Jeroen Kweekel entered the weekend with a commanding lead in the drivers’ standings, the Dutchman 46 points clear of nearest rival Jim Parisis. Parisis, conversely, was locked in an intense battle for second in the championship, with Kuba Brzezinski, Muhammed Patel, Jernej Simoncic, and Daniel Kiss all less than 25 points behind. In the teams' standings Origin Front Row (OFR) Racing, spearheaded by Kweekel, held a narrow lead over Thrustmaster Twister Racing, led by Hungarian driver Kiss.
The fast and tight Suzuka Circuit quickly caught out a number of drivers. Parisis, the first driver out on track, ran wide at Turn 2 on his first lap; Carlos Martin and Mike Partington spun moments later both in sector 3. Nearly five minutes in Kiss set the first competitive time, posting a 1m 32.363s. Kweekel followed closely and slotted in a tenth and a half behind him, before Simoncic, coming off his maiden World Championship win last time out in Singapore, went two tenths faster than Kiss for provisional pole. That time would prove unbeatable for the next couple of runs, as multiple drivers set quick first or second sector times before making an error. Kiss and Kweekel got closest to usurping him, both getting within a tenth of the Ghostspeed car’s time. Parisis and reigning champion Petar Brljak were struggling uncharacteristically, losing their first two laps to mistakes before finally completing a lap at the third time of asking. Patel curiously remained in his garage for most of qualifying, but finally emerged with six minutes to go, leaving him time for only two flying laps. Martin in the Brehm GP car was the first to set his fourth and final lap, but failed to improve on fourth after an average last sector. Simoncic then set a storming middle sector and improved by seven hundredths, but Kweekel having crossed the line seconds earlier snatched pole by 0.037s- fascinatingly, without setting any outright fastest sectors, a possibly slightly conservative approach paying dividends. Kiss headed the best of the rest, over a tenth behind Simoncic. Martin and James Sadler were the surprise packages of the session, qualifying fourth and sixth respectively, while World Championship rookie Martin Stefanko impressed with fifth. Patel and Brljak disappointed by their usual standards, managing only ninth and twelfth.
Polesitter Kweekel had a slow getaway, allowing Simoncic to draw alongside him and claim the inside line for Turn 1. Kweekel tried to fight back around the outside, but on cold tyres and a full tank of fuel drifted way wide. The excursion was short but costly, and he was down in fifth by the time he rejoined the track. As the cars streamed through the S-Curves and the Degners Kamil Lyzwa got a good run on Victor Ivanov for 11th place; Ivanov tried to fight back but braked too late for the hairpin and lost the rear of his car. Brljak and Danny van der Niet were the unfortunate victims of the incident, both losing their front wings.
Above: Kweekel (left) runs wide, allowing Simoncic (right) into the lead.
Below: Ivanov (second from right) spins at the hairpin.
After a messy first lap the field settled into a slight rhythm, but it wasn’t long before the action started up again- unsurprisingly, through drivers making mistakes all around the circuit. On lap 4 Daniel Brewer, standing in for the absent Brzezinski, had a spin similar to Ivanov’s at the hairpin; just one lap later George Manousakis lost the rear of his VBMadCape car after clipping the outside kerb in the middle of Spoon Curve. On lap 7 Parisis made a seemingly unforced error, repeating his qualifying mistake by drifting wide through Turn 1 and getting his car stuck on the outside kerb, leaving him unable to turn in for Turn 2 and allowing Kweekel through into fourth. On the next lap Dian Kostadinov put the power down a little too hastily out of Degner 2, but was able to continue albeit with a few cars getting past. Meanwhile at the front Simoncic was unable to pull away from the pack as he had done in Singapore; behind him Martin had a few looks at passing Kiss into Turn 1, but Kiss defended resolutely and kept him behind.
With the top 11 cars covered by nine seconds the possibility of huge gains through an undercut was certainly present, and on lap 12 Stefanko and Lyzwa pulled the trigger, diving in for fresh option tyres. Unfortunately for Stefanko he emerged right behind a train of three cars that had yet to pit, compromising his out-lap. As expected a chain reaction of cars pitting was triggered, Sadler and Adam Maguire coming in next time round from seventh and ninth. Meanwhile Patel got past Parisis going into Turn 1; seconds later Michi Hoyer tried the same move on David Greco but made contact and spun off into the barriers. On lap 14 Kiss and Martin dived into the pits together, and one lap later leader Simoncic pitted and covered off the undercut. Kweekel and Parisis then came in on the same lap, opting for the prime tyres unlike those around them. Kiss in the meantime had caught up to Greco, still on his starting set of primes, and got past coming out of Spoon; Martin then bravely followed him through with a daring move up the inside of 130R. The overtake by Kiss would immediately prove crucial: Simoncic ran very wide exiting Turn 1 on the next lap and rejoined the track level with Kiss. The two cars made slight contact, before Kiss with the momentum (and cleaner tyres) swept around the outside of Turn 3.
Kiss (right) takes the lead from Simoncic (onboard).
A little further back, Greco was showing a worrying lack of pace on primes that were only 18 laps old, though it would later transpire that the NetRex Grand Prix driver was on a one-stop strategy and therefore having to preserve his tyres. Kweekel, Patel, Stefanko, and Parisis all got past with relatively little trouble, but when Partington tried an opportunistic move through Turns 3 and 4 he made contact with Greco, spinning and losing a chunk of time. Back at the front Patel on the options had caught Kweekel, and on lap 21 got a great run on the OFR Racing car and swept round the outside of Turn 1. The pair made slight contact and Kweekel was tipped into a half-spin, but he quickly recovered without losing too much time.
Patel (right) sweeps past Kweekel (left).
The wear on Greco’s tyres was starting to show, and on lap 23 he lost the rear through 130R, just managing to avoid contact with the left-hand-side wall. Partington got past in the process, no doubt feeling slightly vindicated after his clash with Greco a number of laps before. As the second pit stop window for those on options approached, Simoncic closed back in on race leader Kiss, and on lap 27 went side by side with him through Turns 1 and 2. Again however Kiss produced an astute defence and held on to the lead. Kiss then pre-empted the undercut by Simoncic and pitted, while Martin followed him in. Next time around Simoncic pitted, but disastrously overshot his pit box and had to reverse into position. When he emerged from the pit lane Martin swept through into second place by a few car lengths. Patel was the last of the top option runners to stop, one lap later, and Kweekel and Parisis now led the race, still on their second set of tyres.
On lap 34 Greco finally came in for his one and only stop, leaving himself with a 19 lap stint to do on options. Five laps later Kweekel and Parisis pitted for their last set of options, and set about chasing down the five cars in front of them on older prime tyres. After a period of relative calm the action kicked off again: on lap 39 Patel made a mistake at the Casio Triangle chicane, completely missing the corner; Stefanko consequently blasted past down the main straight. One lap after Brewer appeared to turn onto the grass exiting Spoon Curve, a bizarre incident that was a result of a real-life hardware mishap- his pedal set slipping off his wheel stand. Not half a lap later, Giordano Valeriano oversteered exiting the chicane and careened straight into the wall between the race track and the pit lane. Both cars retired immediately.
The leading group of seven cars was now closing up, as the various tyre strategies and stint lengths converged on one another. On lap 45 Kweekel arrived on the gearbox of fourth-placed Patel, who himself was within DRS range of Stefanko in third. After a few laps of nose-to-tail running, half-baked overtaking attempts, and a near-spin for Kweekel at the chicane, Martin in second was passed by Simoncic before running wide at Degner 2; this dropped him back into a now four-way battle for the final podium spot. Patel ran wide at 130R, allowing Kweekel to get alongside into the chicane and subsequently past into fifth; immediately after Stefanko attacked Martin into Turn 1 but ran wide and rejoined right alongside Kweekel. Kweekel ceded the position into Turn 3 but the excitement was far from over. Over the next lap Stefanko and Kweekel closed right back up to Martin, but entering the hairpin Kweekel experienced a momentary lag spike; Patel tried to take advantage of his resulting hesitation but had a moment of oversteer through the long right hander before Spoon. Now on the penultimate lap Stefanko had another go at Martin, and they ran side by side through the first three turns before the Avid Chronic Racing driver finally prevailed. Kweekel had closed right up in the process, but as Martin struggled to regain his rhythm through the S-Curves Kweekel misjudged his closing speed and hit the back of Martin. The Brehm GP car skidded across the grass and back onto the track, and went straight into the side of an unsighted Kweekel. Martin ended up in the barriers, while Kweekel lost a place to Patel but managed to keep going.
Above: Stefanko (right) passes Martin (left), and behind them Kweekel (left) holds off Patel (right).
Below: Kweekel (second from right) spins; Martin (far left) flies off into the barriers.
The action was still not over, as Simoncic had been gaining on Kiss ever since passing Martin a number of laps back. Simoncic got within DRS range on the final lap and tried a desperate lunge into the Casio Triangle, but he was never quite close enough and Kiss held on for the win. Then as Patel crossed the line behind third-placed Stefanko, he was mysteriously dropped to 15th in the live timing, behind a number of drivers who had yet to cross the line. This was later revealed to be a time penalty wrongly awarded to Patel by the simulation software, and his fourth place finish was reinstated. Kweekel limped home in fifth, while Parisis- having been right on the back of the Kweekel-Patel battle before a spin at Spoon Curve- was sixth. Lyzwa, Partington, and Sadler followed, while Dewald Nel completed an impressive recovery drive from the pit lane to finish 10th. Greco was eleventh, just missing out on a points finish with his alternative one-stop strategy, while there were eight non-finishers, including Brljak who strangely retired on lap 31 during a seemingly routine pit stop.
Kweekel took another step towards his maiden FSR World Championship title, as his rivals continued to take points off one another. Kiss and Simoncic overtook Patel for third and fourth in the standings, while Parisis was now just three points clear in second. In the teams’ championship Twister closed in on Origin Front Row, the two outfits now separated by just 18 points.
The championship next heads to the Sepang International Circuit for the Malaysian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.