Round 13 of the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series saw a return to Spa-Francorchamps, the track which hosted the opening round of the season. A fan and driver favourite, it’s one that always sees a lot of participation, evident in qualifying as drivers were eliminated for the first time in seven races.
Qualifying saw much calmer conditions than at Indianapolis, and at the start of the session it looked as though Coanda were the team to beat. Indeed, Martin Krönke set the early pace as drivers completed their first of two flying laps, but it would be Team Redline who would prevail as Greger Huttu scored pole position and Olli Pahkala showed a return to form by lining-up alongside him on the front row of the grid. Row 3 saw two stand-out performances, with Radicals Online’s Jeremy Bouteloup in fifth ahead of Apex Racing’s Alex Simpson. In both of these cases, this was their best qualifying of the year, and both qualified ahead of 2011 series champion Hugo Luis and 2015 Spa Spring winner Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola.
As the lights went out Huttu got the best start of the front pack as Pahkala was swamped by Coanda orange and purple in the forms of Mitchell DeJong and Krönke. Pahkala redressed half of his languid start by retaking Krönke on the following lap. Behind, a penalty for Paul Illbrink’s Radicals Online car moved him to the rear of the field, and Mivano Racing’s Patrik Holzmann had a disastrous start, plummeting from fifteenth to P30 by the end of the second lap. In contrast, other sim racers threaded the virtual needle and gained big at the start of the race, most notably Robin Friskopps (ineX Racing) who lept from twentieth to P11 and final qualifier Martti Pietilä (Coanda Simsport) who advanced no less than 16 spots in the first two laps . . . and continued marching forward.
Coanda’s drivers looked to have taken a different approach in terms of their gear selection, opting for a longer 7th gear than normal in an attempt to aid overtaking. Traditionally both Coanda and Redline, knowing their cars would run in clean air the majority of the race, would optimise their gearing for such a scenario, and would not consider the overspeed options that some teams, most notably ineX would use.
Coanda’s approach proved fruitful for DeJong, as he moved into the lead on the run up the hill towards Les Combes on Lap 3. This would be one of the first times all season that Huttu had been passed on track, though the American’s lead would not last long, with Huttu moving back to the point on Lap 9.
Simpson’s qualifying didn’t translate into strong pace in the race, as Apex Racing continued their run of poorer race form than expected. Whilst Apex struggled, Radicals Online continued to shine at their best track. Bouteloup remained in the top five all day and, after qualifying in P11, Mack Bakkkum would once again score a Top 10 finish, moving ever closer to a top 25 finish in the championship and a guaranteed spot in the 2016 iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series.
With Mogar Filho coming home eighth and Joonas Nukarinen only missing out on the top 10 because of a late race fuel saving effort, the only sim racer from the Radicals camp who struggled was Illbrink, who crashed out on Lap 25. ineX Racing and Friction Racing would again prove strong, showing the depth of the midfield that was perhaps lacking for a few years in the series.
The battle for the win never seemed to be in doubt however, as most drivers ran a similar strategy, and the long lap time meant pit windows are shorter than elsewhere. Whilst Huttu would not go on an alternate strategy compared to the Indianapolis race, he was still able to manage the gap out front. The biggest issue behind was between the Coanda twosome of DeJong and Krönke, with the latter looking as though he was losing time behind the American. Team orders are always a point of contention in any racing series, though here it did look as though one teammate helping another could have made the battle for the lead closer at the end. Whilst DeJong’s pace didn’t specifically impact Krönke’s ability to gun for the win, it may well have had an impact.
So, it was Huttu, again victorious, winning for the 52ndtime in his career, and inching closer to a fifth world championship. After the race, when asked about the championship, he allowed as how, even now, it’s just one race at a time and that’s all he’s thinking about.
Speaking of which, Huttu will be thinking about a better run at the fall Suzuka race in comparison to 2014, where a poor qualifying saw him in the midst of one of the worst lap one wrecks in series history. Although the championship is in better shape compared to a year ago, Huttu knows that it’s still his to lose; whilst Krönke can no longer win the championship simply by winning every race, the Finn still needs podiums to ensure the gap remains in his favour.
The 14th round of the championship at Suzuka will be a part of an iRacing Live double header, with coverage of the Justin Wilson 150 the same afternoon. Whilst a championship charge nears its final push in the world’s best road racing sim series, other drivers prepare to reflect and honour a man taken too soon. It’s with heavy hearts that drivers will pay farewell to Justin Wilson on the virtual racetrack, and a number of world championship drivers have already committed to participating in the event.
Images courtesy of Hugo Luis.