Two red first-generation Imprezas, Two first-time National Championship contenders, two events left in the season, one LN4 title.
While a few American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National Championships were decided last weekend at Ojibwe, with Travis Pastrana taking the overall crown and Seamus Burke taking the 2WD category, a bit further back in the field one class was seeing the greatest battle for a nail-biting championship it has had yet.
Mark Piatkowski of MAP Motorsports and Ele Bardha of Bardha Racing have been battling it out for the LN4 Championship at the majority of events this year. While both drivers are competing in their rookie seasons in terms of running for a National Championship, they each have accolades to their name that make them serious hard-hitters on the stages.
Bardha and co-driver Corrina Roshea (pictured above) are both Hollywood stunt performers, and Bardha has years of experience making any given car perform any given stunt for the cameras, the adaptability making him a shoe-in for the rally world.
Piatkowski is a second generation rally driver who grew up immersed in rallying. He has been racing for about a decade on a smaller regional scale, but in that time proved to be one of the best performing regional drivers at any event he went to and, now as a national entrant, he’s proving to be one of the fastest drivers in this world too.
While the pair’s two-door GC Imprezas might not look too different on the outside, they actually comply to two different rule-sets.
You see, the LN4 championship both drivers are competing for is a combination of the Limited 4WD class and the Naturally-Aspirated 4WD class.
Piatkowski’s 2.5 RS is not too far beyond stock and, being 2500cc, it just barely complies into getting a 2500lb minimum weight per NA4WD class rules.
Bardha’s GC is a Group N car from back in the day, the one campaigned professionally by David Higgins no less. Since it’s a turbo car, Bardha has to conform to L4WD rules, which require either a 32mm or 36mm restrictor plate at different PSI, and a minimum weight of 3100lb, 600lb more than Piatkowski’s, and 300lb more than the car would have weighed from the factory.
While unorthodox, the LN4 set-up has provided an incredible title chase this year. It looked at one point like Bardha was going to be able to run away with it and Piatkowski had not planned on running Ojibwe Forests Rally or Oregon Trail Rally, making the last-minute decision to go for broke and entered Ojibwe just 10 days before the event itself.
It feels so good when you battle for it and you win. I don’t like walking away with it, and I don’t like getting beaten by minutesMark Piatkowski after taking the LN4 Championship win on Ojibwe
The move paid off for Piatkowski because after 120 miles of soaking wet stages, he managed to best Bardha by a mere 1.8 seconds.
Those 1.8s were hard earned. The lead swapped between the pair four times, as Bardha was faster on eight stages, and Piatkowski on seven.
“It feels so good when you battle for it and you win,” Piatkowski said. “I don’t like walking away with it, I don’t like getting beaten by four minutes.”
“Claudia [Barbera-Pullen, co-driver] stepped in on a 10-day notice, and we pulled together an event win, this is superwoman right here!”
The win was almost decided on the event-ending superspecials as well, as Bardha clawed five seconds back from Piatkowski just to lose out by the amount of time he would likely have made up on one more running of the stage.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t think [Bardha] was going to take that much time out of me on the superspecial,” said Piatkowski, pictured below. “I came into here thinking, ‘OK, maybe it’s going to be a little bit soupy’, but then it’s like French onion soup, crazy, crazy slick.”
While Bardha has had incredible consistency across all of the national rounds this year, Piatkowski playing catch-up could be the demise of his championship.
“[Ojibwe] was very interesting because Mark and I have had a fierce battle all year,” Bardha explained at impound after the end of the rally last weekend.
“He’s had races where he’s much faster than me and I would have races where I slowly keep creeping up. This event was the first one where we were swapping times.
“I would be a liar to say it doesn’t sting a little bit to [have] lost this rally by just a few seconds.”
Bardha and Piatkowski are so closely matched that they were even right next to each other in the running order.
“Every time I’d get out to check tire pressures, Mark and I would look at each other and be like, ‘it’s on!’” said Bardha.
Every time we get out of the car, Mark says, 'smile! You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself!’ It’s great to have a buddy like himEle Bardha on his growing friendship with class rival Mark Piatkowski
The friendly rivalry has been an exciting one to watch, but also an incredible bonding experience for the two drivers.
“Every time we got out of the car [Piatkowski would say], ‘smile! You’re supposed to be enjoying yourself!’” Bardha laughed. “It’s great to have a buddy like him, and we’ve become really good friends.
“Mark is a consummate professional. I’ve actually learned so much from just hanging out, and watching him drive.
“[We were talking] about what we’re doing next year, and part of me wants to start a vintage GC team, and Mark and I go out and be team-mates, but you never know. He’s my competitor but not my enemy.”
All the gushing wasn’t just coming from Bardha, however. Piatkowski said of his competitor: “This guy turned it up a gear from all of the other events, don’t listen to him, he did a great job!”
“The season’s not over!” Bardha added. “So whoever is paying attention, this is going to go on for the rest of the year.”
Bardha doesn’t mean that lightly either. The way the championships work in the ARA have created big stakes for each driver.
As mentioned, Piatkowski made this entry last minute, because he hadn’t planned or budgeted for being in the position to win a National Championship. To make Ojibwe other teams were supporting him in anyway they could, such as competitor Arek Bialobrzeski loaning his hauler.
On the other hand, while Bardha has been consistently dominating the L4WD class, there technically is no L4WD championship. It’s often viewed as its own class competition by fans, and even in our reporting, but the ARA doesn’t technically have a L4WD competition separate from LN4. So Bardha could be out a championship, while Piatkowski could win two, as NA4WD is recognized by the ARA as a separate competition class as well.
It becomes much more tense when you remember that both of these teams are 100% home-grown, and run by hobbyists. Dedicated, skilled hobbyists, but still not drivers who have the ability to dedicate large portions of their life and money to racing in the same way the likes of Ken Block, Brandon Semenuk, Pastrana, and Barry McKenna do.
Each driver hopes that being crowned a National Champion can open up doors for sponsors to come in and help make racing easier. It’s not just pride and bragging rights on the line, it’s the ability to build a bigger, better race team.
If you thought there was no fight left to follow in the ARA this year, think again
When asked about why he thinks the competition has grown so much among the LN4 class this year, Bardha said: “We all dream about being Travis Pastrana and Ken Block and the guys up there that have the big money teams.
“Travis is probably one of the most talented extreme athletes in history and you’ve got Ken who, it goes without saying his abilities, but none of us can live in that world.”
There’s already talk of the ARA separating the LN4 next year, but that doesn’t change things for this year.
Bardha currently sits at 87 points to Piatkowski’s 82, but with the way dropped rounds work in the ARA National Championships, Bardha can only earn up to 100, while Piatkowski can surpass him to 110 if he plays his cards right.
If you thought there was no fight left to follow in the ARA this year, think again. These teams will be battling their hearts out until the very last mile.