The inaugural race of 2014’s second season with the UK&I Skip Barber league took place at Okayama in Japan. Last season was dominated by mostly British and American tracks, while the new season threw a curve-ball at word go. Last season’s champion – Marc Mercer – was absent from the festivities as he was racing a classic Mustang at Donington (cheered-on by league organizer Allan Paterson) at the time of the race. Also missing from this race (and will be missing the rest of the season) is former champion Blake Townend. Another familiar name, and one of last season’s numerous race winners, took pole, as Wojciech Rabsztyn put in an impressive 1:46.092, a full tenth of a second ahead of Fahim Antoniades. Tom Ward impressed early in the season grabbing P3 in qualifying ahead of Wojciech Swirydowicz, Dominic Brennan, Marcus Hamilton, Stuart Adcock, and Clarke Williams with only half a second separating the top 11 on the grid.
The nature of the Okayama track in combination with the F2000 is such that side-by-side sim-racing is easy, but passing is not. The start of the race was a bit more exciting than the typical UK&I Skip Barber league race start, with loads of wheel-to-wheel action up and down the grid, but only a handful of drivers actually managed to make their moves stick. The most notable and impressive of passes on the opening lap came from Ward who got a great run out of Turn Four and took to the outside at Turn Five to grab P2 from Antoniades.
Antoniades continued to struggle as Swirydowicz coasted through and grabbed third at the very next corner, Turn Six. Antoniades fought back but oversteer at the Turn Nine hairpin put him under threat from Brennan. Dipping a wheel off the track at the exit of the penultimate corner meant more oversteer for the final corner which meant Antoniades didn’t have just Brennan to deal with, but also Hamilton, Adock, and Williams as well. The cars went four wide onto the straight, and three wide into Turn One as Hamilton took to the inside, Antoniades the outside, with Brennan in the middle and Adcock and Williams opting to stay behind. As the group exited the corner it was Hamilton who grabbed fourth, as the cars formed a Flying V in true Mighty Ducks fashion.
A few corners later and the very tight pack of cars approached the hairpin at Turn Four going over 110 mph. Keith Sharp had qualified P12 and was already up to tenth when an issue under braking sent him into Antoniades who then hit Williams. Sharp and Williams came away without any major damage or losing much time but Antoniades was forced to pit and dropped to the tail end of the field.
At the front Rabsztyn maintained his lead under attack from Ward, but defended it well. Swirydowicz seemed to detach a bit from the leading duo but at the same time had no problem pulling a gap to the seemingly six or seven way battle for P4, especially after Sharp’s incident on Lap Two. By Lap Five Hamilton was evidently tired of the side-by-side racing with Brennan and finally grabbed P4 at the inside of Turn Five. The very next lap and Adcock made the exact same move on Brennan knocking him down to sixth.
At the end of Lap Six it was Ward who appeared to be losing patience and. as he and Rabsztyn came out of the final corner, he moved to the right. Rabsztyn echoed Mark Webber in Malaysia 2013 as he squeezed Ward towards the pit wall in an effort to affect his line for Turn One as much as possible. The tactic worked like a charm though as Ward was forced to concede the position.
The action never stops in this league, but no major position changes occured for a few laps after Brennan started dropping. It wasn’t until Lap 12 of this 14 lap race where we would see positions change hands at the front. Swirydowicz had been slowly gaining on the two front runners all race as they went side-by-side again and again. He pulled alongside Ward at Turn One and made the move around the outside and grabbed second. Rabsztyn relished in the entanglement behind and enjoyed a brief respite from the action while Swirydowicz focused on one last overtake for the day.
Swirydowicz was pushing hard, not just in the closing laps but all race long. On the penultimate lap as he came out of Turn Seven and accelerated towards Turn Eight his two liter engine gave out and started pumping thick, black smoke into the face of Ward just behind. Ward took to the inside for Turn Eight, which Swirydowicz did not defend much against, and breathed a sigh of relief as he regained second from the former champion. Some minor oversteer at Turn Nine, no big deal, happens in this car all the time. Turn Ten is practically a non-corner as only a lift off the gas is required, nailed it as usual. Back on the gas to accelerate towards the final corner and then to start the final lap of the race and BOOM. The dark cloud of a failed combustion engine starts exiting his Skippy and into the face of Hamilton behind. The only two cars to hold second position on Lap 13 both had their engines fail, within 20 seconds of each other.
In the end Rabsztyn (after seemingly slowing down a bit, likely in fear of his engine failing like the cars behind) held-off Hamilton who grabbed second as a result of the mechanical problems at the front. Adcock rounded off the podium with a fantastic start to his season while Brennan held onto fourth from Ward, Alex Gillon, George Li Wright, Jonathan Maycock, Keith Sharp, and Rob Green. Swirydowicz managed to salvage seven points in the championship by clawing his way back to P14. It’s impossible to know who will be strong in Silverstone next week but one thing is certain: Marc Mercer will be there.
The full race with commentary can be viewed on BSRTV here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-wtQVED9B0