Nothing is ever certain in the iRacing.com World Championship Grand Prix Series. The 14th round of the sim racing championship demonstrated that point perfectly, and emphasised why drivers need to be at their very best every race. Whilst Fanatec Team Redline’s Greger Huttu came to Suzuka as odds-on favourite to win the title, his worst ever series qualifying result translated into him being involved in the largest first lap incident in over three years, leaving him unable to seal the deal. Meanwhile, Foracer Coanda Simsport’s Martin Krönke translated his first ever series win at Interlagos a fortnight ago into two in a row, vaulting him back in the championship hunt, after what was the craziest World Championship race in a long time.
Qualifying was a moderately muted affair, with Krönke scoring another pole position and Enzo Bonito again earning a front row start. The biggest story was clearly that of Huttu, who continued his string of poor qualifying performances with his worst in series history, good only for ninth on the grid. Team Principal for Team Redline offered an explanation to this, stating:
“Huttu far prefers practising for the race rather than qualifying, as qualifying simulations can often get boring after a while. Focusing on race pace has paid dividends however, as you’ve seen over the course of the season, particularly earlier on, when low fuel pace was more important.”
30 drivers took to the grid for the race, including a record number of Pro Drivers for the year. The start saw a good getaway by Krönke, who led the field into the first turn. This corner tightens up on the run into T2, and whilst it is possible to enter three wide, it becomes a two groove corner in the centre. Issac Price (ineX vRacing) became the first first lap victim of the race, as he made contact, flipping him into the air. He would retire from the event, and would not see the melee that evolved ahead of him just a couple of seconds later.
The biggest incident of the season, and two seasons prior, occurred as drivers exited Turn 2 and headed down towards the Esses. Andre Boettcher (Foracer Coanda SimSport) and Olli Pahkala (Glacier Racing) made contact on the outside of the corner, spearing Pahkala across the track and into Huttu, who himself then made contact with the inside retaining wall. Jeremy Bouteloup (Radicals SteelSeries) was also be involved in the initial impact, retiring as a result. For Bouteloup, this would mean falling outside of the Top 25 in points for the moment, placing him in a precarious position in terms of retaining his World Championship Licence for 2015.
As cars swarmed to avoid the incident, at least seven drivers had to take to the grass in the Esses, costing them time, and ultimately ruining their races. Although both Huttu and Pahkala were able to make it back the pits, their races were done. For Pahkala, this would put him out of championship contention, and make the challenge for 2nd in the standings even more difficult. For Huttu, this was a rare DNF from a driver whose mid-season dominance is becoming an increasingly important buffer in his effort to retain the championship lead. Still, there were 52 and ¾ laps of a race to go, and the action did not look like it was about to slow down any time soon.
Passing was in abundance on the first couple of laps, including some astonishing overtakes. Bonito came under severe pressure from Jake Stergios (ineX vRacing) at the start of Lap 3, as he had a half spin at the Spoon Curve, which hurt his speed all the way down to the Casio Triangle. A three wide moment into Turn 1 was almost caused by Aleksi Juusi-Jaakkola (Glacier Racing), as Martti Pietilä (Coanda SimSport) and Kazuki Oomishima (Ronin Racing Team) had a drag race down the start/finish straight. Mercifully, the spring race winner thought better of it at a place where three wide almost never works. In contrast, Ilkka Haapala (Orion Race Team) executed the pass of the race on Lap Seven when he committed to — and pulled off — a brilliant overtake on the outside of the 130R, reminiscent of Fernando Alonzo a couple of years ago.
As the drivers finally settled into a rhythm, it was Krönke building up an early four second lead over Bonito. With team leader Huttu out of the race, Bonito’s role was transformed as he now needed to place as much pressure on Krönke as possible in an attempt to force the leader into a mistake, and minimise the damage to Huttu’s points lead. The battle for P3-6 behind was incredibly close, as the two long, flat-out sections provided ample opportunity for drafting. Some big gainers in the early laps of the race were Oomishima and Stergios who accordingly set themselves up for a good run for the first half of the race.
Others were not so fortunate . . .Jaakkola looped his Williams-Toyota FW31 at the Spoon Curve on Lap 5, in a similar manner to Bonito in the spring race, dropping him out of the Top 10. The Radicals SteelSeries team’s woes also continued, as Ilbrink and Nukarinen made contact coming through the final corner. Nukarinen was unable to avoid the sliding car of his veteran team mate, as a number of competitors were having issues on heavy fuel negotiating the Casio Chicane and planting the gas on the run to the start finish line. Wobbles would see a number of positions being traded into Turn 1 . . . as Alex Simpson (Apex Racing UK) found out the hard way just over a dozen laps in.
The question at a track like Suzuka concerning strategy would always be a difficult one. On paper, both a one and two stop strategy yielded similar speed, yet the key for a one stopper would be not losing too many positions at the start on heavier fuel and ample passing opportunities. In reality, the high early race attrition — and consequent spreading of the field — would favour anyone on a one stopper. Curiously, only a couple of drivers elected to take this route, most notably Oomishima who, by being able to hold on to positions in the Top 10, was able to get some clean air when others came in for the first of their two stops.
Bonito’s summer technical nightmare continued into early autumn, as issues again forced him out of the race shortly after the halfway point. This is the second race in a row where he had had such issues, and the Redline camp vowed after the race to investigate the occurrences surrounding it. Oomishima’s one stop strategy therefore was rewarded with a net second place, but then, for the second time this season whilst running in a strong position, driver error cost him.
At Montreal, the ‘Wall of Champions’ hit only cost Oomishima one position (albeit the win). This time, a crash at Degner 2 on Lap 41 would see him out of the race, to the amazement of fans. Whilst this is arguably one of the most demanding sections of the track — and this wasn’t the only incident at this corner — Oomishima must now surely be asking himself what he needs to do to perform under pressure. Other drivers through the field were also beginning to show the strain of the tough racetrack, as a total of six drivers were to go one lap down; unusual on one of the series’ longest tracks.
Out front, following Bonito’s untimely departure, there was no competition for Krönke, who was able to back-up his Interlagos win with a second straight triumph, closing the gap in the championship. A beautiful, determined drive by Haapala would see a continued return to form for the Orion Race Team, as he finished second, with Mogar Filho (Radicals SteelSeries) able to hold off a late charge by Stergios to finish third. This was Haapala’s first podium in over two years, and Filho’s first in series competition, both well deserved.
Importantly, Huttu would be classified in the 27th place. In a championship where again, every point counts, this is two more points than had he have been the first retiree, but, still two less than had he had been able to complete a lap. With two rounds remaining in the championship, a 54 point gap for Krönke to close is still a tall order, but 53 laps under the Japanese sun reminded all that you should never stop fighting for positions, as come season’s end, every point could be critical.
The next round of the championship sees the series make its annual visit to Circuit Park Zandvoort for the last European race of the championship, and the fast, tight track is sure to spring a few surprises. As always you can catch the race on iracing.com/live and check out my review of the race here on iRacingNews in just a couple of weeks time.