The unofficial curtain raiser to the 1/8th Off Road season is the Montpellier GP in the south of France, and this year Agama/NEMO Racing's new recruit Darren Bloomfield came agonisingly close to an epic win.
With warmer weather than has been the case in recent years, the race had slightly different feel to it than in the past, and equally it seemed to lift the spirits of the competitors as they weren't huddling way from the biting cold as usual.
Practice got underway on friday and immediately the Agama boys were hitting the ground running. The factory drivers Darren, Jerome Sartel, Dani Vega and Jon Hazlewood were all running some of the new parts that have been developed for the 2014 car due soon. The first practice round saw them all happy, but with a few tweaks to make to dial them in, and also the track would evolve considerably too.
Round 2 of practice and Jerome went fastest of all to confirm he was settling in well with the new parts and the speed of the package was right up at the front and capable of beating the worlds best. Jerome tried something different for round 3, which he didn't like so much yet his round 2 time remained unbeaten by anybody in round 3. Dani and Darren were starting to find their speed as they adjusted the car to suit both the track conditions and their own driving style, and they were quite happy. Jon by his own admission was slightly distracted and had half and eye on what Darren was doing in the same heat rather than his own car! The final round of practice would be run over 7 minutes and would show categorically the Agama cars were the ones to beat. Darren went fastest with a time a full 4.5 seconds quicker than anyone else, and he was backed up in 2nd by Jerome who in turn was another 3.5 seconds clear of anybody else. The BETA tyres hooking up perfectly to the track surface the guys went to bed pretty happy.
Saturday and the qualifying sessions were underway, and to confirm his practice pace was no fluke, it was Agama's new signing who set the pace to win the round. A 2.5 second margin of the chasing pack a super result, and that despite not being in the final heat with the majority of the fastest guys with which to gauge your speed. Jerome continued his good run of fast runs to be 6th in round, but the times were really close as Dani was only 2 seconds slower than Jerome and he would take 12th in round.
Round 2 saw Darren consolidate his position by admittedly driving with a margin to ensure his semi final place was guaranteed, and despite this he would take 2nd in round to leave him in a tie on points with Reno Savoya. Jerome was rewarded for his consistency with another 6th in round, albeit only 2 seconds off Darren and a steadily improving Dani Vega took 9th.
The final round of qualifying was a shoot out between Darren and Reno for the TQ honours and it was Darren first to lay down a marker, choosing the Cubez pattern tyres for this final round in the hope they offer the little edge, he blasted his way to the fastest time of the meeting thus far to leave Reno all the work to do. Sadly for the spectators they didn't get to see a reply from Reno as a clutch bearing failure prevented him from mounting a challenge, leaving Darren to take the TQ honours at his maiden International race for the Agama team. Dani Vega produced a super last run to take 3rd in round and lift himself to an excellent 7th overall, 1 place in front of Jerome who was unable to improve his overall score in the final round.
The team were eagerly awaiting the finals action on sunday as everybody felt the opportunity to win was there and Darren, Jerome and Dani were all feeling confident.
Unfortunately none of the Agama guys in the quarter finals were able to bump out into the semi finals, although Jon Hazlewood had the pace, setting the fastest laps in his quarter but that after being smashed to the back by the desperate folks on lap 1.
Darren made life difficult for himself in his semi final, by crashing on lap 1 and putting himself right to the back. With only 20 minutes to rectify it he was immediately under pressure and by his own admission didn't drive to his best level, making a few too many errors along the way. Still he was safely through to the final finishing 4th in his semi. Dani also safely made it through the same race to place 2 Agama's in the main. In the other semi, Jerome also would make his own life difficult after some crashes and he would have to fight right to the end to secure his place in the main final, coming 5th in his semi to confirm the 3rd Agama chassis in the main final.
Darren was surprised to line up 6th on the grid as it turned out the 2nd semi final was generally much slower in pace than the 1st, meaning his time stood up well.
The hour long main final got underway with Darren again suffering a poor 1st lap, although this time it wasn't due to mistakes it was just he unluckily got shuffled back in the pack, and down to 11th. As he was fighting his way through, World Champion Robert Batlle was pulling clear at the front as others were making mistakes around him to leave a big lead. Jerome was challenging the back of the front pack, before an incident put him back to the back also. Dani was consistently running in the mid pack, and with no major dramas he would finish the final a great 6th overall, an excellent start to the season for the Spanish driver. At around the 40 minute mark, Darren had fought his way up to 2nd place having not been able to show his real speed being stuck in traffic for mush of the time as he worked his way up the leader board. After getting up to 2nd he found himself just over 20 seconds behind Batlle, with less than 20 minutes to go and despite this seemingly insurmountable gap he set off making a string of fast lap times, slicing into the advantage and after getting the gap down to under 10 seconds he, made a small error that cost him another few seconds. Still undeterred he continued to push, and started to go quicker still and the gap came down to around 5 seconds with Batlle in trouble with his tyres, he had no answer at all to Darrens pace and was unable to stem the rate of closure. The crowd sensed an unlikely change of leader and as Darren edged up closer and closer they started to cheer every lap, and with 2 minuted to go he was with him, and wasted no time in putting an excellent move on Batlle at the back section of the track to take the lead, to which the crowd erupted. In his desperation after losing the lead after 58 minutes, he made a bold move to come back straight away over the big double causing a collision, which Batlle rightly and fairly waited for Darren to rejoin in the lead. Darren knew he was tight on fuel for the last stint after driving so hard to bridge the gap, taking the gamble to stay out rather than splash and dash, going onto the last lap he was praying for the best but sadly it wasn't to be, only a few corners from home the tank ran dry demoting him to 2nd.
So after all the excitement Darren came away with a superb 2nd overall, which prior to the event he would have been delighted with as he had no experience with his new car against the best in Europe, but yet a slight tinge of what might have been.
With no time to rest, Darren and Jerome are off to the USA on tuesday for the The Dirt Nitro Challenge in Phoenix, where they will take on the top drivers in America as well as some of the fellow European elite for one of the biggest events of the year….