For the first time in its history, the Gran Turismo Championships was going to be held exclusively online. A bitter pill for some to swallow. The series, famed for its LAN events, however, had prepared itself well and the results would prove to be spectacular in nature.
The season would cover four ‘FIA World Series’ events starting in June and coming to a conclusion in November. A ‘Showdown’ would split these at the halfway point offering a Finals-esque experience. Also of note was the Olympic Virtual Series; a non-championship event directly under the banner of the Olympic Games.
With the World Finals set for early December, this more condensed calendar offered viewers much better pacing in regards to the Manufacturers’ Series and Nations Cup narratives. And what narratives they became.
A huge array of drivers have found success to some degree in Gran Turismo, whether that be through individual or team efforts. Yet not since the very first World Championships event in 2018 had there been an Italian in the spotlight. Giorgio Mangano’s Nations Cup glory was a distant memory.
Enter Valerio Gallo.
The Rome-based 21-year-old had been outspoken about Gran Turismo back in 2020 but had shown pace to suggest something more was on the horizon. That something arrived at the first World Series where, in Monza of all places, he bested veterans Patrick Blazsán and Coque López to the first win of the Nations Cup season. A massive three points that netted a ticket to the exclusive Showdown come August.
Coupled to this early statement would be Gallo’s confidence-boosting Olympic success. Although heading into the final race of three an underdog, misfortune for Baptiste Beauvois opened up the door to a straight shootout with Mikail Hizal; two-times World Champion across both disciplines. Not only did the Williams-contracted driver dominate most of the proceedings at Dragon Trail, but he managed to hold off Hizal with tyres two steps more durable in compound.
Over in the Manufacturers’ Series, reigning champions Subaru got off to a decent start thanks to the efforts of 2020’s superstar, Takuma Miyazono. The Japanese pilot came home third at Suzuka to Porsche’s Angel Inostroza and Mazda’s Ryota Kokubun.
With the Olympic Virtual Series in the books, attention turned towards the second World Series and impending Showdown which offered up an online LAN-style environment for the drivers and teams
Subaru continued to go from strength to strength. Miyazono’s Suzuka podium would be followed by victory at the Nürburgring. Considering that neither Inostroza or Kokubun hit the podium this time around, things were looking ominous for the other outfits. Gallo took his rich vein of form into this race also, picking up a first podium of the year for Honda.
All was looking perfect for Italy’s new hero at Laguna Seca as well, where the Nations Cup race was led by Tomoaki Yamanaka for only the briefest of moments. This particular contest would ultimately become a disaster for the still inexperienced frontrunner. Breaking under the pressure both in battle and via the medium of track excursion penalties, he would finish dead last whilst Blazsán nicked the win.
The Showdown itself was a great chance to flip the script so to speak. Toyota most certainly did that on the Manufacturers’ side of things. From not scoring a single point in either World Series thus far, through Yamanaka and returning legend Igor Fraga, the 2019 championship-winning organisation buried Subaru who had three races to forget.
Gallo, meanwhile, slipped up again. In what would become a duel between himself and Kokubun for victory in the Nations Cup, the Italian outbroke himself at the first sign of pressure allowing an advantaged Ryota to slip by with ease.
Porsche vs. Toyota, Gallo Steels Himself
After a worryingly strong mid-season performance from Toyota, Porsche fans rested easy following the third World Series event, with their team back on top thanks to Jose Serrano. The young Spaniard was catching the eye of pundits with many looking to 2022 for his first championship charge.
Placed into an Audi R8 LMS for the Nations Cup, Serrano followed up his win with a second visit to the podium for 2nd. Albeit in slightly dubious circumstances, Gallo was back on top with a win in the Willow Springs. Some argued that unpunished contact with race leader and rookie Quentin Jehoul was a lucky break. Sometimes that’s all you need in motorsport be it real or virtual.
Back to back success was achieved at Fuji Speedway where the Italian’s race management was tested to its limit. Serrano, Fraga and Yamanaka were all just as likely winners but Gallo’s third set of three points put him in a commanding position for the World Finals.
Fraga himself would not be too disappointed as, earlier that evening in World Series 4, he grabbed his second win for Toyota that season with Porsche’s Serrano some way back in third.
Oh Yeah, It’s All Coming Together
As had been the case last year, the 2021 FIA Gran Turismo Championships World Finals opened with the second non-championship event of the season, the Toyota GAZOO Racing GT Cup.
Both previous winners, Hizal and Miyazono, can proudly attribute world titles to their names and this year’s winner was ultimately no different. In poetic and magnificent fashion, Yamanaka dethroned Miyazono on track at Indianapolis.
With the entrée dusted off, it was time to get into the main course. The Manufacturers’ Series was up first and if the Showdown was a warning shot then the World Finals was Toyota going for the kill. The squad of López, Yamanaka and Fraga performed the unprecedented clean sweep over the field leaving Porsche, Subaru and the late-charging Mazda squad spluttering in their wake.
Things would be less concrete in the Nations Cup on Sunday where three regional semi-finals led into the Grand Final. Gallo was still heavily favourite heading into Dragon Trail but strong performances from Miyazono, Luca Bonelli and Serrano once again had left him needing a strong performance to get the job done.
It was a race-worthy of the final outing for GT Sport featuring a simply stunning drive by Baptiste Beauvois from the back of the grid to lead in the final stages. But just like the Olympic Virtual Series, his hopes were dashed only this time in the dying embers as a stronger strategy came good for Gallo who had Qualified well and used his favourable track position masterfully.
It was by no means a perfect run to the throne, but Valerio Gallo had been forged in the fire of 2021. The first Italian to win a major Gran Turismo event since Mangano.