Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is indisputedly one of the greatest race tracks in the world, especially popular amongst F1 fans alike, so it’s appropriate for the iRacing.com Grand Prix Series (iGPS) circus should visit the tranquil, scenic village located in the heart of the Ardennes region on the eastern edge of Belgium: Spa. The Spa-Francorchamps circuit itself is renowned for its long radius corners and varying challenges on the busy, seven kilometre layout. With several overtaking opportunities per lap, races are seldom void of action.
Getting the best out of this cherished race track in qualifying trim was Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola (Finland) in a weekend dominated by intense competition as the Finn convincingly set fastest qualifying time of the week. Such is the demand to race around Spa, remarkably the top 15 positions in qualifying were all occupied by Pro and DWC (Drivers World Championship) drivers, despite the limited number of said licensees.
The weekend of SoF racing kicked off at the conventional timecode of 16:00GMT, as Isaac Price (UK and I) took to the pole position slot ready for take-off. As the lights turned green, he instead suffered from a very poor start, dropping to fifth behind hard chargers Teemu Iivonen (Finland), Alex Simpson (UK and I), Aleksi Elomaa (Finland) and Kazuki Oomishima (Asia), all of whom were bent on making their names very prominent in the week of racing. A race-long duel developed between the five, as they fought nose-to-tail for much of the race, constantly swapping places. The outcome wouldn’t begin coming into focus until the first round of pit stops took place, as the competitors hoped for one another to pit a lap earlier than each other. Oomishima was the first to blink, pitting several laps ahead of his rivals and dropping out of contention, leaving just the Pro and DWC drivers to fight over the victory, deflection attention from the Road to Pro contest to the hard racing between top competitors.
As lap 23 of 33 concluded, first and second placed Iivonen and Simpson pulled into the pits, with Iivonen winning the battle in the pit lane. For his part, Price stayed out on track for another two laps, throwing some uncertainty as to who would lead the final stint. Surprisingly, when Price did emerge from the pits, he was directly behind Simpson’s Williams-Toyota FW31. He quickly began to look very racy behind his clubmate, eventually dispatching Simpson to take second and begin the chase to catch Iivonen. Despite closing right up on the Flying Finn, Price ran out of laps as Iivonen saw the chequered flag at the right time.
In the fight for the final podium slot, Elomaa recovered from an earlier mistake to close right up on Simpson as well. The Finn capitalized on Simpson’s position drop to Iivonen to likewise steal another place off the Englishman and bag his spot on the podium. In the battle for fifth place, Michele Chesini’s (Italy) strategic gamble of skipping a pit stop didn’t let him down as he overtook Oomishima in the pit stop phase to finish fifth, just eleven seconds off the win and directly behind some very well-established drivers.
18:00GMT and some new Pro faces joined in the fun, but it was again Price lining up on pole, from Simpson, Olli Pahkala (Finland), Iivonen, Petteri Kotovaara (Finland), Michael Gomen (Northwest), Chesini and Matt Hannagan (UK and I) on the first four rows. Price’s lack of a clutch pedal would handicap his efforts all week, as he again dropped places at the green to Pahkala and Simpson, the latter seemingly with no pace off the start, raising suspicions the Englishman may have opted for an alternate strategy. Nevertheless at the front, Pahkala began his relentless charge, perhaps aware the cars directly behind him may not pose his biggest threat for the victory, though start-line incidents from Kotovaara and Chesini limited his competition to just five.
Pahkala began to slowly but surely distance himself from his closest rivals, but Simpson’s no stop strategy soon became clear, giving the Finn little time to rest on his laurels, Indeed when the leader made his pit stop, Simpson’s strategy choice paid off, enabling him to take first place from under Pahkala’s nose. What’s more, Simpson resisted the pressure of a late race harry from his rival to register a deserving win, enlightening the paddock of the strategy variable. Though Pahkala took second, the focus began to shift behind as team-mates Iivonen and Price engaged in a last lap fight for the final podium slot. Iivonen held his nerve on the outside of the Les Combes chicane, gaining the position in the dying moments of the race. Gomen too opted for a zero stop strategy, driving alone for much of the race, finishing fifth but almost able to smell the (virtual) exhaust fumes of his rivals close ahead. Accumulating the highest A-Class points of the race, Hannagan endured a mostly quiet race on his one stop strategy, but taking the bragging rights over his fellow A-Class rivals, including the nearest of them — Christiaan Tanahatoe (Benelux) — as the two fight for ground in the A-Class championship.
On Sunday, two triple split online races gave the opportunity for a massive points haul to contribute those all important championship points needed for the end of the season. The first of these three split races came at 16:00GMT, this time with Petteri Kotovaara lining up on pole position.
No more than 300 metres into the race however, and a dramatic collision between Iivonen and Oomishima collected several victims in a big pile-up, eliminating as many as seven of the twenty starters on the spot. Up front and unopposed however, Kotovaara held the lead into the La Source hairpin, seemingly in a good position . . . that is until a couple of mistakes dropped him down the order. His woes were eventually compounded by a bizarre incident with Jorge Montanes (Iberia) that eliminated both drivers and caused another temporary roadblock.
The demise of Kotovaara and Monatnes did not overshadow the big picture of the race however. The fight for the lead developed into a long procession, taken from one corner by Finns and new team-mates Pahkala, Elomaa and Alatalo on one stop strategies, versus Gomen and Chesini on zero stop strategies. Whilst the three Finnish musketeers were following nose-to-tail, seemingly on identical pace, Gomen pulled away from his fellow rival, keen on taking the fight to the top three.
The pit sequence unfolded with Alatalo pitting earlier than expected, leaving Pahkala and Elomaa to continue around steadily building the gap. When they eventually stopped, 24 laps into the race, to some surprise, Gomen swooped around turn one several seconds ahead, seemingly assuring the race win with just a few laps remaining. Instead, the Glacier Racing team-mates got into a squabble of their own, fighting over best of the rest, a contest won by Elomaa, as Pahkala spun in the midst of battle, promoting Alatalo to third as they all crossed the line after an exciting race highlighted by Gomen’s victory. Chesini took another fifth place finish, and not too far from the battles ahead, but the astronomical gap between the top five versus the rest gave the impression of two different leagues.
At 18:00GMT, the biggest SoF of the week was bolstered by the biggest quantity of signups during the week, providing the perfect opportunity to claim a bucketload of points and personal pride to the victors.
Lining up on pole position, at last was Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola, with drivers behind no doubt keen to occupy his lead after the start. In the midfield however, the start shuffle proved just as chaotic as the previous race, with several contacts in the La Source hairpin resulting in subsequent broken wings. Kotovaara’s perilously unlucky weekend continued as he dropped down the order at the start before contact with Rafa Bordoy (Iberia) on the fifth lap at the Les Combes chicane sent both cars out of the race.
In a class of one, Uusi-Jaakkola continued his qualifying form to begin his domination at the front, setting lap times unseen during the week as he continued to pull almost a second a lap on his nearest rivals. Yuho Abe (Asia), Stephen Michaels (Mid-South), Teemu Iivonen and Kazuki Oomishima were closely engaged in the fight of honour for second place, with all seemingly on slightly different one stop strategies. The quartet battled hard for much of the race, but crucial errors by the two Japanese drivers compromised their podium chances. Iivonen’s extra lap in the first stint enabled him to extend track position over Michaels en route to the higher step of the podium, holding second place until the end. Abe and Oomishima escaped damage in their bobbles to come home fourth and fifth respectively, but no doubt ruing their early mistakes despite good finishes in a tough and competitive field. However, the race belonged to Uusi-Jaakkola, stopped only by the chequered flag in a commanding performance.
Chesini’s successful week enabled the Italian to extend his championship lead for the third week running, whilst fellow countryman Paolo Accurso’s performance in the big points race of the week enabled him to jump three places up to third in the A-Class drivers standings. On the cusp of obtaining a Pro license after nine weeks is tenth placed Justin Lindsay (Ohio), though only being able to rely on drop week points from now as in the face of fast emerging threats from behind in the frantic race for the ten remaining Pro licenses of 2013.
The next destination of the globe-trotting iGPS F1 circus is Japan’s Suzuka International Circuit, for Week 10 of the championship. Like Spa, a well-respected drivers circuit, Suzuka offers some of the staunchest challenges of the season.