The first two rounds of the 2014 iRacing.com World Championship Grand Prix Series storyline had a multitude of threads: The classic battle between 3id Motorsports and Team Redline, fantastic, close racing, and, a rare DNF for three time champion Greger Huttu. As well, one team were starting to make a solid impression in the series outside of the Big Two, namely, Glacier Racing. Some poor qualifying and bad luck meant that we didn’t know what their ‘true’ speed was, however drivers and fans alike sensed it was only a matter of time before the Glacier racers would get all the pieces of the puzzle together and really shine. That is precisely what happened at Suzuka International Circuit.
The Figure 8 racetrack is unique in motor racing, and has had many an historic race in the past. It’s the first of four occasions in the season where the iWCGPS will head over to Japan, and it’s always one of the favourites for the drivers to master. Overcast conditions and a strong crosswind through the Esses made life difficult for all drivers on this visit as they set their timed laps, marking some of the most difficult weather seen in series history. It looked as though Glacier’s Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola was going to score his first pole position in his iWCGPS career, until Hugo Luis (3id Motorsport) snatched bragging rights away in the dying moments of qualifying.
Less than a tenth separated the top two drivers when qualifying concluded, with Team Redline running mates Enzo Bonito and Huttu rounding out the second row on the grid. It was interesting to note how this was the second race in a row that Bonito had been able to out qualify his team mate, and perhaps added further fuel to indications this is shaping-up to to be a difficult season for the triple iWCGPS champion. Perhaps the biggest surprise in qualifying was the lack of pace seen from ineX Racing. Although Jake Stergios managed seventh on the grid, none of their other cars were able to make the top 20, with Jason Lovett failing to qualify. Max Dell’Orco, Matthias Egger and Marcus Caton were other names not to make the cut.
The start of the race saw an amazing getaway by the top two Glacier Racing drivers, as Uusi-Jaakkola took the lead into the first turn and Olli Pahkala moved into third with a four wide manoeuvre. Both the Team Redline drivers had sluggish starts, but Huttu was able to get the jump on his Italian team mate into Turn 1. Although there was some slight contact at the rear of the field which forced three drivers in for new front wings, all the drivers managed to cope with the cold temperatures on the opening lap. However, Davy Decorps, Lasse Bruun-Hansen, Michele Chesini and Aleksi Elomaa were all destined to retire from the race early, hurting their momentum for the next race.
Out front, Jaakkola was unable to build a lead over Luis. Over the first couple of laps it looked as though Luis would attempt to make pass into the Casio Triangle. However one of the issues that would haunt him throughout the race became immediately apparent: The 3id Motorsports cars, either through gearing, downforce levels or a combination of both did not have the straight line advantage of the Glacier Racing Williams-Toyota FW31s, which meant that even with the draft, Luis was unable to pull-up alongside Jaakkola. With setups being a critical part of sim-racing, sometimes, you sometimes have to accept the deficiencies in the car, and this was the case for the Brazilian driver today.
Bonito was the big name retiree of the race. After struggling from the start with consistency and overall pace, losing some positions, he spun on the entrance to Spoon Curve and seemingly stalled his car. This was just one part of a difficult day for Team Redline, as Huttu, like his rival Luis, was struggling for straight line speed. The sluggish start for the Finn placed him down in fourth position, and he was losing time to the leader at the rate of about three tenths of a second a lap. Whilst it would turn out that he was on a longer fuel strategy, the time lost here would be critical later in the race.
Despite a two stop strategy being a viable option, all drivers opted to make only one stop in the race. Luis was the first to hit pit road, compounding the issues he had of losing the lead early. Had he been able to maintain the race lead on the first stint, perhaps he would have been able to draw enough of a gap to minimise the dis-advantage of running shorter. Instead, not only did Jaakola easily maintain his lead on the pit stop sequence but Pahkala emerged in second place and proceeded to close the gap to the lead down to just one second. Huttu was the last of the front runners to pit, though his relatively brief stay on pit road due to the shorter “fill” did not gain enough of an advantage back to put him in the hunt for the win. Nevertheless, the top four were separated by just three seconds with 15 laps to go.
If the status quo was intact at the front, battles continued to rage through the field with Yuho Abe (Ronin Racing) and Antoine Higelin (Apex Racing) each having strong drives. Another strong run by Jeremy Bouteloup (Radicals Online) was hampered due to an incident at the hairpin, when an incident with Stephen Michaels (Twister Racing) and Mogar Filho (Radicals Online) caused damage to all three cars. Michaels would be forced to retire from the race and voiced his displeasure at being involved in an incident not of his own doing, repeating the string of bad luck he had at the start of the 2013 campaign. Bouteloup would end up finishing P11, with Filho falling back to 17th, though each felt that they could have achieved so much more.
Overtaking proved more difficult than at the first two rounds of the season, though Turn 1 and the Casio Triangle both provided good passing spots in the midfield. Out front, the stalemate continued, with Jaakkola unable to pull away from Pahkala, who in turn had Luis and Huttu on his tail. The gap would stretch out by half a second some laps, then shrink back to under a second, as the dirty air and tough aerodynamic conditions took their toll.
With two laps remaining, the leaders caught a pack of lapped traffic, which brought all four of the lead cars to within two seconds. Despite having a better run out of Spoon Curve, Pahkala was not close enough to challenge Jaakkola. However, he did find himself being part of history, as Glacier Racing became only the third team in the annals of the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series to record a 1-2 finish after Team Redline and 3id Motorsports. Luis equalled his start to the 2013 championship by finishing in third ahead of Huttu, with Stergios providing a measure of conciliation to ineX Racing by finishing fifth, albeit 12 seconds adrift of the lead pack. Indeed, rather than catching the leaders, Stergios was focused on the battle behind him, as he came home less than a second ahead of Martin Krönke with Andre Boettcher another five seconds back while Abe, Joni Törmälä and Martti Pietilä completed the top ten from Bouteloup and Higelin.
Next time out, the drivers make their first visit to the United States and to Road America, a track which always sees exciting sim-racing from flag to flag. RaceSpot TV will provide more analysis of the Suzuka event in their Spotlight Podcast, before carrying full coverage of both qualifying and the race on April 12th from 1:30PM GMT.