When the teams of the iWCSRR touched down in Melbourne it was to a muted excitement. The news of a huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan left faces glum and the paddock was not the hive of activity that normally besets any race weekend in this beautiful location.
At times like this it can be hard for us all to forget the realities of real life and the power of nature and put it aside to race virtual motor cars. But life goes on and this expensive playground had a show to put on, so the drivers climbed into their cars, leaving their hearts with Japan.
Qualifying was a chaotic affair, with thirty two cars taking up space on a lap that is only 4.445km it was a struggle for all as dust was thrown up into the air at every corner. Many drivers complained of traffic and being unable to get a clean lap in, but it was the same for all of them and once again it was Jesse Nieminen on pole position, clocking a phenomenally fast 1.06.111 to narrowly push out team mate Hugo Luis from the top spot (1.06.181).
Such speeds were unprecedented at this circuit, with the previous lap record being set by Simon Wills in a Formula 4000 car some eleven years back, his Reynard Holden clocking a 1.24.221. With the outright V8 Supercar lap record being almost ten seconds slower than this it was fair to say that regular visitors to the track were blown away by the speed of Formula One machinery.
So, My3id Gaming cars claimed the front row of the grid, as well as third place with Klaus Kivekas (1.06.301). Fourth place went to Orion Racing’s Ilkka Haapala (1.06.322), Team Redline’s local hero Luke McLean (1.06.350) started row three, with Shawn Purdy alongside him (1.06.385). The times were close, with Ben Cornett (7th, 1.06.465), Aleksi Elomaa (8th 1.06.514), Dion Vergers (9th 1.06.573) and Matthias Egger completing the top ten all within a few tenths of pole.
Notable absences included the injured Greger Huttu and Luca Masier, Team Redline having to run a significantly reduced entry. This played into the hands of My3id Gaming after their strong showing at Spa, and puts Greger on the back foot for the rest of the season, having been forced to take one of his two “drops” of the year.
The sun shone on Phillip Island as the field of brightly liveried Williams Toyota’s lined up on the grid to take the start. With two stops expected over sixty nine laps, pit strategy was expected to bring something to the party in such a close field. With the top twenty eight drivers on the grid covered by one second, things were close in the top ten, and on such a fast circuit overtaking was rendered nigh-on impossible without the driver ahead making an error.
As the lights flicked to green it was Hugo Luis that got away well as Nieminen bogged down, the chase to turn one looking to go the Brazilian’s way. However, as the leaders prepared to turn into Doohan Corner there was a serious incident being played out in the midfield.
Matthias Egger made contact with Ben Cornett’s right rear, causing the Australian to spin across the track. Egger himself spun on the other side of the circuit, harmlessly finding the grass. As this played out the approaching group, from left to right, of: Blake Townend, Carlo Labati and Bryan Heitkotter arrived three abreast on the scene, Townend moved right to avoid Cornett’s car, filling the space between him and Labati, the space that fast starting Richard Towler had aimed his car squarely at as he closed from behind. Townend and Towler made wheel on wheel contact and Towler’s car was launched into the air in a terrifying flip, the Englishman then scraping along the track at some speed on his roll bar.
Cornett meanwhile, spun back onto the track, narrowly missed by Darren Marsh and Martin Macjon, though the netcode thought otherwise and an apparent impact saw his car also launch into the air, with the fast approaching car of Marc Payne passing underneath as it slowly rotated in the air. Coming up fast on this, however, were the machines of Daniel Almeida and Dom Duhan, side by side, Almeida moved to the right to avoid the carnage ahead of him, unaware that Matteo Calestani was heading for the small gap between him and Duhan. Again, tyre on tyre contact was made, and Calestani’s car speared into the air, end over end, flying upside down in front of Duhan’s car before hitting the inside tyre barrier. Almeida, having bounced off the flying Italian moved left and also passed underneath Cornett’s airborne Wiliams.
Cornett’s car eventually landed and the rest of the pack continued their evasive measures, Petteri Kotovaara taking to the pitlane exit, others bouncing across the grass like autocross drivers. Mauro Bisceglie spun in avoidance, harmlessly. As the three flying cars all found their way back to Earth Towler’s stricken machine landed back on its wheels in a state of some disrepair, across the left side of the track. Ryan Murray half spun in avoidance of Towler and in the process made contact with Brad Davies, who enjoyed a sizeable accident, eventually hitting the lame and broken car of Calestani, now also flipped back onto it’s rubber.
And breathe… Quite the multiple car accident, with Luis leading the field around to complete lap one, Cornett, Towler and Calestani were out of the running, with many others damaged in the carnage.
The action carried on at the front, as Klaus Kivekas pushed wide in turn two, McLean took the chance to get alongside on the exit and run side by side through the flat out turn three. As they arrived at Honda corner McLean held on on the brakes and muscled his way around the outside, holding the line for the approaching turn six, where he finally completed the pass on Kivekas to take third spot. All the while Haapala’s poor start had allowed McLean and Purdy to pass him, the order as they crossed the line: Luis, Nieminen, McLean, Kivekas, Purdy, Haapala. Bryan Heitkotter, having avoided most of the start line madness, found himself seventh from fourteenth on the grid with My3id’s Aleksi Elomaa underneath his rear wing. Dion Vergers and Blake Townend completed the top ten.
As the press office took a collective breath and the TV crews went in search of interviews, things started to settle at the front as everyone let their tyres bed in. By lap four there were steady gaps in the lead group, with the exception of Elomaa, who passed the startline alarmingly close to Heitkotter, desperate to find a way past, he delved deep on the brakes into the Honda hairpin and passed the Californian in a gutsy move to put him seventh.
Nieminen seemed to be hanging back from Luis in the early stages, letting his car and tyres settle into the run, with the difficulty in passing here it was no surprise he did not want to put a sudden lunge up the inside of his team mate but as we clocked over lap twelve it looked as if Nieminen and McLean were much closer to the Brazilian. The leaders had reached the tail-enders and Luis was being held up significantly by the Williams of Ryan Murray, who seemed to have his car on the wrong part of the track in just about every corner. The frustration mounting as his lead slipped away, Luis finally passed the American as he went wide on the marbles in the final corner, spinning off the road as if in apology. It was too late for Luis, however, as Nieminen was able to get a run up the pit straight and pass his team mate into Doohan, then heavy attention from McLean caused Luis to look flustered in the braking area for Honda, where McLean placed himself on the inside and took second place.
This was the way it would stay till the pit stops, the frenetic pace at the front untempered, every driver was forcing one hundred percent out of each other, as the first stops approached things had changed too at the bottom end of the top ten. Heitkotter, running eighth, was falling back from the lead group into the clutches of Dion Vergers. On lap nine Vergers made a move, on the inside of Honda, only to be denied, the two men then running side by side through Siberia and turn seven, where Vergers got the edge. Heitkotter was not ready to give up though, and stuck his nose up the inside into turn nine, the crested Lukey Heights, the move was hurried and contact was made. Heitkotter was off into the gravel while Vergers carried on. However, it was soon apparent that he was carrying damage from the contact, as Blake Townend and Joel Guez cruised up to the back of him. A fierce battle ensued as Vergers tried to hang on to the place, but eventually both cars passed, as did Dom Duhan, breaking into the top ten on lap fourteen with a decisive pass on Vergers into Honda.
As Shawn Purdy, the first of the lead group, made his way into the pit lane on lap twenty three the top ten was led by Nieminen, with hometown hero McLean 2.3 seconds back in second, Luis held onto third, another 2 seconds back with team mate Kivekas on his tail. Purdy, coming in from fifth, was only another half a second back on Klaus, with Haapala similarly close behind him. Seventh placed Aleksi Elomaa, around five seconds back from this group was having a lonely time as the spirited battles over eighth, ninth and tenth had resulted in Townend, Guez and Duhan being over 20 seconds behind him.
With Purdy and Guez pitting on lap twenty three, the majority of the lead pack left it till the next lap to come in, with Elomaa opting to stay out longer, as did Townend, the pair coming around in first and second places on lap twenty five. At the end of lap twenty six Elomaa eventually came in, as did Townend, the shake out bringing Kivekas out in third place and Haapala in fourth. But not for long, as into lap twenty six Luis and Haapala were side by side going through Doohan Corner, Luis on the inside, being faced with the outside line for turn two, he moved to cut in behind Haapala but misjudged the move, his front wing’s right end plate making contact with Haapalas left rear wheel, nudging the Finn wide and allowing Luis to pass. Luis’ front wing looking notably damaged, it was not long before Haapala was back on him, and as they started lap twenty seven it was Haapala making the inside move at Doohan, this time making it stick and comfortably taking fourth. By this time Purdy and Elomaa were also up on Luis, Elomaa’s late pit allowing him to close back up to the lead group. As they neared Honda Luis struggled to turn in, and Purdy took a look up the inside, but he was not close enough, and ran alongside up to Siberia corner where Purdy looked to pass Luis on the outside. Luis held him off, but as they swept uphill into Lukey heights Purdy made contact into the rear of Luis, enough to make the My3id machine’s rears to briefly leave the ground. Purdy speared off the track and made hard impact with the tyre wall, his race over. Luis was off the track on the exit but was able to keep going, his car now damaged at both ends. Elomaa, a spectator in this incident, powered through to take fifth.
As we moved into the second stint the positions in the top six stabilised, and the press corps got the chance to draw breath. At less than half distance, this race had seen more incident than Spa saw in the whole meeting. The second stint slowed things down, with the focus being the fall through the order of the damaged Hugo Luis as he struggled to stay on track. Eventually he seemed to come to terms with the way the car was working and re-establish a pace, dropping out of the top ten by lap thirty eight.
As our leader, Nieminen, roared around to start of lap forty one he led Luke McLean by 5.9 seconds, with Kivekas another 3 seconds back in third. Nieminen looked to have things sewn up to take his second win from two races and a huge championship lead. Then, as the cameras panned to the leading My3id car, it blinked out of existence. As Jesse had prepared to turn into the Honda hairpin, the unthinkable had happened, and network issues had struck, taking him out of a solid lead.
This pushed McLean into the lead, and bumped up the rest of the field a place. Ray Alfalla, running solidly all race, entered the top ten as he closed on the battle between Guez, Duhan and Townend, now with only 2 seconds separating the quartet. At the start of lap forty three, Duhan was crawling all over the back of Townend, but could not make a pass into turn two, where he dropped back a little to avoid contact, this allowed Guez to get a run on Duhan, and draw alongside through turn three. The Frenchman then opted to try to pass Duhan through the Honda hairpin on the outside. Duhan kept the inside line, and more speed, clearly ahead on the exit he came across slowly but Guez was still there, the two made contact, spinning violently into the outside tyre wall. Two more casualties in this race of attrition.
On lap forty six the second round of pit stops started with the recovering Matthias Egger, now up to seventh place, coming in with Derek Wood in close attendance. However, it was not until the end of lap forty eight that the front runners were in, with Kivekas, 3.3 seconds back on leader McLean, being first in with Ilkka Haapala. McLean himself came in on lap fifty, leaving the long running Elomaa in the lead once again, eventually pitting on lap fifty two, followed in by Townend.
As we clocked fifty five laps in the books McLean still held off Kivekas by 2 seconds, with Haapala in third another 3 seconds back. Fourth place was being held by Elomaa, whose long stint had once again helped him to draw closer to a podium spot. Some 30 seconds back from this group Blake Townend continued in fifth, with Ray Alfalla in close attendance behind. Heitkotter, Egger, Kotovaara and Payne completing the top ten.
By lap sixty the front pack seemed to be making no impression on each other, but the battle for fifth between Blake Townend and Ray Alfalla was getting very close. Alfalla looking very racey on the back of Townend as they circulated, eventually sticking his nose up the inside of turn eight and drawing alongside. Finding himself on the outside for Lukey Heights, Alfalla got quite out of shape and only just held onto the car, giving Townend some breathing space, but it may not have been what he needed as, rounding turn eleven, the British driver spun, leaving Alfalla with nowhere to go, the American taking to the grass in evasion. This gave Heitkotter the chance to pounce, and as he swept past Townend there was almost contact as Alfalla rejoined the circuit, Heitkotter also having to take to the verge. The four of them were then line astern through lap sixty one, until it became apparent that Townend could not keep with Alfalla and Heitkotter, instead turning his attention to his mirrors, where Matthias Egger was looming very large. At the start of lap sixty three, Townend could no longer hang on, and went wide at turn two to allow Egger past.
And so it was at the chequered flag. McLean ebulliant in taking a win in front of his home crowd for Team Redline, trailed by Kivekas only 2.4 seconds back and Haapala on the third step of the podium. Elomaa coming in fourth, with the impressive Ray Alfalla finishing fifth after starting fifteenth. Heitkotter, Egger, Townend, Kotovaara and Payne completing the top ten.
Such an eventful race has duly shaken things up, and Huttu must have been pleased to see so many big names suffer in the many on track incidents as he watched from his sick bed. What he won’t be pleased to see is that he is now some 32 points behind championship leader Kivekas, who leads the standings following his fourth place finish in Spa.
It’s all to play for as we head to Zandvoort for round three, let’s hope for more on track action of this calibre, and perhaps a third different winner.