Marta Garcia breaks Visser's dominance at Spa
Marta Garcia and Tasmin Pepper became W Series Esports League fourth and fifth race winners after this week's round at Spa Francorchamps, as the Spaniard claimed two commanding victories.
Coming from a perfect round at Interlagos, the W Series Esports League championship leader Beitske Visser entered the Spa Francorchamps event as the undisputed favorite. Yet, Spanish racer Marta Garcia was clearly picking up the pace after the last rounds and was surely moving closer to a race victory week after week.
Garcia, who earlier today was announced to have joined the SIRIO Academy - a consulting company specialized in eSports that will provide Marta with additional technical support in her simracing adventure - trained hard for the Spa event and immediately showed speed since the first qualifying session. She promptly took the lead after the first flying lap, followed by compatriot Nerea Marti and Tasmin Pepper. Beitske Visser moved up to second in the closing minutes, merely 0.199 off of Garcia's pace, but it wasn't enough to deny last year's Norisring race winner her first ever W Series Esports pole position.
Only 17 drivers entered today's race, with Jamie Chadwick still out due to her Formula Regional European Championship duties, Gosia Rdest and Fabienne Wohlwend both busy in their respective real-life championships and Vicky Piria out for other work commitments.
Garcia and Visser had a good start off the line in the first race, but the star of the show was Irina Sidorkova, who had a stunning reaction from fifth on the grid and advanced to third after the first tricky corner.
The long Kemmel straight brought the first chaotic moments, when the fast Tasmin Pepper got tangled with Alice Powell, spun at high speed at was quickly out of contention for the leading positions.
A few metres ahead, Visser moved out of Garcia's slipstream and attacked her rival under braking at the Les Combes chicane, but the Spaniard defended perfectly and held on to the lead.
Nerea Marti dropped behind Sidorkova after the start but the two W Series newcomers swapped positions again on lap 2, as Marti completed a bold move around the outside of Les Combes. Sidorkova wasn't ready to give up her position yet and fought back at Pouhon, but Marti stayed in front. The young Russian could move back into third one lap later, when Marti dramatically dropped down the order following a spectacular crash at the exit of Blanchimont: as her car came back on track, she was collected by Abbie Eaton, who picked up major damages.
From these hectic first laps, Belen Garcia emerged in fourth place, right in front of Sabré Cook and Caitlin Wood. The Australian, who couldn't replicated some of her usual qualifying performances, overtook Cook, followed by Emma Kimilainen.
Alice Powell pulled off a good move around the outside of Blanchimont on Sabré Cook, but the American racer took the way of the pitlane soon after with damages to her car.
Ahead, Marta Garcia kept Visser at bay in the first couple of laps and was then able to manage her gap to the Dutchwoman, always looking comfortable with a one second advantage. Visser pushed hard and gained a couple of tenths, but was never at striking distance.
In the final laps, the midfield battles again stole the show, as Abbie Eaton, Bruna Tomaselli and Miki Koyama fought for a place inside the top-10. Belen Garcia lost fourth to Caitlin Wood after a very solid race, but lost momentum and finished down to seventh.
With five minutes to go, Garcia ran a bit wide at La Source, allowing Visser to get closer than ever before, but positions were maintained.
A final attempt from Visser came at the very last corner, but once again Garcia got out of the Bus Stop chicane on top and won her first ever W Series Esport League race by two tenths over the championship leader.
"I’ve been training for a few days and really dedicated time to learning Spa, so I worked hard and that’s why I was really fast." - said Garcia after the race. "In race one I started on pole, kept myself first at the start and stayed there. Beitske [Visser] was getting closer to me at the end and even at the last corner on the last lap she tried to overtake me, but I managed to finish first so I’m very happy."
Irina Sidorkova was third 7 seconds adrift, ahead of Caitlin Wood and Emma Kimilainen - as the Finnish racer completed a good recovery in the second half of the race.
Alice Powell led Belen Garcia, Ayla Agren and Sabré Cook at the finish line, with Naomi Schiff rounding out the top ten.
The second race saw Tasmin Pepper taking the start from reverse-grid pole after her unfortunate first heat. The South African lined up alongside Sarah Moore and had a perfect start when the lights went out. Moore, on the other hand, hit troubles straight away, as fellow Brit Jessica Hawkins moved up to second. Starting from the midfield, Nerea Marti was able to immediately advance to fourth place, ahead of Naomi Schiff.
It was another chaotic first lap - a race two classic - which claimed a notable victim: Beitske Visser had a contact at Rivage and her car went up in the air, picking up significant damages.
In a potentially crucial championship moment, the point's leader was back into the pits for repair, losing valuable time from the rest of the pack.
More action unfolded throughout the grid: Ayla Agren was tagged at turn 9 and spun off track, just as Alice Powell found a way past Naomi Schiff for fourth place. Belen Garcia again managed to recover several positions, bringing herself up to the higher half of the field. She preceded Bruna Tomaselli, Irina Sidorkova and Marta Garcia, who completed the first lap in tenth place after starting last due to the reverse-grid rule.
Protagonist of most of the battles in Spa's second race, Naomi Schiff was involved in several contacts: the Rwandan driver, already with front-wing damages, was firstly tagged by Irina Sidorkova and then spun around one more time in her battle with Sarah Moore, to complete an ill-fated race.
With Visser out of contention, it was a good chance for Nerea Marti to advance to the top positions: the 18-year old Spaniard caught up with Jessica Hawkins, but also had to watch herself from Alice Powell's progression.
Marti found a way past Hawkins at La Source, taking advantage of a small mistake by the British racer that also allowed past Alice Powell. But the battle for the runner-up place wasn't over, as Powell stole second from Marti at the Bus Stop chicane.
All this action played in Pepper's favor, who could extend her lead and was never under pressure from her competitors.
With five minutes left on the clock, race 1 winner Marta Garcia closed in on her compatriot Belen, also followed by Irina Sidorkova, who was looking forward to capitalize on Visser's misfortune. Both Marta and Irina made it past Belen and, in the closing laps, they could pull away from Jessica Hawkins as well.
Powell maintained a competitive pace but it wasn't ultimately enough to catch a flawless Tasmin Pepper, who won in style her first ever W Series event.
Nerea Marti dropped back a bit in the final laps but finished a solid third. Just outside the podium positions it was Abbie Eaton, as the W Series rookie had her best series result to date with fourth place.
Marta Garcia and Irina Sidorkova could not do better than fifth and sixth, ahead of Jess Hawkins, Belen Garcia, Caitlin Wood and Sarah Moore.
Beitske Visser was 15th at the chequered flag and, despite a heavily compromised race, she could still clinch the additional points for the fastest lap.
"I had a crash in race one so I had a long pitstop to fix my car but that put me first on the grid for race two." - said Tasmin Pepper after becoming the fifth race winner this season.
"I got a great start and then just tried to maintain the gap to Alice [Powell] in second. The gap was never less than two seconds and you have to be within seven tenths of a second to get a slipstream so I was just trying to maintain that. I was probably a bit too cautious but I didn’t want to make any mistakes and out-brake myself or spin."
"It’s nerve-wracking when you’re in front and you’re trying not to make mistakes, but I’m pleased I got first and some good points, especially as I didn’t score in the first race."
The second qualifying session reflected the initial outcomes: Marta Garcia edged Beitske Visser for 0.081 seconds, with Irina Sidorkova right behind the leading pair.
After another perfect start, Garcia passed unscathed the always critical first hairpin and went uphill at Radillon into the lead. In an almost identical replay from race 1, Visser took advantage of the tow on the Kemmel Straight and attempted a move on Garcia, but Marta masterfully held on again.
Emma Kimilainen was hit by Sabré Cook in the first metres off the line - in what looked like an equipment failure - and lost one lap to the pack. Jessica Hawkins also had troubles and retired.
Irina Sidorkova had to claim her third place back after losing out to Tasmin Pepper at the start, just as some fierce battles heated up in the midfield: a four-way battle at the Bus Stop chicane resulted in Nerea Marti outbraking herself and tagging Alice Powell, as also Ayla Agren spun just ahead of them. Nerea avoided the spinning cars and rejoined by taking the way of the run-off area.
The young valencian driver then engaged in a battle with Naomi Schiff for sixth place: Schiff completed a great move at Blanchimont, but Nerea responded back with a clean pass around the outside at Les Combes. This battle allowed Sarah Moore to run away with fifth.
Surely, the best overtaking move of the night came from Belen Garcia, who pulled a "Mika Hakkinen" on Abbie Eaton and Naomi Schiff on the Kemmel straight: Belen moved out of the slipstream and took the inside line, completing a jaw-dropping double pass at Les Combes.
Ahead, it was a replay from race 1: Garcia led Visser by just over a second, as Sidorkova was steadily in third but could not close in on the leading duo for a fight for the victory.
In the final laps, Marta Garcia extended her lead to over two seconds, denying for the first time the Dutch ace of a victory in any of the week's races.
"In race three I started on pole again, had a really good start and just drove away." - commented Garcia. "I had really good pace and built a gap to Beitske so I could win the race."
Tasmin Pepper scored again a significant amount of points by finishing fourth, ahead of Sarah Moore, Belen Garcia, Abbie Eaton and Nerea Marti. Miki Koyama and Naomi Schiff rounded out the top 10, while championship frontrunners Caitlin Wood and Alice Powell were 12th and 14th respectively.
As the championship reached its midway point, Visser still leads the standings with 250 points, 49 clear of Irina Sidorkova. The Russian teenager though will have to defend her runner up place from Marta Garcia's progress (181). With today's win, Pepper is now equal on points with Caitlin Wood (147).
"Finishing in the top three in the championship would be ideal but catching Beitske is unrealistic at the moment." - said Tasmin. "She’s very consistent, winning often and in the races she’s not winning she’s still in the top five. It’s about staying out of trouble, making sure you score in every round and you never know where you’ll end up in the championship."
Next up will be Watkins Glen, a circuit which will be new to the vast majority of the field, on Thursday 16th July.
In Marta's words:
"It’s not impossible for me to win the W Series Esports League, but it will be really difficult."