After 15 races spanning five virtual continents, the iRacing.com World Championship Grand Prix Series made its final stop of the season at the Circuit of the Americas this past weekend. Although the title was wrapped up, there was still plenty to look forward to, especially with Team Redline’s Greger Huttu vowing to ‘finish the season in style’ after claiming his fourth championship. Arguably the best ‘Tilke’ track ever built, CoTA would have its fair share of excitement to round-off what has been one of the greatest seasons of top level sim racing competition.
Some drivers had unfinished business heading into the event. ineX Racing’s Jake Stergios had an outside shot of claiming fourth in the championship from Glacier Racing’s Aleksi Juusi-Jaakkola; however, he would need some help in order to do so. In the battle to retain their world championship license for 2015, Team Mortadella Motor Mission’s Fulvio Barozzini and Radical Steelseries driver Jeremy Bouteloup entered the event tied for 24th in points and inside the danger zone. They were the only two drivers mathematically able to drop outside the Top 25 in the standings, with Team Racing On3’s Paulo Muia the only driver with the opportunity snatch away a golden ticket for the 2015 season. One of the three would have to join remaining members outside of the Top 25 in the 2014 Pro Series of Road Racing, along with new talent moving their way through the ranks, five of whom would make an appearance at COTA.
Qualifying as always was an entertaining affair, with Coanda Simsports’ Martin Krönke again scoring pole position, and continuing a sequence of front row starts that stretches back to the resumption of racing after the summer break. This time, he would be joined on the front row by Glacier’s Olli Pahkala with the Orion Race Team driver Ilkka Haapala lining up third, his best qualifying in over two years. Huttu’s fourth place effort marked the second race in a row where he would start on the second row on the grid, while Radical’s Mogar Filho recorded his best qualifying of the season in fifth.
With the uphill straightaway leading into one of the slowest first corners of the season, followed by an incredibly technical first sector of the circuit, all drivers were hoping for a clean launch, and safe passage on the opening lap. But when Pahkala’s car stalled at the start, the run to Turn One became one of survival, as the biggest opening lap incident unfolded since Road America back in 2011. Huttu tried to avoid the stationary car just ahead of him, but ended-up making contact, spinning into the centre of the track. A total of eight cars would then be caught up in the subsequent melee, in scenes similar to the 2014 Grand Prix of Indianapolis. One driver able to avoid all the trouble around him was Radicals’ Joonas Nukarinen, who found an open lane on the outside of the track and moved-up a dozen positions from his starting spot.
Importantly in the chase for points, two key players were involved in the first lap carnage. The first was Juusi Jaakkola, who would have to wait to see if he could hold onto fourth place in the championship; the second was Barozzini, who would have to hope that Muia finished outside of the Top 20 in order to retain his World Championship license for 2015. With a depleted field, and Muia running inside the Top 15, this seemed unlikely, and the MMM!!! driver retired just four laps into the event.
In amongst all this, Haapala made the pass on Krönke on Lap Two for the race lead. However the German driver would retake the lead the following lap. As the field began to finally settle down, it was Krönke leading from Haapala, then the Radicals duo of Filho and Nukarinen running third and fourth.
The early exits of several top qualifiers gave ample opportunity for some drivers to capitalise and score some big points, and this was evident by a largely different Top 10 to normal. Stergios was arguably the driver who benefited most from this, as he swept through the field after a bad qualifying, and continued his improbable quest of taking fourth in the championship. Turn 12 at COTA is one of the best passing opportunities in all of North American racing, and drivers were using this to their advantage all race long, in their own attempt to make up ground, or stay in the hunt, for big points.
The first, nor the second round of pitstops changed the order out front, although curiously, Haapala was able to go a lap or so longer in each stint than the rest, as he continued to run in proverbial ‘no man’s land.’ Filho and Nukarinen retained their positions as the battle for the final step of the podium heated-up, with Yuho Abe and Kazuki Oomishima also coming into play. That is until another unforced error saw Oomishima’s day come to an end in his last race for Ronin Racing, as he clipped a high curb in the Esses, spearing him into the air, and almost making contact with Stergios. Shortly after, Nukarinen made a mistake of his own, looping the car and falling back to fifth.
Behind, Tommy Nilsson and a recovering Bouteloup battled for P9, as some sensational last race scraps continued among season-long foes. Muia spent the last laps of the racing attempting to get past ineX Racing’s Issac Price, and it came down to a run out of the final corner. There was no need to push for the Italian driver, though, as P15 was ultimately all he needed to move himself into the Top 25 in points come race end. Towards the end of the race, knowing he was safe points wise, Oomishima moved over to allow Abe through, a fitting gesture to his soon-to-be erstwhile team mate.
Krönke proved untouchable out front, and his win sees him round-off the season with the second best record of all drivers in the 2014 campaign in terms of wins and — alongside his incredible qualifying performances in the second half of the season – insures he will roll into 2015 on a wave of momentum. The archives will show the final championship margin a 10 point deficit, but Huttu and Krönke both know that aside from the title itself, point gaps mean very little.
Outside of the Top 20, it was Barozzini who missed-out on the final automatic World Championship License for 2015, and will have to run in the Pro Series of Road Racing. That kicks off in just two and a half weeks’ time, as rising stars look to make a statement and join the ranks of the most demanding road series in sim racing.