S-P-A. Words cannot help to describe the majesty of those three letters in the minds of racing fans. What does one think about first? Do you think of the glorious Formula 1 cars of the ’60s, ’50s, and earlier? Do you think of Fangio, Clark, Hill, or Schumacher? Do you think of the F2004, the Lotus 49 or the old Mercedes that dominated with Fangio at the wheel? Or do you think of the many corners that have become synonymous with racing lore? Stavelot? Malmedy? Raidillon, Blanchimont or Eau Rouge? La Source? How does one react when they hear the legend of those names. They have to bring out some reaction in any racing fan.
In any event, a race at Spa, whether it be simulated or in real life, is a big deal. The flowing circuit nestled deep in Belgium’s Ardennes is a driver favorite. With fast and tricky corners like Eau Rouge, and slow but technical portions like the infamous Bus Stop, the circuit has everything, and it tends to play towards the best drivers.
As a result, it was no surprise that when one looked at the starting line up of last week’s virtual IndyCar race, no less than quadruple World Champion Greger Huttu gridded on the pole. Beside him on the grid was Joonas Nahkala, with third going to Fabio Gonzalez. As the pace car pulled away and the field accelerated into the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex, Huttu jumped to an early lead. He would not pull away immediately, however, as Nahkala used the draft up the Kemmel Straight into the Malmedy chicane to position himself on the Fanatec Dallara’s gearbox.
Huttu would, however, pull away slightly over the course of the lap. The yoyo action at the front would re-occur as the field whistled up from Stavelot to Blanchimont, with Nahkala once again gaining the draft. Although the gap stabilized coming into Lap Two, Nahkala was still within striking distance of the lead and any mistake by Huttu could spell the end of his two second advantage.
As the top group began spreading out, a very close battle raged deeper in the field with Kevin Boulhassa harrying Jussi Nieminen for ninth spot. After running nose-to-tail for half a dozen laps, Boulhassa took a page from Montoya and passed Nieminen into the Bus Stop and immediately began pulling away.
The field at this point was rather spread out, with the best battles from fourth to seventh. The drivers in those spots were in each other’s draft, but just far enough to keep any one driver from getting a huge run. The contest would be reduced to a three man fight after Julien Oligo spun out of the Bus Stop. Oligo would recover quickly however, and he would still stand a chance in the battle for fourth.
Almost immediately afterward, the field became even more spread out before pit stops began on Lap 10. First to pit was fourth placed Fernando Ortego Guerrero followed by Mark Ursel from sixth place. Huttu called on pit road the next lap, with the rest of the podium aspirants following suit. For the time being, Julio Ornelas inherited the on-track lead but before he was credited with leading a lap, he too pitted and Huttu resumed his place atop the running order.
At this point, Huttu had become a speck on the screen of Nahkala, whose only hope was the unlikely possibility that Huttu might fall off the road. The main battle on track was for the fifth position, with Ornelas just ahead of Oligo as they steadily gained on Ortega in fourth place, setting the stage for another multicar battle.
This battle remained “civil” until the final few corners of the 21 lap race. Going into the Bus Stop for the final time, Ornelas outbraked himself, enabling Oligo to sneak past. Not done yet, Oligo booked it down the front Formula 1 start/finish straight in pursuit of Ortega. Into the final corner for the “Classic Pit” configuration (La Source), he was right there. But for all his efforts, Oligo would finish a scant .3s behind Ortega.
There was no such drama at the front. At the end of these 21 laps, Huttu took the victory by nine seconds over Nahkala, with Fabio Gonzalez rounding-out the podium.
The six week season kicked-off with plenty of fireworks, and the short season promises to be wide open. Not many of last season’s players were present in Week 1, and the schedule is a bit . . . weird. For example, Bathurst makes an appearance in Week 3 but, before the IndyCars take-on The Mountain, there’s the matter of Autódromo José Carlos Pace, aka Interlagos. Even with the season only six weeks in duration, then, it figures to be the ultimate test of man and (virtual) machine.