Round 5: Zolder 3/14/2021

Pineapple Racing Club revisits Zolder Circuit, round 5 of the GT Challenge 2021 Season, powered by Dapper Customs.

Drivers met at Zolder for pre-season testing in January 2021, to showcase new team colours and hit the track to shake down newly acquired cars. The resulting session concluded with K. Valtonen winning the event, after his on track rival P. Dominiak had pitstop woes, with most of the drivers having traded paint with other competitors.

For Round 5, drivers were hoping to keep their races clean of contact, and bring their cars home to points-finishing positions; made more challenging by a wet start and a rapidly drying track. This season sees the introduction of a Full Course Yellow, activated by Live Stewards in the event of major collisions. Perhaps this round may see the FCY be put into action?

After 4 rounds so far, including an endurance race at Silverstone, the championship overall standings show P. Dominiak leading the way with 75 points, H. Banana with 49 and J. Lipponen with 47. The AM class shows K. Cruijsen with 73 class points, J. Chmura with 58 and D. Reynolds with 55.

Qualifying started at 12pm Local time. 20 minutes with light rain throughout. All cars promptly left the pits to begin their timed laps. Clouds were beginning to disperse, with the track gradually getting quicker for all drivers. The qualifying positions were determined to be: H. Banana #959, J. Lipponen #13, P. Dominiak #47. Brilliant showing from AM driver A. Bartocci, who was able to put his car in 5th position overall, claiming the AM pole spot.

1PM Local time, the clouds of rain from qualifying were dispersing, and the cars started their formation lap. H. Banana led the pack, and got a good jump off the start, immediately covering his position, whilst P. Dominiak and J. Lipponen went side-by-side into Turn 1. Mid-pack, Driver Z. Heesch of the 64 McLaren makes front-to-rear contact with A. Bartocci of the #727 Lexus, causing the #727 to slide sideways across Turn 1 Apex. Chaos ensued as drivers scrambled to avoid stricken cars, and a Full Course Yellow was issued.

Under FCY conditions, the lead driver, in this case H. Banana, controls the pace of the pack, slowly navigating around the wet circuit, allowing time for damaged drivers to rejoin the pack, and repair if necessary. 2 Laps later, the light rain had eased up, and drivers were ready for the restart. Lined up in double-file as they came across the Start/Finish straight, H. Banana controlled the restart, returning to race pace at his discretion. Once again, H. Banana got the jump on rivals, and claimed the racing line for Turn 1.

10 minutes into the race and the light rain had stopped entirely. A dry line had begun to form and crew chiefs had informed drivers that slick tyres were a viable option. The race strategy for drivers was split in half. Do you pit for faster slicks and hope to regain the time of the pitstop or tough out the wet tyres on dry circuit and hope to keep enough pace to hold off the pit strat? H. Banana, P. Dominiak, A. Bartocci, R. Roulee and D. Goswick decided to take an early pit stop to switch to slicks, in the hope of being faster than drivers suffering from overheating wet tyres.

25 Minutes into the race and the pit window had opened for the mandatory pit stop. Drivers suffering with poor wet tyre performance leapt with joy, as they pitted for some fresh rubber, as the early 5 pitting drivers stopped to make their second pit stop of the race. H. Banana and P. Dominiak rejoined the circuit in 11th position; the gamble for an extra stop had not paid off and now they were pushing harder and harder in an attempt to claw back some positions lost.

Following the pit stops, the race settled down into the final 20 minutes and drivers focused on chasing cars ahead and running away from those behind. Z. Heesch, who had served a 15-second penalty handed out by the Live Stewards, had left the pits in the top 5. As the race timer ticked out, Heesch found himself close behind Leaders K. Valtonen and J. Lipponen, who had an unfortunate collision together. Heesch was hopeful of capitalising on the collision to snatch the race lead, but was too far away.

As the timer ticked down to 0:00.00, J. Lipponen won the race, closely followed by K. Valtonen and Z. Heesch. Due to penalties assessed post-race, the final podium stands with J. Lipponen in 1st, Z. Heesch in 2nd, and K. Valtonen in 3rd.

Post-race, I was able to speak to a few drivers found loitering around the paddock.

Banana: J. Lipponen, Congratulations on the win. You must be very happy with today's results.

Lipponen: Yeah I'm definitely happy even though it was really difficult. It was pretty eventful but I managed to keep it together.

Banana: You certainly had the pace to win today. Was there anything about the race you didn't anticipate?

Lipponen: Yang being that quick was unexpected but I'm happy for him. 

Banana: He brought his A-game to this race. Let's hope it continues for future events. As well as good pace, you were on the right strategy, it seems. How did you find today's conditions? 

Lipponen: The weather situation was rough, but I'm glad my decision to stay the wets on until the pit window paid off, despite the obvious risks.

Banana: M. Langaard, it seems you had a stroke of luck with this FCY. How did it affect your race?

Langaard: [The FCY] allowed me to catch up with the pack [after starting from the pits] and proceed with the race as normal.

Banana: Z. Heesch, it all seemed to kick off around you at Turn 1, can you give an account over what happened?

Heesch: T1 was a hairy situation to put myself and those around me in during a wet start, so I have to apologize for being the one who kicked that off. I was feeling perhaps a little more confident than I should have, and when the field in front got on the brakes it took me off guard.

Banana: It's a shame to see incidents like this. The incident called for a Full Course Yellow. How did this affect your race?

Heesch: The FCY saved my race honestly. Which I like for those who were caught up in the melee, but felt a little sheepish on being allowed my place back in line. But the 15s penalty for my troubles did end up being a pretty damn costly penalty when I made it to within 2 seconds of the lead on the last lap.

Banana: It's good to see the battle continued, and it didn't mean you and others were pottering around alone. What will you do differently at Nurburgring?

Heesch: I need to remember the lessons that I was reminded of in this race, don't over drive the car. I'm feeling hopeful it'll be a good race.

Banana: Best of luck out there.

The first use of FCY seemed to go smoothly. Drivers lined up correctly whilst the crashed drivers repaired and rejoined, and it was a safe double-file start. Everyone was able to maintain safe separation during the final few seconds, and it was exciting to see the race resume with everyone still in contention, rather than stuck in the pits repairing. I hope to see more of this in future events.

J. Lipponen taking the full 25 points for the race win means he takes 2nd place in the Driver Championship, and closes the lead to P. Dominiak. T. Winegarden was able to pick up a heap of points too, which helped to level the field in the AM category.

Our next event takes us onto another Endurance race. In just under 2 weeks time, we'll have a 2.4 hour race of Nurburgring.