Rounds 3 and 4 of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series were contested on the tight and twisty circuit of Franciacorta, an hour east of Milan.
The race weekend started for Alex on Thursday with a brief track walk of the circuit he last drove on just under 12 months ago, when it was the venue for his second NASCAR race weekend.
This year he was back with a full season of experience under his belt and, the full support of the Braxx Racing team.
“Franciacorta had not changed much from what I remembered in 2018 but for extra tyre stacks placed at strategic parts of the circuit, to prevent drivers exceeding the track limits. It is a very demanding track and will punish you hard for any mistakes whilst testing the cars to the limit,” commented Alex.
Friday kicked off with a test session in the morning and then two free practice sessions in the afternoon. The first runs in the morning Alex struggled for pace, due to lack of traction from the rear of the car. As the session finished Alex found himself over a second off the times of the front running cars.
Never one to give up Alex spent the time before the official free practice sessions reviewing the on board videos of his laps and sharing data with his team mate Marc Goossens. Together with his Braxx team they made a number of changes to the car set up and Alex also identified some new lines and braking points to try in the afternoon’s free practice sessions.
By the end of the free practice sessions Alex had moved up the timesheets from 21st place to setting the 9th fastest combined time overall, for the two sessions. This would mean he would now start Saturday’s Elite 1 qualifying as the 9th car on the circuit.
With the twisty nature of the circuit and with 29 cars contesting the Elite 1 qualifying, it is important to get towards the front of the queue to have a chance of finding the space needed to set a good time.
However, instead of the chat in the paddock being around tomorrow’s qualifying, the talk was instead on the reported storm heading towards the Franciacorta circuit and whether qualifying and the subsequent races would be held on a wet or dry track.
The teams prepared wet tyres for the cars and the organisers in the drivers briefing explained if the storm came the qualifying or race would be red flagged and the teams would be given just 6 minutes to change the tyres from slicks to wet, on all their cars. Something which would be a real test of the team in the 10 minute Elite 1 qualifying session, with two cars entered.
It was, however, a cold and overcast circuit which welcomed the drivers on Saturday morning but with the expected rain still very much in everybody’s mind, as the Elite 1 qualifying got underway.
Alex made the most of his 9th place starting position and found enough space to post the 4th fastest time and secure his place in the Superpole shoot out, maintaining his record since joining Braxx Racing.
In Superpole, Alex found a gap on the track and he set the 6th fastest lap time, securing a 3rd row starting position 0.297 seconds off Pole position.
“I had a good run in Superpole, but on my fastest lap I had a bit of a slide in one corner and lost a couple tenths. When you put my best sector times together I had the 3rd fastest lap time, with a time-losing slide. I am both happy and frustrated but it was a big improvement from where we were on Friday morning in practice,” remarked Alex.
With Qualifying over all attention moved the Saturday’s Race 1 and the talk again was would it rain or not. Fortunately as the cars left to line up on the grid the sky remained overcast but, there were no visible rain clouds on the horizon.
The sound of thirty 400+ hp stock cars, two by two in a rolling start was enough to frighten any storm away and as the cars crossed the start line any thought of rain disappeared as the cars jostled for position. A good start saw Alex maintain his 6th position, but the first lap had not even been completed when the safety car was triggered due to a multi car incident which saw one car upside down.
With a car upside down it took some time to recover the car, so the remaining cars were lead around by the safety car for a number of laps, until the safety car lights went out and the cars once again lined up for the restart.
Alex again had a strong restart and held his 6th position as the cars completed the first lap. With the front running cars in a tight knit group, running nose to tail, each car was contesting every inch of space. Braking into the tight hairpin Alex was pushed wide by the following car and slipped down to 7th place.
The leading ten cars then started to pull a gap from the other cars. Alex held a comfortable 7th place as the car battled nose to tail. As the laps counted down the 8th placed car made an ambitious move and crashed into the rear corner of Alex’s car under braking. The impact was so hard it smashed the corner section of the rear bumper and snapped off the rear bumper subframe, forcing Alex wide and allowing two cars to pass him.
With a flapping rear bumper and bits of the rear bodywork dropping off his car he regrouped and chased back the cars in front. As he entered one of the slower corners on the track he braked as normally but found the car did not slow down as expected. He was forced to take avoiding action to avoid hitting the car in front.
Due to the force of the the impact sustained to the rear of the car, Alex now had a second issue to contend with. The throttle of the car was now sticking at quarter throttle, so when he braked, instead of getting the additional engine braking as normal he now had to brake a car which was still accelerating under its own power.
The sticking throttle and braking issue changed Alex’s race as now instead of attacking the cars in front, the name of the game became get the car to the finish. with a large gap to the 11th placed car Alex let the 9th placed car through allowing him to concentrate on finishing the race instead of defending his 9th position.
A challenging 10 laps remained but at the flag, Alex crossed the line in 10th place.
With the race over the weather progressively changed until as the last support race finished, the sky’s opened up and the expected storm hit the Franciacorta circuit. A tornado ripped up the paddock, smashing awnings and the accompanying heavy rain battered the circuit for several hours.
So severe was the storm that in the surrounding area to the circuit, trees were brought down and a number of people were taken to hospital.
“The storm was one of the worst I have ever seen, we were staying next to the lake at Iseo and the normal idilic lake, had turned in to a torrent of waves crashing against the lakeside, sending water flying across the road, and washing debris down the surrounding roads. There were trees blown down all over the place. The track was a much quieter place when we returned on Sunday morning and everyone’s thoughts were with the friends and families of the people who had lost their lives in the storm,” commented Alex.
Sunday’s Elite 1 race started under a much brighter sky and having recorded the 9th fastest lap time in Saturday’s race, Alex started in 9th position on the 5th row of the grid.
Slightly further back than Saturday’s race but now on the inside on the rolling start, the first challenge was to safely get through the first corner. A good start saw Alex retain his position and again join the battle at the front of the pack of battling cars.
This time the group of cars at the front of the pack again pulled away from the rest of the pack and Alex held a strong position within the battling cars. The close racing continued and Alex looked set for a strong finish, having moved up to 7th as he approached the thirteenth lap of the twenty nine laps stated for the race.
Braking hard for the final corner before the start and finish straight, Alex hit his braking point as usual but as he braked the car flicked right, which he corrected but suddenly found he had no drive.
Pulling to the inside of the track he was able to roll down the start and finish straight and pulled the car off the track. With the help of the Italian marshals he was pushed back down the pit lane and retired from the race.
When the Braxx engineers were eventually able to check the car they found that the rear half shaft which transmits the drive to the rear wheel had snapped.
“It was disappointing to end the second race with a mechanical failure, especially as we had the speed to stay with the front cars. On recorded lap times we were the fourth fastest car so we were in a perfect position for a strong finish. However, the nature of the circuit requires you to ride the kerbs and you have to be very aggressive and as I found out, this will mean any mechanical weaknesses turn into failures” explained Alex.
Alex now has a short break before the British round of the Championship at Brands Hatch. He will have just one objective, to repeat his performance from last year, where he set pole position in pre-superpole qualifying and then went on to get two podium finishes.