Round Three of the ISRA GP1 Championship took the drivers down to the beautiful and glassy smooth Phillip Island Circuit to put the Williams-Toyota FW31 through its paces on this challenging layout best known for its V8 Supercar races. Both David Williams and Shawn Purdy, winners of the first two rounds of the championship respectively, would miss this online race, opening the way for their competitors to take some much needed points in the early race for the season title. Although the real test on this picturesque circuit would prove to be surviving the 69 laps required to take the checkered flag, and it would be mistake free driving that would prove to be the essence of making up valuable championship points here.
Qualifying turned out to be a very tight affair, with only 0.6 seconds separating the first eight starters on the grid. Marc Payne put his car on the pole with a lap at 1:07.352 while his Podium Assault teammate, Rene Cornella, was next to him on the front row. After a difficult qualifying run, the very quick Nolan Scott found himself starting the race from 18th, setting the sim racer a tall order to work through the field for a decent finish in order to try to stay in touch in the points race.
When the lights went green, Payne and Cornella began a drag race down the front straight towards the fast, sweeping Turn One, with Payne coming out the victor to hold onto the lead. Pablo Lopez Padin, having qualified in third place, got an even better start than the front row and looked to insert himself in the lead fight to the first turn. However, a bit of wheelspin on one of his shifts dropped him back into the clutches of Marcus Caton, who relegated Padin back to fourth place. Further back in the pack, Ryan Cornes also suffered a case of wheelspin on the start, sending him into the concrete pit wall and causing damage that would eventually see him retire on Lap 11. Roberto Carabajal, starting right behind Cornes, moved right towards the middle of the track in avoidance only to be met by Alex Ulleri, who had gotten a brilliant jump off the line only to find himself on his roll hoop, off track, ending both of their days before they began.
Further mayhem was unleashed a bit farther back in the field, ending Byron Daley’s day at Turn One, and causing Hampus Andersson damage that would eventually lead to his retirement five laps later. The back of the field saw still more action on Lap One as they approached the first hairpin when Scott, attempting to make-up the ground he lost in qualifying, made contact with Don Hunter’s rear wheel under braking. Hunter bounded across the grass, managing to keep the car straight enough to lose only three spots on the exchange, while Scott managed to survive the incident with minor front wing damage that he would have to fight the rest of the day.
Up front, Payne completed the first lap in the lead with Cornella, Caton, Padin and Russell Hodgson rounding out the top 5. Lap Two featured further off track excursions, as Caton misjudged Cornella’s braking for Turn Two, sending both cars off into the kitty litter and ending their days early.
The Caton/Cornella incident gave Payne a bit of breathing room, which he would take advantage of to settle into a solid and quick race-leading pace. Behind him, Padin held down second place through the first round of pit stops, as the battle for third heated up. Hodgson held the third spot early on, but Bryan Carey pressured him hard for much of the first stint. Lap 12 saw Carey find his opening under braking for the first hairpin, relegating Hodgson to fourth. Having worked his way through the field quickly to join in the battle for third, a hard-charging Scott stuck his nose under Hodgson going into the very next turn, relegating Hodgson two spots down the order in the matter of only two turns. Three laps later Scott relieved Carey of third place at the same spot that Carey took Hodgson; two laps later Hodgson reclaimed his fourth spot from Carey.
“I’m not sure why, but the car was very oversteery in the faster turns for about 5 laps or so,” said Hodgson of his first stint speed. “Perhaps it was the fuel load or something, because then it became more balanced for the rest of my stint.”
Scott would be the first of the leaders to visit the pits on Lap 24, followed on the next lap by Payne, Padin, and Carey. Running a longer first stint than the other front runners, Hodgson inherited the lead and did not come down pit lane until Lap 30. After the first round of pit stops had shaken-out, Payne retained the lead from Scott and Hodgson, who had both managed to jump Padin in the exchange. Further back in the field, slight damage to early podium challenger Carey’s front wing was costing him a second a lap on his early pace, and he had now fallen into the clutches of Sebastian Lohse running a steady pace in sixth spot. Looking to steal a top five from Carey, Lohse took the inside line into the Turn Four hairpin, and appeared to have the position secured. However, a bit of rear brake lock-up almost at the apex of the hairpin turned Lohse sideways in front of Carey, collecting both cars and ending promising points finishes for both drivers.
As the second round of pit stops approached, the order was settling down with Payne in a commanding lead. Scott was holding second place and would again be the first to call on the efforts of his pit crew for his second stop on Lap 49. Preparing to make his second stop from fourth, Padin’s day ended on that same lap as wheelspin exiting the hairpin sent him to a meeting with the tire wall, and handed Kevin Riley his eventual fourth place finish in the bargain. Payne dove-in for his second stop one lap after Scott, and Hodgson followed suit on lap 51 from his third position. The running order would remain intact from there until the end of the race, with Payne taking his first win of the ISRA GP1 season, followed by Scott and Hodgson to round-out the podium. Even the race winner would have a tough time keeping his car free of scratches on his way to the victory.
“I was just trying not to let my mind wander,” said Payne, “and was fortunate to survive a late off-track excursion.”
The ISRA GP1 Championship drivers departed the Phillip Island Circuit with a lot of clean-up left to do for the Australian course workers, and with a lot of car rebuilding ahead for their crews before the next round of the series at Watkins Glen International in scenic upstate New York. However, they would also leave Down Under with Payne, Hodgson, and Scott firmly established in the top ranks of the title fight, proving that they were not about to let Williams and Purdy run away and hide with the championship lead.