W Series Esports: Visser crowned champion at Nordschleife
The Flying Dutchwoman was crowned inaugural W Series Esports League champion after two dominant wins at the legendary Nordschleife, as guest starter Gabriela Jilkova claimed reverse-grid victory.
When the W Series announced the calendar for its first ever Esporst League, one round immediately caught the attention of both real and sim-racing fans alike: the mighty Nürburgring Nordschleife - the most iconic racetrack in the world and indelebly linked to a legendary motor racing era gone by.
And, thanks to the inherent nature of simracing, the revolutionary fully-female championship could bring back formula cars to the 20km-long German circuit, creating the ultimate test for the 18 W Series drivers.
Beitske Visser entered the round with a 57 points advantage over main rival Marta Garcia: with two rounds to go, the Dutch ace could close the title fight at the Nürburgring by outscoring Garcia by over 7 points - an achievable result for Visser, given her experience of the real-life Nordschleife, accumulated in her previous VLN participations.
Despite the almost 7-minutes long laptimes, the format for the ninth round of the W Series Esports League was maintained, meaning the drivers barely had two qualifying laps, two laps for Race 1 and 2, and three laps for the feature race.
With more and more ladies busy on track (Miki Koyama, Sabré Cook, Fabienne Wohlwend, Alice Powell, Abbie Eaton and Jamie Chadwick were missing), 17 drivers entered the first two races this evening - with Emma Kimilainen then joining the field for the last heat.
Furthermore, three guest drivers were added to this week's races: Nordschleife specialist Charlie Martin - who also entered the Formula E Race at Home Challenge virtual events earlier this year - and both Gabriela Jilkova and Hannah Grisham, who returned to the series after their debut at Suzuka.
Visser showed glimpses of her blistering pace straight from the first qualifying session, as she claimed a commanding pole position by over two seconds on Marta Garcia. Five seconds adrift was guest entry Gabriela Jilkova, also known as "Quick Gabi", a driver with experience of both real-world racing and iRacing. Gabriela, who had spent time around the real Nordschleife last week, was topped on the second lap by both Caitlin Wood and Nerea Marti, while Charlie Martin was a very positive 9th on the grid.
At the race start, the pack was safely through turn one, with Visser leading Garcia, Wood and Marti. Behind, Gosia Rdest dropped at the back, with also Vicky Piria and Bruna Tomaselli hitting trouble.
With the pole-sitter almost one second clear of the pack, Wood and Marti seemed faster than Garcia, but were extra cautious in attempting a move on the notoriously tricky circuit, with little to no room for error. Nerea Marti got into attack range at Kesselchen and, with the help of the slipstream, went alogside the Australian. After a long side-by-side action, Marti was up into third, trailing Jilkova. Gabriela was also trying to find a way around Wood on the fast section leading to the Karussell, when the two made slight contact and the Czech racer, after a visit to the grass, dropped behind Tasmin Pepper.
After more intense action, Pepper and Jilkova got alonsgide on the Döttinger Höhe, but Pepper held on to sixth place.
After a good start, Charlie Martin was back to 13th place, before she started a battle with other guest entry Hannah Grisham. Irina Sidorkova endured another difficult round: the young Russian explained before the race that her participation in the national touring car championship had limited her simulator time and that she was entering the Nürburgring round with little knowledge of the track. Irina spent the first stages of the race battling with Ayla Agren just outside the top-ten, but then dropped dramatically towards the back-end of the field.
After a remarkably clean first lap, Visser enjoyed a safe margin of over two seconds on Marta Garcia, with the remaining front runners quite spread-out. Pepper and Jilkova engaged again in side-by-side action at Kesselchen - this time Tasmin having the worst outcome: Jilkova lightly tagged the back of the South African's car, which was enough to be unsettled on such a bumpy track. Pepper spun and made contact with the barriers, but she was able to continue despite being overtaken by Belen Garcia soon afterwards.
Visser was never under threat and completed the second lap by taking Race 1 victory ahead of Marta Garcia and Nerea Marti, who beated Caitlin Wood for the last step of the podium.
Jilkova - second in Suzuka - was fifth, while Tasmin Pepper re-claimed P6 from Belen Garcia in the final corners. Sarah Moore, Ayla Agren and Naomi Schiff rounded out the top ten.
Italian Vicky Piria started the reverse-grid race on pole position, with Bruna Tomaselli on her left-hand side of the grid. As the lights went out, the Brazilian was straight into the lead, with a huge mess unfolding in the midfield: Jessica Hawkins, Nerea Marti, Caitlin Wood, Sarah Moore and Ayla Agren got involved in the incidents and they were soon joined also by Vicky Piria at the back of the order.
In usual Race 2 fashion, the cameras promptly focused on Marta Garcia and Beitske Visser in their busy recoveries up through the field: Garcia, after a few scraps in the opening corners, made it back to P11, but among the biggest movers it was again Beitske Visser - the championship leader quickly advancing up to ninth place.
Still, the star of the second race was Gabriela Jilkova: from 13th on the grid, "Quick Gabi" avoided the turn one carnage and charged towards the top-3.
Bruna Tomaselli initially held on to her lead, chased by an impressive Naomi Schiff and by Gabriela Jilkova. Schiff completed a precise overtaking and gained the top of the leaderboard, before Tomaselli made a mistake and went off into the wall - leaving Jilkova in free air in second. Just outside the top-three, Belen Garcia passed Sidorkova, but the attention switched back to the Schiff-Jilkova battle when the Czech driver took the lead at Kesselchen.
Visser made a few more places to advance into fourth, but she now had to close a six seconds gap to Belen Garcia. Meanwhile, Marta was still navigating through the traffic: the Spaniard passed Charlie Martin, Hannah Grisham and Gosia Rdest, before catching up with Tasmin Pepper - in a desperate attempt to keep her title chances alive.
With no driver able to win from the back of the grid in the second race so far, Visser's pace was so dominant that she quickly closed in on Belen Garcia - who, at the same time, was trying to find a way past Naomi Schiff.
Tension built for Marta Garcia, with her championship rival climbing the classify and getting dangerously close to what would have been an unbelievable back-to-back victory - a result that would have suggested the end of the title fight.
Garcia passed Pepper - the latter again being squeezed onto the grass. Few corners ahead, Visser found a way past Belen at Pflanzgarten, gained a podium position and started chasing Schiff. Safely ahead, Jilkova had managed to put six seconds between her and the group of cars behind and stormed to race 2 victory. Behind Gabi, a fierce battle for second was underway in the final corners: Visser overtook Schiff, but the Rwandan driver wasn't ready to give up her position easily and got back ahead at the final corner - claiming her first podium in the series. With Jilkova's guest status, the 20 points of the second race victory thus went to Naomi Schiff.
"The reverse-grid race was quite tough as I started near the back of the grid." - said Jilkova after her breakthrough victory. "But I was lucky this time that I didn’t get caught up in any crashes and I could come through the pack safely. I had some good battles and overtook lots of cars on the first lap, then on the second lap I could just keep going and manage the gap."
"I was a bit scared before this round that the Nürburgring Nordschleife was going to produce lots of crashes but it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed it. I was at the circuit for real a few weeks ago so I felt like I was practising in real life for an Esports event which was strange. It’s one of my favourite circuits so getting to drive it in the W Series Esports League was great and it’s been really nice to compete in this series."
With her third place in the reverse grid - which actually gained her 17 points - Beitske Visser could reach a crucial 66-points margin over Marta Garcia: the last race of the night at the Nürburgring was the first match ball for the championship leader.
Garcia was heavily under pressure and yet she delivered in the second qualifying: the Spaniard secured pole position by one tenth of a second on Visser, who improved on her final attempt but could not top Marta's laptime. Caitlin Wood followed in third, ahead of Nerea Marti and Gabriela Jilkova.
Emma Kimilainen joined the field and was ninth fastest.
Visser's consistency in this year's virtual season meant that Marta Garcia had to aim for the victory and nothing less to keep the championship hopes alive going into Silverstone. The 19-year old from Valencia did everything well at the start and held off Visser.
If the first half of the grid got through the first corner unscathed, an accident at the back-end of the pack meant instant trouble for Vicky Piria - the Italian enduring a torrid round - Jessica Hawkins, Gosia Rdest and Bruna Tomaselli.
Garcia's leadership, though, was short-lived, as Visser made a move on the straight and Marta could not respond back. Caitlin Wood also closed in and started to put pressure on the Spanish driver, who made a mistake and had contact with the barriers. The #19 Tatuus car continued without major damages but, now behind Caitlin Wood, Garcia had lost touch with her title rival.
Behind them, Jilkova moved up on Nerea Marti and advanced to fourth place, with Nerea also coming under pressure from Sarah Moore - protagonist of a very positive race.
Garcia was back ahead of Wood after a bold move under braking and started to chase down Visser - also signing the fastest lap of the race. The Dutch racer, though, always looked in control and never put a foot wrong, even when her advantage shrinked below the two-seconds margin.
It was another entertaining race in the midfield as well, with Tasmin Pepper completing a massive comeback through the field up until P7. The South African, closely followed by Naomi Schiff, passed Hannah Grisham at Karussell, before starting a wheel-to-wheel battle with the runner-up finisher from race 2. This time, it was Schiff to end up facing the wrong way in the grass, dropping to ninth.
After three laps of the mighty Nürburgring Nordschleife, Marta gave it her all, but Beitske Visser crossed the finish line one second in front, clinching her second win of the night and, most importantly, the first ever W Series Esports League title with one round spare.
"It feels really good to win the W Series Esports League." - commented Visser, following her commanding performances. "From the start of the League season I’ve been very strong so I’m happy that I could win it with one round to spare. I didn’t realise until someone told me afterwards that I’d not only won the League but also 11 races out of the 27 we’ve had so far! Racing drivers want to win everything so it means a lot to me."
"In the third race I wasn’t on pole position so it was more difficult, but I got in the slipstream of Marta and got around her. Then she made a small mistake behind and that gave me a big enough gap to win."
"It was very different driving the Nürburgring Nordschleife in a Formula car as I have only driven there in GT cars in real life, so it was a new experience but an enjoyable one. The pressure was on today as I’m not sure if I will be able to race in the final round at Silverstone, so I had to win the League now and I’m so happy that I did."
Marta Garcia, second across the line, can nonetheless be extremely happy about her simracing season: hardly a gamer before the launch of the W Series virtual championship, Marta made impressive progresses throughout.
"The Nürburgring Nordschleife is a really tough track so I knew that Beitske [Visser] was going to be fast and difficult to catch." - she said. "I was surprised to be on pole position for the last race, but I made a little mistake early on and lost the race there.
"I’m happy with my W Series Esports League season, it’s been quite good I think. I have nothing to lose in the final round at Silverstone now so I will try my best to win the races there and just have fun."
Wood was third, ahead of Gabriela Jilkova and Nerea Marti. Sarah Moore led Tasmin Pepper, Hannah Grisham, Naomi Schiff and Ayla Agren to complete the top-10.
Charlie Martin, after solid performances in all three races, was P11, P8 and P12 in her series debut.
With one round to go - and without the newly-crowned champion on track - the W Series Esports League will now head to the home of British motorsport, Silverstone, in one week time.