Race Report: 2018 US Open / Rotax Grand Nationals

(Photo: CKN)

The much-anticipated staging of the Rotax US Grand Nationals / US Open 2018 brought together a strong depth of competitors to contest each of the Rotax categories, where 120 drivers lined-up on the grid in the battle for the USA and Open titles, plus the chance to qualify to represent their country at the Rotax MAX Challenge Grand Finals in Brazil this coming November. Right up until Sunday’s finals, the action on track intensified as the excitement of some impressive and dramatic racing unfolded in front of the supporters, to eventually crown the new champions.

The initial expectations of the newly-introduced lottery engine format were met with lots of praise, providing some excellent and close competition overall. The 1 mile long (1600 metre) New Jersey Motorsports Park event also welcomed the introduction of the new MOJO D5 regulation tyre for the first time in the USA, which was very well received and proved to deliver the confidence of a more consistent, stable race tyre with competitive laptimes and the desired grip level to meet the demands of the Rotax MAX (Senior) and DD2 gearbox classes.

“In New Jersey we had an exciting field of starters with very experienced racers. The raffled engines provided a great opportunity to demonstrate the evo engine technology in terms of parity, ease of use and durability. The result was excellent and confirmed our expectations. The feedback was extremely positive. Now we will continue to build what we have restarted within the US region”, said Stefan Gruber, Manager Rotax Karting & OEM Business, RPS Business.

Congratulations are extended to all the winners and place-getters including the new champions of the US Grand Nationals and the US Open titles for 2018, in addition to all the competitors who participated at NJMP together with their technicians, teams, crews and the many supporters.

Samuel Lupien gets the early break and takes a convincing victory Canadian Samuel Lupien won the US Open 2018 amongst an impressive field of seniors, making this the fifth time he has qualified for the RMCGF – including vice champion in Mini MAX 2013.

Following early showers for the official practice sessions Friday, 17 year-old Bradley Barrett (Koene/TonyKart) posted the fastest lap of 1:07.465 in timed qualifying by a mere 0.005 seconds over RPG/Kosmic teammates Samuel Lupien and Hannah Greenemeier. The British driver then confirmed his place by winning the Super Pole in two hot laps against the six fastest drivers. Keeping his momentum, Barrett took victory in heat 1, playing it smart to hold onto P1 in a nail-biting race between rivals Mathais Ramirez-Barr (HG/TonyKart) and pace-setter Samuel Lupien.

Two race winners shared the honours in the following qualifiers Saturday; Mathais Ramirez-Barr won the opening heat and Samuel Lupien the second one, as the intense challenge for positions and nose-to-tail racing further back through the pack left no room for error. The pre-final was another close encounter, but it was Ramirez-Barr kept his cool to take the chequered flag ahead of Greenemeier and Lupien. Barrett found no way past in P4 and Mason Buck (Koene/TonyKart) was fifth. Up to 10 different

drivers shared the first five positions by the end of the day’s racing.

In the final Sunday, Ramirez-Barr led the field from the start closely pursued by Lupien, while the outside row of drivers suffered from a delayed reaction by Greenemeier off grid 2. Lupien had taken the lead by lap 2 and worked to build a comfortable gap as the others behind put the pressure on Ramirez-Barr. A collision between Cole Hooton (Prime PSL/BirelART), Mason Buck and David Ilavia (J3/CompKart) dropped them out of contention. Barrett passed Ramirez-Barr for P2 by half race distance before the #341 kart was shadowed by Greenemeier, who set best lap of the race. With one to go, the lady driver overtook her US countryman for third, but a misjudged move from Ramirez-Barr to pass her back, forced Barrett offline. In the dice for P2, Ramirez crossed the line in front of Greenemeier, only to be penalised for the incident. Lupien had taken a clear victory to become the 2018 champion and be awarded the first of the RMCGF tickets. Greenemeier was second to become the US Grand Nationals winner, joining her teammate in receiving the TEAM USA ticket for Brazil. Barrett made the podium for third ahead of Ramirez-Barr and Josh Green (MDR/Kosmic) was fifth due to Ilavia dropping a chain in the last lap.

Rotax Mini MAX – James Egozi secures his US title in a fantastic battle of the young guns In case you don’t know him… the pocket rocket from the USA who drove his little heart out to become the 2018 champion is 10-year old James Egozi. He has been racing for about 7 years!

It was a US domination on day 1 of the program where Friday’s sessions were topped by three different American drivers. While #44 Jack Jeffers (Orsolon/TonyKart) posted quickest lap of 1:13.027 during the 10-minute qualifying to take pole from Team Koene’s James Egozi (TonyKart ) and Felipe Bernasconi (Parolin), it would be the former World Micro MAX number 1 Diego Laroque running for Speed Concepts (Energy) who stole the show in the Super Pole. However, heat 1 proved to be a more difficult feat for the accomplished 12-year old from Phoenix, who lost the lead he had fought so hard for while being fastest on track as well (1:12.770), when Egozi claimed the deserving win in the deciding lap and Karsten Defonce took third.

The Mini MAX class was a constant shuffle for positions in every race as the laps wound down. The youngest of the 120-kart entry list brought together a group filled with budding talent and fast-developing drivers, all pushing for the top step of the podium with the dream to be champion. Three winners shared the race victories Saturday, yet the amazing place-swapping happening amongst the 29-kart field was great. Recapping the wins, it was James Egozi first in heat 2, pole-sitter Laroque winning in heat 3 and Brent Crews (Nitro Kart) across the line for P1 in the pre-final in front of Laroque and Bernasconi, with Egozi fourth from Ryan Stanton (CompKart) in P5.

Starting from row 1, Crews and Laroque swapped places several times in the race for the lead to begin Sunday’s final, but this was short-lived when Egozi took advantage of their battle and got the break he needed to snatch P1. With a string of karts pushing the limit, Crews and Bernasconi tangle, seeing the latter fall down the order and the front-runners the chance to pull a gap. The 14-lapper kept the racing compact, until the loss or gain of the long straight slipstream came into effect. With the flag in sight, Egozi had his head down to remain victorious over a disappointed Laroque as the new Mini MAX US champ and winner of the ticket to Brazil. Defonce surrendered P3 to Crews in the closing stages, who would receive his invitation to compete at the RMCGF as the eligible driver for the Micro MAX class, making it his second year in a row to qualify. A close race for the next positions was won by Santiago Biagi in fifth ahead of Jeremy Fletcher.

Rotax MAX Masters – Brazil’s Antonio Pizzonia makes his debut a winner in New Jersey. Competing for the first time in the Rotax MAX Masters, Antonio Pizzonia came to the USA focused on taking the victory at the US Open event and winning his chance to take on the world in Brazil.

Local driver John Bonanno put his J3 Competition CompKart at the top of the timesheet with a 1:08.310 to be fastest from Billy Cleavelin (RPG/Kosmic) and Pedro Cabrera (CRG Nordam/CRG). Not to be outdone by former F1 driver and current Brazilian stock car racer, Antonio Pizzonia (TonyKart), Bonanno pushed to hold onto his pole position for heat 1 by nailing the Super Pole session with a lap of 1:08.248. The race turned on some wheel-to-wheel action in the first of three qualifying races for the over 32-years line-up, with Bonanno first to cross the line ahead of heat race pace-setter Adam Pettit (Solo Kart) and the international class entry of Pizzonia in third.

Although not as easy as he may have hoped, Bonanno was outstanding from the beginning of the weekend and managed to beat the competition to the line in all three races Saturday, including the prefinal to claim pole for Sunday’s showdown for the podium. Lining up alongside him was Rotax newcomer Pizzonia who ranked P2 in the points following the heats, while Pettit took third in the pre-final to start on row 2 next to Pedro Cabrera and Salvatore Sparacio finishing in P5.

With everything on the line, Bonanno was determined more than anything to bring this one home, leading the 17-lap final from the flag. Pettit had the better start from grid 3 on the inside, as Pizzonia moved forward to make up for lost ground. The Brazilian searched for a way past the #623 of Pettit and persisted, finally taking P2 and going after Bonanno. Over the half-way mark, Pizzonia made the pass for first, allowing Pettit to follow for P2 in the process. The pole-sitter fought back and with a couple of laps remaining, Bonanno was into second and chasing victory. Giving it all he had, the American fell just short of his goal as the laps ran out. The US Open title and the RMCGF ticket for Masters would be awarded to an elated Pizzonia. As runner-up, Bonanno is the 2018 US Grand Nationals champion with Pettit taking then third place. In the battle for top 5, Billy Cleavelin took P4 just under 3-tenths ahead of Pedro Cabrera.

Rotax Junior MAX – US Open success for Canada’s Thomas Nepveu after an early finals setback. 13-year old Thomas Nepveu said it was a really challenging race weekend with everyone having such close engines from the lottery, but he had fun racing in New Jersey to once again secure his place in Team Canada for the opportunity to take the World number 1 status at the RMCGF, which narrowly escaped him at the 2016 ROTAX Grand Finals in Italy as the Mini MAX vice champion.

The 32-kart field provided bumper-to-bumper rivalry from the opening day at NJMP. Patrick Woods-Toth (RPG/Kosmic) won the timed quali Friday, clocking 1:08.304 from Justin Arseneau (SCR/TonyKart) to make it a Canadian lock-out, with Matheus Morgatto (AM/Parolin) of Brazil third fastest. The Super Pole was won by PSL’s BirelART official team driver Thomas Nepveu, who was sensational to move up to P1 from ranking 6 for the heats, with all four junior Canadians at the event within the first 6 starters. Justin White (J3/CompKart) spoiled the northern party though, flying the USA flag for the race victory after the lunch break in a lunge to the line to beat Morgatto, with Nepveu having to settle for third.

The juniors displayed some impressive racing and the international mix threw out the challenge to the US drivers on home soil. Although qualifying was dominated by the Canadians, Morgatto hit the top of the leader board in the overall ranking by winning both heats on day 2, exhibiting his experience until now from competing in ROTAX Mini Max and currently Juniors. In the pre-final, it was the Super Pole champ Nepveu who took the win marginally ahead of White and Morgatto in third. Australian Jaiden Pope (J3/CompKart) finished in P4 to edge out Woods-Toth.

Sunday’s final could have gone many ways, as the shuffle for positions within the first half of the field meant it was anyone’s game as the 17 laps played out. Even the race fans could not blink to miss the action unfolding! From pole, Nepveu was relegated back a few spots after White hit the lead briefly, as the scramble brought the threesome of Pope, Morgatto and Woods-Toth into the mix. Both front row drivers fell back in the order in lap 4, as the leading trio swapped places and the field front-runners moved in. With Morgatto at the helm, defending champ Tyler Gonzalez (CRG Nordam/CRG) was up to P4, having started on 9 in a comeback from ranking 17 after the heats and nursing a bruised wrist, until Nepveu overtook him as he set into regaining his place. Just laps from the end, Woods-Toth stole P1 and the Brazilian then retaliated. With some contact in the scuffle, Nepveu came out in the lead of the pack ahead of Pope and never looked behind. He stretched the gap to more than two seconds in the closing minutes for a comfortable victory as the US Open winner, while the frantic battle to the flag resulted in Gonzales being classified second and the US Grand Nationals champion, therefore handing both the Canadian and American drivers their invitation to race at the Rotax Grand Finals. Woods-Toth’s effort to come back to P2 approaching the finish flag were not rewarded, with a penalty making it P6 and promoting Morgatto up to P3 in front of Pope and Luca Mars (Speed Concepts/TonyKart).

Rotax MAX DD2 – Danny Formal returns to win US Grand Nationals Champion title number 5. The American is definitely one of the most accomplished drivers of this era from the USA and his return to compete at the Grand Nationals in 2018 only confirmed his sheer determination to win.

Bringing a depth of more experience together in the 2-speed gearbox categories, the ROTAX DD2 offers senior competitors yet another level of racing. USA international Michael Greenfield (PSL/BirelART) shot to the top of the screen (1:06.345) to edge out last season’s winner Davide Greco (PSL/BirelART) by a slim margin of 0.004 seconds in the qualifying, while four times ROTAX US Grand Nationals winner Danny Formal (HR/TonyKart) ranked third. Super Pole changed the order of the day when Canada’s Greco set an even faster lap of 1:06.204 on the intro of the MOJO D5 tyre this year, demoting Greenfield back to P2 in front of Australian class rookie Jac Preston (J3/CompKart). Heat 1 gave Formal the chance to rebound from starting on grid 5 as he drove his way up to P2, but it was the Canadian Greco who succeeded and Preston with best lap in third.

Saturday produced another exciting and also unpredictable series of races. Greco claimed heat 2, while Preston set the race pace again Saturday and outdrove the multiple USA champion Formal and defending champ Greco to take the chequered flag in heat 3, then blitzed the field in the pre-final. Securing a front row start alongside his Aussie teammate for Sunday’s final, Ecuador driver Juan Diego Villacis (J3/CompKart) showed his own potential to challenge for the title, finishing in P2 ahead of Formal. Max Hewitt was close in fourth while Isaac Marritt rounded out the top 5.

Formal charged to the early lead in a strategic move to control the final, as Villacis grabbed P2 followed by Preston looking for the way to another win and Hewitt also eager to advance. Within 3 laps, Villacis led the race as Preston worked on closing the gap. Greenfield was the real mover, carving his way from row 5, lucky to only tag Preston’s bumper before passing him, as the young driver slowed suddenly along the strait. A mechanical issue left the pole-sitter sidelined with only a handful of laps to run, so Greco was in P4 and when the flag indicated 2 laps left, the incredible race to the finish was on. Back into the lead, Formal was not about to let the winner’s trophy go and while Villacis tried hard to retake P1 at the front of the pack, he lost out in the final attempt. Greco was involved in the last dash confusion for places, although Greenfield still came home to take second and secure his place at the RMCGF in the Team USA together with the new champion Formal. Climbing up the order for the last step of the podium, Hewitt took third in front of Isaac Marritt of Canada and Villacis ending up further back in P5.

Rotax MAX DD2 Masters – Derek Wang takes home his ticket to Brazil in the clash of the titans. The showdown for the final title at New Jersey was decided by a challenge to the line in the last metres that rewarded 40-year old USA Masters driver Derek Wang with another championship The DD2 Masters had all but one of the drivers who previously qualified for the RMCGF in years gone by, suggesting the smaller field was going to turn on some great racing. USA multiple karting champ Derek Wang posted best lap of 1:07.172 in his PSL/BirelART kart, slightly faster than teammate Scott Howard and Argentina’s Henry Martin (CRG Nordam/CRG). Howard picked up the pace to grab Super Pole honours (1:07.156) as well as winning the opening heat (1:07.029).

It was a clean sweep to pole position in Sunday’s final for 2017 RMCGF Oz team boss Howard, remaining unbeaten in every race plus the pre-final. Leading the US campaign in the 32-years plus 2-speed class, Luis Schiavo was twice P2 and ranked second after the heats by one point to fellow seasoned American Derek Wang, who moved up a place in the pre-final for a front row start Sunday. Taking third in the last race for the finals grid was the driver from Peru, Andres F. Grajales, followed over the line by Columbian Santiago Guerrero (CRG) and in P5, Martin.

The final clash of the titans ended in a photo finish across the line between the two prominent arch rivals. Howard looked confident coming into the race based on the weekend statistics, having not dropped a lap since heat 1 on Friday, but Wang had been closing the gap to the Australian’s pace and knew what it would take to win. The US driver was in P2 by lap 3 and proceeded to chase the leader. The times were almost identical as the duo pumped out the laps, although the pressure was on not to make any mistakes and Wang had the slightest advantage in the closing stages, managing to be right on Howard’s bumper as they approached the last curb before the home strait. With both drivers taking a wider-than-usual line to exit the final corner, Howard was partly on the grass struggling to maintain his position, while Wang stayed more on track as they headed for the chequered flag. With the momentum to overtake, Wang snatched the victory by 0.088 seconds to take the US title and his ticket to compete once more against many of the world’s best who will qualify for the RMCGF. Martin in P3 was winning his race to the podium to take P3 over former Team USA member Schiavo in fourth and Grajales finished in P5.

All results from this event can be found online at – https://speedhive.mylaps.com/Events/1554911

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