The Race of Champions has always been a fun event, celebrating the best of today and years gone past. In 2018, the show opened its arms to the world of sim racing via the inaugural eRace of Champions.
Then came a triumph in recognising the legitimate real-world talent of virtual racers as the 2022 ‘ALL STARS’ team, formed by Jarno Opmeer and Lucas Blakeley, stunned the world.
More specifically, Blakeley picked up a heat win against four-time Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel.
Opmeer, having won the eRace of Champions last year, automatically qualified for the final of year’s edition. To be held (once again) in the Pite Havsbad, Sweden, experienced rFactor touring car specialist Martin Palm joins Opmeer as the official ‘home-grown’ representative. Blakeley, however, would have to try and return the hard way, competing alongside a truly awe-inspiring array of pilots.
Newly-crowned Gran Turismo Nations champion Coque López, master of many disciplines Kevin Siggy and 2018’s eRoC champion, Enzo Bonito, were three out of eight total pilots funnelled into an ‘invitational’ qualifier.
Another eight earned their spot for the evening through jockeying for the fastest hot lap online. Of this field, a second driver would punch a ticket to Sweden.
The first victory of the evening was Erhan Jajovski’s before a wheel had even been turned. Sadly, four-time WRC Esports champion Lohan Blanc fell ill before the event and failed to recover in time to participate; thus giving the North Macedonian a bye for the first round.
Blakeley would ultimately be the second driver confirmed through to the semi-finals after sweeping RaceRoom Racing Experience maestro Bence Bánki.
Next, a ‘Team Redline Derby’ was won by Bonito. in spite of a huge mistake from the Italian when faced with Diogo Pinto. At the conclusion of the second heat, his car veered out of control following the bridge jump. A costly mistake but not enough to sink the proverbial ship.
Another third heat decider arose between López and Siggy – both had endured two messy laps before their final runs. Potentially crowned as the last-ever DTM Esports champion, the Austro-Slovenian would fall after yet another flawed effort.
Online Qualifier quarter-finals
The fastest of the online qualifiers was 2021 Ferrari Esports champion Kamil Pawlowski and there was no doubt why. Across both quarter-final brackets, he was only the third driver confirmed through to the semis following a dominant sweep of Lucas Wollering.
Manuel Biancolilla, an Aston Martin driver across multiple sim disciplines, also enjoyed a 2-0 victory albeit in a less comfortable fashion versus Jack McIntyre.
Michael Romanidis may very well have shared the fates of Wollering and McIntyre had it not been for an extraordinary comeback against real-world rallycross specialist Tommi Hallman. Blown away in their first encounter, he was able to wrestle back control of the series in fine fashion.
Formula 1 Esports would meet the world of GTs in the semi-finals. Dominik Blajer eased past Killian Dall’Olmo, iRacing Off-Road race winner.
Blakeley’s hot form continued into the semi-finals. Bonito’s maximum pace just never seemed to be on par with the 2022 F1 Esports champion. Even though he managed to post his fastest time of the evening in Heat 2, Enzo’s night ended with a 2-0 defeat to the flying Scotsman.
Poor Jajovski, GTE winner at the recent 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, was noticeably cold as he took to the track for the first time. López was offered the first race at a canter whilst the second race did not go much differently.
Online qualifier semi-finals
Much like Blakeley before him, Pawlowski’s star credentials for this bracket appeared well-founded following another sensational performance. No slouch himself, Biancolilla put up a better fight in his second duel but still could not match the raw pace of one of Ferrari’s official academy drivers.
There was genuine intrigue as to who would meet Pawlowski in the finals; Blajer perhaps the narrowly favoured in tin top machinery. Yet, the young Greek was at it again. Heat 1 success took the winning streak to three races in a row although Blajer put the brakes on thanks to a stunning performance in Heat 2.
A nail-biting third encounter saw the pair separated by just over a tenth. Romanidis stormed the first half of the lap before Blajer threw caution to the wind across the second. Ultimately, it was Michael who progressed with some seriously concerning lap times for Pawlowski’s to mull over.
Nobody was saying it but everyone was thinking it; López had lucked out with his run through the invitational bracket. Siggy was off the pace and Jajovski was thrown into the deep end following a bye. This setting was where Blakeley demonstrated just why he deserved a spot on the plane to Sweden.
Scorching speed in Heat 1. A statement win in Heat 2. Blakeley would be vying for a second-consecutive appearance in the real-world Race of Champions.
For all the world it seemed as if Pawlowski would take Heat 1 against Romanidis with one of his more conservative lap times. That was until the Greek flew over the bridge jump and picked the pocket of the Pole by less than a tenth. It was a stunning recovery drive which only served to bolster the hopes of one of Williams Esports’ continuing roster into 2023.
Two finals produced two sweeps with Romanidis victorious yet again. Heartbreaking for Pawlowski but a brilliant campaign nonetheless.