Matty Graham stays on-course for Under-18 title tilt

 with Essay podium fightback‏

During practice for the second round of the 2011 CIK-FIA Under-18 World Championship at Essay in France, Matty Graham confessed that he feared his title hopes were fading away – but a magnificent turnaround that resulted in a podium finish in the grand final has left him bullishly asserting: “This isn’t over yet!”

Matty travelled to Essay sitting third in the Under-18 points standings, having brilliantly triumphed in the Ortona curtain-raiser in Italy in July but conceding ground to a couple of his adversaries due to the peculiarities of the championship’s scoring system. He was fired-up to keep his imperious form going.

“I felt really confident going into the weekend,” acknowledged the talented young Edmundbyers karting star. “Essay is a good track; I didn’t enjoy it as much as Ortona, but I still liked it. Even though I had never actually raced around it before, I had tested there the previous week – and it wasn’t hard to get used to. By the end of the first session, we pretty much had it sussed.

“Unfortunately, in Friday practice, we had loads of engine problems. It was mainly fuel flow I think, because it kept just randomly cutting out. It was getting really annoying by the end of the day, because nothing we tried seemed to cure it, but finally we managed to get to the bottom of it and resolve what was wrong and we knew we still had the pace, because we weren’t far off, even with all the issues we had and only doing very short runs.

“Since many of the other drivers in the championship have come from the higher KF1 and KF2 levels – whereas I race a step lower down in KF3 – they have a lot more experience than me, which makes the competition extremely tough. Also, because the engines all have the same power, as soon as things settle down in the races, everyone tends to be lapping at very similar times – there were sessions where just six tenths of a second separated the entire field!”

His engine woes and consequent loss of track time in practice meant Matty wasn’t able to experiment as much as he would have liked with the set-up of his MSport Zanardi mount, and that lack of preparation told during qualifying, in which he wound up a disappointed 15th out of the 74 extremely high-calibre contenders, albeit just a third-of-a-second adrift of the ultimate benchmark.

From there, the Ponteland Community High School pupil went on to begin each of his four heat races from sixth position. In the opening encounter, he ran third all the way up to the last lap, artfully staving off intense pressure from behind before a tiny mistake allowed two of his pursuers through and he ultimately slipped to fifth. He would atone perfectly in heat two.

“It isn’t too much of a penalty being on the outside line of the grid at Essay,” he explained, “because the first corner is pretty much flat-out, so it doesn’t require any hard-braking. It’s an uphill start, too, but I timed it perfectly and shot right through the middle of the drivers ahead to take the lead by the first corner. 

“I was able to establish a bit of a gap over the others to begin with, but then in the closing stages, they really began to pull me in and I had to drive defensively. I did feel a little bit of pressure on the last lap – and I got several knocks from behind, too...” 

Holding on superbly – with barely half-a-second blanketing the top four at the chequered flag – Matty added to that success with solid fifth and sixth places in his remaining two heats, all the time well aware that any failure to finish, as had happened at Ortona, would cost him dear indeed. Those results secured him seventh spot in the intermediate rankings, from where he targeted a brace of decently high finishes in the two pre-finals.

Sixth position in the first of them – less than three seconds shy of victory – was an encouraging start, but 16th from 29th in the reverse-grid second pre-final was not so good. The 15-year-old had been on the verges of the top ten and making progress by the lap when he found himself unceremoniously assaulted by an errant rival. Still, lapping faster than both the winner and runner-up along the way despite spending much of his time in traffic was a clear sign of his potential.

“I managed to avoid the absolute mayhem at the start and we had the pace to be able to come through the pack,” Matty revealed, “but then halfway through the race another driver jumped over the kerb and clattered into me, which cost me a lot of ground. I had been hoping for much more than 16th...

“That meant I began the grand final tenth, and at the start, there was a coming-together in front and a few drivers came off; I had to go wide in avoidance, which dropped me to 11th. Then the ‘slow’ boards came out to clear up the mess, and when the race resumed, I got a really good re-start and soon moved up to fifth. I could see that I was consistently catching the leading pack and I expected them to begin fighting towards the end; that really motivated me to continue pushing, to put myself in a position to be able to take advantage. 

“On the penultimate lap, the two drivers ahead collided, which elevated me to third, but the top two had built up quite a gap by then. I was still pulling them in, though, and on the last lap the leader went really defensive into practically every corner, which allowed me to get closer-and-closer to the back of them – but ultimately, just not quite close enough...” 

Fastest on the track for the majority of the race – setting a best marker almost two tenths of a second quicker than the winner – the manner in which the Co. Durham-based speed demon determinedly and inexorably hunted his adversaries down, relentlessly inching up on them until he was right on their tail was impressive indeed. The best part of three seconds off the lead at one stage, Matty wound up barely three-quarters-of-a-second shy when the flag fell – suggesting that with just a lap or two more, it may well have been a different outcome.

The fact that the two drivers who finished ahead of him were both from higher classes – and one of them a local hero to-boot – only served to further accentuate his performance, and the reigning CIK-FIA Asia-Pacific Champion will head to the last round at Sarno in a couple of months’ time lying second in the title chase out of the 79 CIK-FIA Under-18 World Championship competitors, with a 25-point deficit to overturn to pip experienced arch-rival Pyry Ovaska to the crown.

“I was pretty happy to finish third in the end,” he concluded. “We weren’t always as fast as we had hoped to be over the weekend, but the podium had been our goal and we achieved that. I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t beat Ovaska, but he hasn’t pulled away as much in the championship as it looked like he might do back at the start of the meeting. 

“Pyry said in the post-race press conference that he has never been to Sarno before – but we were quick in the WSK Euro Series there earlier this year and won a heat, so we’re feeling fairly confident that we can take the fight to him. This isn’t over yet!” 

Matty is seeking sponsors to help him to progress his burgeoning career; if you are interested in backing the north-east’s most promising young hotshot, please contact him at: matthew.d.graham@hotmail.co.uk