Finland’s Joona Pankkonen claimed the first title of the new platform for Esports WRC, during an exhibition event that previews the return of the series in 2024 after a year’s break.
The Esports WRC Knockout Trophy 23 marked the debut of the new EA Sports WRC title in competitive gaming, with an eight-driver invitational event in Poland. Among those racing would be three-time Esports WRC racer Lohan Blanc, 2022 runner-up John Harris, former Dirt Rally Esports champion Pankkonen, and the multidisciplinary Esports racer Moritz Lohner.
Somewhat unsurprisingly it was defending champion Blanc who took the overall fastest aggregate qualifying time as he was quickest in both the first and third stages to take top spot by 13 seconds from Pankkonen. Lohner took the other fastest stage time, proving to be a tarmac specialist in Croatia, but was off the pace elsewhere to line up fifth behind Harris and former finalist Patryk Gerber.
With the draw decided, the event moved into the head-to-head stage with each driver pairing facing off on the same course at the same time but not visible to one another.
Pankkonen was up first against Kamil Grabowski, and the Finnish driver quickly established a huge advantage which allowed him still come away with a 21-second victory despite a half-spin in the penultimate sector.
Harris and his RC team-mate Dylan Noel were next to race, and this one was decided almost immediately as Noel slid into one of the treacherous cliff faces in Monaco with just eight seconds on the clock.
Home favourite Gerber faced off against Lohner next, and the race came down to a misjudged jump from Gerber that sent him off-track and earned an automatic penalty. That left newcomer Nina Pothof to race the triple-champion Blanc, in what turned out to be a foregone conclusion despite Pothof’s best efforts.
In the semi-finals Blanc and Lohner met in Monte Carlo. Both drivers were making uncharacteristic errors throughout, but it was Blanc who took the narrowest of victories – by two-tenths – to head into the final. Harris faced Pankkonen on the first wet stage of the day in Chile in the other semi-final, which also proved a tight affair until Harris allowed some errors to creep in at about half distance to drop eight seconds back at the finish.
That brought the two fastest qualifiers together for the final, but a mad opening 90 seconds from Blanc put paid to his chances. The French driver slid off the road early on and began to take bigger risks to make the gap up – culminating in a near-roll.
Pankkonen became the first champion on the new platform for Esports WRC, which will return in full later this year pending an official announcement.
Gallo claims Gran Turismo Race of Champions crown
A first of its kind event saw Gran Turismo’s series champions from the first series in 2018 to the recent winners in Barcelona assemble in Tokyo for a one-off Race of Champions.
The driver line-up for the race was nothing short of elite, with the 12 participants holding 27 Gran Turismo world titles between them. Appropriately for such a field, the race consisted of a five-lap shootout at the Nürburgring 24h circuit, with mixed weather conditions and a very ‘Gran Turismo’ –style mix of performance road cars specially tuned to be roughly equal.
Mehdi Hafidi continued his 2023 form by taking pole position, but in the damp opening exchanges he was shuffled back as the mid-engined cars of Kylian Drumont, Mikail Hizal, and Takuma Miyazono hit the front.
Hizal took the lead starting the second lap, out-braking Drumont into the hairpin, and began to stretch his legs on the drying track as the battles erupted behind him. That also saw Fraga sneak up into second as the cars ran four-wide down Dottinger Hohe, and as the field pitted for slicks it was Hizal, Fraga, and Valerio Gallo making a break at the front.
The fast Angstkurve lived up to its name though, accounting for both Hizal and Fraga in successive laps while battling with Gallo, leaving the Italian free and clear to claim the crown as GT’s champion of champions.