become slower because we cannot drive as deep as we normally would. In addition, you lose the optimal driving line for corners, which affects acceleration even more.
This continued until a few laps later when the drivers ahead began racing hard. Going into the turn 5 hairpin, some drivers shuffled for positions, forcing them to go 3 wide on exit. They were drag racing to the next corner. My teammate Ryan was one of the three, he was on the inside for the next corner, so with my over-speed I chose to push Ryan through. We hooked up and bump drafted through the next couple corners before we defended again – unfortunately when I pushed my teammate through, it dislodged my front bumper.
At the half race distance I was 13th and we were all still driving defensively. Nobody was able to break away and there were about 25 karts in my train. I was banking on the racing to gap out a bit so I could try and pick off a few drivers but this wasn’t the case. Late race the top 3 drivers managed to break away slightly, but from 4th to 25th it was still nose to tail. Our gearing was very strong in the last 100 metres of the straight but with everyone defending into the braking zone at turn 3 I couldn’t overtake. I had only one lap the entire race where I didn’t need to defend because I had a small gap between the kart behind me. During that lap I caught the group ahead because they were blocking. I then had to defend, which allowed the group behind me to catch again. The whole race was this repetitive cycle, which made racing very tight and difficult. After a hairy last two laps of racing I crossed the finish line in 15th position.
I definitely could have done better so I was a bit frustrated with the final result. I was later issued a 10 second time penalty because my front bumper was dislodged which moved us further down the order. The race was a valuable experience for me and I can take a lot of lessons from it. In hindsight the gearing was good, but it might not have been ideal for the type of final we had. I also I could have “checked-up” more before pushing my teammate through, which probably would have prevented my bumper penalty. To conclude, the week was a great lifetime experience. I got to drive an amazing track in Portugal against the best Rotax drivers in the world. My family and our close friends were able to attend which helped top off the week. I am proud of the way I drove and the pace I showed. I leave the week with new experiences that I learned from which will make me stronger for future races. I owe a huge thank you to SRA Karting International and all of our sponsors for their hard work behind the scenes to organize Team Canada. Lastly, big thanks to Darren White, who helped me throughout the week by applying his driving and strategic expertise to my situation and giving me the best opportunities for success.