W Series Esports League: Round 7, preview
The fight for the crown is on: three main rivals, a dominant driver increasingly under pressure, a fast charging contender and some guest entries. Will the seventh round of W Series Esports League be another simracing classic?
Just like its real-world championship in 2019, the women-only simracing league created by W Series in place of its cancelled 2020 season could have turned out to be an easy job for some more experienced racers, with varying levels of experience and competitiveness in the midfield. But - just like last year's exceptionally successful inaugural campaign - the W Series Esports League is now entering its final stages with an exciting battle for the crown, after it had started with a dominant driver that is now witnessing increasing pressure.
Beitske Visser won in dominant fashion the opening races, only leaving to her competitors reverse-grid race glory. But, since the Brands Hatch round - the Flying Dutchwoman has seen the rise of two very competitive contenders: Irina Sidorkova and Marta Garcia. The latter, after a rough start in Monza, was able to improve week after week, until the outstanding performances at Spa Francorchamps, when Visser was denied of a race victory for the first time since the start of the virtual season.
The Spanish driver, who was no simracing expert, joined Emilio De Villota's new SIRIO Academy, an eSports consulting company, with the clear aim of improving throughout her W Series virtual campaign. Now, six races in and with four to go, last year's Norisring race winner looks like Beitske Visser's closest challenger on pure race pace, despite the 25-year old Dutch racer has consistently been unmatched on single-lap speed.
“In the last round, my qualifying pace was not what I expected, but in the races I have shown my progress and a clear improvement in sim racing skills, I have also managed to collect many points, which places me in a very favorable position to fight for the first places in the Series” - said Garcia.
At Watkins Glen, the three title contenders have shared glory in the three races, as again Irina Sidorkova was able to overturn a difficult first race with a flawless drive in the second race of the night. Sidorkova has also been facing logistic challenges, as the SMP-supported driver will be competing in the Russian SMP RSKG touring cars championship and will have to travel with her full simracing rig and equipment to keep the momentum going in her W Series debut season - albeit virtual.
Right behind the top-three, Caitlin Wood confirmed her qualifying skills but so far is among the few front-runners not to have claimed a race victory yet. The Australian will certainly look forward to overthrow this stat either in Suzuka or on her home track, the mighty Bathurst circuit. Wood currently battles Tasmin Pepper and Nerea Marti in the championship standings, as the trio is separated by merely 16 points.
Tasmin Pepper again emerged as one of the most solid front-runners despite her inability to practice as many hours as she might want on the iRacing software; Tasmin was nonetheless able to clinch her first victory in the series with a lights-to-flag win in the Belgian second race and is now always ready to capitalize with a podium position when any of the three main contenders hit trouble.
Nerea Marti has also shown speed from the get-go in Monza, but could not do better than podium finishes so far. The 18-year old Spaniard could seize the opportunity to join the race-winning club should a clean race materialize, after a couple of unlucky rounds costed Marti some precious points.
In the midfield, two of the racers to have shown remarkable improvements are Jessica Hawkins and Belen Garcia. Together with the always unlucky Naomi Schiff, they could now appear more frequently around the top-five.
The Japanese round should also witness the return of 2019 W Series champion Jamie Chadwick. After the opening event on the fast Monza track, in fact, the Brit's golden car was not seen again in the virtual races as Chadwick was signed to Italian powerhouse team Prema for the upcoming Formula Regional European Championship, which required Jamie to spend the last few weeks in Italy for testing and training.
With more and more drivers starting their alternative racing programs - leaving the grid with decreasing entrants - W Series opted to add two guest drivers for the Suzuka races: Hannah Grisham and Gabriela Jilkova will join the field in two non-points paying entries.
Both drivers were part of last September's Almeria assessment tests: American Hannah Grisham, 20, started in karting and went on to compete on both two and four wheels. At 16, she graduated to race cars, where she won Californian regional championships onboard of her spec-Miata.
25-year old Jilkova, also known as "Quick Gabi", was a championship-winning karting driver in her home country of Czech Republic before switching to formula cars. Her real-life experience of the Formula Renault 2.0 - the same car employed in the iRacing all-female championship - might be a further asset in Gabriela's already well established simracing resumé. Also running the "Quick Gabi" racing academy, she is in fact an avid sim-racer and streamer and has entered several virtual races in the past months, including the EuroNASCAR official championship.
This week's round will he held on another classic racetrack: the unique eight-shaped Suzuka circuit, home of the Japanese Grand Prix since 1987. Opened in 1967, Suzuka is an old-style racetrack, featuring an incredibly challenging series of corners and small margin for error.
After a downhill main straight, the first double-apexed corner leads to the world's famous series of Esses - a fast flowing section where rhythm is paramount. As cars go uphill towards Dunlop Curve, another very difficult section is represented by the Degner Curves, two fast right handers that precede the bridge.
The hairpin is the slowest part of the circuit, which however provides the drivers with a clear overtaking spot. After the fast 200R, the double-apex Spoon Curve is another iconic sight in motorsport, and a place where it's easy to lose time ahead of the long Backstretch. Passing over the bridge, the drivers will face the legendary 130R, "at one time one of the most daunting corners on the Formula 1 calendar" - as Dave Ryan, W Series race director says.
"But it’s now what drivers call ‘easy-flat’ and it’ll therefore be easy-flat in the W Series Esports League too.”
The heavy braking of the Triangle Chicane will provide one last passing opportunity before the main straight.
Suzuka is also a place very familiar to Miki Koyama, as the young Japanese will be the only W Series driver with such an extensive real-life knowledge of the place. Will she be able to make the most out of it? Only few hours to find out.
The seventh round of the W Series Esports League will be broadcasted on the series official channels (Youtube, Twitch, Facebook) on Thursday 23th July, starting at 7pm BST (20:00 CET). UK-based viewers can also follow the three races acress BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and on the BBC Sport website.