Saturday, March 1st 2014 sees the return of the iRacing.Com World Championship Grand Prix Series at 9am EST (14:00 GMT) on iRacing Live. Now in its fifth year, it holds the stature of being the most competitive road racing series in sim-racing, and one can easily see why: 50 drivers battling over 16 tough races to become $10,000 richer, visiting some of the most iconic virtual race circuits in the world with some of the greatest names in sim-racing taking part . . . all whilst being broadcast to the masses in one of the most watched sim-racing series in the world.
To qualify for the iWCGPS, drivers have to start a journey that may take many months, or even years. It’s a two stage process, first becoming eligible for a Pro License by racing in the iRacing Grand Prix Series, then battling it out during 12 intensive weeks of racing in the iRacing Pro Series Road Racing to try and claim one of 25 elusive spots. Everyone comes into the Pro Series with different expectations. For some, they feel winning the series will best set them up for the World Championship that lies ahead, and perhaps open the door to better opportunities within the myriad of teams competing. For others, just getting the points needed to qualify is the only goal; the rest can wait, in the same way athletes always aim to peak around the time of the Olympics.
Once drivers reach the World Championship Series, drivers again each have different agendas, and different expectations. Every year, there are a few who exceed expectations, and become virtual household names; Riku Alatalo’s qualifying effort at Road Atlanta in 2012 and Yuho Abe’s second place start at Indianapolis in 2013 stand out as two notable efforts, and there have been many a race performance where alongside the winner, fans are heralding the talents of the series newcomers.
There are of course some who disappoint, perhaps most notably the 2012 Pro Series champion Richie Stanaway, who failed to score a single Top 10 in the 2013 campaign. Sure, he only ran a handful of races due to “other” racing commitments, and he was involved in incidents not entirely of his own making; however more was expected from him, even in a ‘part time’ schedule, and perhaps shows the true difficulty in competing within the iRGPWCS, and the commitment involved. With drivers having to remain in the Top 25 in points to ensure their license carries over to the following year, the action is just as fierce in the mid-pack as out front throughout the season, and several drivers missed the cut in 2013 by just a handful of points.
The 2014 season sees a number of drivers leave the series, most notably the Radicals Racing Duo of Pablo Lopez and Blake Townend. Both had difficult seasons in 2013, and decided it was perhaps time to concentrate on other projects. Pablo in particular was one of the most popular drivers within the series, and fans will miss his ever-popular live onboard streams. Blake will still be a part of the series, lending his voice to some of the series broadcasts and the new WCS Spotlight Podcast. Other drivers not to return in 2014 include Joao Pinho, Petteri Kotovaara and PJ Stergios, the latter whom has chosen to solely concentrate on the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series Powered by iRacing.com.
What To Look For In 2014
One can’t begin a conversation about who may be the 2014 iWCGPS champion without discussing defending champion Greger Huttu. Now a three time champion, Huttu was dominant in the middle part of last season when it mattered, to gain an unsurpassable advantage over his closest rivals. Of the 15 rounds he entered, he finished in the top five on every occasion, with six pole positions and nine wins to his name. The statistics only told part of the story however, as it was the way he scored many of these victories that showed his true class; strategy, and pure speed was the difference maker on a number of occasions, and it’ll take a big effort to dethrone the ‘world’s fastest alien.’
2013 was the stand out season for Huttu’s Team Redline running-mate Atze Kerkhof. He had flashes of brilliance in 2012, however his consistency and raw speed in 2013 got people talking like never before. He ended up finishing second in the championship to Huttu, and ahead of 2012 champion Hugo Luis despite taking only one victory, at his home race at Zandvoort. His successes led to him being awarded a test in a Formula 3 car, and this year will see him racing in the WCS along with his first season in German Formula 3 . . . all for a man who only got his driver’s licence in August 2013! The question will be if he can balance the virtual and real racing and make a charge for the title, or if he will follow a fate similar to Stanaway, and see his results dip in the iWCGPS.
Speaking of Hugo Luis, the Brazilian starts the new season hoping for a change of form from 2013. Whilst he started strong with two wins in the first four races, a close call early in the race at Sebring and an incident with his team mate at Watkins Glen put him behind his Finnish rival, and the loss to Huttu at Virginia International Raceway after starting on the pole solidified the uphill struggle he would have to complete the campaign. This year he looks to take his second iWCGPS championship and the second for 3id Racing; however, he knows better than anyone that the dynamic Redline duo of Huttu and Kerkhof will be tough to beat.
Jake Stergios, Martin Krönke, Fulvio Barozzini and Stephen Michaels had mixed seasons in 2013; however, they will be looking to move closer to the front this time around. Barrozini was the only non-Team Redline / 3id Racing driver to score a victory in over two seasons, and will be buoyed on by this fact as he lines up for the first time this year. Both Stergios and Krönke have a wealth of talent to offer their respective teams, and Stergios in particular will be looking to bounce back after a difficult second half of the season which saw him slide from top three contention in the championship. Michaels showed how a fresh start could reap rewards in 2013, switching teams a third of the way into the campaign, and subsequently rarely finished outside the Top 10.
New Faces, New Races, New Action
Some new faces join WCS competition having graduated from the iRacing Pro Series of Road Racing led by Glacier Racing’s Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola. Aleksi dominated the early part of the 2012 Pro Series before having to take a sabbatical from sim-racing, and his return in 2013 saw him score four wins and seven top fives from the nine races. His team mate Olli Pahkala was the only other repeat winner in the series, with Alex Simpson, PJ Stergios and Roco Barone also scoring victories. All eyes will be on these drivers to see if they can continue the strong form they showed in the Pro Series within WCS competition.
On the team front, the two new teams to look for are Glacier Racing and Apex Racing UK. Glacier Racing pack a fierce punch with an all Finnish lineup, combining established and new WCS talent. Apex Racing had a phenomenal 2013 rising through the ranks, so drivers and fans alike will be looking to see if they can convert this into iWCGPS success. This year, there’s not much else different on the team front, with most drivers remaining loyal to the outfits that provided equipment, sponsorship, setups and support back in 2013, and this familiarity will likely see units gel and produce even better results.
The schedule will see many race tracks return, with Spa, Watkins Glen, Silverstone and Suzuka familiar to drivers, but will also include a new challenge to complete the season, as drivers take on Circuit of the Americas for the first time. The uphill start, sweeping corners and a track which lends itself to fantastic racing will prove to be a fitting end to the 2014 campaign. Should the championship come down to the final round, it could well be a pass into the majestic Turn One that decides the title, and all will be waiting with baited breath to see the Williams-Toyota FW-31 unleash its brutal power around the hottest new racetrack in the US.
There are also some changes on the broadcast front. As usual, races will be carried on iRacing Live with PSRTV (again) broadcasting the first two races of the year, before handing over coverage to the newly formed RaceSpot TV. Whilst the name may be new, it includes many familiar faces both behind the scenes and on commentary, as Rafael Sanque from iRacing Brasil handles the main bulk of camera duties, and Wil Vincent returns as the official voice of the series. New features and concepts will be rolled out across the board to allow fans to be even closer to the action, and will be announced in the coming weeks.
The iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series offers so many storylines heading into the first round of the campaign, and whilst attention is focused closely on Huttu, Kerkhof and Luis, each of the 50 WCS-licensed drivers will be heading to Spa with high hopes and expectations. Who will come out on top? Be sure to check out iRacing News and iRacing Live all season long to find out. As always in motorsport, a fresh start and a new chapter means anything can happen.