A new year sees the start of a new series. The sim racing broadcasting powerhouse that is SimSport Racing International kicked off the new year with a Touring Cars championship on the iRacing platform, and the opening round of the TCR championship was held at the MSV outpost Oulton Park. 12 drivers took up the challenge, several names familiar to the SSRi regulars, 6 races planned for the series, 2 races per round with the 2nd race being a reverse grid race. The Hyundai and Audi marques were the popular choices, the only exception being a sole Honda in the field. 20 minutes practice session preceding the 20 minute qualifying session, SSRi regular Stephen Haley taking the fastest time and the only driver under 1:45 setting a 1:44.43.
The Hyundai participants were the early pace setters, Haley taking an early top time of 1:45.145 before getting a little over eager at Island Bend and momentum taking his car into the tyre wall on the outside of Shell Oils Corner. Simon Wilks and David Wressell posted their first times soon after, both were noticeably slower than their practice times, SSRi newcomer Michael Bridson soon followed with a banker lap of his own 2 seconds behind the early lead set by Haley. The first non-Hyundai time was set by SSRi broadcaster Steve Proudly, the sole Honda pilot of the event, with the next Hyundai driver coming out to play being Daniel Williams, soon followed by the Audi frontrunner of Olda Stepanovsky of the Czech Republic, who is also a Virtual GP veteran. Stepanovsky set a 1:45.143, a mere 0.002 of a second ahead of Haley. Kieran Vidago, another SSRi regular broke cover getting a 1:45.7 on the board (strangely for iRacing he was listed under the gamer tag of Night Stalker), Simon Wilks then made his claim to the pole spot with the first sub 1:45 of the session, with a 1:44.856. Tim Fulbrook, also in the Audi, showed his intent by setting a new pole time of 1:44.722, which was made even more impressive by the fact that he joined the preceding practice session very late, however, it was not to last as Haley again stamped his authority on the top spot with 1:44.522 now to his name. As the qualifying session entered its final 5 minutes, the only driver with no time was Jake Belcher who struggled to tame the Audi and pushed too hard at Druids, sending his car into a spin. As the session drew to a close, the Audi of Michael Haffenden put in his best time of 1:45.377 to slot him into 5th place, meaning the field was separated top to bottom by less than 1.5 seconds. Haley hung on to secure pole position for the opening round of the TCR championship, alongside Fulbrook.
20 minutes of touring car racing lay ahead, and as the lights went out, Stepanovsky had the start of dreams from the 2nd row, almost claiming 2nd position before going through Old Hall Corner for the first time, but Fulbrook and Wilks hung on to 2nd & 3rd respectively. Trouble was not far as away as David Wressel slightly tapped the side of Proudly Honda, which sent Wressl into a spin and into the path of Vidago. Fulbrook wasted no time in closing in on Haley ensuring the pole sitter was not going to gain any breathing space in the early part of the race, and as lap 1 concluded, it was Hyundai-Audi-Hyundai-Audi of Haley-Fulbrook-Wilks-Stepanovsky. Bridson was not far behind, with another driver using their gamer tag of Assassin (this driver wasn’t identified by name during the event, but thankfully did not live up to their namesake and maintained solid midfield pace early on). The dreaded Island bend claimed another victim on lap 2, this time Wilks flirting too much with the grass and repeated Haleys early qualifying demonstration and ended up in the tyre wall on the outside of Shell Oils Corner, dropping him down to 10th place. Seconds later, Bridson succumbed to the pressure of Assassin (listed in the tower indignantly as Undefined Assassin), which left Bridsons Hyundai into the wall at Hislops and returning to the pits. Vidago returned to the track, albeit a lap down, but with the ferocious activity on the track, it was always worth him returning to the track to mitigate the early damage to his race. Proudly hadn’t escaped unscathed either and brought his car into the pits at the end of lap 2, and Belchers struggles continued which saw him 35 seconds behind the pitted Wilks by the end of lap 2. Wiliams had Haffenden all over his rear wing, yet another Hyundai vs Audi battle going on, with Assassin in their sights for 4th place. Meanwhile, Bridson and Proudly left the pits almost together for 9th and 10th respectively. Haley and Fulbrook were still glued together for the lead, and Stepanovsky was only 1 second further back with the best seat in the house to watch the lead battle, biding his time before joining the battle himself. Barely a quarter of the race gone, and a pair of 3 car battles were in full force, Haley-Fulbrook-Stepanovsky for the lead, and Assassin-Williams-Haffenden for 4th. Haffenden managed to pressure Williams into a small mistake at Druids, which gave the Audi a run coming into Lodge Corner and into 5th place. For the lead, indications seemed to be that Fulbrook was also biding his time, as he stayed perfectly in the tyre tracks of Haley rather than trying attacking move after attacking move and costing them both time to the ever-present Stepanovsky. The Czech aces patience was rewarded as Fulbrook made a very ambitious move into Old Hall Corner on the very next lap. The contact between the two sent Haley into the outside wall and allowed Stepanovsky a clear run into the lead, as Fulbrook had slowed to allow Haley back ahead. Fulbrooks sportsman intention sadly backfired, as when Haley came past him at Cascades, Fulbrook was on the outside grass when he put his foot down, which sent him into a half spin into the path of Assassin, who had managed to break away from Haffenden and Williams. Fulbrook managed to rejoin behind Williams but chose to return his car to the pitlane soon after. Half of the race was gone, and Stepanovsky now lead by 1.7 seconds from Haley, Assasin now 3rd with 0.9 seconds over Haffenden and closing in on the last podium position. Williams returned to the track following his pit stop right behind Proudly, the Honda now up to 7th place following consistent pace after his early race trouble. Haffenden didn’t need long to close in on Assassin for 3rd place, the Falken liveried Audi now facing the difficult task of defending against the seemingly quicker Haffenden for over 6 minutes. The final stages of the race saw the 2 pairs of cars fighting for the lead (Stepanovsky and Haley) and 3rd (Assassin and Haffenden), and in true Touring Car style, both battles were fought very fiercely indeed. Oulton Park is notoriously difficult to overtake on, even with the TCRs being able to take a few bumps. Trouble continued for Vidago, as on the penultimate lap, he was found sideways into the barrier at Shell Oils Corner. The final lap saw Stepanovsky initially find a bit more pace to keep Haley at bay, but a small mistake at Brittens saw Haley almost slam into the back of the Czech driver. For every attempt Haley made for the lead, Stepanovsky had an answer and by a tenth of a second claimed the 1st win of the season. Haffenden made a mistake on the final lap, giving Assassin the breathing space he needed to round out the podium. Wilks was a distant 5th place in the end, Bridson came home a lonely 6th, the sole Honda of Proudly finishing 7th and eventually followed home by Williams, front row starter Fulbrook, Belcher and Wressell finishing 1 lap down and Vidago in the pits.
With very little reprieve, the reverse grid race was being formed, headed up by Wressell and Vidago, row 2 occupied by Belcher and Fulbrook, with race 1 winner started at the back in 12th. With the lights out, another 20 minutes of racing was set into motion, and again Stepanovsky had an incredible start making his way up from last to 7th before getting to Shell Oils Corner, but sadly his race unfolded just as quickly as he didn’t anticipate a more cautious approach to Shell Oils from Proudly and the two came together, again seeing Proudly facing the wrong way and Stepanovsky choosing to retire his car. By the end of lap 1, a complete change of order had taken form at the front, Fulbrook led Wressell led Vidago led Williams. Fulbrook didn’t need another invitation to stretch his legs up front, and by the time the field had come up to Shell Oils Corner for the 2nd time in anger, Fulbrook had 2.5 seconds to himself up front. Disaster struck Wressell as he attempt to take a very fine line close to the tyre bollard in the middle of Brittens, but sadly he hit it quite hard and Vidago couldn’t avoid the stricken Hyundai, inevitably pushing Wressell slightly further down the track and leaving him facing the wrong way with the rest of the field scattering to avoid further impacts. As Wressell tried to move away, his front wheels were not facing in a healthy direction, and thus he retired his car to the pits as well. Wilks had also encountered technical trouble and he also returned his car to the pits, making a quarter of the field back in the pit lane well before a quarter of the race was complete. Fulbrook was enjoying running off into the sunset, Williams now had 2nd, Assassin was back into 3rd place, followed in short order by Haley, Belcher, Haffenden and Bridson all arguing for 4th place. Haley had soon dispatched of this group and set off quickly for Assassin for the last podium position, and Vidago had caught the back of the 4 car pack that Haley had vacated. Belchers day didn’t get any better, as he was overtaken by Bridson into Lodge Corner, and Vidago followed in Bridsons tyre tracks to demote Belcher to the back of the pack. Vidago was determined to make up for lost ground and made a confident move on the inside of Lodge Corner again, this time on Bridson for 6th place, however, Bridson dived for the pitlane immediately afterwards. Also returning to the pits was Wressell, having had another spin, this time at Knickerbrook. At the halfway point, Fulbrook led by 7.5 seconds over Williams, Haley keeping Williams in his sights in 3rd place, Vidago was pressuring Haffenden for 5th, and Proudly was keeping Belcher company in 8th position. Vidago pushed a little too hard at Druids, losing him a second to Haffenden, who was now free to chase off after Assassin for 4th place. Vidagos race went from bad to disastrous as he went over the grass on the exit of Brittens and was very slow up the hill, losing him another 4 seconds, and eventually another trip into the pits. Proudly did not relent his pressure on Belcher, who seemed to be more at ease with the Audi than he was in race 1 and defended 6th position from the persistent Honda. Williams and Haley were now together in a battle for 2nd, Assassin and Haffenden were still fighting for 4th, Belcher finally lost the fight for 6th with Proudly as the Honda had a better exit from Lodge corner, they both entered Old Hall Corner side by side, however, the Honda was slightly later on the brakes and finally wrestled 6th from Belcher. Belcher tried to counterattack by the time they got to turn 10, but Belcher was too deep into the corner and chose the escape road, collecting a pair of road cones in the process. Haley had made a mistake in his fight for 2nd, but Haffenden was pushing hard to claim 4th from Assassin, the Falken flavoured Audi trying hard as he did in race 1 to keep his car pointing the right way and keep his pursuer behind. On the final lap, Fulbrook had over 10 seconds to himself, Haley was back with Williams and Assassin was still fending off the advances of Haffenden. Fulbrook came home for the comparatively easy win, it took to the penultimate corner of the final lap for the stalemate for 2nd to be broken, and it took a big move from Haley at Lodge Corner to steal away 2nd. Haffenden couldn’t find the extra pace needed to overhaul Assassin for 4th, Proudly finished in 6th in the end followed by Belcher, Bridson and Wilks. Vidago, Wressll and Stepanovsky alas did not see the flag.
Round 2 the series travels to America for Laguna Seca. The track may be wider, but its fast and flowing twists and turns will be just as challenging.