The sixteenth and final round of the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series World Championship at the digital Suzuka Grand Prix Circuit saw Atze Kerkhof secure his second win of the season with a dominant pole-to-flag front-running performance. However, the triumph proved to be too little, too late for the Dutchman, who was looking to overhaul Roland Ehnström for fourth spot in the championship standings at Suzuka. Although the Team Redline racer won the battle, he lost the proverbial war when Ehnström came home sixth to pip the race winner for fourth position by just a handful of points.
Starting from pole with a lap time of 1:29.735, Kerkhof spirited away at the drop of the green flag to leave Martin Krönke, Hugo Luis and Jeremy Bouteloup trailing in his wake. At his self-proclaimed ‘favourite’ circuit on the calendar, the Redline sim-racer was soon clear of the field and heading towards his first scheduled service with a six-second lead. Once Kerkhof had taken fuel and tyres on Lap 20, he continued to build on his lead over Luis, who had leapt into second past Krönke in the pits. With a composed drive to the second round of stops the ‘Flying Dutchman’ headed-in for his final stop with seven-seconds in his pocket. Unrelentingly, Kerkhof continued his front running pace to the chequered flag to claim his second win of the season by that same seven second margin.
“Winning! It was the only option . . .” — Atze Kerkhof
“It feels very good to be back on Suzuka. I’m enjoying the real F1 tracks more than ever and it shows in the results.” Kerkhof said this week. “I’ve been testing on a regular basis for this race as I had a clear mission. Winning! It was the only option if I still wanted a shot for P4 in the overall classification.”
Starting from the second row of the grid, Luis hassled and harangued the Williams-Toyota FW31 of Krönke, who had maintained his starting position behind Kerkhof at the start. The My3id sim-racer defended his runners-up spot with much valour, until the first round of pit-stops, when Luis seized the position by making his stop one-lap later. When Luis had established a gap of four-seconds several laps later, Greger Huttu completed his comeback from a bad start that saw him drop to seventh, with a pass on Krönke. With the reins removed, Huttu began reeling-in the second placed F1 car that was clear ahead.
“After leap-frogging Martin I tried to close the gap but that was not possible and Greger was coming really fast,” explained Luis whose advantage to Huttu was cut to tenths in just eight-laps.
“I don’t know why, but my tire wear was very high and I couldn’t drive without drifting everywhere while Greger was all over my rear wing. We had nothing to lose in this battle but everything was clean I think, and I hope the battle was enjoyable for those who were watching.”
As the old adage goes, ‘catching someone is one thing, getting past them is another’, as Huttu was finding out to his detriment, with Luis parrying continuous attacks from the Finn. With the 2012 Championship already decided, the battle for pride continued unabated until the finish line, where Luis took the second spot a mere two-tenths ahead of Huttu.
“My second stint was one of my better ones this season as I was really able to push, set good lap times and catch Hugo,” the recently crowned 2012 iGPWCS champion told inRacingNews. “We pitted on the same lap which meant I had to try and overtake him on the track. I tried to get close enough to out-brake him into the chicane but couldn’t quite do it. I had a go on the last lap but wasn’t close enough.”
Once Krönke had seen his second position fall to fourth at the halfway stage, the German was seven-seconds clear of his nearest challengers, Jeremy Bouteloup and Ehnström. Whilst the lead three cars were extending their advantage, Krönke was keeping his fourth position secure, and carried the pace to the chequered flag. Likewise, following Bouteloup’s final trip down pit-road, the Radical Racing team-member had a big enough gap to Ehnström to sail to his sixth top-five finish of the season.
“I pitted for the second time, one lap after Roland and left pits with a little margin,” Bouteloup shared post-race. “In front, Martin already had a huge gap and it was impossible for me to reduce it, especially because he had a better pace than me. I just cruised until the end of the race, trying not to attack too much but keeping a decent pace so Roland couldn’t come back.”
For Ehnström, crossing the line in sixth position was enough to ensure the Orion Race Team racer’s overall fourth place in the 2012 iGPWCS standings, a high point for the Swede. This was closely followed by an announcement of his retirement from the pinnacle of online-racing.
“To actually get into the top-five, and win $1000, is the perfect way to end my competitive career.” — Roland Ehnström
“FOURTH IN THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP!!! This is unbelievable for me.” beamed Ehnström this week. “I never thought this would be possible when I joined iRacing a couple of years ago. Even at the start of this season, my goal was to get a bunch of top-15 finishes and maybe somehow finish in the lower half of the top-ten in the final standings. To actually get into the top-five, and win $1000, is the perfect way to end my competitive career.
“So, with this, I take a bow and step down from the World Championship. In the years to come, you will see me in whichever sim/car/track combination I enjoy most for the moment, not caring too much about points and championships.”
Gaining three-positions over the space of the 53 lap race, Matthias Egger secured the seventh spot ahead of potential ‘rookie of the year’ Stephen Michaels. Eighth place was no easy feat for the American, who had remained glued to the gearbox of Radicals’ Pablo ‘Go-Pro’ López for more than 30 laps. Jake Stergios, and Illka Haapala also spent much of the race closely inspecting López’ rear-wing, but the tenacious Spaniard refused to yield the ninth-spot in an epic fight to the line.
With all sixteen rounds of the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series World Championship now complete, Huttu sits atop the standings with eight wins, 448 laps led and 661 points to his name. A reflection of how tough this year’s World Championship has been is the fact that Luis’ runners-up position came from six wins, 445 laps led and the amassing of 599 points. Series rookie Stergios’ fifteenth top-ten finish of the season enabled him to consolidate third in the overall standings, 19 points clear of Ehnström whose top seven finish kept Kerkhof in the rank of fifth, by a tip-of-the-finger-close, four-points.
At the other end of the spectrum, a white knuckled twelfth-placed run to the flag for David Williams enabled the My3id racer sneak into twenty-fifth position on the season and claim the final automatic qualification sport for next year’s championship. Wes Richards was not so fortunate. With a DNF at Suzuka, the American now must gain qualification for the 2013 iGPSWC via the winter iRacing Pro Series. Other names missing the cut and joining Richards in the Pro series include Jason Lovett and Ryan Terpstra, who had to miss the final round due to a new baby in the household.
The iRacing.com Grand Prix Series World Championship returns to action in February. In the meantime, you can follow the battle for the remaining championship spots via inRacingNews coverage of the iRacing.com Pro Series Road Racing.