The fourth weekend of the 2021 Spec MX-5 Challenge was well attended, not only by those racing these NC Miata-based cars, but also a wide array of Spec Miatas and Spec E30s competing at Sonoma Raceway contributed to a weekend filled with intense battles.
After qualifying on pole, Wyatt Couch made a commanding start for Saturday’s race one. He held off an aggressive Bryson Morris, who was no slower in terms of lap times, and spent the first half of the race nipping at Couch’s heels.
On lap six, Couch made a decisive move around a Spec E30, which Morris could not quite match. This helped Couch eke out a gap that Morris could not close before the end of the race. It was Couch’s ability to drive accurately on cold tires and keep a cool head while dealing with backmarkers that earned him the win.
Behind them, another series favorite had a trying start to his race weekend. Alex Berg spent most of Friday practicing passing with his teammate Morris and felt confident at the prospect of managing traffic come race day. However, the Buttonwillow winner found race one challenging. Starting from P4, he tried his best to drive around a setup not to his liking. He managed to stay in touch with a hard-fighting Wesley Mollno for the first six laps before getting caught up with traffic and falling back several seconds.
Further back, Ricardo Arruda, after struggling to get up to speed in a new car that wasn’t without teething issues, eventually found the speed needed for podium contention. He and his coach Bruno Carneiro reviewed data and did all the preparation they could to try and offset his lack of familiarity with the car and the circuit, but mechanical problems made their lives even more challenging.
In fact, Arruda missed qualifying due to clutch issues, which relegated him to a P8 starting position for the Saturday race. He worked his way up to sixth in those frustrating first laps.
The following morning, track temperatures were quite high and this threw some drivers for a loop. The ideal setup eluded Couch. “With the extra heat and a new set of stickers on Sunday, we found that we couldn’t dial out the understeer,” Wyatt reported.
That push plagued him for the rest of the race. After Couch’s strong start, Morris outbraked him into Turn 11 on the third lap. By the fifth lap, Morris had pulled 2 seconds away from Couch, who could not quite get on top of his understeering car.
By the seventh lap, Couch had found the balance he wanted and clawed back some. A Spec Miata crashing with two laps to go bunched the field together slightly, but this only made life more challenging for Couch. As he was closing in on the race leader, a backmarker tagged his right rear corner heading into Turn 2, though the damage was limited to a broken wheel, thankfully.
Morris won with a minor gap to a limping Couch just behind, but the post-race inspections revealed Morris’ car was 15 pounds underweight. A sad way to end a commanding performance, which promoted everyone else to one position higher than they’d finished.
All except one. Alex Berg was not able to capitalize on Morris’ DQ. After one practice lap on Sunday morning, his gearbox coughed its last breath and the team scrambled to install a new one. With supreme coordination, the Haag Performance team swapped a new six-speed into Alex’s car in just 45 minutes, but the transporter they were using as a lift broke and kept them from unloading the car before the race began. For a team that had prepared so carefully and fixed the major mechanical problems they faced, that sort of hangup must’ve been agonizing.
For Arruda, it was during race two on Sunday morning that everything seemed to click. After starting P6, he passed Andrew Clos at the start and then outbraked Mike Travers into Turn 11 on the second lap.
A little overdriving and a local yellow helped Clos narrow the gap slightly, but Arruda kept his head down, heeded his coach’s advice, regained full use of the Toyo RRs, and finished fourth. When Morris was disqualified at the end of the race, Ricardo inherited a podium position. For being dealt such a setback at the start, he couldn’t have asked for much more.
Berg had a moment of redemption during the final race on Sunday. Though this third race did not yield any championship points, it gave Berg a chance to demonstrate that all the practice passing on Friday hadn’t been for nothing. After starting last in the smaller field of four, he worked his way up to first by the end of the first lap and sailed through traffic masterfully, passing 15 cars before the checkered flag flew.
“After all the bad luck we had this weekend, I decided to look at this final race as a way to learn about dealing with setup issues. In reality, this was more a test weekend than a competitive effort,” Berg relayed stoically. Wise words from such a young man.
The fourth and final event of the Western Region Spec MX-5 Challenge will be held at Thunderhill Raceway Park July 31 through August 1.