Nathan MorcomA persistent handling problem with Nathan Morcom’s car couldn’t disguise his competitiveness in the national drivers’ championship round.

Race finishing positions often don’t tell the whole story – as was the case with Nathan Morcom’s return to openwheeler racing in the seventh round of the Australian Drivers’ Championship at Phillip Island.

At first glance, the 20 year-old Sydneysider’s best result of fourth from the weekend’s three ADC races mightn’t look all that impressive. But a closer examination of the Direct Plasterboard Outlet/Rondo driver’s data reveals that he had the potential to be a contender at the 2012 Gold Star finale.

He was only a few tenths of a second off the fastest lap in during Friday practice. And he clocked the second-fastest lap on a treacherous rain-soaked track in race two, despite severe understeer that afflicted his Dallara throughout Saturday and Sunday.

The handling imbalance, combined with starting grid incidents in all three races, dashed Morcom’s chances of getting onto the podium, much less winning, at the 4.5km coastal Victorian venue. But his performance was a lot more encouraging than his race results suggested.

Practice & qualifying
Having returned to Australia after an abortive F2000 Championship Series campaign plagued by car problems, Morcom was among the quickest drivers in both of Friday’s practice sessions.

In the morning half-hour session he posted the third-fastest lap, only 0.23 seconds behind newly crowned 2012 champion James Winslow. He followed that up in the afternoon session with the second-fast time, just 0.29 seconds adrift of Winslow.

But in qualifying on Saturday morning, Morcom’s Dallara was a distant 2.4 seconds away from Winslow’s pole position time. The Astuti Motorsport car had developed an understeer condition that defied the best efforts of Sam Astuti and 2007 ADC winner Tim Macrow to cure it.

“The front was pushing through the fast turns and on entry to the slow ones,” Morcom reported. “It was costing me time everywhere, even down the straights because I was so slow coming onto them.

“I came into the pits twice to try to fix the problem, but there wasn’t much that Sam or Tim could do in a 20-minute session.

“What made it worse for me was that the Kumho tyres took four or five laps to get up to temperature. Most of the tyres I’ve driven on have been at their best on the second or third lap.

“I only got in two quick laps after my second pit-stop, and then the session ended. If I’d done a couple more laps I probably would have gone quicker, but with the understeer there was no way I could have got close to the front row guys’ times.”

Race 1
Saturday afternoon’s race couldn’t have started much worse for Morcom – his car stalled when the green lights went off!

He’d lost around 10 seconds by the time the Renault fired up again, but he set off after the rapidly disappearing field. He caught and passed two tail-enders, then had a lucky break when the Safety Car came out on lap four and allowed the field to close up.

After the restart he overtook Jake Fouracre for sixth place, and was within striking distance of fifth-placed Lachlan Marshall when the chequered flag ended the race two laps short of the scheduled nine-lap distance.

Morcom’s sixth place subsequently became fifth when the officials penalised Winslow for timing his restart too early after the Safety Car period.

“There was some confusion at the start because there were two warm-up laps,” Morcom said. “When my car stalled, I just had to chase and hope there’d be a Safety Car, which happened, fortunately for me.

“I was able to lap at the same speed as the third, fourth and fifth guys, so without the understeer and the stall at the start, a podium definitely would have been possible.”

Race 2
It wouldn’t be a proper Phillip Island race meeting if it didn’t rain, and the weather gods duly obliged with a Sunday morning deluge!

This time Morcom was almost a casualty before the start. He couldn’t avoid running into the back of Hayden Cooper’s car, which suddenly hesitated as the field took off on the warm-up lap.

The impact damaged the right side of the DPO-Rondo Dallara’s front wing, robbing Morcom of even more front-end downforce, especially on the anti-clockwise circuit’s predominantly left-hand turns.

Even so, he splashed to a fine fifth place in a race that also finished prematurely because of the slower lap times.

“I couldn’t see that Hayden had stopped because his car’s rain light wasn’t on,” Morcom said. “The end plates and flag were missing, and the main plane was touching the track on some corners.

“Sam asked me over the radio if I wanted to pit for a new nosecone, but if I’d done that I would have finished way back. So I took my chances and drove the car the way it was.”

His second-fastest race lap was all the more impressive considering the state of his car, and enhanced his reputation as a wet-weather racer.

It brought back memories of the opening round of the 2010 F2000 Championship Series, when rain late in the race sent most of his rivals scurrying to the pits for wet tyres while he slipped and slithered to victory on slicks.

Race 3
By the time the ADC field gathered for the 14-lap feature race, the rain had gone – but Morcom’s startline jinx still lingered.

Cooper stalled again when the green lights went off, and Winslow, who was right behind, did likewise. As the third in line, Morcom had to wait until the two drivers ahead of him sorted themselves out before he could get underway.

He caught fifth-placed Ben Gersekowski by the start of lap two, and swept by in a bold move through Doohan Corner. Two laps later he dived past Lachlan Marshall for fourth place at Honda Corner, then held the Victorian at bay until the finish.

“The car was still understeering, and after I passed Lachlan I couldn’t make any impression on the leaders,” Morcom said. “It was strange that the set-up changes Sam and Tim made didn’t fix the balance – maybe my driving style isn’t the same as Tim’s.

“But the important thing to come out of this weekend is that I know I can be competitive at this level.”

Morcom said that while his racing program for 2013 hasn’t been decided, he’s keen to go forward after his one-off ADC appearance.

“I like F3, but I’ll look at a few options over the next few months,” he said.

“Thanks to my sponsors, especially Direct Plasterboard Outlet and Rondo, for their support this year, and I hope to be back racing with them again in 2013.”

Photo by MPix.