After an insanely spectacular round at Suzuka, Marta Garcia came out on top of two closely-fought races, while Belen Garcia claimed her first win in the reverse-grid race.
The W Series Esports League title fight is certainly coming alive and this week's seventh round on the fast and technical Suzuka circuit was arguably one of the most exciting simracing event we had the chance to witness in this crazy 2020.
Beitske Visser, who started the season as the most experienced driver on the iRacing platform and could build a considerable gap in the points standings, has slowly seen the rise of two fast condenders, Irina Sidorkova and Marta Garcia. The Spanish driver, especially, has increased her pressure on Visser and - week after week, win after win - is now seriously challenging Visser's title hunt.
Two drivers made their W Series Esports League debut in Suzuka: Hannah Grisham and Gabriela Jilkova were invited by W Series as guest entries, given the increasing number of official drivers now busy with the start of their respective real-life racing programs. This week's missing competitors were Sabré Cook, Alice Powell, Jamie Chadwick and Fabienne Wohlwend.
In the first 10-minute qualifying, we already witnessed to a couple of mistakes that caught some drivers off guard in their flying laps, thus compromising the start of their Japanese round. Both Sarah Moore and Gosia Rdest lost rhythm and spun, while championship leader Beitske Visser could maximise once again her pure-speed performance and clinched pole position with a 1:59.127 lap. Visser topped Marta Garcia, Irina Sidorkova and Caitlin Wood, with newcomer Gabriela Jilkova - also known in the simracing world as "Quick Gabi" - lining up in a very positive sixth place. Local race hero Miki Koyama had her best qualifying to date and was 10th, making the most out of her real-life knowledge of the Suzuka racetrack.
Soon after, the lights were off and the seventh round of the virtual W Series season was underway: it was an exciting start from all the three main championship rivals, as Visser, Garcia and Sidorkova sprinted towards Turn 1 side-by-side. As the double-apex corner approached, Marta Garcia took the lead, followed by Visser and Sidorkova. The Russian teenager, though, misjudged the difficult Degner Curve braking and made slight contact with Visser, ending up in the gravel and damaging her front wing. It was another rough start of the race for Irina, who has been involved in several first lap incidents so far. She rejoined in seventh place.
Tasmin Pepper went off from a front-running position, Ayla Agren passed Nerea Marti for fourth place and both Belen Garcia and the always unlucky Naomi Schiff hit trouble in a first lap very much characterized by hectic action in the midfield.
On the other hand, it was a good start from Sarah Moore and Emma Kimilainen - making her series return after a one-week absence - who were respectively eighth and ninth after the first lap. But the Finnish racer progression was soon cut short by a spin on lap 2, and the two-times eSports race winner Kimilainen was collected by Jessica Hawkins. Both race cars had significant damage and the pair had to complete a full lap of the 5.807m circuit before coming back to the pits for repairs.
Nerea Marti re-claimed fourth with the first of a series of aggressive moves at the Hairpin, as the 18-year old Spaniard overtook Agren under braking.
Jilkova, initially in the top-6, dropped down the order and found herself battling with other guest entry Hannah Grisham for 12th place on lap 4.
As dust settled, Marta Garcia led Beitske Visser, both enjoying an almost three seconds advantage over Caitlin Wood. What it was shaping in front, though, was not simply a fight for the race win: it also felt like the start of an incredibly hard yet fair mental battle for the crown. Visser closed in on Garcia, but the Spaniard always tried to brake the tow and defended decisively.
The two rivals were wheel-to-wheel on the main straight in a handful of occasions before Beitske Visser pulled off one of the most spectacular passes of the season so far around the outside of the iconic 130R corner to advance into the lead.
Only one lap later, Garcia responded back with a similar move, this time on the inside line, which switched positions back again.
After 15 minutes of superb racing, Visser had a better exit out of the Triangle chicane on the last lap and had a great run down the finish line: one year after the historical reverse-grid race in Assen, W Series provided another breathtaking photofinish result, with Marta Garcia taking victory by 0.003 seconds ahead of Beitske Visser. Caitlin Wood was third while, further away, Nerea Marti edged Ayla Agren for fourth.
Irina Sidorkova recovered to sixth and led Sarah Moore, Abbie Eaton, Gosia Rdest and Gabriela Jilkova across the finish line to complete the top-10.
"In race one I started second but had a good start to take the lead." - summed up Marta Garcia. "Beitske [Visser] had similar pace and overtook me on the third lap, but I managed to stay with her and, on the last lap, overtake her at the chicane before defending well to win the race."
Due to the fully reverse-grid format following the first race's result, Belen Garcia started from pole position alongside fellow series rookie Bruna Tomaselli.
It was a good start off the line for both Garcia and Tomaselli, but behind them, chaos broke loose, with plenty of cars colliding on their run down Turn one. Naomi Schiff, Jessica Hawkins, Emma Kimilainen and Sarah Moore were again among the drivers to pay the highest toll, as their races were virtually over before having the chance to even complete the first lap.
With both Belen Garcia and Bruna Tomaselli building a small gap in front, Miki Koyama was able to advance to third place, ahead of Hannah Grisham and Tasmin Pepper. The South African quickly passed Grisham - the 20-year old American then dropping down the order.
Vicky Piria went off and the reverse-grid race claimed another notable contender when Beitske Visser went upside down into the barriers in the opening stages.
While the Dutch ace was losing precious time for repairs, Marta Garcia charged through the field and moved up to eighth. Caught in the middle of the heated battles for the top-ten, Marta followed Abbie Eaton and Nerea Marti, but also had to watch her mirrors from the fast Caitlin Wood.
Marti overtook Eaton at the hairpin once again, but the Brit switched back a couple of corners later. When Nerea made a mistake in the difficult "Esses" section and spun, Marta avoided a collision with her compatriot and closed in on Abbie Eaton.
It certainly was a great round for Spanish drivers: Belen Garcia had a flawless race ahead and could open a four-second gap on Tomaselli, who came under increasing pressure from Gabriela Jilkova. "Quick Gabi" had in fact avoided the carnage and moved up into third place, before finding a way past Tomaselli at 130R. The Brazilian was soon cleared also by Tasmin Pepper and dropped right into the clutches of Abbie Eaton. After a 3-wide battle right before 130R, Eaton, Wood and Garcia moved ahead of Tomaselli.
In the meantime, Gabriela Jilkova was getting closer to the race leader and, behind, Ayla Agren overtook Tasmin Pepper for third place on the Backstretch.
Just as Beitske Visser attempted a very difficult recovery from the back of the pack and reached the points-paying positions, Marta Garcia found a very tough rival on her way to the top: Abbie Eaton showed great defensive driving and quality racecraft, making life extra hard for the young Spanish racer. Garcia finally made a move stick at the Triangle chicane, as she completed a pass with locked-wheels after several attempts to reach the top five.
Marta caught up with Tasmin Pepper, who could not quite match Ayla Agren's pace and had dropped behind the Norwegian. Garcia attacked Tasmin at Degner Curve and advanced to P4.
Nerea Marti also had to make up positions again and surprised Tomaselli at the Hairpin with her classic manouvre.
With one lap to go, Belen Garcia saw her gap to second-placed Jilkova getting smaller and smaller but could just hold on to take the chequered flag and become W Series Esports League's sixth different race winner.
"I didn’t have a good first race, crashing and finishing last, but that gave me pole position for the reverse-grid race." - said Belen Garcia after her race-winning performance.
"I got a decent start, kept Bruna [Tomaselli] behind me and had very consistent pace during the race. That let me build a good gap over the first few laps and, although Gabriela [Jilkova] was catching me at the end, I managed to keep her behind to win."
Gabriela Jilkova had in fact a stunning run to claim second place in her series debut and preceded Ayla Agren who was third but still scored 17 points due to Jilkova's guest status.
Marta Garcia crossed the line in fourth place, ahead of Tasmin Pepper, Abbie Eaton, Caitlin Wood, Nerea Marti. After a positive start, Bruna Tomaselli finished P9, while Hannah Grisham secured her first top-ten.
Sidorkova, also involved in the first lap incidents, was almost one minute adrift in P11, just as Beitske Visser (P13), who could nonetheless add to her tally the extra point for fastest lap.
Marta Garcia tried to keep her momentum in the third race's qualifying session, as the 19-year old from Valencia brought herself up to provisional pole after the first round of flying laps. But it wasn't long until Beitske Visser signed a record-breaking 1:59.094 lap, clinching pole position again. Garcia improved after her second lap but remained second, ahead of Sidorkova, Wood and Jilkova.
Visser had a better start in the third race and immediately covered the inside line from the attacks of Garcia. Just behind them, Sidorkova completed a very disappointing round at Suzuka with another mistake: the Russian lost the car on the entry of Turn one and went off, just as Caitlin Wood was tagged by Pepper and collided with Gabriela Jilkova.
After the first lap, Visser led Marta Garcia, Tasmin Pepper and Nerea Marti, with Miki Koyama in P6 after an amazing start.
Soon, the battle at the top resumed in full force, with now Marta Garcia officially second in the points standings after the result of Race 2.
Marti attacked and passed Pepper at the Triangle chicane after a daring move and moved up into third. Tasmin responded back and could then pull away from Nerea after the first stages.
The attention switched back to the leaders when Marta Garcia went side by side with Visser and the two entered 130R alongside. Garcia completed another highly spectacular pass under braking at the chicane and went into the lead. However, Visser had a better exit and tried to respond back on the run towards the first corner, but Garcia held on.
It was another insanely close fight throughout, with Visser glued to Garcia's gearbox until a light contact damaged Beitske's front wing and allowed Marta to open a small gap.
Now struggling for pace, Visser was quickly under pressure from Pepper, who made her way past at 130R and left the championship leader at the mercy of Nerea Marti's attacks for the last step of the podium.
The midfield saw again plenty of action: Naomi Schiff had a better race but, when battling with Bruna Tomaselli for ninth place, had a collision with the Brazilian who was sent spinning into the grass. It was a cleaner competition for seventh place instead, with Miki Koyama defending from Race 2 winner Belen Garcia. Koyama, in her best performance so far, defended well but could not ultimately keep Belen behind. Just ahead, Jessica Hawkins had a very solid race in sixth, but lost two positions in the closing stages.
When Nerea Marti finally found her way past Visser after a long fight, Marta Garcia had already built a 3.7 seconds advantage on second-placed Pepper.
Marta completed a perfect evening for the Garcias and secured her second victory of the Japanese round ahead of Tasmin Pepper and Nerea Marti. Tasmin, however, received a post-race 5-second penalty which dropped her to fourth and promoted Visser back onto the podium.
"In race three I started second again and Beitske got a good start to retain the lead." - commented the winning lady. "But I was as fast as her with a similar rhythm so I could overtake. She tried to overtake me but I stayed in front and then she pressed a bit hard and lost some time which meant I won the race."
Ayla Agren was fifth, in front of Belen Garcia, Miki Koyama, Jess Hawkins and Hannah Grisham, once again solidly in the top-ten. Naomi Schiff was P10 and preceded Gosia Rdest.
After the Suzuka races, Beitske Visser still leads the standings with 330 points and a 51-point margin on Marta Garcia. Irina Sidorkova has now slipped back to third, 22 points adrift the Spanish driver. Next up will be the mighty Bathurst circuit in Australia, home race of fourth-placed Caitlin Wood.
"Suzuka is a technical track which I didn’t know before I started training." - added Garcia.
"I spent time with Sirio [Academy] who are helping me improve on the sim and that made me competitive. I hope to continue that improvement in the next round at Mount Panorama, Bathurst. It’s another circuit I don’t know but I’ve heard it’s really tough and technical with lots of barriers, so you need to be careful."
"Getting up to second place in the W Series Esports League is fantastic, but going one better and catching Beitske at the top is going to be really hard as she always performs well. There are three rounds left so it’s not impossible and I will do my very best."
Fellow Spaniard Belen Garcia was also among the W Series drivers to show the most consistent improvements throughout the season - her efforts finally rewarded with a race victory: "I have improved a lot on the sim and I am so grateful to W Series for this opportunity.", she said. "Qualifying is one of my weakest points and I’m working really hard to improve that for the final three rounds."
"That starts at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, next week which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve watched lots of races there, it’s an exciting circuit and I think I will like it but it will be a tough challenge in a Formula car."