It had been 13 weeks since the inaugural SpecRacer Ford Big Grid race. As a commentator for the Global SimRacing Channel, I had watched and participated in plenty of online races since then. However, once I heard of plans for a second rendition of the race at Road America, I instantly circled the day on my calendar, reminiscing on the excitement the series had provided us with at the same track, 13 weeks before.
60 cars in any race sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, yet we were pleasantly surprised the first time around that there was much less chaos than anticipated. Luca Varani, the race organizer, deserves a lot of credit for this. He allocated a good portion of time towards practice and qualifying before the race so the drivers could get used to racing the car and each other. A 17 lap race was also advertising from a safety standpoint. Not too short where you had to win it from the start, but not too long where you could crash and be forgiven.
It was quite a sight to see the cars grid up, from the top of the hill at the start line to the bottom at Turn 14. It certainly made our hearts beat a little faster, wondering what was going to happen when these 60 drivers slung their cars into the first corner.
Aday Lopez was the pole sitter, while Kevin Vaughn, winner of the inaugural Big Grid race, started not too far behind in fourth.
When the lights turned green, Lopez was gone. He had been part of the first Big Grid race but had failed to win. This time, he was determined to make up for it. The length of the straights at Road America, combined with the limited 105 bhp of the SpecRacer Ford, meant that the draft played a huge factor during this race. Despite that, Lopez was able to break away from the rest and looked set to lead Lap One . . . until he ran off the road and slid into the wall exiting The Kink.
João Cardoso led the first lap but soon lost the spot to Kimmo Suominen, as the strong draft on the frontstretch left the Spaniard with no chance to defend. Italian Niccolò Cedrati was able to keep up with the lead pack, as was Vaughn.
Meanwhile, Lopez was fighting for survival as he drifted back through the top ten, contributing to some exciting side-by-side racing which allowed the four leaders to pull away.
However, it would have been foolish to discount any of these cars. Behind the leaders, up to a dozen sim-racers battled it out in a train of cars glued to each other, with fierce yet clean overtakes. Just being there was no small accomplishment: the top eight drivers had an iRating above 5000 and a very respectable 3000 iRating would only make you 30th among the participants.
Several drivers did fall afoul of the challenges posed by the race, but fortunately many of them were single car incidents: Trevor Mack, Zachary Rivard, Zlatko Knezevic and João Freitas all suffered misfortune, resulting in them spinning out of the lead pack.
Even former winner Vaughn could not match the pace up front, running off track and allowing the leaders to escape, before finishing-up in the tire wall on Lap Six.
The race for the top three soon turned into a chess match. Suominen and Cedrati were sizing each other up and attempting different passes, while Cardoso hung a couple of car lengths back in third, just in case it ended in tears.
“I don’t know who got it . . . Who got it?” – Richard Losper
On Lap 16, it almost did. Suominen put two wheels off track while battling Cedrati for the lead, allowing Cardoso to move into second. As the cars took the white flag, Cardoso made his long overdue move and pulled into the lead. Cedrati, however, fought on the outside through Turns One and Three and reemerged with the lead before Suominen slipstreamed past them both and took over the top spot. Suominen and Cedrati ran side-by-side, brushing fenders on the final lap, until Suominen sealed the deal in the Carousel. Cedrati made his move back into the lead on the outside of Canada Corner, which gave Suominen the opportunity to draft him to the line out of the final turn. As Cedrati and Suominen came up the hill, they pulled up side-by-side. They edged closer and closer, until they crossed the line.
“I don’t know who got it!” exclaimed commentator Richard Losper. “Who got it?”
I had to wait on iRacing’s timing and scoring to be sure, but even then I was quite surprised by what I saw: Niccolò Cedrati had won…by 0.000 of a second. It was the closest finish ever seen on the Global SimRacing Channel.
Battles continued to rage on throughout the field, with Mike Dam and Diego Comuni trading for fourth place on multiple occasions until Comuni ran off on the final lap, forcing him to settle for a fifth place finish behind Dam. Duljon Boldrin, Dominic Brennan, Clarke Williams, Varani himself and Michael Chase rounded-out the top 10.
The iGPFun-SRF league, hosted by Varani, sanctioned the race; it is open to everyone free of charge and is characterized by clean battles and close finishes. Varani intends to host another Big Grid race during iRacing’s next Week 13 break, though plans are to hold it at a different circuit.
A replay of the broadcast can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tu412mSFr1M.