Round 11: Suzuka 1-Hour Sprint
Welcome back to Pineapple Racing Club, for Round 11 of GT Challenge 2021 season. This week sees Suzuka host our penultimate race of the season, with a one-hour sprint race.
The title championship has already been determined following Dominiak’s win at Laguna Seca, where he secured enough points to hold off both Banana and Lipponen for the top spot.
The battle continues for 2nd place, however. Lipponen is just 8 points behind and is not planning on staying there.
AM Class battle has been heating up over the past few races, and it’s going to be a great battle as 4 drivers fight over 1st, 2nd and 3rd position. Chmura is currently leading the charts, just 5 points ahead of Bartocci. Jackson knocked Cruijsen off the 3rd position spot at Laguna Seca, and is hunting down Bartocci. Winegarden and Gomez are joint-4th, but with Gomez not able to attend the race, Winegarden only needs a points finish to jump ahead.
I was unable to catch up with Jackson after Laguna Seca. Likely celebrating his finally reaching the podium spot in the AM championship. We caught up before free practice started.
Banana: Congratulations on your 2nd class win of the season. You showed great pace in practice and qualifying, and mostly kept it together for the race. Are you happy with how you drove?
Jackson: Thank you! I'm really pleased with the result of this race. I’m still a little miffed at the fact that I couldn't hold it together with Valtonen chasing me down. I had 5th place for more than half the race and repeatedly told myself I was going to bring it home.
Banana: Regardless of losing to Valtonen, you've just stolen 3rd position in the standings from Cruijsen, hot on the heels of Chmura. Any special plans to steal 2nd, or even the championship lead?
Jackson: It means so much to me that I've been able to make it to the podium. The first half of the season I spent at the back with no points before switching my car. Since then, not only have I come to grips with the game, I've also improved leaps and bounds as a driver. My next goal would be to knock Chmura down a place, and then after that, championship lead for AM. I think there's always room for improvement, and yes championship lead is a steep goal, but I think it's attainable with enough hard work.
Banana: Best of luck today.
Free practice and qualifying started, and to everybody’s surprise, light rain and a damp track greeted the drivers. No drivers were expecting rain for this race, and as such, no one was very prepared.
In qualifying, Langaard was able to extract the most out of his BMW and set a very quick flying lap. Lipponen and Heesch followed closely but could not string together a lap to beat Langaard.
Bartocci claimed the AM Class pole position in 6th on the grid, a brilliant showing from the Lexus driver. Jackson and Winegarden finished out the AM podium start.
Langaard led the field on a very tentative formation lap, and five green lights signaled the start of the race.
As 13 cars thundered toward turn 1, Lipponen made a good start, and was ahead of Langaard as the drivers rounded turn one. Langaard was able to maintain the inside line and slipped ahead of Lipponen again. Meanwhile, Brown hooked his Bentley down the inside of Bartocci through turn one and two, jumping up to 6th position. Valtonen was able to make the same move stick against Jackson, and Winegarden pulled it off against Pozzoli.
Through turns three and four, Langaard ran wide slightly. Lipponen had to apply more brakes, which had a concertina effect on the front runners. As Dominiak braked, Heesch was following very closely behind, and contact resulted in the champion being pitched onto the grass of the infield.
Langaard was able to hold his first place, and Dominiak found himself at the back of the pack. The rest of the first lap was steady, as drivers found a rhythm on the technical track.
Up front, Langaard’s BMW ran wide through Turn 1, touching the painted track boundaries, initiating a slide, compromising his corner speed, allowing Lipponen’s Honda to nip up the inside and steal the lead.
The next incident came on Lap 2, and Banana had a slide through Degner Curve. The Porsche was able to keep out of the barriers and rejoined just ahead of Brown. As the two ‘Bentleys’ approached the hairpin, Brown had closed up against the rear bumper, but could not make an overtake work.
A few places back, Dominiak was making up some lost time, having passed Chmura, Winegarden, and Garcia.
Every driver was struggling to find the overtaking opportunities, which meant the pack had formed small trains as the drivers raced closely together. Jackson had a great exit out of Spoon, and was alongside Brown as they braked for 130R. Inches apart through this high speed turn, Brown did not have the grip to hold around the outside, and Jackson took the track position.
Garcia, was able to take advantage of the corner exit speeds, and braked alongside Brown into Casio Triangle. Brown braked late and hard and was able to regain his position against Garcia.
Through the next lap, Brown ran deep into Casio Triangle, and as he rejoined the circuit, dropped from 7th to 10th, behind Winegarden. Brown found himself tangled in a battle where he was faster through sector 1 but could not find a way around the Mercedes.
Approaching the halfway mark, Banana ate a little too much exit curb through turn seven, lighting up the rear tyres and pitching into the wall, dropping from 4th to 10 position. On the same lap, main rival Lipponen also took a little too much curb through Casio Triangle, initiating a spin. Sympathy spin, much? Langaard regained the lead of the race.
As the pit window opened, Lipponen, Dominiak and Banana were the first drivers to pull into the pits, swapping out their overheating wet tyres for fresh rubber.
Brown, still trailing behind Winegarden, opted for the undercut strategy to gain ontrack position, hoping the clean air would give him the advantage. Brown performed a perfect pitstop and was able to jump Winegarden through the pits. Unfortunately, Banana, frustrated by his dwindling chances of rivaling Lipponen made a further mistake into the hairpin, carrying a little too much speed, and collecting Brown. The Bentley driver dropped three positions.
Up front, Langaard still led the race, but Lipponen was just 2 seconds behind, with Dominiak a further 2 seconds behind. Bartocci was running in 4th position, 5 seconds ahead of Winegarden.
Recovering from another spin, Banana found himself behind Valtonen. As the race closed together, Valtonen was struggling for mid-corner grip, so as Banana braked up the inside of Casio Triangle, he pushed his Porsche around the outside of the second chicane apex, gaining the position. It later transpired that Valtonen was the only driver on the circuit to opt for slick tyres, leaving him at the disadvantage mid-corner.
In the closing laps of the race, Winegarden ran out of fuel, dropping him from 5th overall, to 11th. A mistake almost followed by Banana and Dominiak, but some fuel saving allowed them to finish the race.
As the checkered flag was waved, Langaard crossed the line first, claiming his first win of the season. Lipponen followed, ahead of Dominiak. Bartocci claimed the AM class win, finishing in fourth position. Jackson came home in 5th position.
Heesch, who qualified very well, had a big spin as the pit window opened, causing him to drop from his 2nd place, back to 12th as he spent time in the pits repairing damage.
Going into the event, Banana was 8 points ahead of Lipponen, but with a mistake-filled race, Lipponen was able to grab a 6 point advantage. Banana remains in 2nd in the standings, but with just 2 points ahead, the final endurance at Bathurst will be a very stressful one.
With Bartocci crossing the line for the AM win, he collected 25 class points. AM leader Chmura collected 15 points, dropping him to 2nd position in class, making way for Bartocci.
Jackson takes 2nd position in class, adding 18 points to his collection, holding third position in the class standings.
I was able to catch up with more drivers after the race.
Banana: Langaard, congratulations on your pole position in qualifying. How were you feeling as you led the cars on the formation?
Langaard: I was quite nervous when the formation lap started, but I focused on getting my tyres warm and having a safe start. I'm not usually the strongest qualifier, but maybe I've finally found some pace in the setup now that I've started my delve into the world of telemetry.
Banana: Today marked your first win of the season. The weather threw everyone off, but you were at the top of your game. Did you prepare for any rain?
Langaard: I think it's my first win in Pineapple Racing Club, ever! I had barely had any rain practice and just got my pressures set in the practice before the race.
Banana: With your win and Heesch's 9th position, that puts you within grasp with one race remaining. Do you hope to grab fourth position at Bathurst?
Langaard: Bathurst is going to be really exciting. Hopefully, I can hold onto some positions there with the long straights, but it's a scary place and a long race. I think keeping it out of the wall is going to be the biggest factor in staying in the points.
Banana: Lipponen, how were you feeling when the rain hit? Were you more or less confident in your performance?
Lipponen: Mixed feelings definitely. Dominiak likes to call me the “Rain Master” and while I do have a strong relative pace in the rain it's still not easy. I was not expecting rain and these damp/changing conditions is something I have very little experience on. Overall maybe tentatively more confident.
Banana: We've maintained a tight battle for the whole season, and you've closed my lead to just 2 points as we go into Bathurst. Who do you think will come out on top?
Lipponen: It's been a very tough season with a couple of spotty races on my part (Brands Hatch, Nürburgring especially), but I don't mind a good competition, I'd have hoped to challenge Dominiak more, but I clearly still have a way to go to do it consistently. As far as Bathurst goes, I can confidently say that for once my Honda will shine brightest, but as it's a 2.4h single pilot race it can go both ways. If it's dry even more so, your consistency and ability to maintain a pace I think gives you the advantage in general, but this time I will have the quicker car as baseline so we'll see if I can keep my cool.
Banana: It really will come down to the wire. I expect the walls around Bathurst will decide our fate for us. See you then.
Banana: Bartocci, the weather today showed some surprises. One of those being your pace. How did you feel on track today?
Bartocci: Yeah the weather was really tricky and I was surprised about the pace myself but today it was all about keeping it safe and away from the wall, especially in Spoon and 130R. Luckily the car felt much better after the pit stop compared to the first stint where I was a lot more tentative, so I managed to build up a decent margin and ease off the pressure for the end of the race.
Banana: With just one race remaining, you've just topped the AM championships. A fantastic achievement. How do you feel and how will you celebrate?
Bartocci: It feels great, honestly, I think this is how I should have raced in Zolder a few months back instead of messing up my strategy but luckily the victory finally came. I would also thank the engineers who worked a lot on the car and the setup this week and decided to pit without repairing the damage I was carrying after the contact with Dominiak, which ended up being crucial to exit in front of Valtonen, so, really great work. But it's not time to celebrate yet, now we need to keep our head down for the last race and hopefully we will celebrate next week.
Banana: Are you looking forward to our season finale at Bathurst? What are your goals?
Bartocci: I've never raced in Bathurst but it's a legendary track so I'm really looking forward to it. It's an endurance and so far, I managed to perform pretty well in endurances compared to sprint races in general so, in a track where it's so crucial to stay out of trouble hopefully that will come handy. Naturally, I'd like a repeat of today down under as well, but we'll see.
Join us again in 2 weeks for the season finale, it’s going to be a busy one.