This is the half-way mark of the season, and the picture becomes clearer as to who will most likely earn themselves the remaining Road Pro licenses of 2013. The next obstacle to face is 45 laps around the Phillip Island circuit in Melbourne, Australia – aka Round Six of the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series (iGPS), the highest level ‘open’ championship. Setting a good pace all week was championship leader and already Pro-licensed Alex Simpson (UK and I) positioning himself on the front foot for a weekend of racing, though at a track with reasonable overtaking opportunities and a long run to Turn One. Unsurprisingly, quickest of the A-Class hopefuls was Kazuki Oomishima (Asia) as he continued to show the qualifying form which has served him well so far.
Customary of the nature of the series, races are typically run on weekends as the sim-racers seek plenty of time to prepare meticulously for the all-important races, particularly those aiming for a place in the 2013 Pro Series. However, as usual, Saturday proved to be the least competitive day of the two, still offering three Strength of Field (SoF) races, but with low points on offer and not many chances to put a ‘banker’ heading into the important Sunday afternoon/evening of online race.
Continuing from his qualifying form, Simpson took an unchallenged victory in the 16:00GMT SoF – race number one of the week, showing imperious form heading into the harder-fought races of the week. Lee Thompson (UK and I) drove prudently to a second place finish whilst Muhammed S Patel (UK and I) completed the podium, accumulating 187 points and ensuring a 1-2-3 finish for Club UK&I. Christiaan Tanahatoe (Benelux) made a late charge from seventh place on the grid to push Patel all the way to the finish, but didn’t quite have enough to mount an overtake, finishing half a second behind his rival to take fourth.
For 18:00GMT, Simpson again took the pole position slot to set up a lights-to-flag victory, running a faster race lap this time around than the race previous, albeit with a slower average lap time in another dominant showing. Teemu Iivonen (Finland) looked to be his closest challenger, but a double spin for the Finn irreparably damage on his Williams-Toyota FW31. Instead, Samuel de la Fuente (Iberia) continued his strong showing, this time inheriting second place on his zero-stop strategy – a position he would retain for the entirety of the race, though pushed hard all the way by fellow countryman, Jorge Montanes (Iberia) who likewise finished on the podium to take 198 points, his highest scoring of the week.
Just before Sunday’s anticipated bigger SoF’s, 20:00GMT offered another SoF race with just enough signups to make it possible. No sign of Simpson offered the chance for Iivonen to start on pole with Troy Schulz (Northwest) alongside him on the front row, with the latter taking the lead at the start. Iivonen’s difficult first stint saw him stuck behind his seemingly zero-stopping rival for a few laps, which would no doubt influence the outcome of the race, reducing the amount of time available to pull-out a gap before the pit stops. Sure enough, although the Finn pushed to build a gap for his pit stop, he exited the pits behind rival Schulz, who held onto the lead to the chequered flag. Iivonen remained second with Frank Levick IV (New England) holding-on for a podium finish in an albeit quiet race.
One crucial factor for the week is the importance of strategy, as from the outset, it looked like the offset between zero stop and one stop strategies was very small, throwing a few more variables into the mix. This became even more apparent on the day of greater importance, Sunday . . .
As the lights turned green for the 16:00GMT split, pole-sitter Simpson felt the effect of being out-dragged towards Turn One, with third-placed starter Iivonen jumping ahead of Simpson and Daniel López (Iberia). Things soon began hotting-up between the leading two, eventually boiling over in a dramatic collision on the pit straight that forced both drivers to pit for repairs. Although this opened the opportunity for López to take the lead, apparent computer hardware problems set him back gradually, eventually leading to a DNF.
Instead, the rare sight of Olli Pahkala (Finland) completing a qualifying time followed by a secure drive saw the Finn inherit the lead, seemingly seeing his main competition arrive in the forms of no stoppers Michele Chesini (Italy) and Rafa Bordoy (Iberia). The trio looked to be on course for a great end-race climax, but two costly spins for Pahkala reduced the lead fight by one. Bordoy had the more troubled race of the remaining two and fell way down the order during the opening laps, but by the end he had the pace advantage and began to eat into Chesini’s lead. Unfortunately for him, the race was a few laps too short to make an impact as Chesini held on for another SoF win to put himself in good contention for the championship. Bordoy crossed the line only six tenths behind with Pahkala trailing home in third. Paolo Accurso (Italy) drove home to fourth, whilst Rasmus Tali (Scandinavia) claimed fifth after a very eventful position-swapping race saw him engage in a ten lap battle with Benjamin Lindsay (Carolina), eventually coming out on top and taking the 197 points home.
By far the most rewarding race to be part of followed directly after, at the 18:00GMT timeslot, for the only ‘double split’ race of the week (enough signups to create three SoF’s instead of the usual two). López’ record of position loss off the start continued as the pole-sitter could only watch Iivonen rocket forward and onto a relentless pace which surprisingly saw López drop away. But López’s overriding hardware trouble left him in a dire situation and eventually forced him into retirement after colliding with fellow countryman Bordoy. Oomishima finally made his presence felt, though not where he would’ve liked after a dramatic moment at 150mph sent him into a spin in the fastest corner on the track, somehow missing the barriers but losing all track position and eventually retiring.
Opportunistic driving from de la Fuente guided him to an eventual second place, as former second place runner Lee Thompson required a fuel stop at the halfway mark. Javier Soto (Iberia) used this to his advantage and advanced to third after the pit stop phase, where he would hold onto his place to secure a podium finish, despite pressure to the flag from Thompson. Categorically not his team-mate LJ Garnett drove valiantly to a fifth place finish to take a fair share of points home in his pursuit for Pro.
20:00GMT played host to the final SoF race of the week, a last chance for salvation. But with a 19-car grid on show, just five of those would make it through the first lap unscathed, as a series of accidents quickly settled the race for many. That didn’t ruin the spectacle upfront however, as an apocalyptic battle of cat and mouse between one-stopping Simpson and zero stopping Oomishima emerged from the ruins, with Simpson needing to pull enough of a gap to make his pit stop and rejoin in the lead. With Oomishima losing a slight amount of time in traffic, it looked to be enough for Simpson, but owing to some good race pace, the Japanese surprisingly exited Turn One as Simpson negotiating the pit road, meaning any position change would have to take place on the track. Simpson clawed back the gap, but lacked just a bit of reserve to retake the lead, giving Oomishima a very important SoF win as the week concluded. Too engaged in a battle was the duo of Christiaan Tanahatoe and Matt Hannagan (UK and I) with both fighting tooth and nail for the entire race on respective zero stop strategies. Hannagan held the high ground for the duration of the fight, and duly held secured the podium finish with Tanahatoe trailing closely in fourth. Olli Pahkala recovered from the first lap setback to bag fifth, notably posting an online stream of his race POV on the iRacing.com forum.
In the drivers championship, Simpson might still lead the overall standings, but it is Thompson again who takes the bragging rights of the A-Class drivers, seemingly on a good path to obtain a Pro license for 2013. Oomishima and de la Fuente made huge gains as they continue to play catch-up following a few absent weeks, now leaping into the top ten and both in good contention for the overall crown. Despite the picture getting clearer, it’s still all to play for as we get closer and closer to the season finale.
Next up, arguably the biggest test of all – F1 cars around Virginia International Raceway (VIR). Like Phillip Island, VIR is –arguably — not an F1-style track, but a drivers track that will surely separate the men from the boys.