Bentley squad wins despite lap-one collision to ignite championship challenge
Dramatic conclusion sees Unicorns of Love and Team Rocket RJN secure podium finishes
The battle for the inaugural GT World Challenge Europe Esports Endurance Series title will go down to the wire after a dramatic six-hour race at the Nürburgring saw the gap narrow at the top of the standings.
The #191 Racing Line Motorsport Bentley took the chequered flag and a crucial 25 points, but not before several others had led at the German venue. With heavy rain falling and the in-game clock running from 18:00, it was clear that this would be among the most action-packed events of the season.
The drama began immediately when the #62 BMW SIM Racing G2 Esports car clipped the Bentley, rotating the front-row starter and earning itself a penalty in the process. If that wasn't enough, the championship-leading FDA Esports Team Ferrari was left with nowhere to go and made contact with the Bentley, causing damage to the 488 GT3 and dropping David Tonizza down the order.
At this point it seemed highly unlikely that the Racing Line Motorsport crew of Siclari/Schinz/Erbrich would challenge for victory. The Saintéloc by R8G Audi led the opening stint from pole, with Tobias Pfeffer setting a strong pace at the head of the field. The Audi remained in control when Pfeffer handed over to Giorgio Simonini for the second hour, but the double-stinting Tobias Gronewald (#14 Unicorns of Love Mercedes-AMG) was very much on the prowl.
After closing down the Audi, Gronewald captured the lead with an aggressive move at turn 1 just after the 90-minute mark. The Mercedes driver was subsequently handed a five-second penalty for the pass, but had already broken clear by this stage. His advantage was stretched further when the #157 Audi spun into the gravel due to a technical problem, effectively ending another strong run from the Saintéloc by R8G crew.
The #14 Mercedes now looked to be in control, but at the next stop the Unicorns of Love squad made the surprising decision to fit slick tyres while the circuit was still wet. This made life extremely difficult for Lars Kisser, who lost significant time and dropped out of contention during the third hour. The beneficiary was the #88 VRS Coanda Simsport Porsche, which moved into the lead and looked comfortable at the head of the field. The rain did ease up, but not quickly enough to give Unicorns of Love the advantage they had hoped for.
It was then the Coanda squad's turn to hit problems: one member from each of its crews was unable to enter the race, which contravened the rule that teams must field three drivers. As such the #18 and #88 Porsches were both disqualified, promoting the #191 Bentley to the lead. The team had been making steady progress after the early spin and gained significant ground by double-stinting their tyres when the rain eased off. Kevin Siclari had taken second spot shortly after half-distance and, when the #88 Porsche was disqualified, the Bentley moved into the lead.
At this point the race for victory settled down. Having taken a front-row spot in qualifying, it was no surprise that the #191 Bentley had the pace to edge away at the front of the field over the second half of the race. Marek Schinz was at the wheel for the final hour, taking the chequered flag to give Racing Line Motorsport a superb comeback victory, as well as a vital haul of 25 championship points.
While there was no drama at the front, the battle behind grew more frantic as the clock ticked down. The final laps found James Baldwin (Team Rocket RJN) in electrifying form as he passed Jack Keithley (Williams Esports Aston Martin) for third with 35 minutes remaining and then closed down Jaroslav 'Jardier' Honzik (YAS HEAT McLaren) for second. But the experienced Jardier was in supreme defensive form and held Baldwin off during the closing stages. The British driver finally completed his move on the last lap of the race, but Jardier came back strong and drew alongside after Baldwin went too deep at the chicane. There was contact, which caused the RJN car to spin while Jardier continued.
Inevitably, the collision went to the stewards, who penalised the YAS HEAT driver. This gave Unicorns of Love runner-up spot, despite starting the final lap in fourth spot, while Baldwin took third for RJN and the YAS HEAT squad had to settle for fourth.
A number of penalties were handed out at the finish due to teams exceeding the maximum stint time. As such, the final result saw the #62 BMW SIM Racing G2 Esports crew take fifth after an eventful race that included the early penalty and a spin caused by contact from Baldwin. Williams Esports was sixth ahead of fellow Aston Martin runner SideMax Motorworks - FFS Racing, while Mercedes-AMG squad Haupt Racing Team Schindler earned its best result of the season by taking eighth. DV1 TRITON Racing (Lamborghini) and Odox Motorsport (Audi) completed the top-10.
Having entered the race 37 points off the championship lead, Racing Line Motorsport is just 12 shy heading into next month's finale after FDA Esports failed to score at the Nürburgring. The #51 Ferrari never fully recovered from the opening-lap contact and seemed ill at ease in wet conditions. It improved when the track dried, but then slipped back significantly during the closing stages. The #18 VRS Coanda Simsport Porsche also remains in the hunt despite today's disqualification, trailing the FDA crew by 19 points ahead of the decider.
The title will therefore be settled in a three-hour race at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, which closes the inaugural GT World Challenge Europe Esports Endurance Series campaign on 16 October.