August 24th, 2016 by Jake Sparey
The iRacing.com Grand Prix World Championship Series turned into the home stretch of the schedule this weekend as the teams headed to Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The seven kilometre circuit traditionally has set the tone for the remainder of the season in previous years and, with just three rounds remaining after the weekend in the virtual Ardennes, many questioned if this race of forty-four would be the deciding factor in the sim racing championship.
The biggest story coming into the race was the ongoing title battle between Team Redline’s Greger Huttu and VRS Coanda Simsport‘s Martin Krönke. The gap with drop weeks applied lay in favour of Krönke, who led by just seven points heading to the Belgian circuit following his convincing victory at Indianapolis. Huttu, not used to chasing a title from behind, would have been hoping for a problem-free day, but there was a reason Spa-Francorchamps is one of the jewels in the iRacing crown.
VRS Coanda Simsport locked-out the front row out with Krönke taking pole position away from his esteemed teammate Mitchell DeJong by just nineteen thousandths of a second with a time of 1.45.662. The gap back to third fastest lap was almost half a second and — even more surprisingly — it was posted by privateer Patrick Holzmann, who earned his first podium at Indianapolis and (again) showed what an asset he could be as off-season driver changes loom. Apex Racing UK’s Graham Carroll continued his breakout year with fourth on the grid, ahead of the Redline car of Greger “Mr. Five Time” Huttu who bottled his final run. The Orion Race Team controlled the next two grid slots with Ilkka Haapala outqualifying Marin Colak, followed swiftly in eighth by Apex Racing UK’s Peter Berryman with Coanda’s Martti Pietilä and Andre Boettcher completing the top ten. There were many sim racers out of their expected position as well heading into the race, with Redline’s Olli Pahkala only finding row six while, even more shockingly, ineX Racing’s star driver, Joni Törmälä failed to set a lap, and would thus start twenty-sixth.
It took all of one corner for carnage to ensue . . . and the title picture to be drastically altered. After a relatively good start, Huttu threw the Fanatec McLaren down the inside of Carroll into the La Source hairpin only to run out of road and tag the Apex Racing entry. The contact dragged an innocent DeJong into the equation at the otherwise wide track’s bottleneck, with damaged McLarens shifting around in all directions. Huttu absorbed three or four hefty whacks from behind but miraculously emerged with his car intact even as other sim racers were forced to retire.
The melee helped a number of drivers advance through the field even as Krönke made his escape to the tune of a four second lead by the end of the opening lap. Behind him came Berryman (Apex Racing UK) and Martti Pietilä (VRS Coanda Simsport) who avoided the carnage at La Source to advance from eighth and ninth respectively. Pahkala climbed up inside the top five early while Törmälä advanced no fewer than seventeen positions in the opening exchanges of the race.
Huttu pitted at the end of the first lap, dropping to the back of the field as overtakes became the name of the game. Berryman’s moment in the Belgian sun soon faded and he slipped further and further adrift as the laps went by, losing spots to Pietila, Pahkala and Riley Preston of Orion Race Team. As the first round of pit stops came into view, Radicals Online‘s Kazuki Oomishima smote guardrail while Jake Stergios of ineX Racing took an exploratory trip through the grass at Malmedy, losing a handful of time and a position in the process.
Orion’s Preston took a bold decision by attempting a two stop strategy, the only driver in the field to do so, and thus fell all the way down to P23. Come the end of the race, although he had the freshest rubber in the field he hadn’t gained enough time to ultimately bring himself back into contention and he was forced to settle for fourteenth.
The rest saw that a one stop strategy was the best way forward and duly peeled into the pit lane one by one. Törmälä was one of the biggest losers in the pit stop exchange for, after passing Pahkala prior to hitting pit road, he had to take minor repairs and dropped around four seconds in the process. In contrast, Huttu was on a charge as he moved up inside the top ten after his second stop of the day, losing only a handful of seconds overall to the race-leaded. For his part, Krönke was aonng the last to make his stop and returned to the track without forfeiting the lead . . . which is where he stayed through the end of the race.
Elsewhere, Vortex Simracing’s Michael Dinkel and Apex Racing UK team boss Alex Simpson had a scary moment when they banged together on the Kemmel Straight. Simpson smacked the wall and took to the escape road where he retired while Dinkel emerged from a 200mph and somehow regained control before Les Combes.
The final laps were all about Huttu and the astonishing rate at which he was catching — and passing — other drivers. Already past Yuta Saito for seventh, he chased down Berryman by over a second a lap, catching the Apex Racing UK McLaren and the fifth placed Holzmann with three laps remaining. The five time champion disposed of Berryman at the Bus Stop chicane, then set off in pursuit of Holzmann, easily taking fifth spot on the Kemmel Straight on the last lap of the race. A little further up the road, Törmälä displaced Pahkala for the final step on the podium with an easy overtake down the Kemmel Straight.
Krönke completed his light to flag win some thirty-five seconds ahead of jubilant Pietilä, who earned a career best second place. Törmälä ultimately took third place (and the unofficial “driver of the day”award after starting from the very back of the grid) even as Team Redline’s Pahkala slowed by some seven seconds in the final laps, thus enabling teammate Huttu past for fourth.
With his win Krönke (443) opens out his lead from seven to fourteen points over Huttu. Pahkala (363) is virtually out of the championship hunt right now, but will still have to look over his shoulder at Törmälä (330) while Pietilä and Carroll are now tied for fifth on 307 points.
Krönke’s seventh win of the season now is the most wins in one season without taking the title (not yet at least). Can he continue to push onwards and become the third sim racer to claim a driver’s title? Suzuka will be the next chapter in that saga.