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Race Report for Viking Racing, Formula Car Challenge. April 16/17th, 2011

Finally the day had come where we would do our first Formula Car race. After 6 months of waiting and anticipation Race 2 and 3 (I skipped race 1 and 2 due to severe rain) of the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear was finally up. The event was held at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows CA in beautiful conditions with green fields and snow covered mountain peaks surrounding the track. In order to get the best possible preparation for the event, we had set up a test session prior to the race.

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To save a bit on my limited budget I started the test on used tires. The car did not quite feel right but since it was a month since I had driven it, I thought it was just me. Lesson number one for that week came quickly - trust your own instincts! Instead of bringing the car in I basically went through a fast section with full throttle (normal for this section) and spun off with around 125mph/210kph. One of the used tires proved to be too hard/old and with no grip the car simply spun off. This was my first spin in anything moving at this speed so it took me a while to rebuild confidence in myself and the car again. Fortunately I was surrounded with first class people and before the test event was over I had put down a lap of 1.41,0 on new tires  - pretty much within a second of the very fastest drivers at the track.

In the Saturday warm up I was not really able to go significantly below 1.43,6 which was disappointing but not too far off the pace of the rest of the field and within top 6. It felt as the car was a bit down on power but with a freshly rebuilt engine it sounded unlikely. We did fight with an exhaust gas temperature problem all weekend though. The whole qualifying deal is very different than in karting and a small race in the race itself. You have to be on the pre grid more than an hour early to get a good spot on the track. With +20 cars on the track and 10 of them being 5 seconds slower per lap it is difficult to get an open track and put down a fast lap. Combined with people flying off the track all the time, there are a lot of local and full course yellow as well. As such I never really got a clear lap in and qualified in 7th spot. Not too disappointing from a grid perspective but very disappointing from a time perspective as I had been significantly faster in practice. Learning number 2 of the week was to do a far better job in executing qualifying.

The start in the Saturday race was uneventful and my objective was just to get through corner one with no damages. The whole feeling about going 20 cars in to corner one at full throttle is a bit nerve wrecking though and it will take me a few starts to get 100% comfortable with that - same learning I went to in karting so I know I will get there. For more or less the entire race. I had a very close and entertaining battle for 6th place. I felt I was significantly faster but he seemed to be able to pull away in the slower sections of the track making it difficult to get a proper pass laid down. My car had a really good setup and staid consistent throughout the race where as I could see the car in front of me falling off becoming loser and loser. As 3, 4 and 5th position was right ahead I pushed hard to pass. Finally I succeeded in getting a good run out of the last corner before the main straight and tried to pass him on the inside going in to corner one.

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Unfortunately and what I did not know was that another driver literally just had been off track at that spot and carried a bunch of grass and dirt on to the track. The result was that just as I had completed the pass I hit this dirt and for the second time that week I spun off the track at very high speed. As I finally came to a stand still outside the track facing 180 degrees in the wrong direction I look up and see a driver full speed against me! He hits the right side and wheel of my car and ended up several hundred feet in to the grass with a broken wheel suspension. I got back on the track again with only cosmetic damages to the car and completed the race in 8th position. 

Saturday after the race we continued chasing the exhaust gas temperature issue. While doing that my bright mechanic discovers that the engine only fired on 3 out of 4 plugs. As it is a rotary (Wankel) engine it is not as obvious to discover as on a regular piston engine. This was obviously the reason why I had felt down on power, why I could not get down to the right lap times and probably also the reason for the exhaust gas temperature issue. Learning number 3 of the week - same as learning number 1, trust your instincts! 2 days earlier I had told my mechanic that the engine did not sound crisp and I felt down on power. Now I had completed an entire race on a handicapped engine!

Fortunately there was a new race Sunday and as I had hoped already in morning warm up my lap times dropped 2 seconds and my best lap was a 1.42,0 3rd fastest in the field. I was happy with that and I was full of confidence going out for qualifying. The mechanics did an outstanding job prepping the cars for qualifying and got the cars to the pre grid first, meaning I would have open track in qualifying... I opened qualifying and as usual it took a couple of laps to get the tires warm and ready to push. Just as the tires got warm there was a black flag due to an incident and we had to return to pit lane. After some minutes waiting in the pit we got green flag and I was still up front looking at an open track when learning number 4 of the week presented itself - make sure to have warm tires before pushing! In a slow corner I pushed a bit too hard, the car spun and before I was ready to go again half the field had passed and I was stuck in slow traffic for the rest of the session and ended 9th on the grid.

As I knew I had a great car through out an entire race as well as the correct power level and speed I was not too worried about it as I was confident I would be able to pass people throughout the race. As we went out on the warm up lap and started to grid up for the front straight a driver a couple of rows ahead sped up and after that braking. That created an elasticity effect down the field and unfortunately the driver behind me was studying birds or whatever rather than paying attention to what happened in front of him and even before getting the green flag I was hit very hard from the rear and the whole rear end of my car was destroyed, my race was over and I was left with a significant repair bill.

Looking at the paper outcome of the event it was a disappointment. Looking at my learning curve it was a big success. Same with my pace - I am happy about the fact that I am able to consistently put down top 3 times in my first car race ever. It also has been a big privilege to work with first class people as my team, and especially my mechanics who worked 14 hour days throughout the event to make sure everything was in top notch condition. As such I would like to thank my team mate Mike (who won both races) my mechanics Brent and Steve, my race engineer Rick for providing a great car and finally my coach Steve who really has  helped me becoming fast in record time. There are pictures from the entire event in the picture section.

Provided I get everything pulled together I will hopefully be ready for the next race in the series in June. Finally I would like to thank my sponsors for making this season possible.