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Anis, Sharpe and Wittmer: 2012 Canadian Touring Car champs

Michel Sallenbach (left) and Damon Sharpe duel at Calabogie Motorsports Park

 Published in Globe Drive, Sept. 8, 2012

While two class champions had already been crowned, it took until the final Labour Day race weekend of the 2012 Canadian Touring Car Championship season to decide the Touring class champion.

When the checkered flag flew on Sunday, Sept. 2, it was Damon Sharpe in a Honda Civic Si who won the final two races of the season at Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa and took the Touring class championship, defeating his closest rival Michel Sallenbach of Roxton Pond, Que., in a Mini Cooper.

For Sharpe, of Tottenham, Ont., to take two Touring class wins in the final event of the season, as well as the class win in round 14 in Montreal, was vindication for a tough season.

Earlier in the season, “he couldn’t catch a break,” said series president John Bondar. Sharpe had several mechanical problems that were compounded by glitches – as when qualifying times were wiped out at the ICAR circuit due to a technical problem. “He was running well, around fourth spot, but then we had to nullify qualifying times,” said Bondar. “You could just see the disappointment on his face.”

Sharpe’s luck began to turn in Montreal and continued when he hit Calabogie. He started from the pole position and took the lead early. As Sallenbach tried to pass him, he went on to the grass, damaging his suspension and ending his race.

“I am too competitive and I know I blew it all by myself,” Sallenbach said after the race.

All Sharpe then had to do was finish the next race and the class championship would be his. But he wasn’t ready to relax just yet.

“Guys were coming up and congratulating me and I said, ‘Whoa, I still have to finish the race,’ ” said Sharpe. “Anything can happen in CTCC. The starts alone can be pretty brutal.”

He again started from the pole for the final race but then “dropped back to fourth and started to make some mistakes. I got on to the grass and got all crossed up and had to tell myself, okay, get the mistakes out of the way.” His crew told him he could take it easy and run a conservative race, but “I guess I’m not wired that way.” Sharpe went on to take the Touring class win in his first full season in the CTCC.

In Super Class, Sasha Anis of Mississauga, Ont., drove his Hyundai Genesis coupe to top spot with 1,765 points and Nick Wittmer of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que,. was crowned B-Spec class champion with 1,404 points in his Honda Fit. Sharpe ended his season with 1,578 points.

The Canadian Touring Car Championship season began in May during the Victoria Day weekend at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park track near Bowmanville, Ont. Drivers competed in two races in each of the eight race weekends, and the CTCC also made stops at Mont-Tremblant; as support races for the Formula One event and the NASCAR Nationwide race at Circuit-Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal before ending the season at Calabogie.

Racers are divided into three classes: the entry-level B-Spec Class features compact cars, such as the Fit and Mazda2, with stock engines; the Touring class features cars such as the Mini Cooper and Honda Civic Si with minimal modifications; while Super Class machines such as the BMW 330i and Acura RSX have powerful and heavily modified engines and advanced aerodynamics. All three classes compete at the same time on each track.

Anis dominated the season in Super class, with 15 podiums in 16 races. After a dismal season in 2011, he was primed for success in 2012.

“This was the year when everything fell into place,” he said. “The goal for Calabogie was to lead every lap and that’s what we did.” Even when Luc Lesage pushed Anis sideways early in the final race, Anis was able to hold on. “I was thinking, ‘Well, this is how my race is going to end.’ ”

Anis joked that his crew chief, Andrew Stittle, might be a good luck charm for both he and Sharpe. In addition to his crew chief role, Stittle took on the job of driving Sharpe’s transporter. Then the Tottenham driver’s luck took a turn for the better and he started to win races.

Bondar was pleased with the performance of both Anis and Sharpe.

“Sasha kind of drove away from all the other guys. There might be some jealousy but the other drivers respect him. He never does anything dumb on the track. He’s a great champion.

“Damon is an example of just a great battle back.”

For Bondar, highlights of the 2012 CTCC season include the series’ first night race at Trois-Rivieres, Que., in August and taking part in the Formula One weekend in Montreal in June. “We had some great track times for the F1 event – nothing at 8 a.m. or 6 p.m. – all of it was in front of the crowds,” he said. That weekend was capped off with a spectacular crash by Andre Rapone, which saw his B-Spec Mini Cooper launch itself off a curb, across the track and into a wall. Rapone was unhurt, but the in-car video of his crash has so far notched up more than 5,000 views on YouTube.

The series is also enjoying some more conventional video exposure through P1, a reality-based TV show on the CTCC and its drivers that airs on Sportsnet and will run until the end of 2012, and possibly into next season.

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Canadian Touring Car Championship gets F1, NASCAR spotlights

Gary Kwok and Bob Attrell duel during the Victoria Day Speedfest at Mosport International Raceway

Published in Globe Drive on July 4, 2012

For the 2012 season, Canadian Touring Car Championship drivers have forsaken IndyCar in favour of NASCAR and Formula 1.

Series president John Bondar says “scheduling difficulties” prevented the series from competing in a supporting role at the Honda Indy Toronto. But those difficulties meant that the mix of amateur and semi-pro drivers will have competed twice on Circuit-Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal by the end of the season – as a supporting event during the Formula 1 weekend in June and in the upcoming NASCAR Nationwide series weekend August 16 to 18.

Driver Damon Sharpe summed up the racers’ feelings about competing before an F1 crowd just prior to the race: “There is so much history here over the years and everyone just wants to do well here.”

Plus, they’ll head for the first time to the Circuit Mont Tremblant in Quebec on July 6-8. The eight-event season, with two races at each event, began May 18-20 at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park near Bowmanville, Ont., and ends at Calabogie Motorsport Park, near Ottawa, Sept. 1-2.

Going into Mont Tremblant, Sasha Anis of Mississauga, Ont., leads the Super class with 671 points in his G1 Racing Hyundai Genesis Coupe, followed by Philip Fayer in a Pontiac Solstice with 576 points and Anis’s G1 teammate Jonathan Rashleigh with 516 points. Atop the Touring standings sits Michel Sallenbach of Roxton Pond, Que., and his Mini Cooper S JCW with 664 points followed by Jocelyn Fecteau of Mont St-Gregoire, Que., in a Scion tC with 550 points and Paul Gravel of St-Guillaume, Que., Sallenbach’s teammate, with 536 points.

Anis credits consistent driving and a bit of luck for putting him at the top of the Super class standings. He was helped by two race wins at the ICAR circuit near Montreal on June 23 and 24 and he notched two second places in the season’s first two races at Bowmanville, then a pair of thirds during the Formula 1 weekend in Montreal. But he’s more concerned about maintaining that consistency than thinking too much about whether or not he’ll be on the top of the standings at the end of the season.

“The most important thing is winning the races and not worrying about the championship. I’m enjoying the racing,” he said. “My luck has changed this year and we have a really good car. If we’re running well and we drive well and win the championship, then great.”

Bad luck and mechanical gremlins plagued Anis last season –from being hit and spun out during a race at ICAR, to having a tie rod break and hitting the wall at Bowmanville. Then there was a turbo failure and a differential that fell off his car. “It was some really weird, crazy stuff,” he said.

Anis also has praise for many of his fellow Super drivers, especially brothers Remy Audette and Mathieu Audette in their Acura RSXs: “They were faster at ICAR and they really pushed me – they’ve got really great cars.”

Trust among drivers is key in any racing series, as drivers get to know each other and respect individual driver’s abilities, which allows them to compete and give each other racing room when necessary. But Anis admits maintaining that level of trust can be a challenge in fields of 37 cars, some driven by part-time racers who don’t compete in every race. Then there’s the crop of rookies to deal with. This year, there are 11 new drivers in the series.

“The first race all the series regulars were trying to figure out what these new guys were all about,” said Bondar. “But so far, so good.”

Some of those new guys (and at least one woman, Valerie Limoges of Shawinigan, Que.) are competing in the new B-spec class, an entry level class for subcompact cars like the Mazda2 and the Honda Fit. While Super class cars are heavily modified with advanced aerodynamics and Touring cars have some limited modifications, the B-spec cars are nearly showroom stock racers.

“They’re really low-modification, 98-101 horsepower puddle jumpers, ” said Bondar, who created the class as a low-cost entry point for new racers. The cars require safety modifications (such as a roll cage) and an aftermarket suspension kit, which runs about $2,500. “You can just bolt that on and go racing,” he said. “At the very top end, you could only expect to spend about $10,000.”

The B-spec class has proven unexpectedly competitive. The 2009 and 2010 Super class champ Nick Wittmer, of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que. leads the B-spec pack with 694 points, followed by Simon Dion-Viens of St. Joseph de Kamouraska, Que., with 643 points and Greg Pootmans of Toronto with 437 points. All are driving Honda Fits.

Bondar admits having a former champion potentially run away with the B-spec class wasn’t the intention of the class when it was created. But, he’s pleased that it can showcase the skills of a driver like Wittmer.

“It’s all skill – he really knows how to drive. He brakes deeper and carries more speed into the corners, then he’s faster on the entrance and exits. He really is putting on a driving school.”

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Jacques Villeneuve: A Man for All Seasons

My interview with Jacques Villeneuve: former F1 world champion, CART champ and Indianapolis 500 winner.

Villeneuve interview (pdf)

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Touring car’s final 2010 race

The checkered flag has flown on the final race in the Canadian Touring Car Championship. Here’s my story in Globe Drive and soon to be in The Globe and Mail‘s print edition.

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This just in…

My latest story on the Canadian Touring Car Championship is in The Globe and Mail‘s Globe Drive section. The series is at the half-way mark and is a supporting event at this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto.