Bax and Stupelis supreme in Stelpe qualifying to keep their hopes alive
The Piladzu Mototrase complex in Stelpe Latvia was once more host to the world's best sidecar cross racers, in gloriously hot and sunny conditions for Grand Prix number ten. Partly due to the remoteness and sheer travel distance, a smaller contingent made the journey this late in the season. Just twenty-seven teams signed on and were scrutineered, thus eliminating the need for groups.
It did mean that all teams would get a ride, so in many ways, there was just as much, if not more incentive to go for it in qualifying with every chance of a points-scoring ride. Notable absentees were Stuart Brown and Joe Millard. Brown had injured his wrist during race one in Germany. Round nine in Strassbessenbach then turned out to be a nightmare for the British crew, adding them to the list of high-profile names suffering ill-fortune this season. This obviously precluded Brown's attendance in Latvia, and likewise son Jake.
Also joining the walking wounded list following free practice in Stelpe was British passenger Ryan Humphrey who has been doing a sterling job for the the Swiss driver Christophe Cuche. They too had a mishap, in which Humphrey sustained a wrist injury, possibly broken.
Pre-Qualifying for that one fast lap showed us what to expect. On a heavily watered but very fast track, Etienne Bax and Kaspars Stupelis were in their element.
Although the series leaders Marvin Vanluchene and Ben Van Der Bogaart are almost uncatchable in the standings, second place and Koen Hermans were distinctly within reach, and Bax knew it. Kert Varik and Lauris Daiders were another local team keen to impress, and they made some of the early running. Bax and Stupelis were very fast from the word go, and quite soon normal service was resumed as Daniel Willemsen/Robbie Bax, Arne Dierckens and Koen Hermans came up to play. Valentin Giraud too was quick, with Vanluchene keeping his powder dry.
It would be the reigning champions Bax and Stupelis having the pick of the grid for the one qualifying race.
Qualifying race - Extensive watering ahead of the race made things slippery and tricky. With just twenty-six surviving teams, all would go through, but this race was for grid position, crucial if the watering persisted tomorrow. Bax and Stupelis got the hole-shot ahead of Hermans Musset. These two crews meant business. Willemsen was down in seventh behind Vanluchene/Van Den Bogaart, who had Giraud/Badaire just ahead of them.
The first four had opened a slight gap on lap three, with the red plate holder leading the chase in fifth. Brett Wilkinson and Dan Chamberlain, the lone British crew had started thirteenth, but had pulled back two places, going well behind the Finnish Kunnas brothers and Varik/Daiders. It was a Zabel one-two-three at the front, with the lone four-stroke of Giraud snorting away in fourth.
Julian Veldman and Glenn Janssens, fellow Husky exponents, were once again at the back of the field, eventually retiring after lap three. Van Werven's Italian built TM sat behind Willemsen, and five seconds clear of Varik seven laps in. By this time Wilkinson had moved past Kunnas into tenth place. Etienne Bax and Kaspars Stupelis were certainly doing their utmost, and had a three second lead at the head of the race.
Hermans/Musset could live with them, but that was about it. The rest of the field , including Vanluchene, were twelve seconds adrift of the defending champion and his young pursuers.
Tomas and Ondrej Cermak were not making the most of the conditions, and with ten laps gone, were sixteenth. At the front, Vanluchene was on the back wheel of Giraud into the closing stages, so they were intent on getting as good a start slot as possible in the races tomorrow.
Almost overlooked, but incredibly quick circulating in third, Arne Dierckens and Luc Rostingt were strong again, but could they keep the flying Giraud and Vanluchene behind them in the battle for third place? Well the answer was yes, and these three crews were just five seconds apart with twelve laps gone.
At the flag, nothing had changed, except that Etienne Bax and Kaspars Stupelis had thrown down the gauntlet to Hermans and Vanluchene. On this form tomorrow, he will keep his hopes alive, and it is for them to slip up.
From Barry Nutley