It really doesn’t seem 5 minutes since we were last enjoying some Simsport Racing GT4 action and toasting our Season 3 Champion Karolis Sipavicius at the end of an enthralling season finale at Brands Hatch. But as quickly as Season 3 was over, we now look towards Season 4 and some more high octane, adrenaline fuelled action with the potential that the new season could be even bigger and better than the last.
With another large grid of talent, primed and ready to go and do battle at the brilliant Imola, the popular host for our season opener, a surprise, last minute announcement sparked excitement amongst the community and once again attested how far the Simsport Racing Community has grown and gained respect amongst the Sim racing World.
Yes, that is correct… Jenson Button, 2009 F1 World Champion and veteran of 306 F1 Grand Prix was joining the grid! And not only JB but fellow real world pro’s including his good friend Al Buncombe, Seb Priaulx, Michael O’Brien and Pietro Fittipaldi who Romain Grosjean’s replacement at Haas following that devastating crash in Bahrain last year.
With the bar having been well and truly risen following this exciting announcement, focus turned to the only Qualifying Session of the season. With a number of new drivers and some new car choices for some of our regular competitors, this was the first opportunity to see how their newly honed setups and pace faired against their rivals in a no-holds barred shoot out for Pole.
Despite the Polesitter changing a number of times, it was Luka Berk who triumphed and would be starting this opening race from P1, but only by the narrowest of margins! Just 0.039 seperated Berk’s Porsche from season two Champion Stephen Haley as the battle for Pole went down to the wire. Jannik Moller rounded out the top 3, while Jenson Button would start in P8, just ahead of Aiden Browe. Current Champion Karolis Sipavicius meanwhile, would begin his title defence from 12th. With the top 15 cars all separated by just one second, this was a real display of the depth in talent on show in this Championship and that anybody truly has a shot of winning. With all the drivers knowing they have to be at their best to get a result, this promised another intriguing race.
As Polesitter Luka Berk led the cars around the 3.05mile Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit for the formation lap, the impressive 34-car grid formed into their positions, all primed and ready to go and race. After all the practice and setup tweaks over the winter break and the usual new season anticipation, the wait was finally over, the lights turned to Green and with it the first race of the season was go!
It was leader Luka Berk who got off to a text book start in the Porsche, holding his position at the front of the field ahead of Moller who had jumped Season 2 Champion Stephen Haley going into the first chicane. As the leaders passed through, the Tamburello chicane would be the scene of lap 1 drama as a number of cars battling in the midfield tangled with an out of control Michael O’Brien. O’Brien was indeed just a passenger after a tag into the barrier left him careering into the pack, resulting in a number of cars facing the wrong way and all to do for the remainder of the 45 minute race.
As the race settled down, a riveting battle for the race lead had developed between Berk and Moller as they approached Tamburello. An ambitious move down the outside by Moller unfortunately ended in disaster, with a slight tag from the battling Berk as they went side by side through the exit of the chicane pushing Moller onto the grass and opening the door for Haley and Charlie Crossland to move past the Chevrolet. With Berk’s exit compromised as a result of the duel, Stephen Haley wasn’t finished there and saw the opportunity to overtake for the lead and took it! Using his additional speed to zip around the outside of the Porsche through turn 4, the McLaren indeed moved into the lead of the race with Haley once again having one eye of yet another win in this category.
With Jenson Button sitting in 8th and being chased by Season 3 title contender Aiden Browe, this year running in the Aston Martin, Button, David Marshall and Reegan Mitchell all enjoyed a close, three-way fight for sixth while further down the field, reigning Champion Sipavicius, caught up in the drama on Lap 1, had fought his way back up into 16th and was targeting a good haul of points to help keep his title defence alive, even at this early stage of the season. Every point gained could certainly become precious come the end of the season.
With 25 minutes left on the clock, the lead had changed once again, with Luka Berk regaining his lead ahead of Haley and Charlie Crossland who rounded out the Podium positions in third. Moller’s woes continued as he slipped through the field and found himself running in 13th but in a battle for eleventh with the battling Seb Priaulx and Stijn Paspont. As the three cars raced towards Tamburello, Passport attempted an ambitious, last ditch move down the inside of Priaulx’s Porsche which resulted in contact and both cars ending up in the gravel. The watching Moller cruised by the stricken cars and back up into 11th position.
Further down the field, Pietro Fittipaldi was having fun moving his way back through the pack having fell to the back in the early stages of the race. After despatching of Colin Dunn earlier on and diving down the inside of Tovilavicius at Tosa for 21st, the F1 driver then made his way past Cameron Fyfe to break into the top 20.
As the race entered it’s final stages, things were hotting up in the battle between Browe and Button. Browe had been close behind the motor racing legend all race long and just couldn’t get past the 15-time F1 race winner who was using all of his life-long skills and newly honed sim racing experience to keep Browe’s Aston Martin at bay. Browe appeared to be really pushing to get past Button having kept a patient, watching berth for most of the race and ultimately the pressure told with Button making a mistake and running wide on the exit of Tamburello under heavy pressure as Browe, no doubt buoyed by the move, made his way past into fifth.
At the front of the field, as the chequered flag waved, Luka Berk crossed the line to deservedly take the race victory, 1.5 seconds ahead of Fordzilla’s Charlie Crossland and GT4 Season 1 Champion Aaron Walker. David Marshall ran a solid, consistent race to come home in fourth, ahead of Browe and Button. Jannik Moller recovered well to come home in 9th, whilst reigning Champ Sipavicius rounded out the top 10 in what turned out to be damage limitation having found himself well down the field after his early race setback.
Stephen Haley, having challenged for the win earlier in the race, had sadly dropped out of contention for the podium and had slipped down through the field to finish the race in 12th, just ahead of Simsport colleagues Steve Proudley and Dave Hedges. Following a penalty for Seb Priaulx, Sebastien Detollenaere was promoted to 15th and with it Pole Position for the next round at Zolder on Wednesday.
It is only fair to thank and commend our commentary team for this race – the ‘voice of Simsport’ Alex Goldschmidt and alongside him, making his debut in the commentary box, Tim Fullbrook, who did a fantastic job with the mic. The addition of Tim’s Tips was a great feature on the coverage and a sign of how here at Simsport Racing we are committed to making the stream as interactive with the audience as we can.
This was another thoroughly entertaining race and the perfect way to kick start the new season. With lots of intriguing battles and rivalries coming to the fore, yet again this season promises to be a cracker!
The addition of our stellar cast of guests for this race is a prime example of why Sim racing is such a fantastic and rewarding hobby – how often do everyday guys and girls get to compete with the very best on an even playing field? A fantastic achievement by the Simsport Racing organisers to bring in such exciting names and something all the other drivers involved will certainly not forget in a hurry!
I think its fair to say you won’t want to miss Zolder! Remember to join us for our live stream over on the Simsport Racing Youtube page and get involved.
You can view all the best highlights from Imola here:
Driver and Team Standings after Round 1:
Photograph courtesy of Angus Martin.