Zolder Preliminary Report
12. September 2019Zolder - At Round 6 in Zolder, Belgium, the truck racers round the final corner, as it were, in this year’s FIA European Championship. Whoever botches his or her weekend up, as an unfortunate consequence of technical issues or an accident, has next to no chance of making up lost ground.
Defending champ Jochen Hahn had this painful experience 13 years ago – we’ve described the events of that dramatic season often enough. Over the last four weekends beginning at Most the then Mercedes pilot saw his 38-points lead over the eventual champion Antonio Albacete turn into a 55-points deficit. The Spaniard, by contrast, had a dream run beginning in Most, where he scored 60 points out of 60. The young Hahn came to Zolder with his lead more than halved, and then experienced probably the worst weekend of his racing career.
This year he holds a lead of 75 points, has the experience that comes with five titles, and is the winningest race truck constructor in the history of the sport – be it with Mercedes-Benz, MAN, or now Iveco. The bantam from Altensteig is a shrewd tactician, focusing intensely on success in the first race of the day, in which more points are to be had, and keeping out of trouble in the more closely fought second race in which there is only a point’s difference between positions.
There are, however, 180 points still available to any of his competitors, and a 75-points lead isn’t entirely unassailable – at least not yet. But be it that the championship is already decided, there remains a six-way battle for the two remaining spots on the podium at the end-of-season prizegiving in Jarama.
The 19 entries include, for the first time this season, David Jenkins (MAN). The Englishman is a close second in the British Division 1 championship behind MAN colleague Ryan Smith, and his performance here would make for an interesting comparison between the top flights of the two series.
There are, of course, the four races of the Dutch Truck Racing Championship as well. It wouldn’t be an affront to describe the pilots in that series as “ambitious amateurs”, in it more for the sheer joy of tripping on speed together than for the competition – embodying the Olympic creed: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Truck racing in Zolder is a tradition that goes back to the 1980s. The biggest racing machines on the planet, tearing down pit straight at top speed, boxed in by walls on either side – have always been a sight to behold. Even when there have been spectacular crashes, with sections of the retaining wall ripped out of its foundations and trucks landing atop one another, we’ve not had a single serious injury – more evidence, if you needed it, of just how solid and stable a race truck can be. With the minimum weight set at 5,300 kg, there’s absolutely no excuse for a constructor to skimp on safety.
Zolder is also the only racetrack on the calendar at which the mechanics, who more often than not have to work on the trucks till all hours of night, can sleep late on Sunday. Every year without fail, we explain the peculiarity that permits them this rare luxury, but we still get wondering enquiries about why everything gets going only so late on Sunday morning. Here’s why. Hidden in a copse within the infield is a chapel at which a mass is held, ending at 10 am. Till that time no engine may be started up anywhere on the circuit. This year the warm-up on Sunday will only start at 10:30. The “motor silence” also applies after 6 pm, by the way. Unduly long interruptions in the schedule, as for example following a multi-truck pile-up, can make things extremely difficult for the organisers.
Circuit Zolder has another speciality, overwhelmingly popular with the fans – a campsite on the infield, bordered by a sweep of the circuit, an offering nonpareil on the ETRC calendar.
The action kicks off on Friday with the two free practice sessions. At 5:15 pm the field sets out on the City Parade, along an 8km-long route into the centre of Heusden-Zolder. The trucks of the ETRC and the Dutch championship will regroup at Heldenplein 1, where the teams and fans will be regaled with a never-ending supply of mouth-watering Belgian frites.