After months of waiting and planning, the anticipation is finally over as iRacing’s World Endurance Championship – the Blancpain GT Series – kicked-off with three hours of sim racing at Monza.
With the newly-added Audi R8 LMS and Mercedes AMG GT3 joining iRacing’s existing BMW Z4 and McLaren MP4 GT3 cars, the 40-car field being driven by the world’s best sim racers began showing their pace early on as qualifying got underway.
During the 15-minute/3-lap qualifying session, Vortex SimRacing Red capitalized on the top speed of the McLaren and quickly established themselves as the team to beat as Ivo Howeller stuck the team’s MP4 on pole with a time of 1:46.482.
Howeller’s qualifying time proved to be unbeatable even to other McLaren teams as the closest competitor, Patrick Pitchler of Pure Racing Team #111, took second with a time of 1:46.834 – a difference of .351s.
Jesus Sicilia brought the Audi of DarContigo Racing Team up to third ahead of the Mercedes driven by five-time iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series champion Greger Huttu of Team Redline Black with the McLaren of Kerb Surfers’ Denis Grabovsky rounding out the top-five.
With the top-20 cars separated by less than one second in qualifying, it was shaping up to be a very tight race.
And so it begins…
As the cars gridded up, the standing start took many drivers by surprise but as the green flag waved, the three-hour race got underway.
Unfortunately for Maximilian Benecke of Pure Racing Team #113, the first turn was the beginning of the end as he found himself caught up in the mess of cars heading into the Variante del Rettifilo. Following an initial contact, the team’s BMW was ping-ponged back and forth until finally sliding off the track with heavy damage. After starting in 27th, the team would eventually retire from the event in 37th.
Further up the field, the McLaren of Vortex Simracing Red driven by Howeller made the most of starting from pole and broke away from the pack with a margin of several seconds. As the race continued and the first round of pit stops came into play, Howeller handed the driving duties over to his teammate, Martin Vanhove, who was able to continue the team’s lead.
However, the Pure Racing Team McLaren driven by Pichler was on the prowl and slowly closed the gap on Vanhove. It came to a head at the start of lap 50 when Pichler made his move and took the lead from Vanhove. It was a clean pass but another factor in the form of Jesus Sicilia came into play.
Wanting to capitalize on the fighting taking place between Pichler and Vanhove, Sicilia saw an opening once Pichler had made his pass on Vanhove and went for a gap of his own. Unfortunately, it proved to be ill-timed as he made contact with Vanhove in Variante del Rettifilo. Although Vanhove was able to recover after doing a full 360 as a result of the contact, he emerged from the scrap in sixth place and a long way back from the leaders.
Vanhove struggled to take back any ground he could after the incident but in doing so, made contact with Ilya Molotovshchikov of Kerb Surfers. Despite the incident, the Kerb Surfers would eventually finish the race in seventh and on the lead lap.
All for naught
As the laps ticked by and Sicilia continued to race on, he soon ran into a problem. Drivers in the series are subject to a ‘fair share’ driving rule which states that each driver on the team must complete a given number of laps to be counted in the event. Unfortunately, reports began coming in that Sicilia had passed the threshold of the number of allowed laps he could complete and his teammate, David Alexis Jordan, would be unable to complete his minimum number of laps. As a result, the DarContigo Audi R8 which had a chance for the win and led 10 laps along the way would eventually finish in 18th.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Pure Racing Team either. After leading for 13 laps and showing they had a chance to take the win, a pit-lane glitch seemed to tank their efforts as the team’s McLaren was seen parked for several minutes. After a heartbreaking delay, Andreas Allmannsberger was finally able to get the car back out onto the track where they eventually finished in 21st as the final car on the lead lap.
Back and forth
With Pure Racing Team and DarContigo both out of the mix, ineX Racing Red inherited the lead followed very closely by CORE Motorsports. Driving the Mercedes and the Audi respectively, the two teams battled closely but respectfully for the remaining laps of the race as the slipstream kept either of them from getting too far from the other. Although the two swapped positions several times, the moves were mostly done on the long front straight.
As the final laps approached, Core’s Alexander Voß grabbed the lead from ineX Racing Red‘s Isaac Price. Price didn’t put up a fight, however, as he wanted to be in the slipstream of Voß on the final lap.
As the drivers crossed the line with one lap to go, Voß went defensive and held the inside line but Price had the pace. Moving back to the racing line, Price proceeded to make the move and had it in the bag until they got to Variante del Rettifilo when slight contact from Voß sent Price into a slide. The latter recovered as the former redressed the move and didn’t move for the pass which would’ve surely raised a few eyebrows in Race Control.
After making the recovery, however, Price got on the power too hard which caused a bit of wheel spin. Now fair game to make the pass, Voß retook the lead and held on for the remainder of the lap.
Crossing the line, Alexander Voß and Nils Koch of CORE Motorsports became the first ever winners of the Blancpain GT Series on iRacing after starting from eighth and scored a major victory for both their team and for Audi.
Finishing just over .6s behind, Price and Joni Törmälä of ineX Racing Red came home in second in the Mercedes. It was a reaffirmation of sorts to everyone watching as ineX – the only team to field drivers in all three of iRacing’s World Championship series – placed three of their teams into the top-six during the qualification round for the Blancpain GT Series a few months ago. As such, the team will be looking to make the most of the Mercedes during Round 2 of the series at Silverstone next month.
If there was to be a line to remember this race by, it would be “It ain’t over until it’s over.” Such was the case with Howeller and Vanhove of Vortex SimRacing Red who recovered from the earlier incident to finish the race in the money and on the final step of the podium. Their hard work after the incident not only salvaged a podium finish, but also redeemed their championship hopes.
Huttu and Tommi Hahka finished where they started in fourth ahead of Aleksi Elomaa and Antti Pihlaja of Glacier Racing BES #1 who started in 13th.
After the race, Huttu admitted the team wasn’t as prepared as they could’ve been.
“Our preparation wasn’t the best,” said Huttu during a Racespot TV interview. “I’m really happy with the P4 finish. I was kind of hoping for a top-ten maybe. We’ll learn as the championship goes on. We can improve some things and practice a bit more.”
The numbers don’t lie
By the end of the historic 98 lap race, there were a total of 16 lead changes along the way in what many were calling one of the best races they’ve seen in some time.
With the next race of the five-race season in Silverstone next month, teams will have plenty of time to plan, practice and prepare for Round 2 of the Blancpain GT Series.