Two big streaks were broken this past weekend; in Moto GP, Marc Marquez’s run of victories in the 2014 campaign came to a shuddering halt after looking unstoppable throughout the season, and in the iRacing.com World Championship Grand Prix Series, Fanatec Team Redline’s Greger Huttu’s seven win streak came to an end in rather dramatic fashion, as drivers made their second trip of the sim racing season to the picturesque Spa-Francorchamps.
Spa always produces some of the best racing in the series, and the first race of the season saw Glacier Racing’s Olli Pahkala storm onto the scene in his debut outing, charging through the field to take fourth. Although the headlines that day focused on the dual between Huttu and Hugo Luis, reigniting a five year old rivalry with one of the closest lead battles in series history, an asterisk was placed next to Pahkala’s name, awarded driver of the race by the iRacing Live commentators, and being touted as a future race winner in the series. The win was to occur three rounds later, but drivers up and down the field all knew when the series returned to the digital Ardennes, they’d need to keep an eye out for Olli.
Of course, the biggest news leading into the event continued to be the closure of 3id Motorsports. Drivers from the stable turned-up at Spa with almost blank cars, save for a Foracer logo to fulfill sponsor commitments for the year. As rumours continued to circulate about the future of drivers within the former stable (including a possible retirement for Luis), the focus had to eventually turn back to the racetrack, where a quiet confidence emanated from the camp as drivers prepared for the race.
Signs that it was going to be a strong weekend for Glacier Racing were apparent throughout qualifying, as Pahkalla stormed to pole position, with both of his flying laps good enough to earn him the top spot. Martin Krönke, who had taken over second place in the standings following his good run at Motegi and Okayama, would on the outside of the front row continuing his run of form and, once again, Enzo Bonito out-qualified his more experienced Fanatec Team Redline running mate. Andre Boettcher and Luis rounded-out the top five of the grid just ahead of Huttu who had his worst qualifying since Montreal, and his lowest starting spot at Spa in series history.
Notable performances outside the top five included Orion Race Team’s Mitchell DeJong, who again showed how current Pro drivers can mix it up with established drivers in the ‘big league.’ Radicals Steelseries driver Mogar Filho continued a good run of form at Spa with a Top 10 qualifying effort, and Friction Racing’s Christiaan Tanahatoe would become the latest Pro driver to attempt to qualify for a World Championship race. Ben Cornett also marked his return to the series in the third Team Redline car with a qualifying struggle, finishing outside the top 25.
As the lights went out to start the race, it was Pahkala with the better start as the cars swarmed down into La Source for the first time. Krönke maintained his good form of starts, slipping into second, as drivers appeared to slot into a rhythm on the first tour of the 4.45 mile racetrack. Coming onto Lap 2 however, and carnage ensued at La Source, as Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola overshot his braking trying to make a pass on Boettcher, and tagged the side of Bonito’s car, sending him into a spin. The opening laps of Spa races have not been kind to Jaakkola this season, as he was out of the first race within 45 seconds of the start, and this incident hurt any chance of a podium finish.
What happened next was a chain reaction as drivers all swarmed to avoid the incident at La Source. Huttu in particular lost five places whilst taking to the asphalt apron on the exit of the turn, and so entered Eau Rouge side-by-side with ineX vRacing’s Robin Friskopps. Two into Eau Rouge proved one too many and Huttu went on a wild ride, spinning through the center of the corner, narrowly missing the outside wall in what would have otherwise have been reminiscent of scenes of the two BAR drivers at the 1999 Belgian Grand Prix. Whilst he carried on, Huttu’s chances of making it eight wins in a row dissipated in an instant, as he fell to the rear of the field, and would only recover to P13 by race’s end.
Finally, the field were able to settle into a groove, but a mixture of one and two stop strategies meant that passing was in abundance throughout the field. Whilst most opted for the two stop option, Christian Lorente (GT Ros) and the Foracer drivers chose the one stop option. This would prove to be the slower strategy throughout, as track position lost at the start would be far more difficult to recover later in the race. Thankfully for Krönke and Luis, the Lap 2 melee enabled them to maintain ground otherwise lost.
Pahkala was the first of the leaders to call on pit road, followed a lap later by a gaggle of cars including Huttu and Jaakolla, both involved in earlier incidents. Based upon the gap Pahkala had at the end of the opening lap, regardless of the incidents, it seems as though there would be no stopping the young Finn, as his lead grew and grew with every lap. On the alternate strategy, Krönke would take over the race lead before eventually pitting shortly after half distance, destined never to see the front again.
Two drivers who had great races in the Top 10 were Dejong and Yuho Abe (Ronin Racing Team). Dejong used the two stop strategy to move past cars early, and put himself into a podium position after pit stops. This would really help his quest to move into the top 25 in the overall points race, and the X Games racer commented after the event that his new quest was to skip the Pro Series completely. Although Abe made-up five positions, he would be unable to crack the top five finishers as Boettcher held-on to fifth in the dying laps.
The second half of the race also saw some battles rejoined, most noticeably one between Jake Stergios (ineX vRacing) and Paul Ilbrink (Radicals Steelseries), which had undertones of a dice involving Ilbrink’s team mate Jeremy Bouteloup with Stergios a prior year. This time, Stergios was able to hold on, but ninth overall would be disappointing for the lead ineX driver, who lost points to Boettcher in his bid for sixth in the championship.
The day was all Pahkala’s as he cruised home to victory some 16s clear of Krönke, with DeJong’s fine performance netting the final spot on the podium ahead of Luis. Pahkala’s triumph moved him ahead of Luis in the championship, while Krönke closed the gap to the championship lead for the first time since Suzuka, back in Round 3 of the campaign. Regardless, Huttu maintains a 118 point gap as the series prepares for a return visit to Interlagos where, coincidentally, he and Pahkala both have some unfinished business.
Catch the next round of the championship on August 30th on iRacing Live. Coverage starts at 1:30PM GMT as the championship moves closer and closer to its conclusion. Krönke’s been in fine form in recent races, and gaining points on Huttu at Spa could mark the start of the ‘improbable comeback.’ But, as always, NEVER discount the three time champion.