Liam Hezemans swept the two EuroNASCAR 2 races held at Circuit Zolder last week to ensure that he will be Alberto Naska’s closest title challenger for the season finale showdown at Rijeka.
Liam Hezemans became the best driver out of the twenty-six drivers that participated in the final EuroNASCAR 2 round of the regular season after the young Dutchman swept both races at Zolder to ensure his position as the main challenger for Alberto Naska in the championship battle this year.
Naska, who had scored five wins entering the round at Zolder, struck gold first in the Friday Practice sessions as he managed to secure the top spot in the combined timesheets with a time of 1:37.691. Liam, who finished second, was only 0.058 seconds behind while the other “Big Four” drivers Vladimiros Tziortzis and Martin Doubek followed behind him in third and fourth respectively.
Things then started to change during Saturday morning as the EuroNASCAR 2 drivers were faced with a wet track that was quickly drying up for their Qualifying session. Most drivers chose to stay on the wet Hoosier tires, but some drivers such as Naska and Gil Linster took the gamble and went with the slicks immediately while some would change to the slicks mid-session.
The slick tires predictably struggled to find some grip initially, but as the track continued to dry it was clear that the slicks would be the tire of choice at the end of the 20-minute long session. In the end, it was Linster who capitalized the best after he set a lap time of 1:44.917 to secure his maiden pole position.
“We played a little bit of poker today and in the last laps I had some dry spots and I was able to put the lap time together! We struggled with the team on whether we should go on the wet or dry tires and they said ‘No, we’ll try a bit of poker!’ and I just have to sit in the car, drive it around and be the fastest!,” said Linster on the gamble that he and CAAL Racing took in Qualifying.
Naska would end up in second while Leonardo Colavita, carrying new sponsorship from Cirio in his car for Zolder, took home a surprise 3rd place result after he changed to the slicks mid-session. Another surprise came from The Club Motorsport’s Roberto Benedetti, who qualified seventh after he also gambled on the slicks and nearly took a top-three result had he not ran wide in his final flying lap attempt.
PRACTICE RESULTS | QUALIFYING RESULTS
All 26 drivers were lined up on the grid for the green flag that was held at approximately 4:45 PM local time. Linster managed to hold on to his lead into the first corner with Naska hot on his tail. Behind the front row duo, former EN2 champion Ulysse Delsaux – who started fourth – ran too deep into the first corner and pushed Colavita into the gravel trap, causing the Italian to lose several positions.
Linster’s lead didn’t last long as Naska found a way past the Luxembourgish driver on the second lap to move up to the lead of the race. Naska’s lead, as it turns out, wouldn’t last long either as gearbox issues forced Naska to slow down as he started the third lap of the race and he would be forced to visit the pits at the end of the lap, putting an end to his top-5 streak.
As the CAAL Racing mechanics scrambled to change the gearbox in Naska’s No. 88 The Italian Box/Wakala Chevrolet, another championship contender got gearbox problems and this time, the consequences were more severe.
Tziortzis, who was running comfortably in the top-10 at the time, had his gearbox seized on lap 5 and as he tried to move out of the racing line, Doubek was unable to avoid the Cypriot and crashed his No. 7 Orion Ford into Tziortzis’ No. 5 Academy FJ. The incident sent both cars into the wall at turn 3 and took them out of the race, putting a huge dent to Tziortzis and Doubek’s title hopes.
The Safety Car was called soon after and crucially for the championship battle, Liam Hezemans had been able to find a way past Linster at the Jacky Ickx chicane on lap 4. With Naska in the pits with gearbox trouble and Tziortzis and Doubek out of the race, Liam is in the right spot to capitalize and put himself closer to Naska, who can’t be catched by his rivals at Zolder no matter what happened in Belgium.
After 4 long laps, the race went to green again on lap 10 but a multi-car collision triggered by Yevgen Sokolovskiy at the Villeneuve chicane brought the Safety Car back out again. Christoph Lenz, Kasparas Vingilis, and Sokolovskiy’s teammate Miguel Gomes were taken out of the race as the Safety Car was forced to stay for another 4 laps.
An Overtime finish was called with single-file restarts in place on lap 15, but in a classic example of “cautions breed cautions” the yellow was brought out again for another multi-car collision. This time around, it was Christian Malcharek who caused the incident after he went loose at turn 1.
Paul Jouffreau, who was right behind Malcharek when he went loose, had nowhere to go and the collision between the two cars was sufficient to send Jouffreau’s No. 33 Financiere Pallas/Cartolux Ford airborne. Several drivers behind them, such as Kenko Miura and Patrick Schober, got collected as well because they also had nowhere to go.
The race would eventually end under yellow with Liam winning his third race of the season ahead of Linster and Melvin de Groot, who gained third post-race after Delsaux was penalized for the incident with Colavita on lap 1.
“It was a really eventful race, it’s so unfortunate to finish under full course yellow but you had to be the first one to take it. It was an awesome job by the team, the car was really awesome and also congrats to Gil! It was really unfortunate also for Alberto because I saw something was wrong with his car, so it was really unfortunate for him but I’m so happy to be back after Most!” said Hezemans to series interviewer Andre Wiegold in the post-race interview.
De Groot, who was absent from Most due to scheduling issues, also took home the top spot in the Legend Trophy. Tuomas Pöntinen and Colavita completed the top-5 positions and Rookie Trophy podium while Claudio Remigio Cappelli brought home the No. 18 Race Art Technology Toyota in sixth place.
Delsaux’s post-race penalty would ultimately drop him to 7th place, ahead of Michael Bleekemolen who announced on Sunday that he will be back for another full-season campaign in EuroNASCAR 2 next year. The top-10 was completed Lady Trophy winner Luli del Castello and Alina Loibnegger.
Eric Quintal, who just missed out on the top-10 positions in 11th place, took home the 4 bonus points for most positions gained. Roberto Benedetti could only finish 13th in the end, having dropped 5 positions in the opening lap after he made a poor start.
CAAL Racing’s mechanic, amazingly, was able to complete the gearbox change in time for Naska to come back on the track in the second caution period. Sadly, it ultimately resulted in nothing as the lack of green flag laps meant that Naska was unable to set a faster fastest lap time to improve his grid position for the Sunday race.
The Sunday EuroNASCAR 2 race got underway in time at approximately 11:20 AM local time with only 23 cars taking the green flag. Gil Linster and Christoph Lenz – who run a black and white split livery in his No. 58 Il Capo Pizza Chevrolet for Zolder – were forced to start from the pits due to engine trouble while Tziortzis didn’t take start as he was injured from his crash with Doubek. He had to undergo an emergency surgery at the track’s hospital that thankfully went well and the Cypriot is expected to be fit for the season finale at Rijeka in three weeks time.
Liam, who started from pole after he scored the fastest lap in the Saturday race, took the holeshot and soon began to drive away from the rest of the field. Fifth place starter Cappelli moved up to second place after the Italian took advantage of the fact that Linster – who was due to start in front of him – was missing on the grid, allowing him to brake later than both Delsaux and Joufrreau on the run to the first corner.
Liam proved to be untouchable in the Sunday race and while the drivers behind him jostled for the podium positions all-race long, Liam continued to lead the race lap after lap and in the end the Dutchman grabbed the weekend race sweep with his fourth victory of the season.
“It couldn’t be better! It’s just an awesome weekend, thanks to the whole team because to win by 8 or 9 seconds, you cannot do it if you don’t have a good car so thanks to them! We just have to keep our head focused on the next race and it’s going to be a nice title battle. Everything can happen with double points, so we’ll see how it goes!” said Hezemans in Victory Lane.
Cappelli held on to second for the majority of the race and played it aggressively despite admitting that he held back himself slightly over the thought of saving his car for Giorgio Maggi later. However, in the end he lost it to Pöntinen after the Finn found his way past on the run to the Villeneuve chicane on lap 13, putting two wheels on the grass in the process.
Pöntinen took the checkered flag 7.418 seconds behind Liam as Cappelli clung on to third, a result that brought plenty of smiles to the driver with the best beard in the EuroNASCAR grid this year. Cappelli’s third also gave him the win in the Legend Trophy sub-classifications, his second of the season.
Delsaux came up short of the podium in 4th place, while Naska charged his way from 16th on the grid to finish fifth at the line. Crucially for Naska, he managed to gain 4 bonus points for most positions gained which allowed him to drop his 5th place result at Vallelunga 2 by virtue of the most positions gained points alone.
Malcharek bounced back from his incident on Saturday to finish sixth ahead of de Groot while Miura finished eighth to secure the first top-10 result for the newly-formed Team Japan NEEDS24 team. Schober and Sokolovskiy completed the top-10 positions in 9th and 10th respectively.
Taking home the win in the Lady Trophy is Luli del Castello, who once again bested Loibnegger and Arianna Casoli in the battle for the female drivers. Martin Doubek suffered another technical issue that dropped him to 16th while Jouffreau was forced to retire his car in the front straight on lap 12, forcing the stewards to bring out localized yellows for the last three laps of the race.
With dropped points now in place on the championship standings, Alberto Naska’s points advantage to Liam Hezemans has been slashed to just 13 points as both drivers are expected to become the main title contenders for the EuroNASCAR 2 title in the Finals at Rijeka on 29-30 October.
Martin Doubek, Ulysse Delsaux and Vladimiros Tziortzis all maintained a shot at the title, but they would need to have some luck to come in their way at Rijeka given that they’re now 50, 51 and 56 points from Naska respectively.
Tuomas Pöntinen, who scored full points at Zolder, moved up to sixth and dethroned Paul Jouffreau from third spot in the Rookie Trophy sub-classification leaderboards. Gil Linster, top Legend Trophy driver Melvin de Groot and Patrick Schober completes the top-10 while Luli del Castello continues to be the top Lady Trophy driver in 14th place.
Disclaimer: Unless noted on the photo, all photos used in this article are courtesy of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series / Bart Dehaese / Klemen Sofric.