With Indianapolis now in the books, the iGPS moved into it’s final quarter, with Round 10 of the 12-round season welcoming Suzuka International Circuit – one of the most celebrated Formula 1 events on the calendar, allied to it’s iconic high-speed sweeping ‘S’ bends and the profound history carried in its wheel tracks – ranging from the boiling point duos between Prost and Senna, to the title thrillers involving Schumacher and Häkkinen in their primes.
Not an uncommon sight this season is the predictable pole position time set by Max Dell’Orco, and this week he didn’t break that tradition, being the sole man to break the 1:28 barrier – closely pursued by Riku Alatalo – to put himself at the front of the grid for two of three Strength of Field (SoF) races, all held on Sunday evening GMT.
On Sunday’s 6:15GMT race, Dell’Orco had another brief scare from fast-starting 3rd placed Jake Stergios, but held his ground continue his strong form in the iGPS. From now, Stergios could only follow the Italian’s wheel tracks – under pressure himself from Riku Alatalo who wouldn’t make life easier for Stergios early on. Teemu Iivonen got a great launch off the grid as he jumped from 7th to 4th at the start. This top 4 would begin to distance themselves from the pack behind. Meanwhile one of the closest contenders for the last Pro license – Pierre Urbizu got involved in a first lap crash ending his race,making his task even harder – whilst Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola who started from 5th dropped to 6th during the opening laps and was not able to rebound back to the top 5.
This instead saw Formula Renault 3.5 driver Richie Stanaway steal fifth and put his sights on the trio ahead consisting of Alatalo, Iivonen and Dell’Orco. The latter seemingly offpace due to a half spin in the tricky Turn 11 hairpin, which saw the Italian scrape the wall, damaging his car in the process. This not only let Stergios through to an unchallenged victory, but it gave a golden opportunity to Stanaway to catch up as the Finnish duo could not get past the Italian’s damaged FW31. The four cars were separated by only a couple of seconds as the white flag was waved, but nobody would dare risking their strong points finishes, meaning Dell’Orco took second, followed by Alatalo in third, Iivonen fourth and Stanaway fifth.
In the following SoF race, Dell’Orco again took to the first grid slot – fired up from his previous excursion – he again held his nerve before Turn 1 to hold onto a cherished start to finish lead and take home 256 points. However, a big incident involving Pro license-elect Laurent Beteille and Stanaway at the end of lap 1 would be a big talking point of the race. Stanaway made an attempted dive past Beteille, but the two made contact on the corner exit causing a multiple car pile-up which claimed 6 cars. At the front, Stergios again would be the man to keep Dell’Orco company in the opening laps, until an off-track saw him fall behind strong performer Alatalo and slot ahead of Simon Cattell. These three kept within relatively close contact all race, along with Iivonen for the first 7 laps, until a moment from Cattell saw him slide off in reaction entering Degnar 1, forcing a premature pit stop. This promoted Urbizu to a crucial 5th position, who held a big gap to the cars behind. As Dell’Orco continued to pull away, Alatalo also edged himself away from DWC driver Stergios and looked comfortable for a 2nd place.
Close behind Cattell had little answer for the top 3 pace but kept Stergios in sight, whilst Urbizu remained 5th, it became abundantly clear the hard-charging Stanaway looked threatening in 6th, the two emerged from their pit stops in close company. On lap 29, Stanaway forced his way through past the Frenchman who settled for a comfortable 6th position. However, this would become 5th as firstly Cattell got around Stergios, only for the latter to crash on the following lap whilst chasing the fastest lap, promoting Stanaway and Urbizu. Stergios took the chequered flag in 6th place with a tortured car, amusing the spectators in the process. Meanwhile Dell’Orco cruised home to win ahead of Alatalo.
20:15GMT turned into a 17-car SoF race with Stanaway taking the pole position. Directly behind him, Mogar DG Filho made the rest of the field look stationery, bagging an early lead from Stanaway. The two would fight nose to tail for the remainder of the first stint until the Australian started to put enough pressure on Filho who put a tire on the gravel at the end of the first stint going in to Degner 2, promoting Stanaway to the lead and his first SoF win. The fight for Pro licenses would embroil in this race with Busoms and Caton both running in the top 5. However Busoms appeared to have the edge – lapping faster than his rival and even overtaking Filho in the pit stop phase.
But onto lap 26 and after being overtaken by Filho, Busoms made a misjudgement in the “draft” entering Dunlop corner – he spun into the path of Cardoso taking both cars out on the spot. By this time, Stanaway continued to pull away after running longer in the first stint, whilst Filho sat 2nd with Caton assuming 3rd from the crash ahead. The order would stay like this until the finish, adding fuel to the fire for the Race for Pro. Paul Ilbrink slotted in 4th and Tuomas Kekkonen secured 5th and staying out of trouble after Isaac Price crashed in the infamous Degnar 1 corner just ahead.
Jake Stergios enters the penultimate round with a 226 point lead over Dell’Orco and looks set to claim back-to-back iGPS championships. Alatalo is in third, 318 points back. Terpstra sits in fourth with Beteille in fifth. With another two drivers looking secure for Pro – taking the total to nine – Xavier Busoms now holds the tenth and final spot for obtaining a Pro-license this season. But the Spaniard is closely pursued by Marcus Caton, emerging as his main threat and setting up a rivalry that will surely be resolved only at the final round in Silverstone.