There are occasions that a team could call their race a ‘good day in the office.’ Other days may be memorable, but this past weekend, Fanatec Team Redline ticked-off everything remaining in their 2014 Bucket List, in the process reaffirming their position at the top of the iRacing Grand Prix Series World Championship tree. It had been tough month for the team, with Enzo Bonito suffering continual technical issues and Greger Huttu’s first lap crash at Suzuka, coupled with Coanda SimSport’s Martin Krönke continuing his quest for the ‘Impossible Dream.’ Yet at Zandvoort, Bonito finally had luck go his way, whilst Huttu did exactly what he had to do to secure his fourth world championship.
Qualifying saw Krönke take the early advantage, before Bonito’s first lap placed him on provisional pole, where he would remain until the end of the session. Although Krönke would be able to improve on his third and final lap, he remained behind the Italian driver on the time sheets, albeit by less than half a tenth of a second. After a string of poor qualifying performances, Huttu was able to finally earn a top five starting position, with a third fastest lap, and was joined on the second row by Glacier Racing’s Aleksi Juusi – Jaakkola.
Similar to Suzuka a fortnight ago, the first couple of corners at Circuit Park Zandvoort are treacherous, funneling from a wide first turn (Tarzanbocht) into a tight, narrow sequence of Gerlachbocht and Hugeholtzbocht. With the following fast speed section leading all the way to Vodafone Corner, the first lap is — arguably — one of the most difficult of the season. Therefore, it was imperative that all drivers kept their cars clean at the start of the race. Thankfully, this was achieved, with all cars making it through the first corners, and only Mivano X-Team’s Rocco Barone experiencing a major incident when he spun mid-way through the lap.
Importantly for Krönke, he was able to hold off Huttu into the first turn as the Finnish driver attempted to make the pass on the outside. The banking on Tarzanbocht would play an important role throughout the race, opening avenues for drivers to make passes that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
Bonito’s good launch, and clean first lap staked him to an immediate advantage, and he was able to pull out a five second lead in the opening laps over Krönke. As well as the technical issues that had plagued his season, there had been a number of unforced errors from the Italian which hampered his ability to fight for the top five in the championship. Such was not the case here, as Bonito would not put a wheel wrong in the entire event. In his wake, Krönke and Huttu exchanged quick lap times, with the gap opening up to about two seconds overall on the run to the first stop, yet both were running about .3s off of Bonito’s pace.
Behind, Kazuki Oomishima was running in a close fight for positions within the Top 10 along with Ilkka Haapala (Orion Race Team) and Jake Stergios (ineX Racing) before a second unforced error in as many weeks dropped him outside of the top 10. To compound the issue, Marcus Caton was unable to avoid Oomishima whilst laying just off the racing line, causing damage to the Ronin Racing car’s front wing and suspension, knocking the Japanese driver out of the race, and placing real pressure on him to deliver in the season finale to avoid slipping outside the top 25 and losing his automatic berth in the 2015 world championship series. Battles outside of the top 10 were also fierce, with drivers from the Radicals, ineX and Apex Racingcamps battling hard for positions on a track where passing opportunities were few and far between but making a mistake was proving to be easy.
Bonito was the first to blink for pitstops, followed two laps later by the remainder of the top three. Whilst normally the overcut will allow those pitting later to gain time, Bonito was able to maintain his lead, despite coming out amid traffic. Krönke was able to hold onto his second place, though the gap had shrunk to about a second at this point. Status quo was maintained throughout the field, with Jake Stergios improving to sixth, as he continued his late season charge to move into the top five in points.
After the first round of stops, it looked as though a degree of decorum had struck the field. Whilst three drivers attempted the alternate one stop strategy (most notably Yuho Abe, following on from his teammate at Suzuka), the field spread meant that the next 25 laps were more about maintaining momentum than making passes stick on the racetrack. Naturally, all eyes were on Huttu, to see if he could close the gap back to second place and, as first Bonito then Krönke peeled-off the track for the second time, it looked as though it wouldn’t happen.
In true Huttu fashion, the two laps between Krönke’s stop and the Finn’s own proved to be the difference makers. Setting the fastest lap of the race twice over, the job was done and, coming out of pit lane the one second deficit was reversed — with the Redline driver just two dozen laps from securing his fourth title in five seasons. To compound issues, knowing that his championship charge was in the balance, Krönke came to the attention of the stewards, being forced to take a slow down penalty for cutting the inside kerb at the Audi S, dropping him to three seconds back of his rival and unable to close as the laps ticked down.
Behind, craziness ensued in the closing laps. The first incident saw Haapala and Abe make contact into the Audi S, spinning Abe around after his one stop strategy placed him into the Top 10. A lap later, Aleksi Elomaa (Glacier Racing) and Dion Vergers (Orion Race Team) made contact in concertina effect with Abe’s crippled Williams-Toyota FW31 in the final corner, knocking Vergers out of the race and costing Elomaa valuable positions. As off-pace drivers attempted to salvage the best of failing situations, they were being caught rapidly by Bonito. As if the Italian sim racer needed any additional pressure coming to the last lap, he had to tiptoe around these ongoing battles among the wounded cars.
Luckily for Bonito, the gap he had built in the early laps meant he would not face the same level of pressure as Jaakkola endured in the Suzuka spring race, where lapped traffic almost changed the outcome on the final lap. Thus he cruised to a well-deserved first victory and, in the bargain, became the fourth first time winner in 2014, topping a record which has stood since 2011. After months of bad luck, plagued by technical issues and frustrations, this was clearly the boost needed for the Italian — and one which completed an outstanding day for the team.
Huttu duly finished the race second ahead of Krönke meaning that, once again, the Team Redline leader has become World Champion — and that the championship would not play out to the final round, as has been the case each year. As a result, that iRacing World Championship week now sees only one crucial matchup, namely in the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series, where Michael Conti, Ray Alfalla and Nick Ottinger go for glory on October 7th at Homestead-Miami Speedway (streamed live on iRacing Live). Click here for a preview of the showdown.
By winning his third title in as many years, and his fourth overall, Huttu remains at least one title ahead of Alfalla, and adds another dimension to sim racing’s most difficult question: Who is the greatest of all time? By once again wrapping-up the title under such impressive circumstances, one must surely place Huttu into the conversation, and clearly his name is close to the top.
With one round remaining in the season, Huttu vowed post-race to wrap up the season in style, and Circuit of the America will perhaps therefore be a victory parade for the Finn. Coverage of all the action will kick-off from 1:30PM GMT on iRacing Live as the final chapter of the 2014 season is written.
Screenshots courtesy of Coanda SimSport.