Race Report: Meltdown Series, Race 10/1, Ubermall

Race report by Gregory Atkin

Piranha’s surprising hat trick of gold medals in the Meltdown series of races has continued with another lights-to-flag victory for Leona Silvaris last Sunday at the Ubermall, meaning the battle for fifth place this year looks even more likely to be taken down to the wire by them and Qirex. Though the red and yellow teams streaked away at the start and were never troubled, that wasn’t to say the weekend was without its’ share of excitement and drama, though thankfully none of which the tabloids seem to be groping at as they did with the Heather McKellen affair several months ago.

Silvaris and the team shared a great celebration in the Silverhead park, during which when pressed for comment, she dedicated this victory as with most of her others to Aries Piermont, but also admitted that given that the Piranha team could now hope for fifth at best in the championship, they had started experimenting with airbrake technology on the older ’Rockettooth’ craft in preparation for their new ship. It certainly seems to have paid off, with only Harimau able to challenge for the overall victory in the Meltdown series.

The Malaysian squad also kept themselves as the only ones in the championship to keep up with AG-Systems even as the Japanese squad fly towards another world championship with a dismal weekend for FEISAR and Icaras. Both teams in a good display of sportsmanship though drowned their sorrows together at Icaras’ stand in the Barterhall Centre.

The aforementioned Heather McKellen returned to the paddock for the first time since she left the FEISAR team in tears several months ago as Qirex announced this week that she would be the third pilot in their line-up for the FX500 ’Fury’ series beginning next year. The Scotswoman will be flying alongside their current second and third pilots Rory Pinewood and Balawyn Samirsdøttir after Nadia Elenova confirmed the rumours of her retirement at the end of the year after nearly nine years with the Russian squad.

Nadia only got her first taste of a Phantom-engined Qirex this week, something she was extremely vocal about in the press conferences throughout the event. Other pilots have criticised the random pilot selection system that the FX350 season has been using to keep the events random and interesting but no pilot has been kept away from their ship as long as Nadia has, for eleven events now with this being her last actual race for the rest of the season - Qirex have chosen not to enter any races from now on save for the Time Trial at Sol 2 to wrap up the season in December in order to concentrate work on their next generation racer.

With Elenova lacking her experience with the Phantom ship, Qirex opted to draw their pilot and begin testing on Monday, choosing to run their ’classier’ primarily white craft as an appropriate send off to a fine pilot in her last race. As such for the morning of the first day of the week, Harimau and Icaras’ stands in the Barterhall were somewhat less full than usual as people crowded to see the Russian mistress at work. The prime minister of Sweden, visiting for this round, was seen by this reporter staring in awe as Nadia weaved her way through the slower chicanes.

"Beautiful," he murmured over and over again. When I asked him whether he meant the pilot or the ship, he laughed and replied: "Both, of course. I may very well have to ask Qirex if I can buy one of those ships for myself." Given the Russian squad’s monetary worries of late, if Mr Goteron takes up on that offer it could be a blessing in disguise.

Qirex didn’t have the stage to themselves for long though. The whine of the Qirex was soon joined by the deep throated rumble of the Triakis as Buster Harding took to the track in the familiar camo-patterned craft. The Triakis has not done well with the removal of their reverse-inertia deceleration system and the races they have entered have been almost entirely on testing weapons and technology for their Fury ship. Harding was not available for comment after the session when his best time was two seconds off Elenova’s average.

On tuesday, both Harimau and Icaras drew their drivers and proceeded down to the garages to fire the ships up, but disaster struck for the British squad when the main thruster refused to ignite despite a day of frantic work. Icaras had no choice but to abandon the race and use their ship as a prop in their activity stall instead. Thomas Debenham, the chief engineer said it was a great shame,and he apologised to everyone in the team for such a catastrophe. Nicolo Testa, the chief of operations of FEISAR, callously remarked that he wouldn’t have to say such things if he’d remained with the European squad. Nobody needs to be reminded of the ongoing FEISAR-Icaras war especially in qualifying and time trials, and furthermore no-one needs reminding that Icaras’ fanbase is much larger than FEISAR’s.

While Harimau got their sleek ship (in Malay racing yellow and black) up and running, it was Sheikh Mani Zayed who came to the rescue as the reserve team. The Emirati businessman came to the Ubermall with his family apparently for his daughter’s birthday to let her browse the stores while he and his sons watched the race, but being given a free chance to show off the Mirage to various store owners for extra sponsorship was not something he was going to miss. By wednesday afternoon, the familiar insectoid green ship was pounding about the Mall track with Malik Al-Tamassal at the helm, the Egyptian flying non-stop from Sharm-El-Sheikh where he had been staying to get to Makana in time for the practice. He was joined on track in that session by current championship winning team AG-Systems, with Chiaki Hitomi on board.

The Japanese woman’s fan base was out in force when the red and white ship hit the track, and the mall rang to the squeals of the girls and the snap of paparazzi cameras. It only made it all the more embarrassing for Chiaki when an overambitious barrel roll snapped off one of the rear fins on the back of the machine and the machine needed escorting back to the pits from - surprisingly - the Triakis. More critical voices in the paddock have said the Australians are merely showing off the strength of their hover system, but Hitomi took it in good faith.

Thursday saw the FEISAR and Piranha hit the track as well, though Silvaris spent most of the time doing installation laps and returning to the pits to talk with the engineers. Ezio Di’Rosso spent no time getting up to speed and posted the quickest time of the day, bettering Elenova by half a second. This reporter tried to get a word with Piranha’s pilot, but she was in the garage until past midnight and my hotel closed its doors at one in the morning.

Friday saw all seven teams that had been there before pounding round the track, with Auricom doing the typical thing of holding off until the very last minute, only appearing in the middle of Saturday qualifying with such a lack of announcement that the commentators almost missed them completely.

Qualifying was for a long time a scrap between Di’Rosso of FEISAR and Elenova’s Qirex with the Italian getting out on top but close to the end of the session Silvaris pumped out a blistering 22.37 lap, which while not the fastest lap ever seen at the Ubermall, was enough to edge the Canary Islands resident into the top spot on the grid. Sahib brought the Harimau to fourth on a low fuel run, followed by Ukantu’s Auricom, directly behind his team’s dire rivals.

Chiaki’s AG-Systems clipped the final chicane on her hot lap, which lost her about a fifth of a second, enough to drop her down to sixth. "I’m really disappointed," she said in the press conference afterwards. "I’d strung together a good lap, and I was a second slow on the airbrakes. I could have got third if I hadn’t made that mistake." Harding’s Triakis continued its’ handling woes but was spared the ignominy of last position by an electrical failure for the Mirage that meant that Malik Al-Tamassal couldn’t access full thruster power. The Emirati team were hard at work late into the night to fix the problem, and during a late night walk through the Mall many of the partygoers out for the evening in Makana were greeted with the sound of a fully firing AntiGravity engine and a chorus of cheers in Arabic coming from the green-suited team.

"It was incredible. I thought for a moment there was a gunshot or something, but it was louder than everyone in the bar," said Tori Sadaha, a New Zealander who owns a nightclub in the Ubermall. "And then I went outside and heard cheering from one of the garages and I saw that ship hovering with thrusters glowing bright blue. Gave me a start, that’s for sure. At least we’ll have a full grid for tomorrow."

A full grid was indeed what everyone got the next day, with the teams’ national flags fluttering across the start line with Piranha’s Brazilian to the far left and Mirage’s UAE to the right. The cheers were a little more muted at this round than the others, given that the Ubermall attracts more varied supporters rather than, say the overwhelming support that EG-X get at the Chenghou Project from the many Chinese businessmen who come to watch the technical races, and perhaps the absence of the local Goteki 45 contributed to the quieter crowds. However, the atmosphere was friendly and healthy as it has been for many events this year.

The race was started ’cold’, with no Parade Lap - the pilots had opted instead to give their vehicles a short shakedown in the morning to check that the repairs were all in order. Only AG-Systems had any worries, with Chiaki reporting a lack of stability in the rear. However, the Japanese team opted not to pull out, needing medals over Harimau, and told Chiaki to take it easy if problems arose.

The race was started by the head of Ubermall Security, Wesley Coles at 15:01 local time, and instantly Miss Silvaris got the jump with a good boost start, streaking away from the FEISAR and Qirex into the first two right handers. Elenova and Di’Rosso got away in front of the Harimau, but Ukantu’s Auricom also got a good start and gave Elenova a ram exiting Vault Square.

The Triakis and AG-Systems proved once again the disadvantages of such low thrust power with slow starts from the pair of them, both teams swallowed quickly by the rapidly ascending Al-Tamassal, whose Mirage’s thrusters certainly were doing their job well after the fix the night before.

The Egyptian was also the only one to take the left fork inside the Barterhall centre on the first lap, and did so every lap after. Sekhar Sahib in the Harimau was pulling away from him slowly but the Mirage was easily outpacing the slow Triakis and the limping AG-Systems, locked in their private battle for seventh, which took their toll on the craft as Harding’s poor handling meant he collided with the wall a lot, and Chiaki’s light craft taking a lot of punishment from trying to force its’ way past the hulking Australian ship.

Up ahead, Silvaris had pulled out eight tenths of a second on Di’Rosso in the Feisar despite the Italian almost catching her through the techincal chinane series just before the start/finish straight. Ukantu was harrying the Qirex down the straight but the better aerodynamics of the Russian ship meant that Elenova could pull away for a while and settle her sights on trying to reel in the blue and gold ship.

She got her chance just after entering the Barterhall centre for the second time, taking the left instead of the right fork and coming out just behind Di’Rosso, who had been the victim of a trail of mines left by the Piranha. Ukantu was hit by another one as he tried to go that way as well, and dropped back a little into the path of Sekhar Sahib in the Harimau.

Elenova was now trailing Di’Rosso, and knew she had to make a move stick before the techincal chicane, as the Qirex didn’t have the straight-line speed of the Piranha. She got her chance in another way though, picking up a Plasma Bolt from a weapon pad on the straight before the chicane. Waiting until after the tricky corners had been navigated, the Russian sent it blasting down the track, where it caught the FEISAR’s left wing. Already with low shields, the Italian had no chance when he was slammed into the wall by the force of the blast and felt his ship explode around him, sending the wreck careering down the straight to the shock of those in the grandstands.

Onlookers described it as ’terrifying’ as they saw Di’Rosso’s ship hurled through the air still leaking plasma, but the new safety regulations meant that at the end of the race the Italian was able to be cut from the ship without any damage saved for a single cracked rib. He will be fit to race again for the rest of the season.

The Auricom was fending off the Harimau, but through the curves was holding up the Malaysian ship and allowing the Mirage to catch up. In fact, through the Barterhall centre for the third time, with Al-Tamassal taking the clean route, he ended up beside the Harimau going into the jump. The Egyptian saw his chance and made a swift barrel roll off the top of the jump, the boost sending him sailing over the top of the Auricom and into third place. The crowds went wild at that, and after the race Sahib admitted he wished he’d had the bravery to do one as well so close to the Auricom at the time. Instead, he saved a Turbo Boost and tried to go over the American ship over the start-finish straight. However, the Indian shot too high and hit the arch over the line in the Silverhead wing, dropping his speed off significantly and letting the Auricom get back in the fight with the Mirage.

Further back, the two rivals from last year were whittled down to one as Chiaki picked up a fortunate Leech Beam and sucked dry Harding’s last drops of shield power, which resulted in the camouflaged ship slewing to a stop and dropping its’ AntiGravity thrusters in favour of putting up emergency shields. Triakis admitted after the race this was something they were testing for next year’s craft to prevent damage to a chassis in an explosion, but they did not elaborate further. In any case, Triakis do not have as much to rebuild as their fellow retirees FEISAR.

Elenova was chasing down Silvaris as they started lap four, the Piranha having run afoul of a failed barrel roll which put her closer to her Russian rival. The Mirage was also catching up as well due to a series of well-executed Turbo Boosts and barrel rolls. The turning point of the seemingly static battle was when Silvaris picked up a Bomb from a weapons pad while taking the right fork through the Barterhall Centre. This was placed at the start of the jump and Elenova ran straight into it.

Feliks Levovich was reported to have swallowed the biscuit he was eating as he watched the unfortunate incident and needed to be given a strong slap on the back. It only got worse when he recovered however, for he was privy to watching the Mirage take a chance with a double barrel roll over the stricken Russian ship and shoot straight into second with only a single lap left. Transcriptions of the Qirex team radio has since been made unavailable for public use due to the excessive use of swearing and references to what Al-Tamassal’s mother did with goats by Elenova.

The final lap of the race involved the Qirex trying to fend off an approaching Auricom once more, with Ukantu taking the time out to ram Elenova as much as possible, meaning that the Russian ship finished with alarms blazing at full volume even if she did clench the last position of the podium. Sekhar Sahib had a lonely race back in fifth, but as a consolation won fastest lap of the race on the final lap. Up front, Silvaris crossed the line in good time ahead of Al-Tamassal, but the biggest number of engineers on the pit wall cheering their man across the line were the Mirage team. This second equals their best result of the season so far, and puts them ahead of Triakis in the final standings, though they are still four silver medals behind Auricom.

Sheikh Mani Zayed himself came out into the pits as well when the Mirage docked, giving Al-Tamassal an enormous bear-hug and bursting into tears when reporters asked him for a quote. "An eighth-to-second is the best race done by anyone in the Meltdown series so far and to have come from one of the smallest teams on the grid is a true fairy story," he admitted after giving his eyes a mop. "People have sometimes said that Malik is a little too aggressive, too eager to race and doesn’t look after the ship. Well, look what that can get you when you focus."

Silvaris looked genuinely surprised on the podium when the green-suited Egyptian got onto the second place of the podium, but gave him a good-natured handshake after a while. Elenova refused to make eye contact with the Piranha pilot, but congratulated her on a good race nevertheless in the press conference.

Qirex has a reason to be running scared - despite a good series of results in previous events, Piranha’s run of form is threatening both them and Icaras for fourth, and with the Russian squad not turning up at any further races this season, only time trials, they will need all the ability they can muster from their three pilots. Punters have remarked whether Mirage can start threatening Auricom and even Goteki 45 for ninth place, but Malik Al-Tamassal himself poured water on that.

"Beat Goteki? I doubt it. This was a real trial, very hard. It would take a miracle to get a gold, and even then we would need plenty of silvers to beat them. But I have watched old races, and I have seen the time when Icaras used to celebrate fourth places with gusto, and now they are the team with the best fan base, and fastest ship overall. Mirage can go the distance, just give us time."

Perhaps they don’t need a lot more time to get the fan base they want. Already the FX350 league official merchandise shop has sold out of Mirage caps and there has been a surge in sales of the die-cast model of the green ’Scarab’ ship.

It was a week to forget for AG-Systems though, as Chiaki limped home in sixth, behind the Harimau. They will need their work cut out, starting at the Chenghou project in two weeks time, where we will see the return of EG-X Technologies to the track, and hopefully Icaras as well. One thing is for sure that we’ll probably see on that track is that, contrary to what Assegai have claimed, the Piranha still has teeth.

Final race standings:

  1. Leona Silvaris (ESP) - Piranha Advancements - 1st
  2. Malik Al-Tamassal (EGY) - MAGEC Mirage - 2nd
  3. Nadia Elenova (RUS) - Qirex RD - 3rd
  4. Torogu Ukantu (DRC) - Auricom - 4th
  5. Sekhar Sahib (IND) - Harimau International - 5th
  6. Chiaki Hitomi (JAP) - AG-Systems - 6th
  7. Ezio Di’Rosso (ITA) - FEISAR - DNF
  8. Buster Harding (USA) - Triakis -DNF

Championship standings after 81/87 races:

  1. AG-Systems (22G)
  2. Harimau International (19G)
  3. FEISAR (11G)
  4. Icaras Project (9G)
  5. Qirex RD (7G)
  6. Piranha Advancements (6G)
  7. Assegai Developments (4G)
  8. EG-X Technologies (2G)
  9. Goteki 45 (1G)
  10. Auricom (0G, 6S)
  11. MAGEC Mirage (0G, 2S)
  12. Triakis (0G, 1S)