The European NASCAR division made its first ever appearance in Croatia, where Julia Landauer had her most consistent round with two Top-10 and a Rookie podium. Popular Italian racer Arianna Casoli had her weekend compromised by a heavy crash in Qualifying.
Over a month after the second 2020 EuroNASCAR round at Circuit Zolder, the European division of the popular American stock-car series made its return to the tracks at Grobnik Autodrom - marking the first ever visit of the series to Croatia.
The scheduled event at Most, Czech Republic, had in fact to be scrapped at a short notice due to the coronavirus-related restrictions, but the NASCAR Wheelen Euro Series organization was quick to find a quality replacement. The lesser-known Automotodrom Grobnik, located just outside Rijeka and surrounded by a very scenic landscape, proved to be a great addition to the calendar, with its 4.168m of technical, twisty and fast corners.
Both Julia Landauer and Arianna Casoli, the two female entries in the 2020 EuroNASCAR 2 division, headed to Croatia coming from strong performances in Belgium: with a top-5 each at Zolder, Casoli was sitting sixth in the standings after her best ever series results, while American 29-year old Landauer was ninth in the points standings following two solid weekends, but the PK Carsport driver knew she had the speed to consistently tackle the top 6 places.
"We are in the final stretch of my European adventures. It's had its ups and downs, with great racing and not-so-great lockdowns, with improvements to my French and extreme exhaustion with my French" - joked the American prior to the race weekend.
"Now we're entering a dense 3.5 weeks, with two race weekends and six races to round out the 2020 season. I'm pumped."
"[The circuit] looks fun and fast, with beautiful mountains surrounding the track.", she added regarding the calendar change. "It's a beautiful coastal area with national parks, beaches, hilly villages".
Landauer was fast straight from the practice sessions and steadily finished in the top 10.
The qualifying session, though, was halted prematurely following a monumental crash by Arianna Casoli in her #54 CAAL Racing Chevrolet Camaro. The Italian driver was luckily unharmed and walked away from the totalled vehicle, but had to sit out the first race on Saturday due to her car's heavy damages.
There were several other incidents during the session, such as Casoli's teammate Max Lanza who went into the tyre wall hard moments before the red flag and broke his wrist in the impact.
Landauer qualified seventh as the session could not be restarted as a consequence of the track barriers damages.
"We didn't have a perfect qualifying, track was still a little damp in the beginning so we waited to go out." - commented Julia after Saturday's qualifying. "It takes about three laps to get the tyres up to speed. I got one fast lap and then someone crashed so hard [Arianna Casoli] that it destroyed the safety wall and so they had to call the session with 9 minutes left."
"So I really only got one timed lap - I'm starting seventh, I know that we had a lot more and we just have to be smart in the race." she continued.
Vittorio Ghirelli lined up on pole position, alongside Hendriks Motorsport's teammate Tobias Dauenhauer and preceding Vladimiros Tziortzis and Dylan Derdaele on the second row.
As the lights went out for the opening race of the Croatian weekend, the leading duo got away well, with Belgian driver Derdaele slotting into third and close behind. Risitano was up to fourth in the #12 Solaris Motorsport Chevrolet.
As the top three tried to break away from the pack and showed unmatched pace, Julia Landauer initially held seventh position but was then passed by Martin Doubek at the end of the opening lap.
The Czech racer, double winner at Zolder, immediately started to put pressure on Tziortzis and engaged in a battle that saw the drivers exchanging positions from fourth to seventh.
Tziortzis attempted a move on Brigatti but had to back off - resulting in the Cypriot coming under threat from Doubek again.
Meanwhile, Ghirelli and Dauenhauer had definitely checked out from third-placed Derdaele, as the latter was caught by Nicholas Risitano and the group of cars behind.
When the driver of the #98 CAAL Racing Ford Mustang went off, a fierce fight to position was ignited: Doubek dived on the inside and passed Brigatti and Risitano moved ahead of Derdaele, with also Tziortzis eyeing an opportunistic move. He, however, made a mistake and got stuck in the gravel as he attacked a struggling Derdaele.
Landauer executed an untroubled race in seventh position and, by the final laps, had almost closed the gap from the battling group ahead.
After controlling the race from Dauenhauer, Vittorio Ghirelli took the chequered flag and won Race 1 at Grobnik. It was his second EuroNASCAR career win.
Third was a distant Risitano, 14 seconds adrift, while Doubek was fourth - just ahead of Dylan Derdaele. Julia Landauer completed a convincing race in seventh.
The second Croatian race was contested on Sunday morning in a still very damp track - the rain had stopped and the sun was back shining in Rijeka, but the race was still declared wet due to the slippery conditions. Teams were left with the tyre-strategy dilemma, but most of the field went for the grooved wet tyres.
As a very welcome surprise, Arianna Casoli made it back to the grid after CAAL Racing assigned the very popular Italian racer the #88 car which was set to be driven by the injured Max Lanza. Casoli thus took the start from the back of the field despite her unrepairable #54 "Giallona" car.
The race started behind the Safety Car and, when the green flag finally waved on the third lap, the cars restarted in single-file. Vittorio Ghirelli accelerated into the lead, preceding Tobias Deuenhauer and Nicholas Risitano - in a grid set by Saturday's first race fastest laptimes. Again, the top three tried to pull away but the pack remained bunched up.
Brigatti overtook Tziortzis for fifth and Julia Landauer held eighth position.
When she made a small mistake, Francesco Garisto found a way past the American lady.
As the battle for second, third and fourth place raged on, Ghirelli opened up a gap in the lead and never looked back.
Doubek drove aggressively and pressured Risitano, but then dropped behind Brigatti in the #8 Camaro. The Czech driver would re-gain the position one lap later with a great move in the final section of the circuit.
Martin Doubek gained momentum and made a move stick on Risitano, as the latter was forced on the grass and hit Brigatti as he rejoined the track - scattering debris all over the track. No neutralization was called and the race continued with Brigatti's car visibly damaged and a piece of lost bodywork getting stuck underneath Tziortzis #1 Alex Caffi Motorsport's Ford.
Fourth-placed Risitano was off the track as well and dropped back, promoting Landauer to eighth. In the final hectic stages, Julia managed to pass Brigatti and further closed in on Derdaele.
After 14 intense laps, Vittorio Ghirelli took his second win of the weekend from an unstoppable Doubek - who had passed Dauenhauer with few laps to go - making it a Hendriks Motorsport 1-2-3.
Garisto and Tziortzis fought hard for P4 and the Italian had the better hand at the finish line, but he later received a 10 second time penalty for overtaking off the track and dropped to ninth.
Julia Landauer could thus advance to sixth place - and literally few tenths off P5. The result gained her the Ladies Trophy and one more podium in the Rookie standings.
"It was all right, I finished sixth overall" - she said.
"I was fighting for position and carried too much speed on the side of someone and went off track, had a lot of ground to make up. I caught them by the end - if I had one more lap or two it would have been really good. Disappointed that I made a mistake, but I was trying really hard and we finished sixth. It was a good points weekend, so I'm excited to go back to Valencia - we have four races there so almost half the season left. We'll try to get some podiums and maybe a win."
Arianna Casoli finished P16 in the #88 CAAL Racing machine after an unfortunate weekend, but was most importantly unscathed following Saturday's crash.
EuroNASCAR now moves to the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, Spain, where the drivers will fight in the final double-point four races of the 2020 season - with everything still to play for.