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GP Week : Issue 71
South African Jon Williams came from a continent where mechanical sympathy is an essential part of the curriculum; Nic Thomas came from a successful rallying family in Cyprus; the oldest member of the group was Mark Tapper, a New Zealander who had tried his hand at different aspects of rallying; while the youngest, only 18 years old was the Czech driver Martin Semerad. Nikara lived up to expectations, despite his relative inexperience. He was the fastest driver of the class, several times making fastest overall time in Group N and in Sardinia, the second event in the series, he finished a remarkable 11th overall. Thomas, when eventually he was finally confirmed as the MERC winner, made what was expected to be a major decision, asking the hugely experienced co-driver Stephane Prevot to work with him. This sounded like an excellent plan, but unfortunately it did not work out and he changed co-drivers mid-season, explaining that he found a Greek-speaking co-driver would be more easy to work with. Whether it was the lateness of the decision to include Thomas in the class, or simply surprise at the ways of the outside world, Thomas had a miserable season, finishing only once, on the final event. Tapper had a season of mixed fortunes, including competing on one event with injuries after a motorcycle accident, and on another only receiving medical clearance at the last moment after breaking an arm in an accident at home! Semerad found the season challenging, making various errors but learning fast all the time, and on the final round, the only occasion all five drivers finished, he was the highest placed of them all. It was an amazing season for him, in which he was combining rallying with finishing his school examinations. Which brings us to Williams. He came with no left-hand-drive experience but his African canniness was evident. He was the only driver to be classified as a finisher on every event. On every event he found conditions that were completely new to him. In one way he had an advantage -- he was the only driver with experience of state-of-the-art Super 2000 cars -- but this meant he had in some ways to down-learn his techniques. Group N cars do not have semi-automatic gearshifts ... The programme was as much a benefit to the people running the cars as to the drivers themselves! Apart from the endless challenge of perfecting the Evo Xs, it gave the managers a remarkable insight into the way of young drivers. It was obvious that young drivers do not have so much natural mechanical aptitude as drivers who have learned the trade through preparing their own cars. And there were lessons for the promoters of the PSD. For the drivers in 2010 it was clear that a much more equal system of selecting drivers would be ideal, and that official selection Shoot-outs should be held in each of the regions. It was also felt that drivers should be engaged in pre-qualifying at earlier rounds in their own region, but only at specific rounds. This was to try to contain the costs for the crews, but there were several instances where candidate drivers had to withdraw from Shoot-outs simply due to the cost of going there with their rally cars. The MERC series lagged behind in that the final Shoot--ut will not be run until the beginning of December, while the other four selected drivers for the 2010 programme are already known. Who was the winner? Of course nobody was, but in one sense the winner had to be Pirelli themselves, not only for the ingenuity of the idea but the fact that this was probably a major turning point with the FIA who awarded them the three year single supply contract. And in another way, the sport itself is. Keep a look-out in the entry lists in the future, because most if not all of these drivers are going to progress in their career in a purposeful way -- something which would not have happened without the Pirelli Star Driver programme, which is being run in 2010 and 2011 as well. Stars of Tomorrow: The Pirelli Star Drivers pose for a class photo. 40