Words by Michael Reynolds
Photos by Rob Phelan - PhotoMotion
coda – noun – (i) a concluding event, remark or section; or (ii) the finale of a ballet in which the dancers parade before the audience.
COTA – noun – Circuit of the Americas – (i) a “bucket list” racetrack, the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is the resume of a North American racecar driver; or (ii) the beginning of the 2017 Lotus Cup USA season in which the racers parade their Lotus' as fast as possible before the audience.
And so it was on the week-end of March 18-19 that Lotus Cup USA. began the 2017 campaign in Austin, Texas, at what is arguably the finest racetrack in the Western Hemisphere. COTA is the only purpose-built Formula One track in the United States. The facility is fabulous, what one would expect of a project costing somewhere near $400 million to complete. The track is modern, wide, fast and technical. It has twenty challenging corners, none of which are as simple in real life as they look on television. In some, the pavement falls away unexpectedly (e.g., Turns 6 and 19.) Other corners are deceptively fast (e.g., Turns 2-5). Still others are punctuated by dramatic elevation changes that make it impossible to see the apex from the turn in point. There are six slow hairpins to frustrate chassis engineers trying to simultaneously dial out understeer while keeping the back ends planted through the high-speed esses.
Lotus Cup US happily welcomed the fun-loving Italian squad from PB Racing headed by Stefano D’Aste and featuring Italian driver Marco Fumagalli. “The Italians performed so well in the final two rounds of 2016 (Sonoma and Thermal), so we’re really glad to have them back in the U.S. this year” said newly-minted chief steward Jonathan Frost.
Several familiar faces were present but in different cars; 2016 Production Class Champion Mike Dean and runner-up Ross Jaffe are taking their long-time rivalry (which dates back to 2013!) to the SuperSport Class. Both gentlemen are sporting Evora GTNs this season to take the fight to 2016 SuperSport Champion Tom MacMillan and former champions Scott Gibson and Robb Bonanno.
Without the traditional Friday practice, Lotus Cup used Saturday for practice and qualifying, with Sunday devoted to racing. Reynolds drew first blood in 2017, capturing pole in the VSA Evora GT4 at the end of qualifying, barely a gnat’s eyelash ahead of defending Trophy Class Champion Nicolai Elghanayan.
Both Reynolds and Elghanayan smashed the Lotus Cup lap records over the course of the week-end, as did Robb Bonanno and Tom MacMillan in the SuperSport Class. Indeed, the lap times for many of the competitors were significantly better than in 2015, highlighting the progress made by the drivers since their past visit two years earlier.
As a special treat, Pirelli World Championship hotshoe and fellow Lotus enthusiast Scott Dollahite paced the field in his PWC-spec Evora GT4.
When the green flag fell for Race One, Reynolds got a clean run up the hill to the apex of Turn 1 and led Elghanayan through the high-speed esses on the East side of the track. But Nicolai got a better launch out of Turn 11, drafted Reynolds down the long back straight and used big Muellerized torque and horsepower to complete the pass. He would stay in front (with Reynolds following close behind) until midway through the race, when an electrical failure turned the tide in favor of Reynolds. “The bird brought me luck,” quipped Reynolds, referring to the hapless warbler that managed to wedge itself in between the dive planes on the front of his Evora GT4. Reynolds would take the first Trophy Class win of 2017, followed by Derek Wang in the other Muellerized Trophy Class entry, with Elghanayan rounding out the podium. Although Reynolds had the fastest time of the week-end (2:19.508), Nicolai would claim the championship point for the fastest lap of the race, at 2:20.277.
Tom MacMillan kicked off his title defense in fine style, winning from pole in his class. But the win was not without drama. On the opening lap, Robb Bonanno managed to slice ahead of him on the inside of Turn 3, and later passed one of the Trophy Class cars. Bonanno stayed in the lead until mechanical gremlins sidelined him, although he managed to set the fastest lap of the weekend in class, an incredible 2:24.569.
Towards the end of the race, MacMillan was comfortably ahead and was managing the gap back to second place Marco Fumagalli, and third place Scott Gibson, who completed the SuperSport Class podium.
Jesse Proudman drove well in the Tenax Racing / Dietsch Motorsports Exige to take first place in the Cup Class, ahead of Greg Strelzoff, who was driving Michael Reynolds’ T-Car (the #714 VSA Lotus Exige).
Congratulations to Noel Kivlin, who piloted the SP Motorsports spec-Elise to his maiden Production Class victory. Kivlin savored the triumph while surrounded by family – including his daughter and fellow competitor Nicolette.
Race Two would see a change of fortunes for many of the drivers. Reynolds again started from pole. Elghanayan started from mid-pack but managed a hole-shot start and was on Reynolds’ diffuser by the exit of Turn 1. The two would run nose-to-tail for the first lap. Nicolai once again drafted and then passed Reynolds on the inside of the back straight. But this put Nicolai offline and hurtling several miles an hour faster than usual towards the Turn 12 brake zone. Elghanayan locked up and overcooked the entry to Turn 12, allowing Reynolds through in the classic over/under pass/repass move. But Elghanayan didn’t give up. The two drove side-by-side through the ensuing corners in the infield, with Nicolai taking the lead heading out towards the triple-apex right-hander known as Turns 16-18. Reynolds kept up the pursuit but was hobbled in the latter stages of the race by a recalcitrant transmission. He would have to settle for the silver medal and once again ceded fastest lap honors to Elghanayan. Derek Wang would bring home the Muellerized Exige #888 in third place.
The SuperSport Podium looked exactly the same as in Race One. MacMillan once again won from pole (and also scored the fastest lap in class.) He stayed ahead of the furious battle between Scott Gibson and Marco Fumagalli. Gibson had the advantage from the start and kept his VSA Motorsports 2-11 in front of the futuristic-looking PB Racing machine for the first part of the race. But the advantage began to swing back and forth as the race progressed. On successive laps, Fumagalli made blindingly fast work of Turn 19 and was able to pass Gibson on the short straight leading up to Turn 20, only to overdrive the entry to Turn 20, oversteer on the exit and allow Gibson to retake the position. The following lap, yet again, Fumagalli followed Gibson through the entire lap, nailed Turn 19 and ran up the inside towards Turn 20. Gibson and Fumagalli drove side-by-side through Turn 20 but once again, Gibson drove harder off the corner and emerged in front by the end of the front straight. Finally, towards the end of Race Two, Fumagalli made a final attempt in the same spot, made the pass stick, and was able to stay ahead of Gibson through Turn 20 and down the front straight. Fumagalli took the silver medal and left Gibson to collect the bronze.
Behind them Jaffe and Dean fought a spirited battle throughout the race that would see them change position several times. Jaffe started two rows ahead of Dean, but Dean was on his tail by Turn 3. Dean tailed Jaffe through the field. Both men increased the pace while climbing the steep learning curve of the (new to them) Evora platform. Late in the race, Dean had a head of steam coming up the front straight and out-braked Jaffe into Turn 1. But he sacrificed the exit to make the pass, and Jaffe surged ahead on the downhill run into Turn 2. Dean caught back up through the esses, made a terrific launch out of Turns 8 and 9, drafted Jaffe into Turn 10 and made the pass in the braking zone for Turn 11. And made it stick. Until he threw it away. On the last lap of the race, with Jaffe following close behind, Dean went through the esses a little too fast, producing a tank-slapper that culminated in a spin. Jaffe cruised on by and finished ahead of Dean.
Meanwhile, Proudman drove another viceless, mistake-free race to claim the Cup Class victory and a commanding lead in the Cup Class championship. Greg Strelzoff jettisoned his Cup Class aspirations and drove the Dietsch Motorsports spec-Elise to victory in Production Class, ahead of the father-daughter Kivlin combo, with Noel emerging in front of Nicolette.
It was a memorable week-end for all. “I got to race my own car against my friends on a genuine F1 racetrack. What’s not to love?” said the victorious MacMillan. His sentiments were shared up and down the paddock. “Definitely a bucket-list item” said Reynolds, who was unable to drive due to illness in 2015, “I’ll treasure these memories forever.”
Lotus Cup now leaves COTA and heads out to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway for Round Two of the 2017 campaign. The two venues couldn’t be more different: California vs. Texas. Guardrails vs. sand. Humid central Texas vs. arid Desert Center. Long straights, hairpins and elevation changes vs. a merciless sequence of highly technical medium speed corners. But they have at least two things in common: they are both challenging tracks that will test car and driver to the limit. And they are both chapters in the unfolding story of the 2017 Lotus Cup championship.