Saturday’s race was the fifth of the one-hour virtual sprint race series which has run alongside the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Series. Not only does it pit real-world drivers against each other in the digital realm, it gives points towards the overall GT World Challenge Europe teams championships
Emil Frey Racing had already wrapped up the Pro Teams title with victory last time out at the Nürburgring, but there was still plenty to race for in the Silver class with the top three teams – Rinaldi Racing, Team WRT, and Madpanda – all still in with a shot of the esports title.
Indeed Rinaldi brought out its biggest possible gun for the race at Barcelona, in the South African driver David Perel. A well-known name in virtual racing before he became a racing driver, and his “Coach Dave Academy” actually provides vehicle set-ups for the Assetto Corsa Competizione simulator used for the Fanatec GT Esports Pro Series.
However, it was fellow series debutant Juuso Puhakka for Madpanda who struck the first blow by putting the Mercedes not only first in class in qualifying but on pole position, with Perel only eighth (fifth in class) and Ryuichiro Tomita for Team WRT in 11th (sixth in class).
An error from front-row qualifier Nicklas Nielsen for Iron Lynx resulted in the team being absent from the starting grid, and that effectively allowed Puhakka to take the first turn without any pressure. Thereafter, the Finnish driver started to pull away from Pro driver Dries Vanthoor (Team WRT) with relative ease.
Perel meanwhile was going backwards. A turn 10 melee saw Tomita send one down the inside of Raffaele Marciello (AKKA), resulting in Perel on the outside getting spun round – and falling behind rival Tomita.
Puhakka was driving a controlled race at the front. Having pulled more than two seconds to Vanthoor before his late compulsory pit stop, the Madpanda driver emerged with a four-second advantage but, more importantly, with three other Silver drivers between him and Tomita. With Puhakka set for the win, only Perel or Tomita could deny Madpanda the title but they were busy scrapping with each other behind Marciello. However, while negotiating the ailing Lamborghini of Dennis Lind (Sainteloc), an ambitious move from Perel through turn nine saw him pick up a drive-through penalty and drop him out of contention.
In the end, it was Madpanda’s Puhakka who took a comfortable win from the Pro class Vanthoor, with Silver driver Marvin Dienst (Toksport) in third, to take second in class, and Alex Aka (Attempto) third in class back in fifth.
That gave Madpanda the three points required to leap both Team WRT and Rinaldi Racing to take the Esports Series Silver class on eight points, with Rinaldi second on seven, and WRT third on six.
Although the Pro class champion had already been decided, second was still up for grabs. Vanthoor’s second place would see him take the maximum three points for WRT, but a cool drive from David Pittard saw him finish fourth on the road and second in class for Walkenhorst’s third successive podium. That gave the BMW team the two points required to retain second in class on seven, with WRT advancing up to third – finishing third in both championships – on six, ahead of AKKA, which did pick up the final point for Marciello’s eighth place, third in class, finish.
The points for the Fanatec GT Esports Pro Series did in fact have an effect on the overall GT World Challenge Europe table, at least in the Silver class. With Madpanda picking up eight points across the esports season, the team actually ended up tying on 121.5 points with Attempto Racing which scored only one – courtesy of Alex Aka in the final race. That resulted in Madpanda’s win at the 24 Hours of Spa counting as the tie-breaker, putting Ezekiel Companc’s team fifth in the standings, ahead of Attempto.
After the success of the 2021 season, Fanatec and SRO have confirmed that the virtual series will return for 2022.