|The Egyptian Experience - Rotax World Finals
|by Ken Johnson for Ekartingnews
Editors note: Special thanks to SSC Racing for the invite allowing EKN's Ken Johnson to cover this event and special thanks to Johnson for putting his regular job to the side and taking the adventure to provide this awesome overview report. In addition, a third photo gallery from the Egyptian trip is available for your viewing enjoyment in the EKN photo gallery. Click on the “Photos” link on the navigation bar and once inside the gallery, select, “The Egyptian Experience.”
| Nathan Mauel (38) is third in this pack during race action|
After returning back home from the Rotax Max Grand Finals and having time to reflect on the experience, the members of Team Americas agree that it was indeed an experience they'd like to repeat next year. No matter where one stands on the Rotax versus TaG versus shifter debate, one fact stands clear - this is the only opportunity for American karters to win an opportunity to represent their country against some of the best karts from around the world in an international competition.
As such, it's an experience to be savored. For many, the road to Egypt began after the U.S. Rotax finals in 2002. For defending American Champion Jordon Musser and his tuner, Erik Kullenberg, the desire to repeat as champions and return to the Grand Finals was a year-long focus that culminated with a successive U. S. Rotax Championship win last September at NTK in Denton, Texas. For others, the desire to represent their country in an International event was the catalyst that drove them towards success in the U. S. finals.
In the end, Musser was joined on the team by Costa Rican Juan Sanso, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma's Nathan Mauel and California karting legend Mike Manning. For the first time in Rotax Grand Finals competition, junior drivers were also allowed to compete. Sixteen year-old Justin Melton of Flower Mound, Texas won the right to represent our junior drivers in Egypt. Interestingly, Melton normally competes as a senior driver. But, due to international Rotax rules where drivers are juniors until they're 18, he competed as a junior. For next year this rule will change to age 16 and he will compete as a senior.
In the weeks leading to the event, a scheduling conflict arose that kept Mike Manning from joining the team in Egypt. This was a bit of a setback to the team, as his experience in events of this type would have only strengthened our effort.
On Sunday, January 18th, Team Americas members boarded flights from their hometown airports and flew to Chicago where most of us were to meet. From there we climbed aboard a Lufthansa Airbus for a "short" nine-hour flight to Munich, Germany. While in the Munich airport, Musser and I went on a quick search for some food. We found a nice deli and Musser ordered a plate of shrimp. The man behind the counter asked Musser a question in German/English that neither of us could understand. After asking him to repeat the question, which he did, we still didn't understand. So Musser just said, "Yes." After the guy walked away to prepare the food, Musser turned to me and said, "Dude, I hope I didn't just tell him to rub his feet in my lunch!" Feet or no feet, the shrimp were delicious and we were then off to catch our flight to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
The flight to Sharm took us over the Swiss Alps and the view was breathtaking. I looked for the Von Trap family but couldn't spot them anywhere. The route went along the coast of Yugoslavia and at times, you could just make out Italy across the Adriatic Sea. From there we crossed the Mediterranean Sea and over Egypt towards Sharm El-Sheikh. Sharm is located at the northern end of the Red Sea, right between the mouths of the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. This area is famous for its clear water and coral reefs. In fact, many of the tourists at the hotel were there for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Once at the airport we waded our way through customs and baggage claim. Just like South Africa, we had one bag go missing. This time it was Mike Melton's tools that failed to materialize. If it's true that a setback is nothing more than an opportunity for a comeback, this was a perfect example of how teamwork can overcome adversity. Over the next couple days at the track, Team Americas members put in place a system to share tools and information that was to help all drivers. By the third day there, the Melton's tools did finally show up.
Leaving the airport we wanted nothing more than to get to the hotel and take a shower. After spending the last 19 hours on planes and in airport terminals, the chance to unpack and unwind was going to feel so good. At first impression, much of Sharm looks like Las Vegas or southern California, but without buildings. Miles of flat desert surrounded by a small mountain range. Then you turn around and see the ocean and you understand why it’s such a popular vacation spot with many Europeans.
| Joe Ramos - trades in his cigars for some Sea-sha, a flavored tobacco smoked through a water pipe|
The first night, SSC President Joe Ramos took some of us out to Naama Bay, the area where all the nightlife is, to sample the local scene. Naama Bay is filled with shops of all types but most sell jewelry or spices and herbs. In between all the shops are small bars, discos and sea-sha cafes.
Sea-sha is the method of smoking flavored tobacco from a large water pipe. Of course, it looks completely illegal as your first guess is "that's not tobacco." It is though. And, after some minor deliberation we decided to sit down and try some. We sampled three flavors; apple, melon and something I'll just refer to as mystery fruit. By the third puff Joe was hooked and vowed to trade in his cigars for flavored tabac. The flavor was unlike what you'd expect from smoking something. It was like a fruit flavored cool humidity, sort of like breathing in an apple or watermelon. Of course, many of the shops in Naama Bay sold sea-sha pipes. But, I don't see how you'd get one past customs without having to endure a full body cavity search. With that in mind, we decided to leave the sea-sha experience in Egypt.
At the track Tuesday morning the team boarded the shuttle busses that would take them four miles down the road to Ghibli Raceway. After getting the pit area set up, it was off to parc ferme to receive their chassis. For some reason, the chassis weren't being released to the team. So, while other teams from around the world were busy putting their karts together, the American contingent was left to try to explain to the officials that they needed to be doing the same. Once Joe Ramos arrived, he was able to secure the chassis for the team and in no time two brand new CRG Road Rebel chassis were being delivered to the American pit stall.
| The Melton's, Justin and father Mike, were a big help to the entire team|
The junior class was to race on identically prepared CRG chassis’ that had been set up by factory CRG tuners. This relieved the workload for the team and junior competitor Justin Melton and his father Mike quickly went to work helping Musser, Nathan Mauel and his dad Alan in getting their karts set up. That afternoon, Melton attended the drawing for junior chassis’. He drew number 93, the last chassis left. By the end of the first day everything was in place and ready for the first day of official practice.
Wednesday was another beautiful day and the karts were finally able to hit the track. Ghibli Raceway is a fairly long sprint track with a good mix of high-speed sections and slow corners. The infield is comprised of mostly 180-degree hairpins, one after the other, which served to provide plenty of passing opportunities. In fact, at one point or another during the week we witnessed passing in almost every corner there. Immediately apparent was that the track layout differed slightly from all the diagrams we had seen previously. Gone was the chicane on the main straight and the back section had been lengthened to include two additional straights. This created what would be higher average lap speed but didn't seem to change chassis setup strategy as the infield hairpins remained. Practice started well for Team Americas. As is normal with a track set in the desert, lap times tumbled as the dust and dirt was blown off the track and rubber was laid down.
The highlight of the first day of practice was Musser setting second fastest time in his group, fourth fastest of the day. This caught the attention of the CRG factory tuners who then spent a good deal of time debriefing Musser on his setup and then went to work on the front of the kart. Turning good times also paints another target on your back and before long a few competitors would casually stroll through our pits to try to get a look at what gear Musser was running. Like most, he kept the actual number covered with duct tape, leaving prying eyes to try to count the number of teeth. When we noticed this going on we'd just walk over to the kart, grab the left rear hub, and give the axle a good spin. This is the internationally understood language for, "count this, buddy!" After doing that a couple times people got the message.
| South African winner, Cristiano Morgado (39) racing with Jordon Musser (47)|
Thursday allowed for two 20-minute practice sessions before official qualifying was to begin. Light rain sprinkles changed track conditions and the team once again got to work looking for a good balance on their karts. The most persistent problem facing Team Americas was a general lack of front-end grip, causing the karts to push mid-corner. Different combinations of tire pressures and axle widths were experimented with before arriving at a setup that they would take into qualifying. Junior competitor Melton experienced an altogether different problem as he was having a difficult time getting his Rotax to run cleanly without popping. Add this to the fact that, as a 16-year old competing in a junior class, he was some 20 pounds over class weight and he had his work cut out for him.
Once qualifying was underway a pecking order was established that saw Australian Adrian Estasy, Dutchman Ricardo Van der Ende and Tristam Oman from Great Britain leading the timesheets. At the beginning of his session, Musser was scrambling for clear track position when he and South African Cristiano Morgado came together in turn one. The ensuing contact knocked Musser's pipe off and sent the nose cone from Morgado's CRG flying through the air. Depending on which team described the event colored who was at fault. Ironically, a driver checking up in front of Musser who caused him to check up sparked the incident. As they'd say in Dixie, "It was just one of them racing deals." And, no matter who was to blame, the first order of business was to get back to the pits and make repairs so as not to lose any more time.
Once Musser reached the pits, Mike Melton quickly went to work on the pipe. Sacrificing his Team USA shirt to use as a hot-mitt he worked valiantly to get the pipe back in place and send Musser back on track. Damage was also done to Musser's ProSpeed pipe mount but the unit held up under the damage. Even with the lost time and the pipe dragging on the brake disk in certain areas of the track, he was still able to record the 36th fastest time of the day.
Quickest of all Team Americas drivers in qualifying was Sanso. The quiet Costa Rican driver methodically set about his business and, for the most part, kept his nose clean for a run into the 18th spot. Sanso suffered some of the same problems as Mauel, namely a lack of clear track to run on. It seemed that getting around a slower driver would put the kart off-line just enough to pick up a lot of dirt on the tires which would then take a few corners to clean. Mauel ended up the session only seven-tenths and four-tenths of a second behind Sanso and Musser respectively. However, in the tight field that left him several places back in 47th spot.
| Juan Sanso in action|
With the exception of British driver Adam Christodoulou who set pole, the junior field was very tight in qualifying. Melton qualified 16th, hampered still by a persistent carb problem and carrying the extra weight. Hopes were still high for the race; however, his qualifying time was still close to those many places ahead of him. If the motor would just accelerate better off the corners, he knows he had a good shot at placing well. With the qualifying order established, the grids were set for the heat races to commence the next day.
Friday dawned cold and windy and pretty much stayed that way all day long. This meant further changes to chassis setup and the teams were given 10 minute warm up sessions to prepare for the heats. Our EKN daily story from Egypt was titled "World War Rotax" and that's exactly what the scene was like. In just about every heat there was contact in turn one on the first lap. Taking the worst of it for Team Americas was Mauel. In his first heat, his race ended right there as he was clobbered from behind and run over. The contact destroyed his radiator and even inflicted damage to his helmet. After new parts were obtained from Rotax, he went to battle in heat two where, once again, he got punted in the first turn of the first lap. Fortunately, this time he was able to get the kart going again albeit after losing a good deal of time and falling back to 30th place and last. This was to be one of his best drives of the week as he was able to catch the field and work his way back up to 20th at the checkered.
Sanso and Musser also experienced their fair share of hard luck in the heat races. Every time it seemed one of them made some good moves and was well placed to score, they'd get punted off-line in one of the corners and several karts would get by before they could get back in line. The use of the polypropylene horn was very much in evidence and it wasn't just our team that suffered.
| Junior Justin Melton in action|
At the end of the heats, Sanso's heat results were 18th, 22nd and 12th. Musser finished 21st, 13th and 16th. After the initial DNF, Mauel recorded 20th and 18th place finishes. This left neither Team Americas drivers directly in the final and so they were left to prepare for the Last Chance Qualifier.
During the Junior Max races the action was just as intense as the International class. Melton spent most of the first heat stuck in traffic and recorded a 14th place result. Beginning heat two, the karts raced towards turn one five-abreast. As usual there was contact going into the turn. All karts got away cleanly, all except for one that is. "And it's American driver Melton who's been knocked off the track," boomed the voice over the PA system. It just seemed to fit with how his luck was going. Melton didn't qualify for the trip to Egypt by hanging back and taking it easy. Once back on track and headed in the right direction, he focused his anger at clawing the pack back and salvaging a decent finish. Although a lot of time was lost during the off-track excursion, Melton was turning laps just within his qualifying time and by the end of the ten-lap heat was able to run down and pass some of the other competitors.
Friday ended with the Last Chance Race and everyone in attendance knew to keep his or her eyes towards turn one of the first lap. As expected, all 34 drivers went into turn one looking for the lead and the ensuing contact bottled up half the field. Fortunately no one suffered any major damage and even more fortunate, this time Team Americas got the best of it with Musser and Sanso emerging from the scrum in the top five. Both had a hard fought but clean battle amongst them and were able to earn their spots in the Finals. Even contact with another driver on the last lap would not deter Musser from making the finals this year and it was a great relief to see Marshal Martin waive the checkered flag with two of our drivers making it.
Even better news came when the official results were posted. In addition to his third place finish, Sanso set the fastest lap of the LCQ with a lap at 1:01.2. For Nathan Mauel, the commotion at the start left him mired back in the pack but he put in a gritty, determined drive to end the LCQ’s 12th spot, just two spots out of making the final.
Also suffering problems in the LCQ were our friends to the north as none of the three Canadian drivers made the final. Paul Tracy Kart-mounted Scott Campbell suffered the worst of it when he got tagged from behind while running in the top six. The contact knocked his pipe off and a sure pass into the final was taken away from a truly nice and deserving driver. Consolation for Campbell was that his fastest lap of 1:01.4 matched that of LCQ winner Jonathan Pieterse, proving that, final or no final, he had what it took to make it.
Saturday's pre-final saw a dominant performance by Tristam Oman. The Trulli mounted driver from Great Britain was really showing to be the class of the field so far and confidence was high in his pit. Last year in South Africa, Tristam was teammate to second place finisher Ian Parsons and it appeared the experience was being put to good use. Behind Oman, Ricardo Van der Ende of Holland, Adrian Estasy of Australia and South African Cristiano Morgado were registering strong performances. Although Morgado was only able to notch one heat race win, it was evident by watching him on the track that, come the final, he would be a strong contender.
| Team America's US drivers, Melton, Mauel and Musser|
(photo by Bas Kaligis-wwwkartxpress.com)
His smooth driving style and intimate knowledge of racecraft gave him the look of someone just waiting for when it really mattered to pull out the right stuff. Further, as anyone familiar with the Rotax Grand Finals knows, never count out South Africa. In three previous runnings of the RMWF, a South African driver has taken home the title all three times.
Team Americas drivers Sanso and Musser worked themselves up from the back of the pack to earn better starting positions in the final. It was; however, a race of survival just like the heat races before it. Midway through the pre-final Musser came into contact with another driver and the incident left his steering askew and made it impossible to drive in a straight line. Once back in the pits, repairs were quickly made and the last preparations were made for the final.
Prior to the International and Junior finals, all competitors were suited up for the driver’s parade on the front stretch of the racetrack. As timing would have it, the Miss Italia Domina contest was also being held that weekend. As such, the beauty contestants were called into action as flag girls for the drivers. Fittingly, since the most beautiful women in the world live in the U. S., the American team was presented with the best looking flag girl. After all the photos were taken and the drivers received their ceremonial cactus, it was time to suit up for the finals.
Before the International final was to take place, the Junior Max final was called to the grid for the 20-lap race. Right as the karts were to start their engines, confidence turned to heartbreak for British competitor Adam Christodoulou. Christodoulou was a bullet all week long and next to untouchable in qualifying and the heats. As bad luck would have it, his spark plug fouled on the warm up lap. He pitted to have it replaced but was still a half a lap down when the green flag flew. In a spirited drive he was able to catch the pack and move up to 13th, only 20 seconds behind the leader on a one-minute track. The junior final was won by Omar Martin from Spain over Portuguese driver Bruno Serra and South African Wiann Swart. American challenger Melton started 10th. And, although he kept his nose clean throughout the 16-lap final, persistent carb problems hampered his run relegating him to 15th at the end.
| Second place Richardo Van der Ende (69) of Holland leads winner Cristiano Morgado (39)|
The International final contained 34 karts in a race guaranteed to be a shoot-out. All bets were off as to what would happen in turn one. As things turned out, it was a very clean start with Ricardo Van der Ende leading the pack in the LRG kart of his own design. Seeing Van der Ende leading was not at all unexpected. He's a former Formula A World Champion and past winner of the prestigious British formula Ford Festival. Hot on Ricardo's bumper was Durban, South Africa's Cristiano Morgado. These two quickly settled down to a fast pace without racing each other in an attempt to distance them from the pack. After a great week running strongly at the front, Tristam Oman got a bad start to the final and dropped back to eighth place.
Oman then put in a sterling performance over the first five laps to bring himself up to third, right behind Morgado. At that point it looked like Tristam would go right to the lead. However, that was to be the high point for the driver from Great Britain as he started to lose the handle on the Trulli kart, eventually falling back to fourth place. As the final race wore down, people were wondering where Morgado could make his move. The answer came midway through the penultimate lap when he saw a gap going into a hairpin. The two bumped slightly then drove side-by-side into the next corner where Morgado had the better line and took the lead. Australian driver Adrian Estasy used the situation to get around Van der Ende and catapulted into the lead right before the start/finish straight. Morgado; however, stayed right on his tail and out-braked Estasy going into turn two for a lead that he wouldn’t relinquish.
On the final lap Van der Ende swapped positions one more time leaving the order Morgado, Van der Ende, Estasy as the checkered flag was thrown. A gracious Van der Ende said after the race of Morgado's pass, "It was a great move. I didn't see it coming and wasn't ready for it." It was indeed a great move by the 23 year-old South African who now looks forward to competing in two- liter Formula Fords.
Team Americas Sanso and Musser spent the final battling for position while running mid-pack. Both drivers got great starts and moved into the top 20 with Musser just in front of Sanso. Sanso was able to get around Musser and continued to run well to an eventual 17th place finish, 23 seconds behind the leader. Musser, still suffering the effects from a bent steering shaft after another driver went over him in the pre-final, struggled to keep momentum as it was very difficult to turn the wheel. Never the less, he was still running very well in a large pack of karts when he got balked by another driver in the tight section.
The move put Musser onto a very dirty section of track and by the time he was able to get back up to speed he’d been passed by about ten karts, putting him in 24th position. Before the end of the race he swapped positions back and forth with Jan Andreasen and wound up 24th at the flag.
| Morgado, Van der Ende and Estasy had a hell of a race for the win|
On Saturday night Rotax threw their BBQ and closing ceremony party where it was announced that next year's Grand Final would take place in the Canary Islands. As a slide show was being shown depicting next years RMGF location, the DJ started playing Springsteen's Born in the U SA. Taking that as our cue, the American team soon hit the dance floor. Before leaving the track Jordon was in e-mail contact with good friend and tuner Erik Kullenberg. After describing the events of the day Kullenberg had one last piece of advice for his protégé, "Go out on the town and have a good time." Respecting his advice, after the Rotax party we did just that. In the heart of Naama Bay is dance club called The Bus Stop. Go through The Bus Stop and out back you'll find a huge, open air courtyard that was the largest techno dance club I've ever seen. With beautiful weather and good music to dance to, it was the perfect setting to dance the night away.
Sunday was a quiet day at Ghibli Raceway. The media center had been torn down leaving us without Internet access. The pits were all but cleared out and there was a feeling of exhaustion in the air from the track personnel that had worked so hard in the weeks leading up to the event and during the event itself. For the media, it was a chance to get out on the track and experience some laps in the Rotax RM1. Never having driven the two-speed kart, I was keen to get behind the wheel and see what it would do. While my main motive for driving the RM1 was mostly to have some fun, Rotax had other motives in mind. There were two RM1s that we were to drive. One shod with the standard Bridgestone YGK tires, the other with a new brand being tested for use in 2005. The new brand is called "Mojo" and is manufactured by Heidenau, a tire manufacturer based in Germany.
The other reason for the test was so we could sample the new braking system for the RM1. Magura, a kart-specific brake manufacturer, has come up with a new rear brake set that features two floating disks and is very strong. The system will be offered in 2004 as a special racing kit upgrade to all RM1s.
I'm sure the biggest news from the press conference will be the testing of the Mojo tires. During the briefing, Manfred Weissgarber, Rotax Competition Director, was very careful to point out that the relationship with Bridgestone has been an excellent one. And that in five years of competition with the YGK they have never had so much as one single complaint about the quality of the tire. However, with the growth of the series there were two issues beginning to surface that needed to be addressed. The first was that the cost of the YGK tire left almost no margin for the retail sellers (kart shops) to earn a profit. Second, Rotax is a worldwide formula, and while obtaining YGK tires is no problem for most competitors, there are regions in the world where Bridgestone YGKs are very hard to come by. And with Rotax controlling distribution, Rotax dealers worldwide will also be Mojo tire dealers so everyone will have access to the new tires.
What Rotax went in search of is a company that can manufacturer a tire exactly like the YGK but offer a lower price and give distribution rights through Rotax. This is a tall order to ask of any company but Heidenau is willing to take a shot. If successful, the new tire will be implemented as the Rotax spec tire starting in 2005. Public evaluation of the tire will begin in spring of 2004. Over the course of the first half of 2004, three batches of Mojo tires will be produced at different intervals. For the evaluation period, Rotax dealers will be able to order small "test" quantities to sample the quality of the new tire. Since tire consistency is the main goal for the new tire, if it is determined the tires from batch #3 were identical to the tires from batches #2 and #1, then the Mojo will be implemented for 2005. If not, If Heidenau can not match the tire quality and consistency of Bridgestone, then the YGK will remain as the spec tire of choice for worldwide competition.
From my experience with the tire on the RM1, the performance and wear of the Mojos, so far, are identical to the YGK. So I'm sure it's a very good tire. However, I'm equally sure that when most racers hear a rumor of a new spec tire, it's not met with great enthusiasm. Especially when the current tire is so good. Fortunately, in this case, the competitors are able to voice their opinions. To those that are concerned with the tire issue, the best advice is to buy an evaluation set of Mojos, test them against the Bridgestones, and then let your opinion be heard at SSC and Rotax.
With the racing done, it was time to get out and experience more of what the region had to offer Egypt is an interesting part of the world. For someone born and bred in the USA, many customs are the complete opposite from what I've come to expect. The people are extremely nice and very accommodating. Then again, Sharm is a resort town that exists on tourist income.
| Naama Bay Night Life|
At night, many of us would venture down to the Naama Bay Shopping district where the bars and clubs are. One night, Musser, Mauel, our friends from Germany and I found ourselves at a street side café trying to get a bit of dinner. After a while a kind gentleman came out and asked Musser what he wanted, we spent the next two minutes watching him try to explain to the man what he wanted to drink. Finally, he was able to get his point across. The waiter then wrote the order down, looked at Musser and said, "very good my friend," and walked off.
Five minutes later the waiter comes back with three drinks. Puzzled, Musser explains he wanted something to eat as well. The waiter walks off and returns a couple minutes later with his writing pad. Musser orders a sandwich, to which the waiter says, "Very good my friend", and walks off. The rest of us are trying to get the waiter's attention that we ALL would like to order something but it just isn't happening. Finally, we all order and get fed at one point or another. Like I said, it's a different culture from here. In the end you just roll with it and have a good laugh.
The truth is, Sharm El-Sheikh is a wonderful place that we'd all love to experience again. But, due to location, probably won't. On the cab ride to the airport the driver asked, "We see many Europeans in Sharm, but, almost no Americans. Why don't you like us?" I thought that was a fair question. The only answer I could come up with is that Cancun is a whole lot closer. And, although Egypt is a wonderful place, it's in a bad neighborhood.
He just smiled and said, "Perhaps." As some would expect, many Team Americas members had family members and friends express concern over our safety in that part of the world. Interestingly, in the many conversations I had with Egyptian locals politics never came up. In fact, when they asked you where we were from and we said, "USA,” they'd look at you like they had no idea where that was. Then you'd say, "America," and they'd smile and say, "Ahh, Americanos, we don't see many of you here."
Having had the privilege to attend two Rotax Max World Finals, I must admit it is one of the most intense events I've ever attended. The level of competition is extremely high, as is the amount of preparation some teams put in to win. For some Rotax is a leisure class. But, for many countries around the world, winning in Rotax is a driver's ticket to the top.
This is an event that all racers should experience at least once in their life. To all current and aspiring Rotax racers the message is clear, it's time to get going. The race for the Canary Islands has already begun.