The summer break for the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series gave teams and drivers the chance to regroup after a busy first half of the season. For some, it was the chance to reflect upon their successes, and use this as a platform to improve further for the back end of the season. For others, the process was more immediate; the need to regroup quickly, and make a determined attempt to move up the standings. One of these teams was Coanda Simsport, who, despite wins to their name, had again fallen short in their attempt to surpass Team Redline’s Greger Huttu, whom after victory at Silverstone, was just one win away from something special. His 50th win in the series.
To understand the magnitude of Huttu’s potential success, one must consider the fact that he has won over 50% of the races he has entered. He has finished in the Top 5 more than 90% of the time, and has not only been able to win from pole position, but also come through the field when needed, most notably in 2013 and 2014, when he would often win when starting outside of the front row of the grid. This would often be due to the impressive speed the Finnish driver would show in the laps immediately prior to and during the pit stop phase(s) of the race, allowing him to gain time if needed, and once again see him head to the front of the field. It was a strategy used time and again in the series, and one which ultimately secured his 2014 title.
In Round 10 of the 2015 season, however, there was no need for Huttu to worry about starting midpack, as he won a tense qualifying battle with Coanda Simsport’s Martin Krönke for pole position bragging rights. The change to qualifying regulations concerning dynamic weather helped some drivers and hindered others but, in general, the usual suspects were up front, albeit with Redline convincingly ahead of Coanda. Apex Racing’s Sebastian Job secured a second row starting position for the third race in a row, and hoped to atone for miserable opening laps at Montreal and Silverstone. All drivers qualified by virtue of there being 35 attempting to make the grid, and the series welcomed in its newest pro sim racer: Radicals Online‘s Mack Backum.
The start of the race saw Krönke get a better launch of the line, and he was alongside Huttu into the first turn. There was a brief moment where the two almost made contact, perhaps ending both of their races, but they kept it together and remained side-by-side into Turn 2. Here, Huttu had the slight speed advantage and the inside line into the corner, and was able to retain the lead, though Krönke would fall back behind Huttu’s Redline teammate, the fast starting Olli Pahkala as he pushed wide into the corner. Turn 2 would catch out a number of drivers over the day, due to the cross wind across the racetrack, alongside the deceiving exit apex into Turn 3. The first such victim was Friction Racing’s Frank Levick IV, just seven laps into the event.
Behind the lead battle, despite losing one position on the opening lap, the start of the race was far more positive for Sebastian Job, as he settled down into fourth position. ineX Racing’s Jake Stergios also showed a return to form on a racetrack where he has traditionally been quick, as he seemingly can find grip on the otherwise slippery Japanese tarmac. He would be followed closely by the third Redline driver in the field, Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola, and Coanda’s Mitchell Dejong, although the American Red Bull Rallycross driver would fall back to P14 as a result of a technical glitch forcing him to pull off the race track briefly, halting his charge for a Top 5 finish.
Passing is at a premium at Motegi, which made pit stops even more important than usual. Unlike at most tracks this season, there was a clearly defined split in strategy, with most sim racers trying the alternate one stop strategy compared to events previous. Most notably, Huttu would enter pit road before his rivals on both occasions, but like always, he found speed when needed in order to maintain or extend the race lead. No matter how hard he tried, Krönke was unable to do the overcut on his first stop against Pahkala, and would end up pitting earlier come the second stop, ending all hopes of breaking up a Redline 1 – 2. Sebastian Job would finally put his pitting nightmare from Silverstone to bed, being able to hold off the charge from both Stergios and Jaakkola, who moved ahead of his ineX rival before the sim race’s end.
When all was said and done, there was little difference between a one and a two stopper, and it seemed to be more a case of track placement than outright strategy. There were some who made the one stop strategy work, most notably Backum who, after holding off Coanda Simsports driver Hugo Luis, secured a very respectable seventh place on his world championship series debut, also making him the highest placed driver for the Radicals team, which otherwise had a testing day. Radicals were not the only team to struggle at Twin Ring Motegi, with the majority of the Coanda stable off pace, as well as the Orion Race Team. With driver ambitions at the top end of the championship becoming more desperate, alongside the need for drivers to remain in the Top 25 in points come seasons end, there is a sense of urgency in the air, with teams having to take greater risks in order to make the Top 10.
The day however, simply belonged to Huttu, as he claimed victory overall, and the 50th of his career. It was ‘classic Huttu’ in so many ways, and although he failed to get the fastest lap by thousandths of a second on the final lap, he still scored pole, led the most laps and showed pace no other driver has been able to do on a consistent basis in the series. His gap over Pahkala only tells half the story, but for Krönke in third, he would be ruing the lack of aggression he showed in Turn 2 on the opening lap, compared to the first corner. In total, 30 of the 35 drivers finished the race, with one driver, Vortex Racing’s Dmitri Janis not starting.
Next up, it’s the second of the Japanese Double Header, as the drivers head to Okayama, the track that hosted the 1994 and 1995 Pacific Grand Prix. Although passing will again be at a premium, expect a few solo car errors, and heated moments, and keep an eye on the likes of Stergios and Job. One of those perhaps could ride their wave of renewed momentum and spring a surprise.