The 2019 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series Finals at Zolder will be remembered for both the fantastic
racing and the storm which soaked the circuit and produced an unforgettable final race.
What a race weekend - the final round of the 2019 series had everything, fantastic racing and weather conditions which went from one extreme to another. There hasn't been a wet race in Euro NASCAR since 2015, until Sunday, when the drivers had to use all their skills and experience to master a circuit flooded by torrential rain.
The race weekend kicked off for Alex on Thursday with the traditional drive into the local town centre of Heusden-Zolder for all the local fans to meet the drivers and grab a photo.
“It's great to drive the race car on the road, something that, obviously, you're never normally allowed to do! When we get to the town centre, it's a great atmosphere and the Belgian fans are super-passionate,” commented Alex.
Having not been in a race car for nearly five months, the Friday morning practice session was Alex’s first chance to familiarise himself again with his Braxx Racing Chevrolet Camaro and the Zolder Circuit. Just to spice up the experience a little more, the track was also wet so it would be Alex’s first drive in a stock car in the wet on wet tyres. To add to the occasion, Alex was also fighting off a viral infection which made it very difficult for him to speak, eat and drink.
Never one to give up, Alex got straight back to where he left off at the last race in Brands Hatch and ran comfortably in the top ten. As other drivers changed tyres, Alex concentrated on doing as many laps as possible and, at the end of the session, he had set the thirteenth fastest time, ahead of a well-known ex-Formula 1 World Champion with whom Alex would end up battling wheel to wheel later in the weekend.
For the second free practice session with the weather changing and the rain increasing, the track became more challenging. Alex again concentrated on completing as many laps as possible, as it was expected that for Sunday’s final the track was likely to be very wet. Another strong performance saw Alex set again the thirteenth fast time.
“Getting my first chance to drive in the wet was great fun. As the car has no electronic aids everything is down to the driver, the tyres and the set up. The car is great fun and has a lot of grip, but controlling 400+ bhp is still a challenge,” remarked Alex.
Having found a good set up and feel on the wet Zolder track, Saturday morning’s qualifying changed everything again as the track was just damp, so it was unclear if the best choice would be wet tyres or slick ones.
As the Elite 1 qualifying session is only ten minutes long there is no chance to change tyres, so Alex chose to opt for worn wet tyres. Alex completed a total of five laps in qualifying and, as the flag fell, Alex set the fifth fastest time, four tenths off the pole time, and the remaining four drivers were covered by just three-tenths of a second.
The track was drying by the end of the qualifying session, so the Braxx team quickly fitted a new set of General Tire slicks to Alex’s car before he lined up for the five minute Superpole session.
With just one lap to scrub in the slick tyres and to learn the track, Alex then entered his Superpole lap. Another strong drive saw him record the tenth fastest time which would give him a fifth row start for the first race later that afternoon.
“Qualifying was fun! We took a a gamble going for slicks in the Superpole as some areas of the track were still quite wet. It was clear that we could carry more speed in the drier areas, but we just struggled a little through the first sector where it was a lot more slippery. 1-2 more laps and we would have been up there!”
For the first race, the drivers lined up on the grid on a totally dry track. For Alex, it would be his first full dry run as all the previous running in practice and qualifying had been wet.
Two warm-up laps were completed before Alex lined up two-by-two for the rolling start. As the twenty-five stock cars raced into the first corner, two cars ahead of Alex touched and a number of cars collided, spinning off the track. Threading the needle through spinning cars, Alex carefully navigated the mayhem and joined the rest of the field as they raced into the first chicane. As Alex braked for the chicane, fluid was seen to come off his team-mate's car immediately in front of him, and as a gap opened up on the inside, Alex braked a little later. His car would not stop and, as his team mate Marc Goossens turned in to the first corner, the cars touched, spinning Alex around.
He was parked on the kerb adjacent to the chicane and had to wait as the rest of the field went past until he could rejoin the field. Now, in last place, Alex chased after the field just as the safety car boards came out in response to the multi-car accident at the first corner.
As the first lap had not been completed, the cars were reordered under the safety car and, luckily, Alex was able to retake his original starting position. A second rolling start saw Alex get another good start putting him in the train of leading cars. In a comfortable tenth place, he then started battling his way through the cars, taking the chequered flag at the end of the race in seventh place. Alex’s pace in the race was also strong and, at one point, he set the fastest lap of the race. In the end, this was was just beaten, however, it was good enough to get him the fourth fastest time by the end of the race.
Setting the fourth fastest time guaranteed Alex a second row start for Sunday’s Final. The time was less than four-tenths off ex-Formula 1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve's pole position time, and placed Alex directly behind double Euro NASCAR champion Alon Day.
Still battling his virus infection, Alex left the circuit on Saturday not feeling physically very well but very happy with his Saturday race result and Sunday’s qualifying position.
Just to throw in another challenge, the weather in Belgium took a turn for the worse overnight as the area was hit by a heavy storm, the Sunday Final would clearly be a very wet race. Driving back to the circuit on Sunday morning, the signs of the overnight storm were everywhere with large puddles, flooded ground and a very muddy parking area at the circuit.
However, it did make the tyre choice easier as the only option suitable was a brand new wet tyre. As the cars drove onto the grid, the tyres kicked up large plumes of spray. Visibility and aquaplaning were clearly going to be two words which would be used a lot during the race. The conditions deteriorated minute by minute, so the normal fan and VIP grid walk was cancelled to reduce the time the drivers were stationary on the wet grid and exposed to the wet conditions.
When the cars finally lined up on the grid, race control was still undecided whether the normal two-by-two rolling start should be replaced by a single file start behind the safety car.
The cars started their warm-up lap, the decision on the starting option was taken away from the race officials as one of the cars slowed down and stopped on the track, causing the safety car to be deployed to recover the car. With the safety car now leading the pack, the decision was made to start under the safety car in single file.
One lap was completed behind the safety car before it pulled off and the cars lined up in single file behind Jacques Villeneuve, the pole sitter, as he crossed the start line and started the race.
Alex held his position through the first few corners but, as the cars entered the first chicane, Jacques braked very early forcing the cars behind him, including Alex, to brake early as well. This bunched everyone up, with Alex briefly fighting for third before falling back into fourth position.
The only disadvantage of brand new wets was that Alex had to wear the slippery release compound off the tyres before he could make the most of them. Whilst doing this and searching for grip, his team-mate and another car managed to slip through, leaving Alex to fight the newly crowned champion - Loris Hezemans - for sixth place.
The tyres started to work well, and Alex managed to pass Gianmarco Ercoli to re-take fifth place. He managed to set the fastest lap of the race in the process as he reeled in the front-runners fighting for third, now down to Jacques Villeneuve fighting off Marc Goossens.
This battle continued lap by lap until the heavy rain changed to a torrent and the cars started to aquaplane all over the track. The conditions changed to a point where the drivers were fighting just to stay on the track, braking points turned into areas of standing water and visibility behind cars was very difficult. A number of cars aquaplaned off the circuit as their wet tyres could no longer manage the conditions.
Struggling in the conditions, Villeneuve lost his third place to Marc Goossens and he was dropping back towards Alex. As the cars entered the last lap, Alex had reduced the gap to Villeneuve and, exiting the Gilles Villeneuve chicane, Alex got a better drive out of the corner to get inside Jacques and past him, taking over fourth place.
With now just three corners before the finishing line, Alex used all his experience and skills to protect his fourth-place position and bring his No 90 Braxx Racing Chevrolet Camaro across the line in fourth place in conditions better suited to a boat than a car.
“Race 2 was probably one of the hardest races I've ever had, fighting illness, the conditions, my own car and some of the world's best drivers! It was great fun, we had really good pace which goes to show that we could have got even higher up with a better set of initial laps, but hindsight is always 20/20.”
Fourth place was also good enough to give Alex another Junior Podium finish, this time as first Junior driver. Also, it was a great finish for Alex’s Braxx team with a third and fourth place finish, from Marc and Alex.
"I started in Spain with a podium in my first race and, after an unanticipated break in the season, now I have finished my last race on the podium. On the whole, I have learned a lot this year, both on and on the track. I have continued to develop as a driver and, more than ever, I am proud to be a NASCAR driver. This is a great position to build from for 2020, I have big plans, working on a new programme with one goal, to win the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. If anyone is interested in joining me on this journey, I invite them to contact me,” reflected Alex.