Week Five, coming ever closer to the half-way mark of 2013 S3, saw the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series (iGPS) land back on American soil, this time in the state of Wisconsin, home to ever-popular Road America.  No matter the venue, the competition remains undaunted in pursuit for the final Pro licenses awarded in 2013. Mastering the underrated difficulty of Road America’s technical four mile layout in qualifying trim was Daniel López, achieving the fastest qualifying time of the week, though at a circuit noted for plenty of overtaking opportunities.

Bleakness overshadowed the conclusion of Saturday’s activities, with only two SoF (Strength of Field) races going official, and both offering very poor points across the board. In race one, Michele Mancusi (Italy) took a convincing victory after snatching the lead on the first lap and never looking back on his one stop strategy. Despite a perilously long pit lane, the longer race distance at Road America prevented almost all drivers from taking any alternative strategy, setting the tone for the rest of the week that all battles would need to be resolved in close combat. Rounding-out the podium was the pair of pole sitter Lee Thompson (UK and I) and Paolo Accurso, the latter taking a different fuel strategy, running with a much heavier car in the beginning of the stint and taking track position during the pit stop phase.

Surprisingly not enough signups to create a SoF race at the usually popular timeslot of 18:00GMT bred just enough entries to compensate and create a SoF at 20:00GMT instead. One of Road America’s biggest fans — Pro license holder Troy Schulz — lined up on pole and likewise cruised to a simple victory despite LJ Garnett besting him in the first lap.  The latter nevertheless brought it home in second to ensure a safety net of points heading into the bigger SoFs on Sunday, whilst Richard Avery (UK and I) completed the podium.

Simpson guides the field through Turn One.

After Saturday’s disappointing turn-out, expectations were lower than usual heading into Sunday.  But with dozens of hungry A-Class drivers gunning for those all- important championship points, the iGPS boasted a smorgasbord of SoF online races offering big points.

Even as early as 14:00GMT a SoF emerged, with that all too familiar duo of López and Simpson lining up on the front row.   Yet again, Simpson out-dragged his rival to the first corner, but López fought back and displaced the Briton on the front straight starting Lap Five. But disaster struck just seven laps from the finish, as López’ internet connection began jittering momentarily before eventually dropping the server and ending his faultless race. Simpson assumed the lead and remained unchallenged until the end, taking victory with Muia and Bernardi again in close company following in his wake.

Retribution was high on the agenda for the following 16:00GMT race, with López keen to salvage what was previously lost. Instead, a carbon copy of the previous race start unfolded with Simpson taking the initial lead before (again) succumbing to his main rival. López was thus free to repeat his form in the previous race, albeit without any connection glitches this time.

Starting behind five Pro license holders presented Thompson with a tall order if he was to extend his championship lead in this race. The order went unfulfilled when the Englishman who received a lovetap from behind whilst slowing to catch a slide, forcing him into the wall and out of contention. From then on, of the A-Class drivers, only Samuel de la Fuente (Iberia) looked to be in good contention for points, with the rest of the high points scoring positions occupied by Pros. Two of those Pros — Yuho Abe (Asia) and Paolo Muia (Italy)– fought ferociously over the final podium slot.  The battle would only be resolved during the pit stop window, with Abe taking the place which enabled him to drive in clean air and create a gap. As such, the positions remained status quo for the remainder of the race, despite de la Fuente facing increasing pressure from Ricardo Castro Ledo (France) in the second half of the race.  However, the Spaniard managed to hold on to secure top five and record a 208 point score, with countryman and relative newcomer to the iGPS, Javier Jose Martinez Arrieta taking seventh place and 185 points in one of his first outings.

Pro license hopefuls Thompson and Chesini fight for track position.

For the third race in a row, second place outdragged the pole sitter off the starting grid to the first corner.  This time it was Abe getting the jump on pole sitter Ariel Eduardo Bernardi who after a nightmarish first lap, seemingly pulled off the track to retire, evidently disheartened at suffering front wing damage for the second race in a row.

Abe began to fly away from the rest of the field in a class of one. The race was destined to turn on its ahead dramatically in a bizarre, but abrupt fashion, when Abe clipped the grass very slightly exiting Turn One, lost control and speared into the wall at high speed, ending his race on the spot.

Up until this point, Rafa Bordoy (Iberia) had been holding-up Michele Chesini (Italy), seemingly on a heavier fuel strategy.  After gazing at Bordoy’s rear wing for 15 laps, Chesini eventually muscled past into second place, which became P1 after Abe’s retirement. Next onto Bordoy’s gearbox came Thompson, who struggled to make a move in the turbulent air before eventually pitting whilst Bordoy stayed out for a few more laps.

This surprised the spectators, and hinted a chance of the Spaniard winning his first SoF race.  In fact, a maiden win for Bordoy looked realistic until the pit stop itself, where an extremely long hold cost him the chance to fight for victory. Instead, he rejoined the track way down in seventh before fighting back valiantly to overtake two cars to make the top five near the end.

Meanwhile from the back of the grid, Pro license holder Olli Pahkala (Finland) gradually worked his way through the field in typical fashion, and before too long was soon in contention for a podium finish at the expense of a few other sim-racers as the pit stop sequence played out. Despite making contact with Thompson (which inflicted substantial damage on the latter’s Williams-Toyota FW31), Pahkala began to close on leader Chesini, who found himself with a fantastic opportunity to win his first SoF race.

Despite almost setting fastest lap on the final lap of the race, Pahkala didn’t have quite enough to challenge Chesini, who held on to take the win by less than one second. Matt Hannagan (UK and I) picked his way through the pieces and did all that was necessary to take the final podium slot, ensuring a productive week for him. The Spanish duo of Javier Soto (Iberia) and the unfortunate Bordoy rounded out the top five but still achieved some critical top-end points in arguably the best race of the week, with close battles up and down the field.

Chesini scored a crucial race victory on Sunday afternoon.

Somehow, enough willing sim-racers were present to create the fourth SoF race of the day (and sixth of the week) to offer a last gasp chance to get some points on the board. Simpson drove calmly and prudently to claim his second SoF race win of the week, with a small but sufficient margin over second place finisher Michele Mancusi (Italy) and Schulz (Northwest) completing an all-Pro podium. Thompson managed to salvage some satisfactory points for an unspectacular weekend with LJ Garnett rounding out the top five, less than a second behind his team-mate in a clean but undramatic race with only two non-finishers in the one hour race length, providing a resolute end to an important week for those involved.

It’s still early doors to judge the likely jostlers for the remaining Pro licenses, but as we approach half-way, bets are edging closer as to who will be the main challengers for the title of A-Class series champion. Chesini moved closer into contention with his victory, now just 80 points behind A-Class points leader Thompson. Tenth place and ‘on the bubble’ in the A-Class running is Kazuki Oomishima (Asia), dropping down the order following his absence from Road America.  But many drivers are in close company gunning for the lower end of the top ten. With the second half of the season approaching, Phillip Island is next on the horizon, a challenging track that usually offers very close lap times and close competition from top to bottom . . . much like the iGPS itself

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