Bax and Stupelis show their style in Lommel sand
There could be no tougher place to start the 2019 season than the infamous sand of Lommel. With a record entry, there was fierce competition for the thirty actual, and two reserve grid slots. Two groups were therefore an essential for this first round, and results here would certainly influence which crews made the long trip to Spain for round two. Free practice had an immediate impact on the soft surface, with the known sand specialists looking good from the word go.
Group A – Overall winners here in June of last year Etienne Bax and Kaspars Stupelis were drawn alongside Vanluchene/Van den Bogaart and Julian Veldman.
It was these two crews who made the running throughout the session, with Vanluchene grabbing the holeshot.
Conditions were more than hard, and lap times were a full ten seconds slower than earlier in the day as the ruts deepened in the soft terrain.
Bax and Stupelis chased Vanluchene hard for five laps, but then fought their way past the young world champion to assume control.
Second overall last year Kert Varik and Lauris Daiders, obviously enjoying the fine weather and hard conditions, held third for a considerable time before succumbing to a challenge from Julian Veldman/Glenn Janssens.
This pair were later to drop to thirteenth place at the end of the session.
It would be last chance and likely a second row start for them. A delighted Varik was once again promoted to third
Davy Sanders/Lari Kunnas, a new partnership, were strong together and made a very creditable fourth with Veldman's demise in the closing stages.
Kristof Santermans and Konstantinas Beleckas were equally good in fifth, after a race-long scrap with the Brown family, Stuart and his son Jake, who with their respective passengers Josh Chamberlain and Joe Millard, came home sixth and seventh.
There was however, no doubting the speed and skill of Etienne Bax and Kaspars Stupelis. On this showing, with the Grand Prix races ahead of them, they mean business in 2019.
1/ Bax/Stupelis, 2/ Vanluchene Van Den Bogaart, 3/ Varik/Daiders,
4/ Sanders/Kunnas, 5/ Santermans/Beleckas, 6/ Brown/Chamberlain,
Group B – Daniel Willemsen and Valentin Giraud crossed swords in this group with 2018 runners-up Koen Hermans/Nicolas Musset, with Giraud using a replacement passenger in the shape of young German Andres Haller.
A big crash for Brett Wilkinson brought out the yellow flag at the start of the second qualifier, meaning all crews would reform and start again.
It was Willemsen who took the hole-shot next time around and he opened up a gap from the chasing pack.
Koen Hermans and Nicolas Musset had a reasonable start and found themselves fighting up from fifth place in chase of the leaders.
It was half distance before they had closed the gap completely, and eventually eased his way past the ten times champion.
Gert van Werven and Peter Beunk had a great ride to finish third ahead of Giraud/Haller and Marco Heinzer/Ruedi Betschart.
Arne Dierckens and Robbie Bax were next, with a stunning result for young Kelly Debruyne, who with Jens Mans finished twelfth and made the grid.
Regrettably, Brett Wilkinson was hospitalised and therefore unable to compete further.
The same misfortune befell Gary Moulds and Steve Kirwin, so their race was also over.
1/Hermans/Musset, 2/ Willemsen/Rostingt, 3/ Van Werven/Beunk,
4/ Giraud/Haller, 5/ Heinzer.Betschart, 6/ Dierckens/Bax, 7/ Mulders/Van de Wiel
From Barry Nutley