The Star Mazdas put on a treat at Road Atlanta.

If Okayama was good, then we were in for a huge treat for Round Two of the 2014 S4 iRacing Star Mazda championship. The second round was hosted by the 2.54 mile circuit of Road Atlanta.

Road Atlanta is notorious for its challenging rhythm and that certainly wasn’t about to change over the course of this week of sim racing.  Every driver will be wanting to extract the most they can out of their car; to do so you have got to be on edge, trusting yourself that you know the car will stick at every opportunity when you have got to push it to the limit. If this wasn’t the case, then it could be a struggle; time is of the essence here, especially if you wanted to have a successful start and be in a challenging position throughout the race. Drivers knew the draft would be key, so that meant setups would have to be well thought-out well. The back stretch is where the best overtaking opportunity arises, especially with The Chicane beckoning. The only issue with a track like Road Atlanta is getting a perfectly balanced setup; one side of the track is twisty and daunting with blind corners and hidden apexes, with curbs which will haunt you if you hit them badly —  the other side has quick, free-flowing corners and an incredibly long straight where drivers look to capitalize on top end and good brakes.

Cold tires would once again be a factor, but less so than Okayama. The weather was slightly warmer near hot ‘lanta so that helped the warm-up issues some people may have been experiencing in the previous week. The weather set for this week was:  Temperature: 70° F with wind out of the  Southwest @ 10 MPH; the atmosphere was 53 RH with 0% fog cover and nice clear skies.

This week’s second highest SOF (strength-of-field) was just the taster to what the 19:45 SOF was going to be like. And by no means was this race dreadful: It had every ingredient of an awesome race. Kevin Gelly-Rufat (France) began on pole position after setting a time of a 1.16.499. Alongside the pole-winner was Oscar Tolnay (Scandinavia). The start was pretty dreadful for Gelly-Rufat who bogged down, which allowed Tolnay to pull alongside and almost ahead of him heading in to Turn One.  In the end thought it was Tolnay who lost out on his second position to Gregory Tanson (Benelux). The first five corners were surprisingly clean throughout the field with great respect showed by all drivers. Unfortunately at the latter end of the field, Turn Six caught Daniel Alencar (Iberia) out and he was sent somersaulting through the air after hitting an unsuspecting Cem Bolukbasi (International).

Turn Six proved the ruin of Bolukbasi and Alencar.

Kevin Gelly-Rufat was certainly going to have to work for this win as moves to get an early advantage were being made; Tanson made one stick at the Chicane and led the opening lap. Tanson’s stay at the front didn’t last long as Tolnay, then Gelly-Rufat dispatched him a lap either side. Turn Five’s first victim was Dekota Fripp (West) who got wickedly loose and almost collected Jason Gerard (New York) in the process of his spin.  The latter got off with light wing damage and a loss of a position he’d just gained. With the top four having a clear break from the field, Tanson made a costly error by putting a wheel on the grass in to Turn One.  Although he ultimately pulled-off a fantastic save, this dropped him in to the clutches of the chasing pack and he had a fight on his hands to keep his fourth position. Alain Stoffels (France) certainly was the dark horse of this sim race: He began in fourth position and had been keeping the top two on their toes until his race came to an abrupt end at Turn Five, which took its victim total for this race to two drivers.

Stoffels on his way to an abrupt exit from the top three.

In the end it was Gelly-Rufat who emerged victorious in the 3159 SOF race as Tolnay made a costly error (yep you guessed it) at Turn Five, only six laps from the end; at the time he had just retaken the lead and was giving the Season 3 champion a run for his money. Tolnay didn’t give up and managed to claw his way back up to third position. He and Tanson made a last ditch move at Turn 10B on Gregor Reineck Jr (DE-AT-CH) who overshot his marks heading in to the braking zone, this led to him finishing in fourth and having to manage a slowdown penalty on the run to the line. The top five was rounded-out by Frederik Rasmussen (Scandinavia) who had a quiet, but incredibly successful race.

There’s no such thing as an easy battle at Road Atlanta.

The next race had a 3294 SOF, the highest of the season so far. This race could prove to be the decisive event in the sim racing championship. Yes, we are still early in the season, but championship points will determine the winner. All championship points count, but the higher the SOF, the more points, the bigger the advantage over your closest rivals could be.

Gelly-Rufat once again took pole position with the same time he had from the previous race and, once again, Tolnay joined him on the front row. After the last race these two had, Gelly-Rufat must have known winning was going to be no easy feat. The race began in similar fashion to the previous one, although this time Tolnay came out on top on the run to Turn One. The whole field filtered through virtually unscathed, except for our third place starter of Kerry Knowlden (UK&I) who had to take an excursion off the track up to Turn Three after Gelly-Rufat had an unexpected slide.

Getting a slowdown adds insult to injury for Knowlden’s wild ride over the grass.

The first casualty was Teemu Valkeejarvi (Finland). Mike McKinney (Illinois) took full advantage of Valkeejarvi’s mistake at Turn Three and slotted his car nicely up the inside of the first of the Esses. What looked to be a brilliant move ended in tears for Valkeejarvi. The Finn was on the end of an incredibly unfortunate netcode incident in which his car began a slow slide to the left and into the path of Harley Lewis (Canada) who had absolutely no time to take evasive action and, in the process, collected the sliding Valkeejarvi. Everyone else had managed to scamper through down to Turn Five safely, but Lewis certainly had a lot of ‘hot laps’ ahead of him if he was to make inroads on the cars towards the latter end of the pack. Valkeejarvi, on the other hand, finished nine laps down, having had to make an unscheduled pit stop to fix the resulting damage.

Xavi Estella (9) narrowly avoids a wayward Harley Lewis (11) and Teemu Valkeejarvi (8).

By the end of Lap One Gelly-Rufat had retaken the lead from Tolnay and Cam Stark (UK&I) was just clinging on their draft behind. A small cushion had been created to the chasing cars led by McKinney. Gelly-Rufat seemed to be pushing incredibly hard, even socring a 10/10 for best drift of the race at Turn One, and miraculously pulling off a superb save!

Who needs to take a corner conventionally when you’re leading?

Unfortunately for the top three the chasing pack had well and truly caught up by the beginning of Lap Seven. The cars behind had been consistently lapping quicker over the previous few laps, helped by the fact the front three were squabbling over the lead. Joonas Nukarinen (Finland) looked as though he would be the one making inroads on the top three the earliest, but a costly error at the dreaded Turn Five sent him falling right back down to sixth. In the end it was at turn 10B on Lap Eight that the third position changed hands for the first time this race. Frederik Rasmussen pulled-off a beautifully executed undercut on Stark who had no answer for a perfectly placed car on the inside going under the bridge at Turn 11. To add insult to injury, Nukarinen caught Stark unawares heading in to the entry of Turn One and placed his car nicely up the inside to drop Stark from third to fifth in a matter of corners.

Under the bridge we go – Rasmussen completes his move on Stark.

Up front, even with 13 laps to go, no one was settling for any position.  Tolnay certainly wanted to press on to regain the lead, but his charge came to a quick end with a huge drift around Turn One. Given Gelly-Rufat’s previous drift around the same turn this wouldn’t have been awarded such high marks; the execution was a little bit wayward as he ventured on to the grass, thus losing five positions.   But Tolnay certainly wasn’t going to give up there as the following  pack continued to be bunched all the way back to eighth position.

Execution was a little wayward for Tolnay.

Rasmussen, who did have a fantastic run during this race, was in for a premature ending. He and Michael Epps (UK&I) were battling incredibly hard for seventh spot, and it all kicked off coming towards Turn Ten. Rasmussen seemed to make a very late defensive move forcing Epps on to the grass.  For his part, Epps kept his foot in but it almost ended in tears before they even entered the Chicane as Epps’ car got squirrely under braking and he straight lined the corner.

Epps’ race almost ends in tears after some questionable defensive driving.

What came next isn’t in line with the preferred Star Mazda reputation . . .   Epps had, of course, incurred a slowdown penalty due to short-cutting the Chicane but he wasn’t about to let Rasmussen go easy. Now I certainly will make no accusations here, but Rasmussen could not be at fault for this crash, which only ended his race in a very bad fashion.

You can only imagine what occurred next . . .

The race really began to hot up for the final five and a half laps. Nukarinen pulled-off a wild save to keep it out of the looming outside barrier at Turn Five as he pushed to catch Gelly-Rufat.  This mistake ultimately compromised any chance the following Stark and Xavi Estella (Iberia) had of catching the leader before the end of the race as they were forced to lift to avoid Nukarinen’s potential accident.

The final lap of the race was as intensely fought as any other lap in the race, with no love lost between any of the competitors. Season 3’s championship winner had easily got the win in the bag, but positions down to sixth place were still up for grabs. Second to fourth was one battle, and fifth to seventh was the other. By now the remainder of the field had thoroughly spread out.  Kerry Knowlden – who had that Lap One excursion off  Turn One – was ideally poised to gain fifth place from Nukarinen on the run to the first turn –  and he did so.  In hindsight, however,  it may have not been the smartest move considering the draft effect here.

McKinney was just waiting for his time to pounce to try to gain an extra position and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Knowlden was forced to concede fifth place by Nukarinen at Turn Six, which enabled McKinney to size him up down the back stretch and work the undercut coming out of turn 10B. Knowlden ultimately had no answer as the rear of his car gave up whilst he tried to hang it around the outside to gain a possible fifth place.  Nevertheless he finished a credible seventh, considering the comeback drive he had!

Third place was also decided from turn 10B down to the run to the line. Estella and Stark were biding their time over the lap to try to pounce on Tolnay.  However, Tolnay kept his position by dint of some very good defensive driving whilst Stark sized up the undercut – a move which worked wonders this race – at the exit of the Chicane.  Estella had left the door open trying to perfect a move on Tolnay only for Stark to pounce on an open gap and take full advantage of a better drive off the corner to snag the final the podium position.

Drive to the line: Tolnay takes home a brilliant second position

(Picture: Drive to the line, Tolnay takes home a brilliant 2nd position http://i.imgur.com/Ntau7qn.jpg )

Kevin Gelly-Rufat took a well-deserved, and hard fought race win, earning 206 points for his efforts. Having had the highest point’s scores at the end of the Okayama week he was again leading heading in to Week 3 at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

Current series top 5:
Kevin Gelly-Rufat – 399
Joonas Nukarinen – 339
Alain Stoffels – 338
Gregory Tanson – 338
Oscar Tolnay – 332

The two SOF’s covered above:
http://members.iracing.com/membersite/member/EventResult.do?&subsessionid=12267107&custid=85348 – 3294
http://members.iracing.com/membersite/member/EventResult.do?&subsessionid=12266320&custid=129990 – 3159

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