In the dry or in the wet, Victor Bernier doesn’t fear anyone as he has proven it last September by winning the 2018 FIA Karting World Junior Championship in Sweden. At only 14 years old, the Frenchman looks to the future with a fierce determination to follow the steps of his illustrious predecessors. We caught up with VDK’s leading man and his boss, Eric Verdaasdonk, to talk us through their biggest achievement to date.
September 23th, 2018, Sunday afternoon. When he crosses the start/finish line for the penultimate time, Victor Bernier knows that he’s just 1.2 kilometer away from becoming Karting World Champion for the first time in his life.
Still, there’s one last lap to complete as Gabriele’ Mini is pushing not far behind after making his way up from P7 on the grid. But time is running out for the Parolin Racing Kart driver as Bernier keeps the position until the chequered flag.
“Entering the last lap, I started to feel emotional because I knew that, maybe, I was going to be World Champion,” Victor recalls. “But I only realized what we had accomplished when I came back to the Parc Fermé and saw my mechanic, Aurélien Fath, the whole team and my family waiting for me.”
“To produce two kinds of World Champions in the course of three years, for a team like us, a little squad from Belgium with not the biggest budget, that’s a huge pride”, confirms Eric Verdaasdonk, the founder and Team Principal of VDK, referring to Victor Martins’s World title in 2016. “This feels like a global satisfaction as it is the result of the hard work of many passionate people including the drivers, not only Victor (Bernier) but all the others that have contributed to this achievement.”
“Singing in the rain”
As Verdaasdonk had said during the Sunday’s Press Conference at Essay, France, where his driver had secured the second place behind Gabriele’ Mini (Parolin) for the last round fo the European Junior championship, a team like VDK works very hard all-thorough the year with one goal in mind: the World
But even the most-prepared teams cannot foresee one of the most important but yet unpredictable factors in motor racing: the weather. The Swedish heavens opened on the Kristianstad facilities to give the teams and drivers a hard time through the Qualifying Heats from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning.
“We felt the stress like everybody out there,” recalls Eric. “On Saturday, I was not quite comfortable, as we had not done one meter in similar conditions on this track before! I had no idea how Victor (Bernier) would be able to manage this situation or how our opponents would react. Some of our drivers had a hard time but Victor managed to get through those uneasy conditions very well, especially considering his lack of experience.”
“I think it was more difficult to handle for the mechanics to find the right set-up,” Bernier adds. “Me, I very much like to drive on the wet. On Saturday, there was really only one Heat that was trickier and I ended up P5 due to a different choice in tire pressure.”
Fortunately for him, Bernier could count on a second place and three wins to secure what could have been a solid first row on the starting grid for Sunday’s Final. But a late penalty for incorrect positioning of his front fairing took him from P3 to P12 in his last Heat, meaning he would have to start from P5 on the final grid.
Like any other race
“On the grid, I felt rather confident in my skills,” Bernier declares. “Up to that point in the season, I also knew the drivers around me and how they pretty much drive, what are their strengths and weaknesses.”
Calm and confident on the outside, slightly under pressure on the inside, as 34 drivers (out of 113 at the start of the weekend) were about to be released for 21 laps of an epic battle around the 12 turns of the Asüm Ring International circuit.
“Usually, the driver doesn’t really know beforehand what we’re planning for him in terms of set-up,” Eric Verdaasdonk explains. “We could either go for a chassis being efficient in the first part of the race or the other way around. This time, we wanted the chassis to be efficient early so that Victor (Bernier) could quickly take the lead, extend the gap so the others would have to fight behind him.”
And Bernier applied this strategy to perfection by jumping over Brazil’s Gabriel Bortoleto (CRG) before the first corner. On lap 3, the next victim would be Kai Askey followed, two rounds later, by local hero’s Dino Beganovic (Ward Racing) and, on lap 7, by Kart Republic’s Taylor Barnard, whose effort from pole position was also put to an end. From then on, VDK’s leading man only had to manage his pace and settle the gap with the rest of the field where the last threat named Gabriele’ Mini was being kept at bay for almost a second.
“There will always be people saying that Victor did not set the fastest lap in the Final,” says Verdaasdonk. “But, from start to finish, he was the fastest driver on track. That’s part of VDK’s philosophy: to win a race, no need to set the best lap but find the right set-up balance. And Victor has been able to manage his nerves all-thorough the race and the weekend, so you got to take your hat off to him. Definitely a champion in the making!”
Step up the game in 2019
A learning-champion whose next objective will be to keep his momentum going in 2019 by entering the OK class where the 14-year-old driver and his VDK squad will take up the challenge against the best drivers in the World.
“I feel like I’ve constantly made progress, being more self-assured and it’s partially thanks to the fact that I’ve changed category every season in my career,” explains Victor.“Because I’m rather tall, I could allow myself to do that and it has always stimulated me to fight against more-experienced drivers. But because I’m still a bit too young for F4, next year will be about the OK class for both European and World Championships. I’ll have to start training early to gain muscles because it will be rather challenging!”
Interviews and Text: Guillaume Alvarez
Photos: Alex Vernadis