Sebring International Raceway was next on the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series horizon, several hundred miles south into the state of Florida for – without objection the bumpiest ride of the twelve week iGPS. The 3.74 mile circuit has been a compliant, renowned host for endurance racing as well as many other categories of motorsport (including the first US Grand Prix in 1959), and is fluid with plenty of history. It’s out of the question that Bernie Ecclestone could guide his trademark Formula 1 circus to Sebring one day, despite the surge of demand for F1 in America. Hence, an advantageous side of iRacing.com gives one the ability to not only spectate a Strength of Field (SoF) F1 race but to even test their skills around the tricky confines of this tough race track – wide in some places but extremely bumpy across the entire surface which can catch out any unsuspecting sim driver.
But, with a championship battle ongoing, the prospect of being reluctant to sit behind the wheel is not feasible for some. On the other hand, this was another weekend in which the nature of the track led to expectations of low participation; and following the supply and demand chain, low demand leads to low supply, creating a problem for those with their eyes on the Road to Pro and in need of points. Nevertheless, leading the way in qualifying was the duo of Daniel López (Iberia) and Troy Schulz (Northwest), both getting a substantive march in qualifying trim on the respective field. But with neither of them electing to drive an official race, the door was opened for prospective unsuspecting winners.
Saturday paid homage to the concerns of low participation, though at least providing a SoF during the day – a feat not achieved last week at VIR — at the conventional 18:00GMT timeslot. Michele Chesini (Italy) led away from pole and built an early and healthy gap as fellow front-row starter and main rival Samuel de la Fuente lost ground on the first lap, losing two positions and crucial track time to leader Chesini.
Eventually, de la Fuente got back to his starting position after displacing trouble-bound Matt Hannagan (UK and I) who pitted for repairs on the same lap. With the race settling down, Chesini looked to be struggling: his lap times weren’t coming down despite the immense benefit of the fuel burning off. This enabled de la Fuente to close the gap suddenly, and raising suspicions he might be on a lighter fuel load.
To some surprise, in fact Chesini was first to pit, opening the door for de la Fuente to take the chance for victory – which he duly did, staying on track two laps longer than his rival and leapfrogging him in the pits, en route to a handsome win. Hannagan’s setback from third on the grid and the second lap retirements of Rasmus Tali (Scandinavia) and Javier Jose Martinez Arrieta (Iberia) promoted Christiaan Tanahatoe to third place for much of the race. He fended off his rivals to a comfy podium finish, less than thirty seconds away from the victor, in a race offering few goodies for those outside the podium.
Next up, Sunday’s action kicked off straight away at 16:00GMT, and de la Fuente’s improved qualifying time put him on pole from Kazuki Oomishima (Asia) with fast-starting Teemu Iivonen (Finland) directly behind. The pole sitter protected his patch and held onto his lead from the start. The top three were nose-to-tail for as many as ten laps, until a mistake from de la Fuente opened the door for Iivonen to try an overtake. However, slight contact between the two sent the former into a spin and back down to fourth place, reducing the lead battle to just two.
Oomishima looked to have the measure of Iivonen, but a costly mistake sent the Japanese into an early retirement, giving Iivonen a healthy lead and an unchallenged run to the flag. Oomishima’s demise promoted de la Fuente to second after displacing Tali which, in turn, set-up a race long duel between Arrieta and Tali himself, as the two Pro hopefuls fought over points that could decide who races in the upcoming Pro Series or not. Tali held the initial high ground courtesy of a higher starting position and better first stint, but Arrieta maintained the gap approaching the pit stops and, courtesy of a heavier fuel strategy, managed to overtake his rival. Tali fought back and closed the gap right at the end, but ran out of time and surge to take the initiative, hence, Arrieta took the spoils this time around, whilst Benjamin Lindsay (Carolina) took a well-calculated fifth place ahead of the struggling Rafa Bordoy (Iberia), who recovered from an early setback and pit stop to take sixth.
The biggest points on offer followed immediately in the 18:00GMT race slot, with de la Fuente again taking the coveted pole position grid slot, but this time dropping to third at the start as Oomishima and Iivonen capitalised on a poor launch. Oomishima’s glory was short-lived again, however. On Lap Two he spun in the high energy, very bumpy final corner and collected Hannagan’s oncoming Williams-Toyota FW31 car, taking both cars out. Continuing on, Iivonen and de la Fuente began trading the lead back and forth as the two battled for the high ground for much of the first stint, whilst seemingly on very similar strategies, trying to capitalize on any iota of a mistake.
With the pit stops approaching, Iivonen pulled a two second gap on his rival, but to the benefit of the spectacle, de la Fuente stayed on track for an extra lap. The Spaniard looked to have possibly done enough to take the lead. But a seemingly slow in-lap and pit stop sequence didn’t enable him to overtake and instead, he emerged from pit lane second and trailed the Finn home. Nevertheless, the A-Class driver amassed a welcome 230 points, as the Spaniard makes his claim – not just for one of the ten Pro licenses, but for a chance of victory in the A-Class championship.
Taking the final podium slot, Bordoy endured a much better race this time, gaining important places at the start and keeping his nose clean to amass the second highest points total for an A-Class driver of the week. A good race too from Frank Levick IV (New England) enabled the American to carve his way up from thirteenth to fourth place, and not far away from a podium despite opting for the seemingly unconventional zero stop strategy.
In the championship situation, Chesini keeps the A-Class points lead he earned the week previously, even extending his margin over newly promoted second place Levick IV, though with not much change in the overall picture as Matthias Eckstein (DE-AT-CH) now sits on the ‘bubble’ of tenth place, the position which will decide who takes the final Pro license come the season end.
Next week, arguably the best track of them all – Spa-Francorchamps — hosts the iGPS’ first march onto European soil this season. It’s a week promising plenty of races with plenty of points on offer at a track which commands universal respect and popularity.