Okayama International Circuit played  host to the opening week of the 2014 S4 iRacing Star Mazda Championship, with over 1000 iRacers taking the green flag! Every online race this week – bar two -had a couple of splits or more, indicating it was going to be a closely-fought battle for the advantage in the championship on the opening week of the season.

The Friday 19:45 GMT race had the highest SOF (strength of field) of the week, one amounting to 3188 . The grid was incredibly competitive, with even a couple of Pro and Pro/WC drivers turning-out for the race in the forms of Riku Alatalo and  Joonas Nukarinen. But Michal Smidl (Central-Eastern Europe) took the pole, with Mike McKinney (Illinois) beginning in second  and Jerome Haag (France) rounding-out the top three  on the grid.

A bird’s eye view of Okayama International Circuit

Drivers would have known coming in to the race that cold tires could be a huge issue on the opening lap with this week’s weather – Temperature: 65° F, Wind Speed: W @ 4 MPH, Atmosphere: 79 RH, 0% Fog Cover, Skies: Partly Cloudy.  Unfortunately for Jerome Haag, he found-out about the cold temperatures the hard way . . .

The race kicked off in exciting fashion: Turn 1  was clean with all drivers scraping through without incident, but all hell broke loose at Turn 2.  Mike McKinney got loose through Turn 2, with the tires having no temperature, but he did well enough to save the car… that was until Haag came in with seemingly  no intentions of avoiding McKinney.  Whether he unaware the car ahead had been able to catch the slide or not, Haag pile-drove into the back end of McKinney’s car and sent them careering into the outside barrier. A very early end to both drivers’ races, in what could have been promising event considering their pace in qualifying.

McKinney and Haag take a wild ride.

Sadly, the Lap One carnage didn’t end there: at Turn 4 there was a multicar incident involving Jesper Møller (Scandinavia), Cam Stark (UK&I), Knut Martinsen (Scandinavia) with Kerry Knowlden and Kieran Chadwick (UK&I) making contact but the latter narrowly escaping unscathed.  Knowlden had to make his way slowly back to the pit with rear left damage, and then soldier on to the end of the race.

Møller’s race was over while Martinsen’s was compromised but Stark  managed to carry on, although taking a short flight through the air didn’t help. Along with that multicar incident, Dan Nygård (Scandinavia) slid around Turn 4 whilst avoiding the carnage ahead and he was collected by the unfortunate Alatalo as he attempted to make his way to the back stretch. Alatalo’s car flipped on to its top as Martinsen was launched into multiple barrel rolls; both lost considerable time in their subsequent  tows back to the pits.

The carnage at Turn 4 unfolds in Aaltonen’s mirrors.

After the hectic start, only 10 of the 16 starters emerged from Turn 4, although some would later rejoin from the pits.  Michal Smidl must have been smiling with joy after all the drama unfolding in his mirrors enabled him to sprint to a sizeable lead of around two-three seconds by Turn 7. The rest of the field was still bunched up in twos and threes, so anything could happen come the end of the race.

Joonas Nukarinen (Finland) was a man on a mission.  After beginning the race 15th he had gained 10 positions by the end of the opening lap; just keeping out of trouble had helped his cause and enabled him to harry Michael Smidl fourth the end of the race.  After a comparatively uneventful second lap, the third round saw a cluster of drivers battling for 2nd place led by Teemu Valkeejarvi (Finland).  Jari Aaltonen (Finland) took advantage of Harley Lewis’ (Canada) poor line through Turn 1 to get underneath him on the exit.  There was minimal contact between the two in the process, but they escaped fairly unscathed.

Nukarinen pressed his attack, lapping a whole second quicker than the trio ahead of him on Lap 3. Further down the field in the battle for sixth, Chadwick quickly dispatched Scott Martens (Australia/NZ), Martens, who had done well to avoid the turn 4 carnage on the opening lap, was now running in a strong seventh the #15 car, so it looked like a good race for him . . . so far.

Aaltonen and Lewis go wheel-to-wheel, literally, in Valkeejarvi’s wake.

Turn 5 seemed the ideal overtaking position, permitting you had good top end speed and managed a good run out of Turn 4. It was a big compromise on setup if you went for lower downforce as it could hamper you greatly in the slower sections of the track; but if you managed to run lower downforce with good effect, you were on for a solid finishing position. If Nukarinen was running a lower downforce setup than the others, he was doing it with good effect: he had gained a huge amount the previous two laps and it was now looking as though he wanted to dispatch the cars ahead of him pretty soon too.

Nukarinen (3) about to carve his way past Valkeejarvi (7), Lewis (11) and Aaltonen (8) en route to second place.

By Lap 8 Nukarinen had made his way to third, leaving Valkeejarvi and Lewis to fight it out for fourth place just behind him. By this time the rest of the field was thoroughly spread out, as the opening lap crashes had separated similarly- paced  competitors. The contest  for fourth nearly ended in tears a few laps later when Lewis attempted the move on the inside of Turn 5.  It went horribly wrong with the Canadian’s rear coming round and almost wiping-out Valkeejarvi although, fortunately, they both carried on unscathed with Lewis losing valuable seconds.

Lewis’ move on Valkeejarvi almost ends in tears.

Just prior to Lewis’ attempted move on Valkeejarvi, Nukarinen pulled off a move on Aaltonen at Turn 5 to move him up a net 13 places from his starting position in to second position. Aaltonen did his best to keep pace with Nukarinen but, in the end, he had to concede the runner-up spot  for good.  The final 10 or so laps saw minimal action, but for Alatalo putting-in phenomenal laps in a car which had been tipped upside down on the opening lap.  He was still quicker than pretty much everyone in the field, although he was a lap down due to no fault of his own.

For his part, Michal Smidl drove a solid race, making no costly errors and taking home the most championship points handed out for the week (199).  Nukarinen brought  home a fantastic second place from 15th on the grid; regardless of all the incidents that took place ahead of him, you can’t fault a drive that gained 13 positions. And Jari Aaltonen managed to bag the final podium position to top-off another  great drive. The final places in the top five came down to the wire, with Valkeejarvi (just) holding-off a charging Lewis to the line.

Valkeejarvi wins the closest finish of the race: less than half a tenth ahead of Lewis.

The race was a quiet one compared to the other higher SOFs  at Okayama, but featured quite possibly the most frantic opening lap of the week.
For the championship, Kevin Gelly-Rufat – last season’s champion – has taken an early lead. Due to the fact that Michal Smidl has done more than the four races this week, his points have been averaged and he is currently fourth in the standings on 178 championship points. So for the reigning champion, it’s been a fantastic start. He managed to win the two races he competed in this week (results below).

The next track on this shortened season’s schedule is Road Atlanata. One of the more challenging tracks on the sim racing calendar, Road Atlanta’s blind crests, undulating surface and large curbs demand that driver are really going to have to nail the track next week if they want to fulfill their potential.

Saturday 19:45 GMT SOF (one of the usual SOF slots): http://members.iracing.com/membersite/member/EventResult.do?&subsessionid=12199313&custid=98845

Sunday 15:45 GMT (2nd highest SOF of the week): http://members.iracing.com/membersite/member/EventResult.do?&subsessionid=12206785&custid=98845

Current series top five
Kevin Gelly-Rufat – 193
Alain Stoffels – 186
Joonas Nukarinen  – 183
Michal Smidl – 178
Jari Aaltonen  – 172

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