As the sun set on Spa Francorchamps following the opening round of the iRacing World Championship Series Road Racing (iWCSRR to you and me) championship the feeling that pervaded throughout the paddock was that the changes for this season were already bringing about surprises.
The rise of the My3id Gaming team, along with the introducton of the Williams-Toyota FW31 as the series car of choice, proved enough, in the opening round, to make everyone sit up and take note.
Of course, this much was apparent after qualifying. With reigning champion Greger Huttu only able to put his Team Redline Williams on the second spot, as the red, black and white machines of My3id Gaming took up slots not only in the second row, with Hugo Luis and Klaus Kivekas, but also pole, occupied for the first time by the impressive Jesse Nieminen.
With Luca Masier taking fifth, it was again My3id in the sixth and seventh spots with Aleksi Elomaa and David Williams. With five drivers in the top seven, there could be no doubt that this was a serious challenge. Team Redline, in comparison, appeared to be struggling for points as Frenchman Bastien Bartsch was their only other driver starting from a top ten spot. Regular podium finisher Richard Towler, having already admitted that a full season is not in his plans, was conspicuously missing from the grid.
Alberto Baraldi and team Orion’s Ilkka Haapala completed the top ten. With so many new variables in the cars and drivers, let alone the new venue, it was fair to say that we were all licking our lips in the press office at the prospect of this event.
We weren’t to be disappointed.
As the green lights came on Nieminen got away perfectly, giving himself a clear run through La Source. As he powered his way down to Eau Rouge he was immediately followed by Huttu, Luis, Elomaa and Kivekas. Masier, having got away poorly, came into contact with the fast starting Jeffrey Rietveld, who had powered his way up from eleventh on the grid only to damage his right front on the side of Masier when rejoining the track, from the replays it appeared that both drivers were largely unsighted of each other, either way, they both went for an early bath.
They were not the only ones. Daniel Almeida and tenth placed Ilkka Haapala blew their engines on the grid, stranded, it was a miracle no one made contact in the scrabble that followed. The exit of La Source still caught out some drivers at the back of the pack, as Marcus Saari understeered into the side of Shawn Purdy, collecting Dion Vergers on the rebound.
Out front Nieminen looked supreme, taking 1.2 seconds out of Huttu on lap one. Not surprising as the Finn had a scary sideways moment on the exit kerb of Paul Frere, having to get right out the throttle he was immediately passed by Hugo Luis and Aleksi Elomaa, with Kivekas taking a long look on the inside into the bus stop, only to be denied by the champion.
Huttu did not appear too ruffled, however, chasing Elomaa through Eau Rouge on lap two, he passed his countryman into Les Coombes on the outside and set off in hunt of second placed Luis.
Over the following laps of “fuel burn” things settled down in the top six, though Nieminen never seemed to be pulling away from team-mate Luis, who at the same time was being tracked, around a second back, by Huttu. Huttu himself had gently pulled away from Elomaa and Kivekas, who swapped places after Elomaa made a mistake in the Bus Stop at the end of lap three. Elomaa felt that, at this stage, if he could not match Huttu’s pace, then perhaps his team-mate could.
Huttu, at this stage was fastest man on the track, and you felt he was pushing harder and harder to make up for losing track position. Unfortunately, at the end of lap seven, having closed up on the gearbox of Luis, he went too hard on the loud pedal on the exit of the Bus Stop and almost lost control. He leapt on the brakes in time, and only half spun, but lost enough time to drop back to fifth behind Kivekas and Elomaa. By lap eight, with Huttu nearly seven seconds back on the lead, and the My3id cars filling the top four positions, there was alot of work for the reigning champion to do.
By the end of lap eight the field had begun to spread, with Nieminen out front the top ten trailed with Luis almost on his own while Kivekas, Elomaa and Huttu battled over third. Sixth place went to Bartsch, with David Williams close behind. In eighth place a lonely Cornett was some way ahead of Joao Vaz, with Matthias Egger completing the top ten. Team Redline’s Dom Duhan had impressively moved up to twelfth from his lowly grid spot following a spirited battle with Baraldi and set about chasing after Purdy, running eleventh with an uncomfortable setup.
As the first pit stops, expected around lap fifteen, neared, the battle for third was keeping the crowds on the edge of their seats as Huttu continued to menace Elomaa. With Kivekas unable to pull away, the three Finns ran line astern until, at the start of lap thirteen, Huttu ducked to Elomaa’s inside at La Source. Having closed notably, the move was a warning. As the pair approached Les Coombes, Huttu pulled alongside Elomaa but it was not enough, Elomaa braked deep on the outside line and held his ground. Lap fourteen commenced and the same process was repeated, this time Huttu going deeper and the pair of them taking the chicane side by side. With Elomaa holding the inside for the second part of the corner, it was his. Elomaa then braked too deep into Bruxelles, and Huttu got alongside again on the short straight to turn nine, but had to duck back behind for the rest of the lap. It became clear from on-board footage that Huttu lacked a little for straightline speed against his countryman’s FW31, but his pace in the middle sector was greater, suggesting that Huttu was running more wing. However, to pass at Spa, you need straightline speed.
Huttu mustered all he could through Paul Frere to get a run at Elomaa on the long flat out section to Blanchimont and was again alongside under braking for the Bus Stop. However, once again it was Elomaa that was bravest and he held Huttu at bay for one more time across the line. It was to be a shortlived triumph for Elomaa however, as he got sideways on the power at the exit of La Source and Huttu was ready to pounce, his relentless pressure eventually yielding a mistake. Huttu was now into fourth place, but the exciting battle with Elomaa had allowed Kivekas to pull out something of a gap.
Meanwhile, in the pits the cameras had picked up a peculiar sight as the Podium Assualt FW31 of Ian Lake was reversing up the pitlane. The Australian had been so busy adapting differential settings on his steering wheel switches that he missed his pit box and had to back up. Lake, flustered, promptly failed to engage his pit speed limiter and got a stop/go penalty for speeding in the pits. Luckily, this time around the pits were not too busy. Not so on the next lap.
Back on track, Elomaa’s attempts to pass Huttu back into Les Coombes had failed and the pair were now coming under the attention of Bartsch and Williams, still running together in sixth and seventh spot. Huttu then “put the hammer down” and over the remainder of lap fifteen tore away from Elomaa and proceeded on past the Bus Stop as Nieminen, Luis and Kivekas ahead of him, and Elomaa, Bartsch, Williams, Cornett, Vaz and Purdy behind him, all pitted.
Huttu took the lead, but not for long, as at the end of lap sixteen the Finn was flying into the pitlane, sideways on the power right up to the speed limit line. He emerged behind Kivekas, still in fourth, but much closer to the My3id machine. After the first round of pit stops the order in the top ten remained much the same, with only Englishman David Williams making up a place by passing Bastien Bartsch in the pitlane.
As the next stint began things started to settle down in the order, with the top six evenly matched on pace as the cars burned off their fuel loads. By lap twenty seven, however things were starting to hot up again. Huttu, it seemed, got faster and faster as the fuel load wore off relative to the others, and as we started to knock on the door of the second stops he started to close the gap to Kivekas ahead of him, both of them having closed up to Luis in second, who was keeping race leader Neimenen honest.
At the start of lap thirty, Huttu was on the gearbox of Kivekas as they crossed the line, and with a clear run through Eau Rouge was able to get alongside and carry out an uneventful pass into Les Coombes. Kivekas putting up less of a fight than his team mate had earlier in the race, the reason becoming apparent as he peeled into the pits as once again Huttu carried on for another lap. This time Cornett, in eighth, also opted to stay out a lap longer, with the rest of the top ten coming in.
As Huttu grinded around the slow, slow pit exit after his stop the cameras picked up the approaching car of Hugo Luis, with Klaus Kivekas behind, somehow Huttu had made up the gap to Luis and passed him through the pit stop phase. Additionally, the gap of nearly 8 seconds to Nieminen in the lead was now chopped to 4.7 seconds. All of a sudden it looked like we had a race on our hands.
Greger’s pace through the second pit stops was quite phenomenal, taking 8 tenths out of Nieminen on both his in and out laps, not to mention a mammoth 1.4 seconds over Luis on the in lap alone, with another 5 tenths on the outlap being enough to steal second place from the Brazilian.
As the laps started to count away to the end of the 44 lap distance the pressure raised on Nieminen, as Huttu put in relentless fast laps in pursuit.
The field proceeded to spread further and further. By lap 36, Nieminen led Huttu by only 3.6 seconds with Luis a couple of seconds further back in third, untroubled by Kivekas in fourth. Elomaa had faded, and was now over 7 seconds back on his team mate with sixth placed David Williams only three seconds back. Bastien Bartsch still held onto seventh place, now 10 seconds behind Williams, with the lonely Cornett 5 seconds down the road. In ninth Joao Vaz was only four seconds behind Cornett, but being caught by Shawn Purdy in tenth.
This was not to hold, as on lap 37, coming out of Paul Frere, Vaz caught the exit kerb that had caused Huttu such a scare on lap one. He held the car and took a brief skip over the grass, but was demoted to tenth by Purdy.
Up front the laps kept clocking by for the leaders, and Huttu continued to make inroads into Nieminen’s lead. Nieminen, however, looked comfortable in his lead and seemed to be managing the gap. At the start of 41 he was to be given quite a shock, when Luke McLean, running twenty fourth, had a peculiar low speed spin on the entry to La Source and fourteenth placed Ales Simunek found the stricken car, parked across the racing line. Simunek made hard contact into the side of the car and his Williams was launched into the air. The approaching race leader looked on at the carnage, but was able to sneak by without incident on the inside.
Despite the fact that Greger was clearly driving like a man possessed, it never really felt like he had enough time to catch Nieminen, and as the white flag flew for the final lap Greger was 2.2 seconds back. An impressive final lap saw this down to 1.6 seconds by the flag, but Nieminen had done enough.
So it was that the reigning champion’s 2011 campaign did not get off to the perfect start, while Jesse Nieminen’s certainly did, and for My3id Gaming’s first event in the iWCSRR placing five cars in the top six was a dream come true. Huttu drove like a champion to come back to second, but it was necessitated by costly errors in the early laps, he can only rue what could have been when looking back.
As it stands, Jesse Nieminen led from lights to flag and made no mistakes of note. No one can take away from a superb victory, and the My3id Gaming team will be looking to keep the steamroller going in Phillip Island in a fortnight.
However, there will be some questions back at Team Redline HQ, and while the My3id guys let the champagne dry they can rest assured that the strongest team in SimRacing history will be hard at work to prevent a repeat of today’s result.