From great race track, to great race track . . . Suzuka Circuit is deserving of that description, as the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series globe-trot continued in Week 10 following a week of sim-racing at Spa-Francorchamps. Now onto Asian soil for the first time this season, at likely one of the best race tracks in the whole continent, the iGPS regulars tackled a circuit whose legacy includes some of the greatest battles in motorsport; battles not limited to Formula 1, which started racing here in 1987, 25 years after the figure eight circuit’s construction.
Getting the best out of this highly demanding driver circuit, Alex Simpson set fastest qualifying time of the week, but turning heads in fourth place, Lee Thompson (UK and I) set a blistering qualifying time to muscle in amongst the more experienced black-striped sim-drivers.
Before the weekend began, many Strength of Field (SoF) races were anticipated, but just one SoF materialized on Saturday, undoubtedly below expectation for the day. However the inclusion of numerous Pro/DWC drivers highlighted the pleasure that can be taken from driving this race track virtually, especially amongst close competition.
Yuho Abe lined-up on pole for his home race on the only Saturday race timeslot, but would take little to no satisfaction afterwards: a collision on the second lap ended his race, as he became the first retiree on the back of a very clean start. Abe’s demise enabled Thompson to take the lead courtesy of his strong qualifying and smooth start off the line, but directly behind him, DWC (Drivers World Championship) licensee Teemu Iivonen (Finland) looked to be setting lap times representative of a zero stop fuel strategy, putting race-long pressure on the leader; especially as Kazuki Oomishima (Asia) was also partaking in his home race and looked to have taken the no-stop gamble.
As the fuel stop phase neared, it became clear Thompson would lose the lead in the pits. Although he could do nothing with Iivonen, Thompson created a sizable gap over the third-placed Oomishima in the laps leading to his stop, and the Englishman duly exited pit lane just two seconds behind the Japanese driver. Nevertheless, Oomishima’s strategy looked to have paid off . . . until a spin late in the race gifted second place back to Thompson. The former rejoined to hold third position and carry it to the flag, with Iivonen crossing the line first to take victory. Samuel de la Fuente (Iberia), one of the championship contenders endured an off-colour race, as his poor qualifying saw him stuck behind some of his heavier-fueled rivals, but he recovered to take fourth with fellow one stopper and improving driver Rasmus Tali (Scandinavia) directly behind.
At 14:00GMT the next day, just enough signups registered to create a SoF race, this time with Simpson (UK and I) on pole and Michele Mancusi (Italy) alongside on the front row, whilst Abe took to the grid in third place this time, no doubt hoping to rectify his earlier race demise.
As the lights turned green, Simpson enjoyed an unchallenged run to Turn One. He looked to have the race sewn-up, until an error saw him hit the wall, forcing a pit stop and opening-up the race up dramatically . . . especially as Mancusi suffered a similar fate, although he was not fortunate enough to continue on in the race.
Through all the trouble, Paolo Muia (Italy) began to make strong progress through the field, alongside Jan Niesiolowski (Central-Eastern Europe). Sure enough the Italian took the lead on Lap Eight after dispatching Abe and sailing past the wounded Simpson. Niesiolowski followed suit, occupying second place as Muia took the lead, raising suspicions the two might be planning fuel stops during the race, in contrast to their rivals.
This proved to be the case, with Muia pitting on Lap 25, and his rival stopping two laps later. The two rejoined as expected in third and fourth places respectively, where they would stay until the end, with Muia taking a solid podium finish. In the battle for the other two podium positions, Abe looked in very good shape to take victory, but a late race charge from DWC driver Martti Pietilä prevented a cruise to the finish. Eventually, Abe held on for the victory by an eight second margin, but had Pietilä posted a qualifying time and/or not lost time from a brief spin, it could’ve been a lot closer. Taking fifth place and a welcome 187 points for his A-Class championship campaign was Muhammed S Patel, carving his way up through the field from the back of the grid to keep his championship hopes alive.
SoF race number three of the week, at 16:00GMT timeslot proved one of the most exciting and unpredictable events of the season, although with not as many good points finishes on offer. Simpson started on pole, but was muscled down to fourth at the conclusion of the first lap, with Mancusi emerging with the lead and seemingly on another zero stop strategy.
Further down, it was a mixed bag of results for the Spanish drivers: three of them collided on the exit of Turn Two, putting all of them into retirement, even as countryman David Domínguez rose a meteoric eleven places at the start and commenced the chase ahead from his lowly grid position. At the front, as Mancusi began to form a train behind, Thompson made contact with Iivonen’s rear wing in the bunching up, forcing irreparable damage to the latter, effectively ending his hopes for victory. However, Thompson avoided damage and eventually sailed past to challenge Mancusi. A few laps later, Simpson too made contact with the ailing Finn, but with no damage done this time either as the two fought desperately over third position at the end of the train.
Close behind, the two seemingly zero stoppers Marcus Caton (Georgia) and Rasmus Tali (Scandinavia) were making reasonable progress and in the hunt as the leaders fought over the high ground, with Domínguez, Patel and Javier Jose Martinez Arrieta (Iberia) not far off.
Nearing the conclusion of Lap 20, the decisive moment of the race took place, as Simpson launched a brave move to overtake Mancusi. But as Simpson tried to scrub-off speed to stay on the track, the two made contact, resulting in damaged wings on both Williams Toyota FW31s and destroying their races in the blink of an eye. This moment finally released Thompson into clean air, but the time lost behind heavily-fueled Mancusi was critical, enabling Caton to claim the lead after the pit stop phase. Thompson rejoined in second place, only just beating Tali to Turn One as he exited the pits.
In the battle for fourth place, Domínguez began to come under increasing pressure from Arrieta in the entire second half of the race, but a mistake-free run on a narrow circuit with few overtaking opportunities allowed Domínguez to retain fourth spot. Up front, Caton took a well-grafted victory, with Thompson and Tali rounding-out the podium and claiming some good points for their A-Class championship prospects.
With just one SoF race left to run, the highest points of the entire week were on offer. This put additional pressure on the A-Class drivers watching the season move ever closer to its conclusion, knowing every point now could decide whether or not they gain entrance to the 2013 Pro Series.
Pietilä lined up on pole and faced a ten lap duel with his closest rival Thompson. The two battled tooth and nail before seemingly minor contact had strong consequences as both retired with damage. As the day appeared to finally get predictable, new race leader Iivonen had a sudden oversteer moment at 130mph, sending him into the wall and requiring a new front wing. This gave the non- stopping Oomishima the race lead (from fifth on the grid). The Japanese sim-racer’s fuel strategy would take him to the end which saw him holding-up Richard Avery (UK and I), unable to make a pass on the narrow track and costing him valuable time.
As the pit stops approached, the Spanish duo of Samuel de la Fuente and Rafa Bordoy made gains on their zero stop strategy to take the two final podium slots, despite race-long pressure from LJ Garnett (UK and I) who inhaled their exhaust fumes throughout, but who was also unable to overtake. A frustrated Avery dropped back to sixth after the pit stop and finishing directly behind Frank Levick IV (New England) in a perfect example of how a one stop strategy can easily be compromised in these one hour races.
Remarkably, despite six Pro/DWC licensees taking part in this race, the top seven positions were occupied by A-Class drivers, showing the Pros don’t always have it their own way.
In the A-Class championship standings, the closely-matched drivers exemplified the iGPS’ competitive nature, as Bordoy moved into the provisional championship lead, jumping five places in the process — and helped by the absence of Michele Chesini (Italy) who still remains in second place. This week’s name ‘on the bubble’ is LJ Garnett, but as the drop weeks come into play, the Brit finds himself as one of the few people who hasn’t completed a full eight weeks. Thus he won’t have to rely on ‘drop weeks’ to score additional points from now.
Despite a quiet week, de la Fuente accumulated the second highest number of points of the week courtesy of his crucial result in the 18:00GMT SoF race, and he finds himself fourth overall, despite only competing in seven weeks. With ten weeks down, just two remain – Silverstone GP Circuit is next on the agenda, as the permanent circuit continues the trend of popular real life F1 tracks raced consecutively on the schedule.