iRacing Special Event – 24 Hours of Spa
July 22-23 saw the next iRacing Special Event of 2017, the 24 Hours of Spa. This mirrors the real life 24 Hours of Spa, an event that has been taking place in in Belgium since 1923.
The race was conceived by Jules de Their and Henri Langlois Van Ophem just one year after the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans was run. It debuted over a 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) circuit, on public roads between the towns of Francorchamps, Malmedy and Stavelot. The track has seen several revisions, the present 7.004 kilometres (4.352 mi) circuit was inaugurated in 1979, and has had only minor revisions since.
The current event is part of the Blancpain Endurance Series calendar, although it previously ran as part of the FIA GT Championship which featured GT1 and GT2 machinery, and by various touring car series. Currently, the cars fall under the FIA GT3 and GT3 Cup classifications.
The iRacing event gave the competing teams a choice of five GT3 cars, though the vast majority of teams opted for the Mercedes AMG GT3, which lent the grids a very homogenised look. For the Legends, the choice was only ever between the Mercedes and the Audi, as these were the only GT3 cars available for the iRacing IMSA series, Blancpain Sprint and Endurance Series, the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen iRacing Special event, and the Spa 24, and the Mercedes was the preferred option regardless of performance. The lop-sided car selection once again indicates that iRacing’s Balance of Performance (BoP) requires addressing. There were 133 Mercedes cars between the top 3 splits, and a mere 35 teams choosing one of the other GT3 cars. In simracing, as in the real world, BoP is an evil, but a probably necessary one. Participants competitivity should not compromised by vehicle selection, and as it stands, it is. With each new season, the BoP is readdressed – but for the tracks for the season as a whole, not for individual venues. With teams and drivers under no obligation to drive the same vehicle, allowing driving whichever is the most competitive car at each venue. For this event in particular, the BoP was flawed, and highlights that perhaps future special events should have the BoP set independently.
The #501 Legends Racing Mercedes AMG GT3 would start in split 2 of 8, starting 42nd of 56 entrants. This was the expected split, but somewhat further back on the grid than hoped for! The familiar names of Black Adder Motorsports, Gathering of Tweakers, Probatum Racing, GTL-VRT, SimatoK eSport, and FitzSty Motorsport were distributed throughout the field, there were to be no surprises with regards to the level of the competition. Having established where the team would start, attention turned to expectations for the race. Given the pace on display at the front of the race, any dreams of finishing the race on the podium would likely remain just that, a top 15 finish was still a lofty goal and that was the target that was decided upon.
Rates of attrition are often high in events such as this, contact with other cars (or the scenery) – even if not proving race ending – invariably compromises the car’s performance and incurs a significant time penalty through a required visit to the pits. It is often said in racing that you cannot win a race at the first turn, but you can lose it. In endurance racing the same can be said of the first hour – successfully navigating this hectic period of the race is critical. Adam Kell took responsibility for the first couple of hours of the race and avoided the numerous potential pitfalls, most of which presented themselves in the first few laps. Avoiding “divebombs” and stricken cars cost the team several early places, but the benefits of an undamaged car significantly outweigh such short-term losses. FitzSty Motorsport were gridded just one place ahead of the Legends entry, and expected to present a race long challenge. This challenge wouldn’t materialise though, a lap 3 incident leaving them several laps behind with only the first few minutes of the 24 hours recorded, and making a long race suddenly seem that much longer for them.
After the initial loss of places, Kell advanced, settling down in 44th place, with three teams in touching distance ahead. With few opportunities for fuel saving in the hectic first hour, Kell brought the Legends Mercedes into the pits on lap 27 for the first of many stops. The second hour of the race set the tone for the next twenty-two, with Kell lapping steadily and moving up the standings. With 120 minutes of the race run, the team had moved up to 40th place as Kell handed over to Adam Parle on lap 53. The march up the standings continued with through stints three and four, and after an undramatic double stint, Adam handed over to Darren with the team having advanced to 30th. The incident count for the team was also steadily increasing, though at a significantly reduced rate to the rest of the field.
For the uninitiated, iRacing operates an automatic incident system, 0x for incidental contact, 1x for “off track”, 2x for a loss of control, and 4x for car to car contact. It is a blameless system, so if two cars collide, both get 4x assessed regardless of who is at fault. This is meant to encourage clean driving, as incidents reduce your safety rating, which is intrinsically linked to your license level, and your license level dictates what evens you can compete in. Typically iRating events have a 17x limit, after which competitors are disqualified, but no such limit exists in the 24 hour events and so if willing, unscrupulous drivers and teams can effectively trade their safety rating for speed. Through the top three splits, there were some 59000+ incident points logged. The race saw many drivers dropping from an A license to a C or D, and this event will now likely be a catalyst for changing how these longer “special” races are handled.
After the two Adams brought the team from 42nd to 30th, Darren’s consistency and pace saw him gain another six places through his double stint, and with six and a half hours run, Gary Hickman took over in 24th place.
Inevitably, the further up the standings the quartet moved, the harder any further advancements were proving. Nonetheless, throughout the night more positions were gained, although some minor damage was picked up throughout this period after a car-to-car contact. The damage was cosmetic only though, mere seconds being required to rectify any problems. At the 15 hour mark the team were running in 21st, though as teams pitted the team would briefly move as high as 18th.
By the end of hour 19 the team had moved into the top 20, and with 5 hours left in the race focus fell on strategy, and ensuring that a costly “splash and dash” wouldn’t be required at the end of the race by running for an additional lap in each stint.
Having fought long and hard to advance to 20th, two places were then gifted to the team, firstly with SimatoK eSport’s unassisted visit into the barriers at La Source, and then with some madness involving Horizons at the bus stop – a reckless pass/divebomb causing the backmarker to see red, retaliate, and inflict massive damage on the highly placed team. Consequently, with 180 minutes remaining in the race, the #501 machine was sitting in 18th.
Gary Hickman’s final time in the car saw a gamble taken, with Gary double stinting the tyres. The move saved some 20 seconds, and moved the team into a fight with BerlinSimSport and GermanSimracing.de. Whilst the battle continued, elsewhere on track the was another significant casualty – with the Real Championship entry tangling with Probatum Racing on lap 533. The team that started from pole had race ending damage from the incident, and once more the Legends were gifted another position. When Gary handed over the Adam Parle, who had the honour of piloting the car to the finish, bringing the car home in 15th place. Adam brought the car safely home, the team having completed 586 laps– a total of 4104.344km driven.
Barring a few bent body panels and some traded paintwork, the race went very much to plan for the team. There were no required repairs, minimal optional repairs, and the pit schedule went as planned. There were no hardware dramas, no connection or server dramas, none of the problems that plagued the iRacing Daytona 24 Hour race. On track, whilst the team witnessed some dangerous driving, some unfathomable choices, and some sheer bad luck, it was seldom witnessed first-hand. Whilst never in a position to trouble the top-10 in the field, it was nonetheless a very strong showing from the team.