Alon Day became the first driver to be crowned NASCAR Whelen Euro Series champion four times after the Israeli clinched his fourth title in an exciting weekend at Rijeka that saw Patrick Lemarié score his first win at the age of 54 years old.
The 2022 season of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series ended yesterday at Croatia’s Automotodrom Grobnik with the crowning of the sport’s first four-time champion as Alon Day survived the carnage in the season finale race to secure his fourth championship ring.
Twenty-four of the scheduled 25 entries participated in the Friday Practice sessions that saw CAAL Racing’s Gianmarco Ercoli topped the combined timesheets with a time of 1:28.818, the only driver to set a lap time below 1:29. He was followed by Most race winner Sebastiaan Bleekemolen and Vittorio Ghirelli while Alon Day, the championship leader entering Rijeka, ended up fifth.
The sole driver to not set a lap time during Friday Practice session is Racingfuel Motorsport’s Christoph Lenz. Lenz was present on the track, but he ultimately didn’t continue his participation for the rest of the weekend as Racingfuel quietly withdrew his entry before Saturday’s Qualifying and Superpole sessions were commenced.
The Qualifying session went smoothly for CAAL Racing’s other title contender Nicolò Rocca, who topped the 15-minute long session with a time of 1:29.076. He was not to retain that advantage on Superpole, however, as Alon Day turned up the heat and set a blisteringly fast lap time of 1:28.884 to put himself in pole position for the Saturday race.
“I don’t count the pole positions, I don’t count how many championships I have now, I’m only focused on the race,” said the Israeli after scoring his 37th career pole position in EuroNASCAR. “I’m extremely happy for the team, they worked really hard all night long to find the problem that we had yesterday. That was a tough qualifying, but I’m really happy that we did it and hopefully we can grab the win.”
Accompanying Day in the front row is Patrick Lemarié, who was just 0.071 seconds behind Day. Lemarié was briefly impeded by Day on his final flying lap after Day lifted off too early, although Lemarié would later say that his lap wasn’t fast enough for Day’s impeding to have a greater effect towards his pole chances.
Ercoli qualified in third while fellow title contender Alexander Graff shockingly failed to make it to the Superpole. Graff struggled for pace and was only able to set a lap time fast enough for 16th position on the grid, putting in a real blow towards his championship hopes.
The first Finals race for the EuroNASCAR PRO class started at approximately 13:30 local time, 15 minutes later than what was initially scheduled due to tire barrier repairs. The race got underway with Day retaining his lead from Ercoli, who managed to get past Lemarié in the run to the first two corners.
Day continued to hold his lead for the next few laps until the Safety Car was called on lap 5 due to two separate incidents. First to be picked up by the cameras is Dario Caso’s spin into the gravel trap at Turn 15. The cameras later revealed that Martin Doubek also had issues on his own. The Czech driver suffered a mechanical issue and parked his No. 7 Orion Ford by an escape road on the other side of the track.
Both drivers were taken out of the race and after three laps behind the Skoda Octavia Safety Car, the race got underway again with Day holding on to the lead once more. Day, Ercoli, Lemarié continued to run in the first three positions whilst Giorgio Maggi and Vittorio Ghirelli enjoyed a nice battle for fourth place.
That battle was short-lived, however, as Ghirelli’s engine blew in spectacular fashion on lap 12. Thankfully there wasn’t too much fluid that was dropped by Ghirelli’s expired engine, although Nicolò Rocca and Marc Goossens were caught out by it in the immediate aftermath of the incident as both drivers were forced to the gravel trap for a brief moment.
Day and Ercoli continued to duke it out for the battle with Ercoli clearly trying to find every inch that he can get to find a way past the Israeli driver. Despite Ercoli’s best efforts, Day managed to hold on to the lead after 17 laps to secure his 32nd EuroNASCAR career victory, finishing only 0.219 seconds ahead of the No. 54 Escort Advisor Chevrolet – which was running the censored “five-star” logos once more.
“He was there the whole time, he was pushing really hard and I knew this was about the championship. I still need to catch my breath, that was a tough race! I’m very happy to start on the first row tomorrow. Congratulations to Giorgio for having the pole position and for Ercoli, he pushed me to the limit. Hopefully tomorrow we will be able to finish the job, for now we’re focused for tomorrow,” said Day after his hard-fought battle on Saturday.
Crossing the finish line two seconds behind Day and Ercoli is Patrick Lemarié, who finally secured his first career podium finish in EuroNASCAR with a third place finish. The podium proved to be a historic one as Lemarié became the oldest driver to score a podium finish at the age of 54 years and 265 days, beating the previous record of 54 years and 54 days set by former NASCAR Cup champion Bobby Labonte in 2018.
“I’m very happy with the podium! It has been a great year, we have a lot of problems but we qualified well, we had a good race. I was fighting with two guys fighting for the championship and it’s never easy. I was waiting for something but I didn’t get it, so maybe it’s for tomorrow!” said Lemarie in his post-race interview with André Wiegold.
“I’m one the oldest guys on the track, so I’m sweating a little bit more than the young guys! It’s definitely physical, something that you have to be aware of when you jump into NASCAR.”
Maggi and Liam Hezemans would complete the top-5 with Maggi all but securing his overall Junior Trophy victory, as Maggi just needed to start the second race to clinch the overall Junior Trophy win on Sunday.
Romain Iannetta finished sixth ahead of Sebastiaan Bleekemolen, who had a penalty that dropped him to seventh after he jumped out of the start formation line before his car crossed the start/finish line. He received a 10-second penalty for his troubles, while a 5-second penalty was given to Frédéric Gabillon for making the same mistake on the restart.
Henri Tuomaala once again took the win in Challenger Trophy with an 8th place overall finish, the second top-10 finish of the year for the Finn. Graff would recover to 9th in the end with a little bit of an assist from Goossens, who lifted off at the last lap to let his Swedish teammate by.
It was a crucial team move from Goossens as Graff secured the bonus points for most positions gained as a result, which kept him just 24 points behind Day entering the last race on Sunday.
At approximately 14:30 local time, the last race of the 2022 NASCAR Whelen Euro Series began with 22 cars taking the start for the final EuroNASCAR PRO race of the year. Both Marko Stipp Motorsport cars were the non-starters as Iannetta unfortunately joined Ortmann on the sidelines after Miguel Gomes crashed the No. 46 SimThunder Camaro in the EuroNASCAR 2 race earlier that day.
Alon Day made a good launch off the line but with the Israeli starting on the outside, he was unable to get by pole sitter Giorgio Maggi. Drama began on Turn 15 when Ercoli made an ambitious move on Day that sent the driver of the No. 24 Monster Energy Camaro to the grass, a move that Day lambasted as something that Ercoli tried to do to “put him out” of the race.
Day’s off-track excursion meant that he dropped to fifth whilst Ercoli was now in second place, but Giorgio Maggi opened the lead gap to 2 seconds when the first Safety Car period was called on lap 4 due to an incident involving Jonne Rautjärvi. Rautjärvi was too greedy with the track limits and clipped the tire barrier that separated the main straight and pit entry, resulting in the Finn retiring in the gravel trap by Turns 1 and 2.
Day, Ercoli and Rautjärvi’s incidents would set the tone for the race as the 17-lap race turned into a race of attrition. Max Lanza triggered the second Safety Car period when he ran wide on the kink at Turn 16 and crashed into the tire barrier that marked the track limits.
Another Safety Car period was triggered when Riccardo Romagnoli’s car grinded into a halt at Turn 4 after a collision with Frédéric Gabillon. The incident took out both cars – Romagnoli retired in the spot while Gabillon was able to bring his car back to the pits.
The biggest drama came on lap 15 when Ercoli and Maggi collided at Turn 16. Ercoli had taken the lead from Maggi in the second restart and he was able to retain the lead when the race was restarted for the third and final time. Unfortunately for Ercoli, Maggi was able to find a way to get side-by-side with the Italian at Turn 15.
Ercoli tried to block the Swiss driver, but he made a major error. He pulled the block too early, resulting in contact that sent Ercoli into a spin while Maggi was forced to retire not long after due to puncture and suspension damage in his No. 18 interconsulting.group Toyota.
That left Patrick Lemarié with the lead of the race with just two laps to go and the Frenchman successfully fended off Nicolò Rocca and Alon Day to secure his first EuroNASCAR victory on his 27th start.
Much like his podium on Saturday, the win was a record breaking one as he became the oldest driver to win an EuroNASCAR PRO race at the age of 54 years and 266 days, breaking the previous record set by his best friend Jacques Villeneuve. Villeneuve was 50 years old when he scored his last EuroNASCAR win at Vallelunga last year.
“That was a great feeling! From the beginning of the season we’ve been waiting for this kind of weekend that was full of good results. I’m so happy for the team and for Federico, it feels good to win!” said Lemarié in the Victory Lane interview.
The biggest celebrations was reserved for Alon Day, as he gave the Croatian fans with an unforgettable spectacle thanks to his spectacular burnout on the front straight post-race to celebrate the fact that he became the first driver to win four championship titles in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series.
“I did it, I couldn’t do it without PK Carsport! I think this is the moment to really say thanks to everybody in the team, Anthony for giving me the opportunity to drive here and every person in this team that worked from day to night! Thanks a lot, they deserved this championship more than I do! Now it’s time to celebrate it with my wife on my honeymoon, as I promised a long time ago!” said Day after securing his record-breaking fourth EuroNASCAR title.
Martin Doubek finished fourth ahead of Alexander Graff, who once again had to fight his way from the rear end of the field. The Swede’s poor race pace on Saturday meant that he had to start from 18th on the grid, but he was able to turn it around on Sunday after surviving the chaos that surrounded him all race long to secure the bonus points for most positions gained.
Crucially for the Swede, his double most positions gained allowed him to leapfrog Ercoli in the standings. Ercoli, who eventually was classified in 11th at the end of the race, only scored 393 points while Graff managed to score 405 points in the end – 20 points off from Alon Day, who ended his season with 425 points.
Marc Goossens ended his season on a high note with a sixth place finish ahead of Henri Tuomaala, who was crowned as the Challenger Trophy winner of the season once again as he ended his year with a top-10 finish in the overall standings. Fabrizio Armetta came home eighth despite missing a significant chunk of body panel in his No. 55 DINOIL Camaro with Claudio Remigio Cappelli and Cosimo Barberini completing the top-10.
None of the Junior Trophy drivers managed to finish the race, but the win there went to Leonardo Colavita. Colavita survived the longest when he was taken out on the penultimate lap by Sebastiaan Bleekemolen. Joining the list of retirements is fellow Junior Trophy driver Liam Hezemans, who received a bit of a love tap from Graff that sent the Dutch driver into a spin.
There’s no question that Alon Day is one of the all-time EuroNASCAR greats, but the fourth title that he secured at Rijeka yesterday is certainly the most important one of his career. The Israeli driver has scored more race wins, pole positions, fastest laps and podiums than any other driver in history and after tying Ander Vilariño’s record of three titles in 2020, the question of whether Day can become a champion for a fourth time became a matter of when, not if.
With Day now standing as the undisputed most successful driver in the history of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series and a long future in his hands given that the Israeli is only 30 years old as of the writing of this article, it’s going to be intriguing to see how far Day can extend his records before EuroNASCAR’s Greatest of All Time decides to drive into the sunset in the future.
Disclaimer: Unless noted on the photo, all photos used in this article are courtesy of NASCAR Whelen Euro Series / Bart Dehaese / Klemen Sofric.