Rijeka’s Automotodrom Grobnik will host the fourth round of the 2021 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series season this weekend as Croatia’s historic motorsport venue will foresee plenty of unknown for both drivers and teams alike.
The second half of the 2021 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series season begins this week as the series will be making their return to Croatia for the second edition of Fracasso NASCAR GP Croatia, held at the historic Automotodrom Grobnik circuit – better known as Rijeka due to the track’s proximity to the coastal city of Rijeka.
First built in 1978 and renovated just three years ago with the track’s first ever repave, Rijeka was a last-minute addition to the calendar last year following the late cancellation of Autodrom Most’s round. The 4.168 km, 18-turn circuit proved itself to be a challenging circuit for drivers and teams alike, although it wasn’t without its controversies.
Rijeka’s safety standards was a controversial point on last year’s visit due to two separate high-speed crashes in the EuroNASCAR 2 Qualifying session. Max Lanza suffered a broken wrist following a high-speed spin into the tire barriers at Turn 5 while teammate Arianna Casoli crashed at the kink just before the start/finish line with such force that her CAAL Racing machine dislodged the Armco barriers.
Thankfully the races went on without any issues, but the dangerous elements present in the Rijeka circuit has brought criticism from the drivers.
“Dangerous is an understatement,” said Martin Doubek on an interview with České okruhy earlier this year. “It’s a complete bullshit, terrible track. It’s long and narrow. There are horizons and you can’t see where you’re going. We had to rely a lot on the spotter just because there was nothing to see in the corners.”
“Basically, I couldn’t see where I was going and if there was a crash I wouldn’t be able to avoid those cars. Even in the rear-view mirror I was not able to see how far the next car was because of the horizon. It’s a dangerous track, perhaps because it’s fast and narrow.”
Despite this, EuroNASCAR’s visit to Rijeka was an instant hit to the Croatian racing fans as hundreds, if not thousands, fans flocked the circuit on race day to spectate the races from the outside perimeters despite the race being officially held behind closed doors.
With fans being allowed to spectate this year providing they have been vaccinated and has been tested negative prior to the event, NASCAR GP Croatia is expected to be another hit to the Croatian fans as 53 drivers and 29 teams are ready to compete this weekend.
All 28 teams that were entered in the previous round at Autodrom Most will be joined by The Club Motorsport this weekend as the Italian team is set to be making their return to the series since the season opening round at Valencia.
Another notable thing to note is that the No. 9 Vict Motorsport car is now entered in all three classes. At the age of just 16 years old, Leonardo Colavita will be attempting to compete in all three divisions of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series on an unprecedented triple duty effort at Rijeka.
“It’s different to go-kart and all the stuff that I’m used to having tried out open wheel cars. The power is amazing, the H-pattern [gearbox] is really fun and a lot of the little things like pumping the brakes to keep the pads next to the brakes, all of the things that made NASCAR so unique,” spoke Colavita, who made his first laps in an EuroNASCAR car during a private test at Rijeka last month.
NASCAR GP Croatia is expected to see the largest EuroNASCAR PRO field size in nearly two years as a total of 26 drivers are scheduled to participate at Rijeka in the top class this weekend, two more than both Valencia and Most. The number of drivers entering this weekend’s race is the highest since the series’ last visit to Hockenheim in 2019, which attracted 29 starters in the then-called Elite 1 class.
Hendriks Motorsport, fresh from yet another strong weekend at Most which saw Vittorio Ghirelli scored his maiden win in ENPRO, is expected to be the team to beat again as the Dutch team is looking to score their first win in Croatia as they were narrowly beaten by both PK Carsport and CAAL Racing on last year’s event.
With a comfortable lead at the top of the standings and two Top-5 finishes from last year’s Rijeka race, Loris Hezemans is expected to be leading the charge for Hendriks although his teammates Ghirelli and Giorgio Maggi are also expected to be giving the championship leader a tough challenge given their strong performance at Rijeka last year.
The likes of Jacques Villeneuve, Sebastiaan Bleekemolen, Frédéric Gabillon, Ulysse Delsaux, and Challenger Trophy’s leader Henri Tuomaala will be delving into the new and unknown territory this weekend as they all will be participating in their first ever career race at Croatia.
CAAL’s Gianmarco Ercoli, who currently sits third in the championship, will also be experiencing a new opportunity to some extent as he never raced in his No. 54 CAAL machine last year, having been forced to compete with Mishumotors after his original CAAL car was written-off due to the damages sustained in Casoli’s Qualifying crash.
Three drivers – Colavita, Vladimiros Tziortzis, and Nicolò Gabossi – will also be experiencing the unknown through the opportunity of competing in the top class for the first time. Tziortzis will be receiving his first shot at the top class while maintaining his full-time duty in EuroNASCAR 2 while Gabossi, whose EuroNASCAR experience consists of just two rounds in Club Challenge, has been given a promotion to the top class as the new driver of Not Only Motorsport’s No. 90 Camaro.
A large field is also expected for EuroNASCAR 2 this weekend as a total of 24 drivers are listed to take part in the junior division for EN2’s largest field size since the aforementioned Hockenheim round.
Hendriks, who swept last year’s races with Ghirelli and scored the first ever team 1-2-3 finish on Race 2 of last year’s event, unsurprisingly is going to be expected to be the team to beat once again. Tobias Dauenhauer will be looking to continue his podium finishing record while Martin Doubek is looking to regain his form after a tough set of races in Brands Hatch and Most left him 37 points behind Dauenhauer coming to this week’s round.
Tziortzis and Advait Deodhar, arguably the two strongest non-Hendriks driver in the field this year, are expected to continue to challenge the Hendriks drivers for the top step of the podium. Like Doubek, they too will be looking to regain their form after both drivers lost crucial points due to an early retirement in one of the races at Most.
What’s interesting in EuroNASCAR 2 for this weekend is that only eight – Dauenhauer, Doubek, Tziortzis, Casoli, Lanza, Simon Pilate, Francesco Garisto, and Evgeny Sokolovsky – drivers that took part in last year’s race will participate at Rijeka this weekend. With the rest of the field haven’t had the experience of racing at Rijeka, there will be plenty of unknowns in regards on who will be performing strongly and who will bring out the maximum championship points this weekend.
Outside of Colavita’s EN2 debut and Fabrizio Armetta’s return with the No. 55 The Club Camaro, the only other notable change in the EuroNASCAR 2 field this weekend is the addition of Melvin de Groot. Melvin, a long-time driver for Team Bleekemolen in Renault Clio Cup, will be making his Euro Series debut as a replacement driver for Michael Bleekemolen as the elder Bleekemolen continues his recovery from a back injury he suffered in between Brands Hatch and Most.
The regularity-based EuroNASCAR Club Challenge will saw a new record as a total of 15 drivers will be entering the division this weekend based on the latest Entry List data. Four drivers – Tziortzis, Garisto, Alina Loibnegger and the debuting Fred Gabillon – are expected to enter Club Challenge under the “extra practice” clause and would not be eligible to receive points.
Of note among the participants in Club Challenge this weekend is the addition of a father-daughter ccombo in Martin Koloc and daughter Aliyyah Koloc to the list of participants. Martin, an European Truck Series legend who currently manages ETRC team Buggyra Racing, will be making his Euro Series debut this weekend to test CAAL’s Euro Series cars in the Club Challenge division.
Daughter Aliyyah, driver of Buggyra in ETRC and the youngest ever FIA ETRC entrant at just 16-years old, would also test CAAL’s EuroNASCAR machine in Club Challenge in a historic occassion for both herself and the sport.
As Aliyyah is entered with the racing license of her birth country United Arab Emirates instead of the Czech license she uses in ETRC, she is set to become the first UAE-born driver to participate in a NASCAR race week through her participation at Rijeka.
Disclaimer: Unless noted, all photos used in this article are courtesy of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series / Stephane Azemard / Bart Dehaese / Klemen Sofric.