The opening round of Season 4 for the iRacing Pro Mazda Championship took place at Road Atlanta. This is a track with an incredibly short lap duration compared to most venues, but one requiring no lapses in concentration due to the high demand and difficult corners the sim racers would encounter over the duration of the 22 lap event. Knowing draft would – as ever – be a major factor, pole position quite possibly wasn’t the place Oliver Connor wanted to be – especially if he was still in first when they exited Turn 7 on to the back stretch.

With Connor taking pole it was the Italian Ariel Eduardo Bernardi who lined up alongside him, whilst last season’s champion Justin Brunner was back again looking to add another title to his name; although this time he started fourth .2s down in qualifying. Connor managed a good get-a-way to keep his lead at the start, in stark contrast to his teammate Patrick White whose third place start accounted to nothing as he dreadfully bogged down and fell back to seventh position.

The polesitter didn’t have the best of starts, making an early mistake throwing away his possible chances to challenge for victory.

Unfortunately for Connor his lead didn’t last long: Turn 5 is notoriously bumpy on the entry and the apex curbs, Connor fell foul to either one of these which sent him shooting towards the equally unforgiving exit curbing.  The Carbon Racing driver miraculously kept it out the wall by a matter of inches and was fortunate to carry on his way, albeit now down in fifth position. Meanwhile, Brunner had taken advantage of a great start and the draft down the back stretch to shoot himself up in to first position at the close of the opening lap.

Brunner had moved from 3rd to 1st in a matter of 10 corners. Behind him a flurry of cars head 3 wide in to Turn 2.

For the Carbon Racing twosome,Turn 5 hadn’t provided any good memories in this race as of yet . . . and it was only the second lap! Bernardi and White came together this time, with the Italian coming off worse (ultimately retiring) with a destroyed rear wing. White managed to recover his half spin from the contact to recoup seventh position for now; this incident allowed the top five to disappear into the distance with the lead trio leaving Julien Oligo and Connor to battle it out for best of the rest.

White and Bernardi make contact! The Italian’s race ends prematurely whilst White’s is also hindered.

Although Jordy Lopez Jr and Brunner are now teammates, it didn’t mean Brunner’s fellow American was going to give him an easy ride for the win. Lopez finally got his chance to take the lead for the first time when he was able to keep right on Brunner’s gearbox throughout lap 15. When they exited Turn 7 he made his move.  Using the draft to his advantage he pulled to the inside to easily take the position prior to the Turn 10A and 10B chicane. If any opportunity opened up from the two teammates battling, Brand Estes had an ideal opportunity to sneak on through as well, as a three way battle for the win could easily turn in any of their ways. Further back Oligo was playing with time, seemingly waiting for the right lap to make a move on Connor since they had been running nose-to-tail from the early laps.

Lopez Jr didn’t plan on making it easy for his teammate.

For Brunner and Lopez Jr, it was a game of cat and mouse . . . who would time their move right?  Who would make the wrong move allowing the other to win. Brunner took the lead once again two laps later, meaning at the cross of the line five laps would remain until one of the top three mounted the top step of the podium. Meanwhile, in the battle for best of the rest, Oligo made his move on Connor in to Turn 10A to commandeer fourth spot; by the same place the next lap ’round the Englishman seemed to have no answer and slowly but surely had dropped marginally back.

3 wide for the lead! Lopez Jr (middle) came out on top for a short while, until Brunner went up the inside in to Turn 12.

Come the penultimate lap and Lopez Jr had the upper hand, although you could argue Brunner or Estes was really in the driver’s seat since they were both within draft range and either could ideally have a perfect opportunity arise to make a move for the win. As they exited Turn 7 for the 21st time, Brunner and Estes had their chances.  Brunner was the first to make his move, taking to the outside, whilst Estes had the overspeed to just about create a three wide situation at they rounded the slight bend in the straight known as Turn 9. Estes backed-out to slot-in behind Lopez who managed to slightly outbrake his teammate to retain his lead for a few more hundred metres.  By the time they entered Turn 12 Brunner had emerged in the lead, although he’d have his hands full ensuring either one of the drivers behind wasn’t able to pull-of a successful overtake on the run to the flag.

Only .6s separated the top 3: A closely fought race in which last season’s champion showed his championship-winning capabilities in a tightly contested 22 laps.

In the end, Brunner picked-up where he left off to emerge victorious from this 3572 SOF in the opening round of the sim racing season. Lopez Jr and Estes rounded out the podium whilst Oligo led home pole sitter Connor for the best of the rest.  Govand Keanie who seemed to be Brunner’s closest challenger in terms of points in Week 1 by scoring 208 in comparison to Brunner’s 209, although for Keanie the 208 points were discounted and averaged to due to the Dutchman topping the four marks before points begin to average. Bernardi was the closest challenger to the American by scoring 189, but this meant a 20 point gap had already been created early on. 20 points isn’t much to catch-up, but with Brunner’s incredible consistency as well as speed every point early-on certainly counts!

 

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