Mid-Ohio was another ‘couldabeen’ race meeting in Nathan Morcom’s F2000 Championship series campaign. The young Sydney driver was on the back foot from day one of the seventh and eighth rounds of the American development openwheel series. First, he was sidelined for two of the four practice sessions after the throttle linkage broke on his Rondo Van Diemen, costing him precious track time.
More niggling problems during qualifying prevented him from qualifying higher than eighth for both rounds at the 3.9km Lexington road circuit. Eighth and six placings in the two races were as much as Morcom could manage in a car that was a full second off the pace. Despite a frustrating weekend, the top 10 double retained his sixth overall and third rookie positions in the series with six of the 14 rounds remaining.
Three engine failures in the two previous F2000 Championship Series rounds at Watkins Glen had Morcom hoping for a trouble-free weekend at Mid-Ohio – but that hope was dashed early in the proceedings.
The throttle linkage broke on his Rondo Van Diemen before he’d warmed up his tyres in the second of Thursday’s three practice sessions.
That would have been a nuisance at a conventional race meeting, but this wasn’t a conventional race meeting.
The F2000 and F1600/Formula F Championship Series were piggybacked on Audi club track days, with the practice and qualifying sessions and races run nose-to-tail from mid-afternoon until early-evening each day.
The tight schedule hardly allowed time for car set-up adjustments, let alone repairs.
(In fact, the original timetable had two qualifying sessions and a race on Friday and Saturday, but the first qualifying session was changed to a practice session after the Friday drivers’ briefing. With only six slicks at their disposal from the first qualifying session onwards, the competitors were adamant that a second qualifying session on the abrasive Mid-Ohio would be a waste of time.)
Morcom’s throttle linkage couldn’t be repaired in time for the third practice session, forcing him to sit out half of the pre-qualifying track time. Adding further pressure was a team decision to make just one qualifying run – most drivers made two attempts – to conserve the tyres.
Under the circumstances, his one flying lap, just 0.8 seconds off pole and good enough for eighth starting position in the 28-car field, was a remarkable achievement.
The rolling start, down Mid-Ohio’s long back straight, was the usual messy affair.
Morcom lost a handful of places in the first few corners after backing off to avoid a collision with his Primus Racing team-mate, Jonathan Scarallo. He regained one place on lap two when Tim Minor spun out of the lead pack, then clawed his way back past Gustavo Rizzo and Ethan Ringel back to eighth place. But Minor was on a charge after his off-track excursion, setting the fastest race lap as he closed on a struggling Morcom in the ill-handling no.2 Van Diemen
The pair swapped places on lap 10 after a brief tussle. Morcom battled on, though, taking eighth place back again after Kyle Connery dropped out of the lead bunch. He battled with John La Rue to the finish, crossing the line a fraction of a second ahead.
The race was won by Chris Livengood, with Brian Tomasi second and Robert La Rocca third. Morcom was disappointed to finish at the blunt end of the top 10, reflected by his fastest lap almost a full second off the pace.
“From the first lap my car wasn’t right – it was snapping into oversteer on every corner,” he said. “It wasn’t easy to get back the places I lost at the start with the car handling the way it was. When Tim Minor came up behind me, his car was so much faster that I couldn’t hold him off for more than a few laps.”
Saturday’s practice session, with drivers forced to use their race weekend tyres, posed a strategy dilemma: go out and work on car set-up, or stay in and save the tyres for qualifying and the race. Morcom hoped that overnight set-up changes would make the Rondo Van Diemen competitive when it counted, and gave the practice session a miss.
But in qualifying another a mechanical gremlin intervened – this time a too-low idle setting that made the engine die off-throttle. A pit stop remedied the problem, and in the limited remaining time Morcom did well to qualify eighth, 0.940sec. from pole.
Another rolling start shemozzle put him at loggerheads with John La Rue through the opening corners.
The pair banged wheels, bending the Rondo Van Diemen’s steering and damaging the rear suspension. Morcom acclimatised to the out-of-kilter steering, but the loose back end made the car a real handful.
“The only way I could get any corner exit speed was to back it in and drift through on the throttle,” he said.
“Driving like that doesn’t do the tyres any good on a smooth circuit – it was even worse here!”
Despite his car’s handling and steering handicaps, Morcom overtook Jonathan Scarallo and Joe Colasacco to be sixth. He had to drive defensively for the final two laps to hold off championship leader Remy Audette, who was recovering from a midfield start, until the finish.
The race was won by Kyle Connery, with Tim Minor second and Brian Tomasi third.
Afterwards, Morcom lamented yet another disrupted his F2000 Championship Series weekend.
“You can get away with small problems during a normal race meeting, but time was so tight here that the small problems I had turned into big problems," said Morcom. “I’m still confident of being a frontrunner in this series if I can just get a clear run.
“There are still three race meetings to go – maybe it‘ll happen next time.”