From 1948 to 1955 sports car races were staged on the streets and local roads at the southern end of Seneca Lake in the small New York town of Watkins Glen.  Owing to growing safety concerns about racing of public roads, a permanent circuit – designed as a smaller version of the original 6.6 mile  public roads around the town — was constructed on a hill just south of Watkins Glen and opened in 1956.  Starting in 1961, Formula One brought some of the most famous drivers in the world to Watkins Glen International every year, until the circuit –which had been substantially revamped in 1971 — was removed from the Formula One schedule in 1980.  The roar of contemporary Formula One engines would not be heard again in upstate New York until 2010, when iRacing’s release of the Williams-Toyota FW31 heralded a return of the most advanced racing cars in the world to the former home of the US Grand Prix.  This famous circuit played host to Round Four of the ISRA GP1 Championship, as the drivers took up the challenge of 56 laps of online racing on The Glen’s “boot” configuration.

Fresh-off of his podium finish in the previous race at Phillip Island, Russell Hodgson claimed the pole with a lap at 1:19.845, edging fellow GP1 title contender David Williams by a scant five hundredths of a second.

“I was really happy to get pole,”  Hodgson commented on his qualifying effort.  “I thought a top four or five grid spot was on the cards, but getting pole by about ½ tenth over David was great!  Of course that put pressure on to not mess up the race.”

When the green lights came on, Hodgson did exactly that with a clean start into the lead as 23 Toyota V8s screamed off the starting grid towards Turn One.  Williams challenged the pole sitter on the outside around the first turn, using all the outside curbing and into the wide paved runoff.  However, that proved to be his early undoing as the car got unsettled on exit over the curbing, and sent Williams’ careening into the outside tire wall.

Behind Hodgson, Pablo Lopez Padin from his third qualifying spot held off Marcus Caton and Nolan Scott heading into the Esses, setting up a fantastic battle for second place among the three sim racers throughout most of the first stint.  Caton pressured Padin hard, but was unable to make any of his passing attempts stick for the first 12 laps, especially with Scott breathing down his neck in hopes that any opening might allow him to relieve Caton of his third position.  Finally on Lap 13, Caton’s chance presented itself when he got a fantastic run on Padin out of the Esses towards the Bus Stop.   But with the pass all but completed entering the tough chicane, Caton’s car ran out of grip, ending his promising day early.

Padin working hard to hold his second place over Caton and Scott.

Caton’s demise promoted Scott to third place, where he afforded Padin no rest from the pressure to retain second.  Nor did this struggle allow Hodgson much breathing room, Padin and Scott managed to keep the leader within sight throughout their early race battle.  The race for second place continued even in the pits, as both Padin and Scott headed down pit lane nose to tail on Lap 19.  Moments later, Scott made a daring move exiting pit lane, dropping the hammer on his Toyota engine right at the exit cones, and squeezing past Padin in the narrowing pit exit lane.  From there, he would set his best laps, opening a slight gap on his podium rival and setting-off after Hodgson, who did not make his first venture down pit lane until Lap 21.  Scott managed to reel-in the leader over the course of his second stint, getting within one second of Hodgson’s rear wing before making his second stop on Lap 39.  When he returned to the track on heavy fuel and fresh tires, however, Scott’s charge ended when a wiggle of the rear end in Turn 11 sent him through the gravel and backwards into the tires.  Unfortunately for Padin, he would not inherit second place, as three laps earlier he had clipped the inside curb at Turn 12, damaging his car and causing his retirement from third position.  Their retirements advanced Byron Daley from fourth to second in a matter of only three laps, and eventually rewarding his quick but steady pace throughout the day with his second podium finish of the GP1 season.

With Scott and Padin out, and a 30 second lead on now second place Daley, Hodgson relaxed his pace to make sure he brought his car home safely for the win.  Further back, a race long-battle raged between Sebastian Lohse and California’s Don Hunter for what proved ultimately to be the third step of the podium.  On the opening lap, both sim racers managed to dodge carnage at the bus stop, when Manfred Emming missed his braking point sending cars scrambling for a safe path through the tough chicane complex.  Lohse took to the kitty litter to avoid Emming, and managed to avoid contact with any obstacles, rejoining the race at the back of the field.  Wolfgang Koch was not so lucky, spearing Emming’s sidepod and sending the DE-AT-CH Club driver’s car airborne.  Koch’s bad luck turned out to be Hunter’s good luck.  Instead of piling into the back of Koch’s car had it remained on the ground, Hunter instead passed barely under the German’s airborne Williams-Toyota FW31, allowing him to escape the scene with no damage.  A couple of other drivers would get minor aero damage, but only Koch would be forced to retire on the spot.

The view from Mike Kelley’s Williams-Toyota FW31 as he puts the pressure on Joe Freitas and Manfred Emming.

Lohse decided to run a long first stint, which seemed to work to his advantage in working from the back of the pack, and his pace brought him with five seconds of Hunter by the mid-point of the race.  Hunter managed to set a pace to keep him around that gap as they approached the second round of pit stops, but a quick thinking pit strategy change played to Lohse’s advantage again.  Coming-up on some lapped traffic, he dove down pit lane a few laps earlier than planned in the hopes that he could come out with a clear track and set some quick laps while the California was on older tires and possibly tied up with traffic of his own.  Sure enough, when Hunter exited the pit after his second stop, Lohse’s car filled his mirrors, where it would stay firmly entrenched for most of the remaining laps.  Running a lower downforce setting, Lohse had the edge on the straights, but Hunter managed to open the gap enough through the turns to stay ahead.  Eventually, the European driver’s ultimate pace proved to be too much for the Californian, and with only two laps remaining Lohse finally took over the third spot from Hunter to secure a podium finish behind Daley and a victorious Hodgson.

“It was a really good race, and I’m psyched to get my first win,” said Hodgson after becoming the fourth different winner in the first four races of the ISRA GP1 Championship.

Hodgson leaves Watkins Glen with the GP1 Championship lead, but with no one driver seemingly able to get a firm handle on this tricky Williams-Toyota FW31, the title race is still very wide open.  The drivers head down to Georgia next to tackle the tough Road Atlanta track, where Hodgson will try to maintain the momentum of his win to become the first driver to win two races in the inaugural season of the ISRA GP1 Championship, and firmly establish a grip on the lead of the title standings.

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