2003 ProSolo Finale

Off to Topeka for the 2003 ProSolo Finale.

It's kind of funny - what with all the reliability problems early in the season (and the subsequent missed events) it feels like the season is ending too early; like we're only just starting to hit our stride.

But in any case, here we are, fresh Hoosiers on the car, the new setup vetted and proven, and a surface that had been really kind to us in the past.

Unfortunately, those aforementioned early-season problems have pretty much obliterated any chance of a Championship repeat. In order to beat Bob Tunnell we're not only going to have to win the event, but Bob is going to have to come in 5th or worse. The odds on that happening are... not good. However, a win or second will get us second place overall for the year, and a third place finish - depending on who wins or takes second - can get us third overall. If we can pull off a top-three points finish, that'd be a nice comeback. And a win would stamp some authority on the class, and net some contingency tires too, which would go a long way towards making the 14 hour long drive back home a lot happier.

We had to leave Windsor late Thursday night, and wound up driving all night to get to Topeka, so I was a little punch-drunk by the time we get the car registered and teched. I want to walk the course a couple of times before we go to the hotel and go to ground, so I wind up watching practice starts. We don't do practice starts any more, as there is a finite number of launches in the driveline, and we still don't have a good feeling on how large that number is.

It becomes very obvious very quickly that the 60' lights are placed using the smallest value of sixty feet that I've ever encountered. Everybody is abuzz with how well the start line is hooking up, and more than one concerned and well-meaning fellow competitor is advising me to perhaps not use the launch control at this event due to the added shock of a better-than-normal start line and its effects on driveline longevity. This provides some amusement.

Once practice starts are over, we go out to walk the course, and we get a rather rude shock. The course has been designed by Roger (Texas) Johnson, the noted course designer, who is famous for designing fun courses with non-obvious best lines through them. Three-quarters of the course look like a hell of a good time, and there is a 270 degree crossover-turnaround that not only plays well to the car's strengths, but provides a visual indication of how well you are doing vice your opponent because you are pointed at him for a portion of the course, and so can see where he is relative to you.

The last quarter of the course though, has been changed from the original design. What had been a fast 3-cone slalom with a decent bit of distance between the cones is now a 6-cone slalom with the minimum distance allowed by the rules between them.

This is, frankly, a disaster. The maximum speed through a slalom is heavily dependant on the width of the car, and this becomes more true as the distance between cones is shortened. Our car is very wide, and the M3s are vary narrow, which means that the M3s will get through the slalom faster than us. Normally, this is a reasonable tradeoff, because the typical slalom length is three or four cones long, meaning that we're not in the slalom for very long, even if it is minimum-distance - and besides, it's not like we don't have advantages over the M3s elsewhere (like at the start!)

But as the slalom gets longer, the portion of time spent in it gets longer too, and six cones is a long slalom. We're going to be in that thing for a long time, and the M3s are going to be a good deal faster there. My rough estimate is that we'll have to be ahead of the M3s by a second to a second and a half at the slalom entry in order to come out equal at the end - and that's a tall order indeed.

We never see course elements like this, and to see one at the Finale is a bit of a shock. Bob - ever the sportsman - actually apologises to me that the course so blatantly favours him - not that it's his fault.

But, at the end of the day, the course is what it is, and there's no sense giving up before we've even run the thing... so we commit the course to memory, and then head off to the hotel for some well-earned sleep.

Saturday morning arrives. I'm lined up against Gary Richardson's supercharged M3. I'm crushing him on the way out, but the slalom is every bit as nasty as I'd feared, and he's reeling me in. On the left, he's about 7 tenths faster, but I've got him on the right by 5 tenths or so. The right side actually looks pretty good, and I'm on pace with the Z06s in SS - if I can drop the left into similar territory, I'll be doing fine. Bob is 3 tenths faster than me on the right, but dirty on the left.

My suspicion that the 60' lights may be a few feet short of 60 is confirmed when the announcer goes nuts over my "insane" 1.4 second 60' times. Yeah, like THAT'S happening. I'm winding up the launch control and letting her rip, secure that I'm probably not going to spit the driveline clear of the car because my data says that the grip here is no better than at Peru.

Then we have a bit of excitement, when the Sias/Fraser M3 blows out the front of its driveshaft, ripping the trans loose of its mounts and shearing off all the shift linkages. They can't get it fixed in time for the rest of the weekend, are forced to go borrow cars, and run afoul of the car eligibility rules when they wind up in an underweight car - which is a real shame for both of them. I've been there before, and I feel for them.

Saturday PM. I'm second, behind Gary, so we line up against each other again, I have a moment on my first run as I go explore the limits of the rear tires trying to see how fast I can take the slalom going out - meaning that I spin it. In the past, that would have rattled me so bad that I'd not recover, but now I'm getting used to it - and besides, the new setup means that the sudden snap-spins that used to plague the car no longer occur; I feel this one coming a mile away but just can't quite catch it.

The subsequent left side run is slow, but I pull a tenth out of my next two runs, - small improvement, but at least it's something. The slow left has me puzzled, especially as I'm visibly ahead of Gary at the turn, but I'll get two more shots at it, and my right is strong. Gary goes no faster on the left, but he matches my right.

Meanwhile, Bob cleans up his left side and dips into the 29s to boot, and then he lays down a smoking mid-28 on the right, a full 1.1 seconds faster than my "strong" time. Ye Gods. I've slipped back to third.

Sunday morning comes, and it's time to go balls-out and see if I can't catch Bob and Gary. Gary seems catchable, but Bob... ouch. The spectators are saying that it doesn't even look like he's slowing down for that finish slalom, whereas to me it seems like I'm in there for ages....

And this time, there's no improvement; I basically just back up my fast times from the previous day. Gary is marginally faster on the left, but nowhere near Bob, and Bob slows down. That's the way we finish - Bob, Gary, then me - and that's the way the year-end points finish up too. Eric Hyman is 4th, a half second back from me, then Ramzi in his VW, and then finally the luckless SiasTuning team.

So I'm the fastest non-M3, and the car didn't break - those are victories.

This is the first time in my career that I feel like I actually ran out of car, which I suppose is a step forward, and I'm pretty sure we won't be seeing any more of those 6-cone slaloms. Even so, part of next season's test programme will be setting up a duplicate and running it over and over to see if I can make it through there faster than I did at this event. The data logs showed a nearly dead-flat speed trace through there, and within a kmh or two of each other, which means that either I reached the limit or underdrove the car really consistently.

In any case, I feel pretty good about the end of the season. I'm driving well, I'm on the pace, and I'm finally starting to get control of my rampant nerves - I'm actually having fun, and a lot more relaxed accordingly. This bodes well for the National Championship in four days time....