The dawn of 2011 and the start of a new iRacing season made me decide it was about time I started to get more involved in iRacing and everything it is about. I’ve always been peripheral, racing the odd race here and there, hotlapping a lot in new cars but never taking the bull by the horns and committing to a full season.
I’m not alone in this, I know, but one of the major factors was that I never felt comfortable with which car to drive or which series to enter. I always liked the Lotus 79, very much, but the level of setup complexity, the relatively small amount of participants and the overall time I found I needed to work setups for this car meant that I had stayed away from a full season in it. In the odd race I have done in the car it seems that I can run my best race ever and make a top ten at best, and whilst I am not as hung up on results as most, a car that I felt I could be more competitive in was a must if I was to go through with my plan.
So, after a week one run in the Lotus, and the above realisation coming to pass, I decided to experiment. I would enter a series of races in different cars this season, to see if I could find a “home”.
Then I found the Riley-Ford MKXX Prototype and the Grand Am sportscar series. A mixed class series running the above prototype alongside the Mustang FR500S GT car. I ran this series in an MPR free practice session or two at Daytona during a “week 13” break week that ran alongside the legendary Daytona 24 hours in late January. It was quite a revelation as I had not run this car at all since it was released, more than two years ago. The changes to the physics modelling and particularly the gearbox and drivetrain modelling have worked wonders to this car and it now feels much more comfortable to drive at high speeds. In the past it felt like there were some curious anomalies with weight distribution going on that resulted in a very unbalanced car, now the car can be driven in a manner much more suited to my style. A quick check of the week two schedule told me that next up was Spa-Francorchamps, sold!
Since the iconic Belgian circuit was released into the iRacing simulator I have run only a couple of exploratory laps of the place, so it was imperative to get a bit of practice in the Ardennes forest, what a treat I was in for.
Running a few races in other sims can quickly make you forget the majesty of the racing environments in iRacing. Whilst they may lack a little for ambient atmosphere, there is no finer sim when it comes to realising the circuits in painstaking detail. I have driven Spa-Francorchamps in pretty much every racing game-cum-simulator that has been released since F1GP, and never before has it looked or felt so good.
As ever, every bump and crease and camber is realised, and at times, particularly in the medium to high speed middle sector, this circuit feels made for the Riley sportscar. Many will tell you that Spa, often referred to as the finest race track in the world, is a natural track for Formula One. Of course, running iRacing’s Williams FW31 here is a blast, but before long you’re throwing the thing through Eau Rouge and Blanchimont flat out. There is so much downforce acting on a modern F1 car that, certainly in a simulated environment, with no fierce G forces, much of the challenge has been taken out of high speed corners which can be quite the challenge in a car like the Riley.
Every lap around in the Riley Eau Rouge is a challenge, and Blanchimont commands a sharp intake of breath has one hopes to cling onto a 250kmh four wheel drift. This may be the closest I have got to the sim-terror of running the old Spa in GPL!
So anyway, enough blathering, to the race. This was my first race in the Riley and as such I firmly expected to be shown the way by series regulars. Having had limited practice in the car I still did not feel one hundred percent confident in putting the machine into tricky situations, so I lodged my entry into a race on Wednesday evening firmly planning a gentle uneventful run, hoping to learn a few tricks and get some more valuable track time in with this car. It helped, of course, that on such a magnificent circuit I could merrily run all day long by myself without tiring.
I qualified in the second split a respectable third on the grid, ominously, some drivers had not set qualifying times, so I could not be certain that this pace was representative, though a fair few behind me had. As we rolled up to the start I settled my nerves and prepared for the opening lap and treacherous run through La Source and that first cold tyres slither through Eau Rouge.
Running fourth I got a much better run through Eau Rouge than third placed John Kelley in the number thirteen car but decided to hold off on taking a lunge into the braking area at Les Coombes. In a fifty minute race discretion is often the best choice and the first lap is just the first chance to stick it in the hedge (and other cliches!).
Luckily, on the run down to Les Coombes on lap two, John Kelley’s car number caught up with him and he suffered a spin. The leading pair now some way up the road I tried to settle into third place and get a rhythm going with the car on heavy tanks, albeit trying to hold back series regulars Timothy Stoll and Michael Wenning.
Over the next couple of laps Mr Stoll in the number two car held onto my back bumper with aplomb. Clearly faster through Eau Rouge, he never quite got fast enough to make a move into the Les Coombes chicane, and a couple of stabs into Bruxelles proved fruitless. In the middle sector I usually had the measure of him, suggesting I was running a steeper wing angle, which was even more apparent as he would pull it all back on the run to Blanchimont.
On lap six I made a mistake in Paul Frere and Timothy was able to carry considerably more speed towards Blanchimont, as the turn in point arrived the New Yorker sliced alongside, prompting us to run side-by-side through the most heart in mouth corner on the circuit. Both of us dropping our speed to make it through the turn, we briefly exchanged paint as Stoll made the pass.
Following this I had to settle myself and keep my cool, having raced netKar Pro and the Formula KS2 alot recently I was initially surprised that the netcode had allowed such close racing and the above pass had not ended in a race ending moment for both of us. I had no time for such thoughts when the dark red frogface of Michael Wenning’s number six Riley loomed in my mirrors.
Over the next few laps things settled a little, Stoll made a big mistake into the new Bus Stop chicane and cancelled out any advantage he had gained. As we entered lap twelve, the expected half distance, positions four through to seventh were covered in one camera frame as John Keefe’s black machine joined the fun from his lowly fifteenth place starting position.
Keefe made short work of us all, dispatching Wenning with a decisive move into La Source, then, taking an obscene amount of speed through Eau Rouge was a nose ahead of me before we even started to brake for Les Coombes. One feels that Keefe could have qualified notably higher, but he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself. A few laps later he passed Stoll and was off into the distance in pursuit of the leader, it seems that at some point second placed man Juho Alkio had planted his car into a wall, we all shuffled up the order duly.
I had more pressing concerns. Wenning had found some pace, as it seems that my lack of experience with the car was showing as I failed to keep things on the edge as the fuel load wore off. Where I had been taking caution on the heavy fuel load I had not been attentive in reducing that caution as the car got lighter, and Wenning was now under my rear wing again. For two laps in a row he got a big run into Les Coombes but was unable to force the move under brakes, the inside line having to take a slower entry speed.
The close, clean racing continued for another lap or two, with Wenning unable to make a pass stick as I tried to pull some pace back out of the car at the same time as hold him at bay.
On lap fifteen I got took a late entry into the second part of Eau Rouge and ended up with a big tank slapper in the middle part of the corner, running wide on the exit. I gathered it all up (change of pants notwithstanding), but Wenning was on me, alongside on the left as we gently pushed right onto the Kemmel Straight. This time he had the outside line and I was the one on the slippery inside line, it didn’t look good for me.
Sure enough, he got past, I delved on the brakes as deep as I dared, but as he turned in I knew it was forlorn, and we passed very close as I stabbed in an extra chunk of brakes to avoid any contact and got a little sideways for my trouble.
As Wenning went on his way it was time for me to gather my thoughts and sort my situation out. I locked in behind him and focussed on his lines and braking points so as to ascertain where he was faster than me. After a piece of great racing it is often important, in my mind, to realise that wasting too much time trying to keep a faster driver behind you is often unwise when there is a high chance you can learn how to be faster by following that driver. Within a couple of laps I was matching Wenning’s pace, and dropped the challenge from sixth placed Jon Allott.
Over the closing laps I gained more appreciation for the car, and bringing the car home fifth in my first race in the beast was pleasing enough a debut for me. Next week we head to Lime Rock, which strikes me as quite the contrast to the open roads of Spa. Running cars this big and fast around there will be a challenge, but I am up for it. I’ve decided to commit to a season of Grand Am racing, if I can get more races as clean and fun as this I am pretty sure I won’t regret it.