Gianmarco Ercoli kept his title aspirations alive after he won both the Saturday and the Sunday race of the NASCAR GP Belgium at Circuit Zolder to put himself only 6 points behind championship leader Alon Day ahead of the finals at Rijeka in three weeks time.
Twenty-nine drivers entered last weekend’s NASCAR GP Belgium at Circuit Zolder for the final round of the regular season in the 2022 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series season with Gianmarco Ercoli setting the initial leading pace on the Friday Practice sessions as the CAAL Racing driver came out on top by 0.346 seconds from Hendriks Motorsport’s Liam Hezemans.
Ercoli looked poised to retain his advantage in the Saturday Qualifying session, but he ultimately came up just short as a damp Qualifying and Superpole session due to overnight rain allowed Vittorio Ghirelli in the Not Only Motorsport’s No. 36 infitto.eu Chevrolet to take a surprise pole position for the first race. It was Ghirelli’s first pole of the year and it was also his and Not Only Motorsport’s first Qualifying pole position in EuroNASCAR’s top class.
“It was a really nice Qualifying! I have to say the car was fantastic, we had an engine problem yesterday in Practice so overnight the guys did an engine change. Every lap I was improving and after a lot of bad luck, this is a good comeback! Let’s just try to keep up and let’s go for it,” said Ghirelli in the post-Qualifying interview.
The sun shone bright in the EuroNASCAR 2 Qualifying session that followed and it continued to stay out throughout the day, leaving most of the track to dry up in time for the Saturday race. After one lap behind the Tesla Model 3 safety car – the first time that the electric car manufacturer has led a NASCAR field to the green flag, the drivers took the green flag cleanly for the first race at approximately 1:45 PM local time.
Ghirelli hoped that he could keep up the advantage on the run to the first corner, but it was not meant to be as Ercoli managed to wrestle the lead from his fellow countryman to take the holeshot. The race itself was relatively quiet as the Saturday race went caution-free, the first time it has happened in ENPRO this year.
There were some moments of chaos, such as rookie Thomas Dombrowski’s spin at the Jacky Ickx chicane that was resolved by localized yellows, but the biggest issue happened during the broadcast itself as a broken camera fiber meant that the series was unable to gain access to the track camera’s in sector 2 for the entire race.
Ghirelli tried his best to find a way past Ercoli over the next 18 laps, but a slight mechanical problem for Ghirelli – he was losing some power in the lower RPM range, which hampered his car’s acceleration – allowed Ercoli to grab his second win of the season by 3.873 second.
“I had a very good race, I started very fast and it’s important after the qualifying this morning. I only took second position, but I’m sure I have very good speed with the slick tires and I showed my performance!” said Ercoli, who also set the Fastest Lap to give himself pole position in the Sunday race.
Ercoli also believes that the slight damp patches on the inside lane where Ghirelli started played a factor in him winning the Saturday race, although Ghirelli believed otherwise. In any case, both drivers finished ahead of Giorgio Maggi, who took home his fourth podium finish of the season.
Finishing fourth is Nicolo Rocca, who gained important points as he now was able to drop the 24th place finish that he scored in the first race at Most. Liam Hezemans brought home fifth after an adventurous race that saw him running wide at Turn 1 on lap 11 and nearly tangling with Patrick Lemarié a lap later.
Sebastiaan Bleekemolen and Martin Doubek claimed sixth and seventh ahead of Alexander Graff, who also scored crucial championship points with an 8th place finish that allowed him to drop his 21st place finish from Brands Hatch’s Saturday race. Lemarié eventually crossed the line in 9th ahead of Frédéric Gabillon, who scored another top-10 finish on his 99th start in the series.
Alon Day in his one-off appearance with SpeedHouse took home 11th on Saturday, a crucial result that allowed Day to earn 5 more points in the standings. Romain Iannetta scored the bonus points for most positions gained in 12th after he was sent to the back of the grid as a punishment for receiving 6 penalty points over the course of the 2022 season.
Fabrizio Armetta won the battle of the Challenger Trophy drivers in 13th place ahead of Henri Tuomaala. Marc Goossens was only 15th, but he set the second fastest lap of the race to give him a front row start in the Sunday race. Pol van Pollaert and Jonne Rautjärvi rounded out the podium in the Challenger and Junior Trophy respectively.
Another sunny day greeted the EuroNASCAR PRO drivers on Sunday as a full field of 29 cars took the green flag for the last race of the regular season at 2:00 PM local time. Ercoli once again took the holeshot in the opening lap as Goossens and Ghirelli completed the rostrum after the first corner.
Ghirelli’s stay in the podium spots wasn’t a long one this time around, however, as the returning Anthony Kumpen found a way past the Italian at the start of the second lap. Kumpen had retired on Saturday – his first race in 4 years – due to power steering issues that hampered the No. 24 Heinz Camaro all day long, but he was able to secure the fourth fastest lap of the race to give him a strong starting position in the Sunday race.
The leading quartet continued to open up the gap from the rest of the field as some of the title contenders hit trouble. First one to be affected is Alon Day, who suffered mechanical gremlins in the No. 40 Hauer/Skarim Ford that forced him to retire after struggling in the mid-pack for 8 laps.
Then, it was his new teammate Alexander Graff’s turn to hit trouble, as the Swede slowed down on the following lap due to a slow puncture which later became a full puncture after Rocca hit him at the Villeneuve chicane.
Rocca also struggled with engine issues on the Sunday race as it was clear that the quick engine rebuild that the CAAL Racing mechanic did just after the EuroNASCAR 2 race earlier that day had not paid dividends, but he managed to continue on without stopping as Graff was forced to enter the pits to replace the blown out rear-left tire on his No. 64 MOTUL/On1Call Ford.
Luckily for Graff, the Safety Car was called up right in the middle of his pit stop after Pol van Pollaert got himself beached in the gravel trap. After four laps behind the Safety Car the race got underway again, but drama immediately occurred as a lot of the front-running contenders got taken out in a multi-car collision at turn 1 that was caused by Ghirelli tangling with Goossens.
The collision didn’t affect Ercoli’s race as he led the field under yellow for the last 4 laps of the race – two of which was under Full Course Yellow conditions instead of behind the Safety Car – to secure his third win of the season and affirm his position as the closest challenger to Day’s title heading to the finale at Rijeka.
“I’m happy because today I re-opened the championship battle! The result was very good and now I go to the finals in a very good position. I’m happy for me, the team, and the sponsors. Today was very hard because Marc was very quick and in previous years Marc always was extremely fast here,” said Ercoli in the Victory Lane.
Kumpen, who was also ahead of the crash when it happened, cruised home to take an impressive second place finish as Sebastiaan Bleekemolen once again showcased his crash avoidance skills as he managed to bring home a surprise podium finish in third place.
With a lot of the top running drivers taken out in crashes or having mechanical issues, Fabrizio Armetta and Jonne Rautjärvi took advantage of the situation to secure their first top-5 finish of the season in 4th and 5th place respectively. The returning Kenko Miura had initially taken fifth at the line, but a post-race penalty for start procedure violations would drop the Japanese driver to 9th in the final results.
For Armetta, it meant that he swept the wins in the Challenger Trophy as he managed to secure his first top-5 finish since 2014 and his first as an owner-driver for The Club Motorsport. For Rautjärvi, not only was it the first top-5 and top-10 finish of his career, it also allowed him to score his first win in the Junior Trophy.
Claudio Remigio Cappelli finished sixth in the end, an impressive turnaround for the driver with the most impressive beard on the grid given that he secured the “Lastcar” honor in the Saturday race with his early retirement. ADAC GT Masters veteran Remo Lips finished 7th in just his second EuroNASCAR start ahead of Leonardo Colavita and Miura, while Gabillon celebrated his 100th career start – a new milestone in ENPRO history – with a top-10 result.
With dropped points now in full effect, Alon Day’s last-minute entry has paid dividends as the 5 points he scored through his 11th place finish on Saturday is enough to give him an advantage of 6 points over Ercoli. Graff drops down to 3rd in the standings, but he too is at a close proximity as the Swede is just 8 points behind Day before the series concludes with the Finals at Croatia’s Automotodrom Grobnik in three weeks time.
Rocca stays in fourth on the standings, but he would need some luck to come to his way at Rijeka as he’s now 21 points behind the Israeli after the dropped points came in effect. Giorgio Maggi, who continues to hold the advantage in Junior Trophy, drops down to 5th in the overall standings with a deficit of 26 points while Martin Doubek sits in sixth place with a deficit of 34 points.
Bleekemolen, Gabillon, Iannetta and Ghirelli rounded out the top-10 as Fabrizio Armetta and CAAL Racing’s Max Lanza came out of Zolder with the joint lead of the Challenger Trophy. Armetta and Lanza are tied with 194 points, but Armetta’s 4th allowed him to win the tiebreaker over Lanza, who gained full points at Zolder because his worst two results are two non-starting appearances.
Disclaimer: Unless noted on the photo, all photos used in this article are courtesy of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series / Bart Dehaese / Klemen Sofric.