In a cold and damp Autodrom Most, the spectacle of EuroNASCAR was back on track: Arianna Casoli returned to the top-10 and shared victories in the Female Trophy with Alina Loibnegger - who also had a very positive weekend and finished second in the Rookies.
Almost two months after its last championship round - held on July 4th at Brands Hatch, for the popular American SpeedFest - NASCAR Whelen Euro Series returned to the track at Autodrom Most, Czech Republic, for its third round out of the 6 scheduled race weekends in 2021.
For the first time since 2019, the Brands Hatch races featured a limited number of spectators and at Most, the presence of a more significant number of fans gave back a sense of normalcy to a series that heavily relies on its accessibility to the fans.
Powerful cars, spectacular racing, a very interesting blend of experienced world-class drivers and young talents, all in a very friendly environment are indeed the winning points that make EuroNASCAR an increasingly popular series among European race fans.
With a double-header format for each round, the weekends are action-filled with races from 3 classes: EuroNASCAR Pro, EuroNASCAR 2 and EuroNASCAR Club Challenge, where the less experienced drivers have the chance to approach the powerful stockcars.
In the 13th season of the European NASCAR division, two full-time female entries returned to battle for the overall and Female Trophy category in EuroNASCAR 2: Arianna Casoli and Alina Loibnegger.
At her sixth season in the series, Casoli is a EuroNASCAR veteran: her enthusiasm and passion for the sport made the cheerful Italian one of the all-time fan-favourite drivers. She always grew up around race cars, but her motor racing career was not a conventional one; after collecting experiences in national touring car series, Arianna had a long hiatus before, finally, coming back behind the wheel. In EuroNASCAR, the driver of the #54 CAAL Racing Chevrolet has found the perfect environment to challenge herself alongside other very experienced and talented racers, often battling for the Ladies and Legends trophy titles.
In a series that has hosted many high profile female entries, Casoli shared the grid with American Julia Landauer in 2020 - a former NASCAR Next graduate that moved her first steps on the European road courses after winning races in US and Canada.
The pandemic logistical issues prevented Landauer from returning for a second season to EuroNASCAR - even though she is working to make it happen in the future. The EN2 class of 2021, though, sees another very interesting female racer: Alina Loibnegger.
The Austrian rookie moved up to EuroNASCAR2 after racing in the Club Challenge class in 2019 - where she also finished second at Hockenheim. In 2020, she then took part in the German-based DMV National Endurance Series, before making her return to the stock car scene with Italian team Solaris Motorsport.
At the 2021 curtain-raiser at Valencia, Casoli took home both the Female Trophies, while Loibnegger fought back at Brands Hatch, where the Austrian claimed her first class win in Race 2.
At Most, though, the driver had to battle also with an additional factor - the weather.
The wave of bad weather that hit most of Central Europe didn't spare Czech Republic either, and on Friday, the conditions at Autodrom Most were properly challenging.
"Autodrom Most is quite a fast and technical circuit - the only track where we use fourth gear for three or four times during the lap." - explained Casoli, who had previously competed at Most but in different conditions. "It's rather difficult and undulating, with some fast chicanes. It's one of those tracks that you have to respect and you can't afford to make mistakes. In the rain, it's obviously even more challenging." - she added.
"During the weekend we had mixed weather conditions and very changeable from time to time - so it wasn't easy to work on the car setup because we had a fully wet session, then more mixed weather in the other, with half the session on dry and half the session on wet tyres. You never knew what tyre to use until a few minutes before the sessions - and we had to be ready to change just before the race starts."
Pole position went to Tobias Dauenhauer (Hendriks Motorsport), ahead of Simon Pilate (DF1 Racing) and Vladimiros Tziortzis (Alex Caffi Motorsport).
Loibnegger lined up 18th on the grid, with Casoli one row behind, in 20th. The rain continued to fall on Saturday and the EN2 race was declared wet, as all the teams bolted on wet-weather tyres.
At the first corner, Dauenhauer - coming off a victory from the second race in Brands Hatch - went into the gravel; the German managed to hold his position despite the incident and preceded Advait Deodhar, who had moved into the runner-up spot after a wild start from fifth on the grid. Local hero Martin Doubek followed, but the Indian - also coming from his maiden race win at Brands Hatch - defended well.
Ian Eric Waden and Justin Kunz went off on the first lap, with the latter dropping towards the end of the field. After one lap, Alina Loibnegger had made it up to 15th place, with Arianna Casoli following at a short distance in 17th.
Despite the first lap mishap, Tobias Dauenhauer was unreachable and checked out from the rest of the competition. Deodhar and Doubek continued to battle for second, yet they opened a significant gap to Simon Pilate and Leevi Lintukantu - who had a great run in the #23 Iceboys Chevrolet.
In an incident with potential championship implications, Tziortzis spun and then retired, while Simon Pilate found himself in the gravel in the latter stages while he was running in fourth and lost one position.
With a dominant performance, Dauenhauer took his second win in a row in 2021, preceding Deodhar and Doubek by over 7 seconds across the finish line.
Alina Loibnegger was P14 at the end of the first race of the weekend and edged Arianna Casoli - 15th at the chequered flag - for the Ladies Trophy win.
"Race 1 was not easy because the track was very wet. I battled for the Legend Trophy, and it was a challenging one." - told us Casoli.
"In 2019 it was really warm, so it was somehow a different track. This year's rain and cold made everything more difficult, as there were some very slippery sections and you couldn't use the kerbs. And then in the mixed weather it was again different - but I have to say that I enjoyed it quite a lot."
The sun finally made an appearance on the Czech racetrack on Sunday for Race 2, but not much changed at the front - Tobias Dauenhauer remained the class of the field and took another dominant victory after a perfect weekend at Most.
The German had started from pole position, alongside Pierluigi Veronesi and ahead of Advait Deodhar and Martin Doubek on row 2. Loibnegger lined up 16th on the grid, a few positions ahead of Casoli in 19th.
Dauenhauer had a clean start and kept the top of the leaderboard after Turn 1, while behind him, it was a hectic first part of the race: Deodhar made contact with Veronesi and both had to retire early, allowing Doubek to move into second place. One lap later, though, Dubek was also out of the race due to a broken axle.
The shuffle in the front-running positions meant that Francesco Garisto and Paolo Valeri - who had started from the seventh row of the grid - were up in contention for a podium finish.
In these action-filled phases, Loibnegger held on to P16, while Casoli was cutting her way through the field and was up to P14. They both continued to gain positions as they kept out of troubles - until Alina spun on lap 6 but rejoined and resumed her charge.
Tziortzis, who had retired from race 1, made contact with Valeri; they both spun, with Naveh Talor collecting their cars. They all rejoined the race, but Valeri had the worst out of it and dropped to the back.
Another big tangle in the final stages involved Yevgen Sokolovski, Alberto Panebianco and Miguel Gomes - as the Ukrainian driver was deep into a corner and collected the #89 Not Only Motorsport Chevrolet, bringing out the yellow flags.
After an action-filled second heat, 23-year-old Tobias Dauenhauer took his second win of the weekend and extended his championship lead over Martin Doubek.
Francesco Garisto's clean race paid off and the Italian capitalized with a second place, ahead of Tziortzis, Kunz and Linster.
With a collected drive, Arianna Casoli was P10 across the finish line: it was her first time in the top-10 since the 2020 round at Zolder, where she scored her first top-five in the series.
"On Sunday I had a lot of fun in dry conditions - finally!" - said Arianna. "It was the first really dry session, and thus we had to re-discover the track, somehow. I had a good start, and I made up 6 positions during the first lap, five right at the start."
"Then I was right in the pack, until the driver in front of me spun and I lost a bit of touch with the others, but it was a really fun race because I always had someone close as a reference. To bring the car home in one piece it wasn't easy, because everyone was on the edge", she recalled. "I finished P10, first among the Ladies and fourth in the Legend class."
"The team worked really well in adapting the car to the conditions. Obviously we couldn't fine-tune a setup over the 3 days, but I had a really strong car for the dry, and I had lots of fun driving it".
With the result, Casoli now sits in 15th place in the overall drivers' standings, with 129 points, and continues to lead the Female Trophy rankings.
Alina Loibnegger also had a very positive second race and finished in 11th place, just one place from her first Top-10. With Miguel Gomes taking the Rookie standings victory in ninth position overall, Loibnegger climbed the Rookies' podium for the first time and scored an impressive second place in class.
"The weekend in Most was a great experience for me again." - Alina told us after another learning-oriented weekend. "The weather was crazy, constantly changing weather conditions on the track, but I got along surprisingly well with it!"
"Two podiums for me, a victory in the Lady Trophy and a second place in the Rookie Trophy" - she added. "I'm already looking forward to Grobnik and would like to thank my team Solaris Motorsport, who do an unbelievably great job every weekend."
EuroNASCAR will now head to Automotodrom Grobnik, for the second ever edition of the NASCAR GP Croatia. The venue was firstly introduced to the calendar last year, when the pandemic posed extra challenges to the series' promoters for some of the scheduled rounds. Grobnik proved to be another fast and edgy track.
As the season progresses, weather is likely to continue to provide challenges to the drivers, with the Belgian round of Zolder following. Last year Casoli scored her first top-5 in another rainy weekend. "Zolder is a track that I really love - and with this year's experience I might get something more out of a mixed-weather weekend, if that will be the case." - Arianna told us. "It is a fast track as well, but I already drove it in the rain and it's one of my favourites I have to say."
"Last year, after three very good starts I found myself really among the front-runners, but hopefully I can get in the top-10 again", she concluded.
Cars will hit the track in a month's time in Croatia, for the fourth round of the 2021 EuroNASCAR season on 18-19 September.