Brands Hatch located in Kent, England hosted Week 4 of the iRacing Star Mazda Championship. The 2.3 mile circuit is certainly classed as a fan and drivers favourite, and drivers would certainly need to be on their game if they were to do well; and of course not make any mistakes.
The 17:45GMT was the higher SOF race of the weekend, and it was Kerry Knowlden (UK&I) who took the pole position with a 1.17.977. Joining him on the front row was the familiar face of championship leader Kevin Gelly-Rufat (France). The fourteen drivers who managed to reach the top split kept the start surprisingly clean, with only one casualty coming at Surtees where a slight touch of sidepods sent Stanley Sullivan (Michigan) heading directly for the wall. Gelly-Rufat’s fantastic start to the race – where he jumped Knowlden off the start – ended as he beached himself in to the wall at Stirlings Bend, legacy of lurid moment exiting Sheene Curve moments before.
Compared to Spa, overtaking opportunities at Brands were sparse. It was more conga line sim racing; even though this was the case it was by no means boring. Competitors were pushing and aiming to put pressure on the drivers ahead, and force them in to mistakes. Any small mistake here can be punished (see Gelly-Rufat), and running even slightly off line can allow someone to get underneath you and force the move. But around Brands Hatch where overtaking opportunities were limited there was plenty of hard racing throughout the pack.
Knowlden had first place sealed from the moment Gelly-Rufat beached it as his qualifying pace truly transpired in to a very competitive race pace which left the cars behind him trailing in his wake. But saying this wouldn’t really be a true reflection of how Oscar Tolnay (Scandinavia) kept the pressure up on Knowlden all race; by no means did Tolnay let the UK&I driver get away from him easily. He mounted the pressure lap after lap; witness the fact that Tolnay’s fastest lap was only seven thousandths down on Knowlden’s best!
The similar lap times kept the lead two drivers with a gap of around two seconds all the way throughout the race. Knowlden kept his cool though, finishing a mere 1.9 seconds ahead of the Scandinavian who put in a faultless performance of his own. In all honesty, the top three were in a class of their own in that race; lapping in the 1minute 18s each lap, no one outside of the podium positions was in any position to trouble the pace setters. Craig Baxter (UK&I) rounded out the top three only 5.6 seconds down on Knowlden, in what was a truly credible performance for the first time I’ve seen his name in a SOF race.
Outside the podium positions the sim racing was a different story. Drivers were running much closer to each other, hassling one another from the get go. The top three may have rocketed off but a lot of championship points were still at stake for all those left in the race. Gregory Tanson (Benelux) had the pace to consolidate fourth position early in the race, but that comfortable gap soon ended as Sheene Curve claimed another victim, but this time there was no meeting with the wall. Tanson managed to do a full 360 and get back on his way with only a loss of one place.
The positions from fourth downwards were nose-to-tail, to an extent, for the majority of the race — albeit with minimal position changes unless drivers made mistakes. The first casualty of the chasing group came from Tanson, who had regained fourth and was dragging the group behind along with him; this was until his internet let him down from a near faultless race after the mistake on Lap 4. The race was somewhat uneventful for the whole field, with the whole 20 laps being kept clean and respectful. The 3382 SOF win was worth 209 points to Knowlden as Tolnay took second position and Baxter rounded out the podium position for the first SOF of the day.
The next race started in remarkably similar fashion to the last: Gelly-Rufat again lined up second position on the grid behind Knowlden, but once again jumped him directly off the line with a blistering start. Gelly-Rufat aimed to lead from the front for this race, but it was certainly going prove a difficult task. Knowlden re-passed the Frenchman into Paddock Hill bend and quickly established a gap from the following two drivers. Cam Stark (UK&I) followed closely behind Gelly-Rufat, and could have made the championship leader’s life a lot harder this race by making a move heading down to Hawthorns Bend. The move unfortunately didn’t materialise and it certainly had implications in the next couple of laps for Stark who was being held behind but just couldn’t find a suitable gap to pounce on. Stark’s race came to an abrupt end at Clearways corner when the British driver clipped the grass and got sent spiralling in to the wall in what was truly a rookie mistake.
In all honesty, I expected Brands Hatch to bring more excitement from a viewing perspective at least, but it wasn’t how it turned out. By no means does this indicate it did not produce enjoyable racing for the drivers. Third to fifth place were separated by less than a second the whole race, so they would certainly have to be on their toes to capitalise on each other and also not crack under pressure. The group of the following drivers was led by Tanson for the majority of this sim-race, and his aim would have been to make up ground on Gelly-Rufat before the chequered flag was waved. As well as he did for holding on to third for such a long time, Baxter didn’t want to be stuck behind Tanson any longer than necessary. The Scottish driver made a daring move at Surtees, giving enough room to get the move done down the inside and, in so doing, leaving Tanson just enough space to yield on the outside. As a result, Tanson’s exit was compromised and he got a poor down towards Hawthorns so he couldn’t counteract the move.
Whilst the position change for third unfolded Knowlden maintained a commanding lead over Gelly-Rufat . . . but that all changed very quickly as Sheene laid claim to yet another victim. This time, however, it was Knowlden who fell afoul of the tricky right hander. He was incredibly fortunate that his Star Mazda only suffered minimal damage — a bent rear wing – which didn’t much affect the car’s balance. He only had himself to thank for building up a ten second lead over the chasing cars though, which still kept the Brit in the hunt for the race win.
With the top two scrapping away for the win, Baxter was able to lead the charge of the next three cars up to the front. By Lap 19, the group’s consistent laps had pulled third to fifth right t up on to the leaders’ rear wings and put them in for a fighting chance for the win. Come the end of the race all attempted moves to gain positions failed to generate any overtakes, enabling Gelly-Rufat to take away the win from the 3183 SOF. Knowlden brought home a fully deserved second, but I’m sure would be kicking himself for not winning when it seemed as though he had it in the bag! Baxter once again rounded out the top three of the race.
The current series top five are as follows:
1 Kevin Gelly-Rufat (1)
2 Oscar Tolnay (1)
3 Gregory Tanson (1)
4 Kerry Knowlden (2)
5 Cam Stark (2)
*Brackets indicate divisions
The full race results for both races can be found below: