The 2014 iRacing.com World Championship Grand Prix Series rolled into Road America in a state of flux. The four mile race track in Elkhart Lake, WI has traditionally been Team Redline driver and three-time series champion Greger Huttu’s playground, and he was hoping to reignite his championship charge after a tough start to the season. Meanwhile Foracer 3id Motorsports’ Hugo Luis – the only man to ever beat Huttu to an iWCGPS title — was leading the championship, new contenders in the form of Glacier Racing‘s Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola and Olli Pahkala were the centre point for attention . . . and Foracer 3id Motorsports’ Martin Krönke quietly sat second in the standings.
As always, before drivers go racing, they have to qualify, and the 15 minute session saw provisional pole position change hands on six different occasions. Huttu, on his second lap, was able to pip Luis’ time by .02s with a solid and consistent run. Luis would respond just minutes later, on his third and final timed lap which, despite a dose of oversteer on the exit of Canada Corner, saw him move back to the top of the timesheets by .06s. Glacier Racing’s Jaakkola and Pahkala ended qualifying on the second row of the grid, with Krönke rounding out the top five.
After the start drama of 2012, drivers are always nervous about the first 500m of any sim-racing contest at Road America. An uphill start places added pressure on drivers to ensure they get off the line properly, and the narrow track surface, with imposing walls on either side means one foot wrong could trigger a multi-car incident. This year, the start was once again clean, with Huttu getting the better launch off the line, but unable to pull alongside Luis into Turn One. Pahkala was also fast off the line from the outside part of the racetrack, and was able to pull alongside his teammate into the first turn. This however caused him to lose momentum, and he would find himself embroiled in a battle with Krönke for the first half of the lap. All the other drivers were able to make it through the first lap of the race before Michele Mancusi crashed out on Lap Two.
Although Luis pulled away over the first couple of laps, Huttu began closing the gap about eight laps in. This would be the continuing theme throughout this first stint, as no driver was able to gain any clear advantage, and the top four drivers would spread out, then close back together. It emerged following the race this was in part down to both Luis and Jaakkola attempting to save some fuel in the hopes of stretching their first stint an extra lap. Jaakkola was eventually able to make his was past Huttu, and quickly became the fastest driver on the racetrack as he set his sights on catching Luis. This led to a spectacular pass around the outside of Turn One on Lap 20, with Jaakkola’s Williams-Toyota FW31 almost on the grass entering the high speed corner.
Lap 23 saw the end of Krönke’s race in a rare retirement for the German 3id Motorsports driver. Having caught Huttu, coming into the Kink, he dropped his left hand side tyres on the crass, causing him spear into the right hand side barrier and into the air. After a strong start to the season, Krönke was looking to put behind him the misery of the middle portion of 2013, and this incident would go no way to helping his championship charge. He would only be the second retiree of the race, as battles carried on throughout the field. Most notably, there were impressive drives by Alex Simpson (Apex Racing), Issac Price (ineX Racing) and Yuho Abe (Ronin Racing) who were each running solidly in the top 10 during this first stint.
Strategy was a hot topic of contention coming into the race, with a plethora of options available. No one tried the riskier two stop strategy; instead, they each pitted after half-way. Abe was one of the first drivers on pit road, which would cost him a likely shot at a Top 10, and trickles of cars followed him in the same lap. The real action began on Lap 30, when Jaakkola and Luis were the first of the top five to blink, and make the journey onto pit road. Luis seemed to sit in his box for a couple of seconds longer than Jaakkola, and this would prove to be pivotal as the next couple of laps unfolded.
Lap 31 saw Pahkala and Huttu make their pitstops. Pahkala had a solid in lap, however Huttu again proved why he’s a three-time series champion, being 0.5s faster than anyone, which was all due to a breath-taking pit entry. The extra lap for Pahkala proved to be the difference maker, as he exited with the race lead, with Huttu slotting into P3 just behind Jaakkola and Luis a distant P4 wondering where it all went wrong.
Coming into Turn Five on Lap 31, Huttu made contact with Ilkka Haapala, as the Redline driver locked his brakes going into the corner whilst Haapala was attempting to pass. Being one of the last drivers to come onto pit road, Haapala was attempting to maximise the advantage of pitting late, and clearly had to make the move, but the incident would essentially ruin any chance Huttu had of clawing back the two lead Glacier Racing entries.
Out front, it was to be Pahkala who remained in the lead to secure two pieces of history: First, it marked the first time in series history that the season opened with four different winners. Second, it was the first time that the entire podium was represented by one nation, and Finnish drivers proved to be the dominant factor.
Impressively, 28 of the 34 cars which started the race were still running at the finish, one of the highest in series history. This final statistic would compound Krönke’s issues, as he dropped from P2 to P7 in the championship following his wreck.
Luis retains the lead of the championship; however it is now Pahkala in the second spot, leapfrogging Huttu in the standings, albeit 24 points back from the championship lead. Huttu sits third, with Jake Stergios (ineX Racing) fourth after an uneventful yet frustrating run to P7 at Road America and Martti Pietilä (3id Motorsports) rounding-out the top five.
Round Five of the series sees drivers head over to Phillip Island, and one of the fastest racetracks of the season. Will Glacier Racing continue their recent form? Will Huttu be able to get back to the top step of the podium? And will Luis be able to maintain the championship lead? RaceSpot TV will provide more analysis of the Road America event in their Spotlight Podcast, before carrying full coverage of both qualifying and the race on April 26th from 1:30PM GMT.