September is one of my favourite months. One big reason is that it’s the time of year when Santa Pod hosts the European Finals, the event that concludes the FIA European Championships and where the new title winners are confirmed.
2018 was a good season in Europe. The travelling show of competitors from all over the continent produced some excellent racing at each round on the calendar. Meanwhile back in the UK, Santa Pod had a big year itself; the first on a brand new all-concrete track surface. Perhaps due to this improvement, I thought this edition of the Euro Finals was the most exciting the Pod has seen for a while. With high performances and close racing throughout all classes.
In addition, the weekend featured two qualifying sessions of night racing (one planned and one forced by the weather!) on Friday and Saturday evenings respectively. The spectacle of Drag Racing at night, especially in the Nitro classes, is something that adds a new depth of entertainment and the atmosphere during both nights was terrific. I have full admiration for anyone who wants to pull up to the start line and go blasting into the darkness. None more so than the riders in the bike classes who were making full passes late at night. There’s a real level of bravery involved in that!
With Malta’s reigning Champ Duncan Micallef suffering a disappointing title defence, there was a pretty nice Championship battle over the first half of the year between Finnish drivers Anita Mäkelä and Antti Horto and Liam Jones of the UK. By the penultimate round of the season at Tierp in Sweden, Mäkelä and her team stepped up the performance and dominated, beating Horto in the final with a new European record to take control of the Championship heading to the Finals.
Once at the Finals, Anita Mäkelä’s weekend was of the highest quality. In fact I cannot remember seeing a better one in Top Fuel for a long time. It took her one run to get used to the track and after that her qualifying times read 3.894, 3.870 (new European record) and 4.004… and on all three runs she clicked the car off early!
By Sunday, Mäkelä had sealed her third Top Fuel European Championship and her invincible form continued in eliminations. In the morning she had a bye run in the first round and ran a great-looking pass of 3.872 at 312mph, then followed that up in the semis with a 3.899/305mph blast. The final round was an all-female race with Mäkelä lining up against Switzerland’s Jndia Erbacher, who herself had ran her first three-second pass earlier in the day. Erbacher could not keep up in the final, overpowering the track and watching Mäkelä storm away on another strong run, shutting off before the line and still going 3.967 seconds.
Lack of entrants has led to Top Methanol Dragsters and Top Methanol Funny Cars being merged together into this one class. There are not many that compete over the full European Championship, but those that do still put on a show.
This season was dominated by Dennis and Timo Habermann from Germany. The brothers, in their near-identical Dragsters, were battling each other for the title and it was Dennis that won it all by first beating brother Timo in the semi-final, then Sweden’s Jonny Lagg in the final.
The Habermann’s are a great team. Both cars have run numbers that are as good as the best in the world. Belgium’s Sandro Bellio has kept them honest with some really strong passes over the last year or so in his Funny Car. But the low entry numbers is sad to see, I hope we get more teams racing more often so the Methanol Dragster and Funny Car Championships can get back to when they were among the most watchable in Europe.
Pro Stock is another class where the number of drivers running the entire Championship is decreasing. Sweden is still ruling Pro Stock and 2018 saw a very competitive year with the four drivers who entered the European Finals all ending with an event win. Multiple Champion Jimmy Ålund also entered a few events during the year and won two of them.
All this meant for a close points chase heading into the season finale. Reigning Champ Bengt Ljungdahl had the lead and qualified number one with a pair of 6.60-second runs. This was enough to confirm a successful title defence and he went into Sunday aiming to get an event win.
Ljungdahl earned a place in the final when his 6.632 defeated a 6.692 of Robin Noren. He was joined there by veteran Michael Malmgren who used a holeshot and a 6.682 to beat Stefan Ernryd’s quicker 6.644.
The final round proved not as close when Malmgren suffered tire shake, leaving Ljungdahl to take the honours with a 6.662 winning elapsed time. This was a tough campaign but Ljungdahl just seemed to have enough horsepower when it mattered. He will keep the number 1 on the car and start as the man to beat again in 2019.
Prior to the Finals it was announced that multiple Pro Mod Champ Micke Gullqvist would not be in attendance due to the team identifying problems with the car after the round at Tierp. As much as it was a shame to not see him racing, the news did open up the chance for others to take victory. Most notably Jimmy Ålund who was Gullqvist’s main rival in 2018.
As mentioned in Pro Stock, Ålund got a couple of wins in that class during the year. But by the end of it he was focused only on Pro Mod and, in Gullqvist’s absence, Ålund took the Pro Mod title during qualifying. This added him to the list of drivers with European Championships in two different categories.
Ålund ran a fine 5.827 to qualify number two. This was beaten only by compatriot Roger Johansson’s stunning 5.794; the first 5.7 by a Nitrous car in Europe. Next came Britain’s Andy Robinson (5.913) and Jan Ericsson of Sweden (5.924).
As always the Pro Mod’s were great entertainment all weekend. There was a number of drivers getting new or near personal bests throughout the field. One highlight was a return to the Pod for Sweden’s Mats Eriksson in his rebuilt “Green Goblin”. Although the team were still testing things out Eriksson put some strong runs down and reached the semi-finals, where he was beaten by Jan Ericsson who himself had ran some stout 5-second passes during the weekend to get to the final.
There were a number of teams representing the UK in Pro Mod. The driver who has achieved the most this year is Andy Robinson, who has had a great season and managed to consistently be in the 5-second zone. During the summer Robinson ran the UK’s first 5.8 with a 5.867 clocking. At the Finals he made it as far as the semis but had trouble off the line and was beaten by a strong 5.858 by new Champ Ålund, who went on to get the better of Ericsson in the final and earn another career event win.
Alongside the above FIA classes the FIM bikes and national bracket racing classes were also brilliant to watch. In quite a few of them there were some upsets in eliminations, which made for a more dramatic day of racing. Perhaps some of the unpredictability in these bracket classes this year has come from racing on the Pod’s new track; its such precision racing that teams may be having to adjust to a different surface. Whether that’s true or not, it did not make these classes any less enjoyable.
Anita Mäkelä certainly was the highlight of the meeting. She looked confident on every run and it’s not often somebody in Top Fuel seems so unbeatable, but every time she came out to race it felt like it was going to be fast. I was able to go and congratulate her in the pits at the end of the day. She was being greeted by so many people, as were plenty of other drivers. This sort of interaction between drivers and fans is another thing I’ve always found special about Drag Racing at Santa Pod.
Eurodragster.com is still the place to go for the latest updates and event coverages. I am hoping to get to one more meeting this year. The UK National Finals in October.