The legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps welcomed the Star Mazdas for Week 3 of their championship, but it would also welcome the highest SOF of the season so far. Spa is renowned for being one of the most challenging circuits in the world, but that certainly didn’t put off drivers from participating in races for this week.
The 12 lap distance meant these would be long races, and anything could happen. With draft being a huge factor here, position changes were going to be frequent and ultimately the winner of the race could have quite honestly been a surprise. The weather this week enabled drivers’ tires to get to temperature quicker than previous weeks; the cars would be more responsive earlier-on in to the race and enable drivers to push the limits from the get-go.
A surprise pole position came from the Turkish driver of Cem Bolukbasi (International) – who bounced back from a poor race at Road Atlanta last week – ending Kevin Gelly-Rufat’s (France) run of consecutive first place starts. It was soon obvious after the drop of the green flag that the draft would play a big factor in the race, well, for all except for Luis L Santos (Iberia) whose race was ended prematurely with multiple barrel rolls in the first turn.
Gelly-Ruffat got to the head of the field by the time the field filed through Les Combes and led the opening lap of the race, but it was clear from the start that Daniel Lopez (Iberia) was going to push him hard all the way to the chequered flag. Not only was Lopez going to be hassling him, there was a huge crowd of drivers only tenths behind ready to pounce on any mistake a driver could make.
By no means is Spa a boring race track, but the way the race was panning out seemed to be incredibly familiar – for the Star Mazdas at least. Drafting-up to create an overtaking opportunity at Les Combes, the driver who had the better braking ability and confidence would head in to the corner ahead. This was certainly Gelly-Rufat’s forte on the track. His braking ability was certainly where he excelled to keep ahead compared to the drivers chasing him down and attempting to overtake him. Although this scenario repeatedly played out at Les Combes, it didn’t stop overtakes on other parts of the track with other drivers vying for position. Bolukbasi showed Lopez that La Source was also a perfect opportunity to attack, taking an advantage of an opponent’s small mistake and punishing them for it.
Xavi Estella (Iberia) was just clinging-on to the back of the top three, but his pace was strong enough to worry the three drivers placed just in front of him. The next group of cars – from fifth downwards – was battling tooth and nail, giving plenty of respect but leaving little room for error. They were pushing for every bit of time against each other in order to be the one trying cling on to the small breakaway just ahead . . . and inevitably pull a gap from this ferociously battling pack.
Gregory Tanson (Benelux) got to the head of the following pack by pulling a solid move off at the Bus Stop chicane, but Domenico Di Menno (Italy) didn’t let him out of his grasp easily. As this intense battle unfolded, the front pack continually extended its lead, but the second pack (featuring Tanson, Di Menno & Co .) had no reason to worry about the gaggle of drivers further behind in no position to trouble them for the latter position of eighth place. But by no means were these drivers having it easy as they had no intention of yielding their hard-won positions.
Toward the conclusion of Lap Six all hell could have broken loose; thankfully it didn’t. Tanson seemed to leave his braking too late and pulled-off a slide in to the first part of the Bus Stop. This clogged-up Di Menno and Oscar Tolnay (Scandinavia) but allowed Javier Carre (Iberia) to scoot around the outside and gain all three positions in just one corner. Unfortunately, Carre’s fifth place was short-lived as Tanson took full advantage of the draft to re-pass him and regain a top five position.
Tanson’s move proved decisive in dropping the group led by Carre who were still squabbling over what would shortly be fifth place again due to the fact Estella incurred a “slow down” on the run through Eau Rouge and Raidillon. What Estella proved was that, even when one is having a good race, any minimal mistake can lead to huge gains by following drivers. But that’s how the racing at Spa goes: it’s a demanding track, one requiring concentration throughout.
By the penultimate lap you just couldn’t call a winner, especially now that Tanson was in the mix. 1.5s seemed to be the magic number, in terms of a following car gaining a tow from the car ahead, and the Benelux-ian sim racer had just scraped under that margin to give himself an outside chance of the win. Gelly-Rufat – who had led nine out of the ten laps completed so far – was passed on the run to Malmedy by Lopez who made a perfectly-executed move which was planned out from the exit of La Source.
The race certainly wouldn’t end like this though, especially now that Tanson was well and truly tucked-up behind the top three. The top four were all separated by less than a second and a half as they crossed the line to begin Lap 12, and it was Lopez who again was the first to blink as the Iberian made the move on Gelly-Rufat by Les Combes. Tanson also saw his opportunity to pounce and overtook Bolukbasi, who found himself hung-out to dry on the outside of a three wide situation.
With the end of the lap approaching fast, each driver in this pack knew a good exit from Stavelot could be essential to their finishing position, with everyone in the top four – bar Lopez – making use of an off track to gain every bit of time they could. An elusive win at Spa would certainly be a special one!
Coming in to the Bus Stop for the final time they were two-by-two and nothing could separate them: The draft had effectively put them all within a shout of the win. But there was only going to be one winner.
The lead quartet came into the braking zone and Gelly-Rufat excelled to make the pass on Lopez for the win, going ‘round the outside of the left-hand entry and positioning himself to make a strong exit from the following right-hander to cement his fifth win in six Star Mazda races this season from Lopez, Tanson and Bolukbasi with Estella leading the following group home in fifth.
It’s certainly going to take a miracle to catch Kevin now, especially after claiming the win at Spa; the championship points on offer were inevitably going to help him in extending his lead.
Click here to see more photos from the race.
Click here to see the full race results.
Click here for the Star Mazda points standings to date.