As far as championships specialising in endurance racing go, SRO’s Intercontinental GT Challenge Esports (IGTCE) has to be up there. Held on the Assetto Corsa Competizione platform, its five-round 2023 calendar features some all-timer circuits. For those of Australian persuasion, none will be as legendary as Mount Panorama – location of the season opener.
Twelve hours of this 6.2km circuit sounds brutal. It most certainly is. Yet, a staggering 47 machines (comprising of over 180 drivers total), would take to the grid in one of sim racing’s largest offerings competition-wise. A prize pool of €58,000 has been laid on the line for this year’s competition.
McLaren Veloce knows full well what it takes to grab the lion’s share having won in 2022. They join many other esteemed entries such as Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari, G2 Esports, Williams Esports, and Lamborghini. To defend their title might just be a tougher task than earning it in the first place.
For those supporting the reigning champions, the season could not have started much better. The McLaren Veloce entry, driven sublimely by Luke Whitehead, was the only car into the 1:59s. A guaranteed pole position. Beside him would be the Mercedes-AMG Unicorns of Love #14 qualified by Tobias Gronewald.
The second row comprised of the #25 ITB Sainteloc and the #555 Mercedes-AMG Williams Esports machines with Scuderia Ferrari fifth on the grid thanks to Jordan Sherratt. Two classes are established in IGTCE; Pro and Silver. In pole position for the latter category was Marco Jonkers of BMW Romania.
It does not get more cinematic than this. In the pitch black of night, twelve hours of the mountain got underway with nobody falling afoul of Hell Corner. Yet hell was certainly on the way for Whitehead as his lead was immediately under threat by not one but two cars. Entering Griffins Bend, the Veloce was caught on the outside in a big way and spat into the wall.
The pole sitters were ninth upon finding their footing once more.
This left Tobias Pfeffer and his Mercedes-AMG Unicorns of Love machine in first ahead of Dáire McCormack’s similar Williams Esports example, with Sherratt’s Ferrari just behind; the ITB Sainteloc of Kamil Pawlowski getting caught up in the fracas and ultimately given a time penalty. The South African was showing the best pace of the trio chasing Pfeffer; making the most of it passing both McCormack and the German in the first half hour.
As morning broke, our narrative became all the clearer. Pfeffer simply could not sustain front-running pace. After the first set of stops, not only were they seventh but holding a time penalty of their own for an earlier incident. Ferrari had steamed forward to a ten-second advantage over the #555 Williams car and a resurgent McLaren Veloce was now in third.
Grantas Kareckas had been lighting up the timesheets thus it was no surprise to see Dominik Blajer, as good as he is, slipping back to third. Stewards never enjoy a busy day, yet plenty of work had to be done and Blajer himself came a cropper. This invited the Mercedes HRT outfit to the podium conversation.
Just over three hours in, the hard graft from McLaren Veloce paid off as they wrestled back the lead. The timing of the pitstops at this moment ensured a thrilling duel between the two teams; Maciej Malinowski and Sherratt showing each other plenty of respect. A hairy moment down the Conrod Straight did not dispel Sherratt’s belief in an overtake through the chase and that belief was well-founded.
As others served their penalties, the Lamborgini and SMP entries rose past Mercedes HRT to battle for the podium. Almost exactly on the five-hour marker, it was Vyacheslav Abuladze who turned the tide in favour of SMP. Danilo Santoro did his best to keep them honest although, with another pitstop phase interrupting the pursuit, a gap emerged.
Some thirty minutes later, another twist in the lead battle saw McLaren Veloce out of the pits having gained thirty-second on its rivals. For whatever reason, Ferrari now sat fifteen seconds behind and with a further five-second penalty to serve. Another ten-second hammer blow was yet to be delivered, meaning that with three hours to go, Ferrari was fighting to stay on the podium.
That particular task they were able to achieve, yet as time dwindled down there was no hope to overturn the extraordinary efforts of McLaren Veloce. From pole position to ninth with damage and back to the front again; this was a drive worthy of champions. They will only hope that the next round won’t be so tumultuous.
Mobileye Intercontinental GT Challenge Esports Round 1, Pro Class results
- McLaren Veloce – L. Whitehead/G. Boothby/G. Kareckas/M. Malinowski
- Scuderia Ferrari Esports Team – J. Sherratt/C. Harteveld/A. Capoccia/J. Riley
- Automobili Lamborghini Esports Team – D. Santoro/D. Tonizza/L. Losio/M. Crupi
- SMP Racing Esports – A. Smolyar/V. Abuladze/M. Bykov/D. Tylyk
- Mercedes-AMG Esports Team Unicorns of Love – B. Richter/T. Pfeffer/T. Gronewald/M. Tauscher
Mobileye Intercontinental GT Challenge Esports Round 1, Silver Class results
- West Competition Racing – Harris Mitropoulos/Tadas Juknevicius/Zaahir Essa/Marc Tol
- YAS Heat Esports – V. Barrier/J. Honzik/E. Marhilevics/S. Arnold
- RennWelten eSports Red – J. Apel/L. Berndt/T. Pietschmann/L. Lucaẞen
- Ratòn Racing Esports by QLASH – A. Miatto/M. Macrì/M. Marchi/A. Turato
- BMW Romania Team West Competition Racing – S. Apostol/M. Jonkers/V. Nicolae/A. Miclea
Featured image courtesy of Maciej Malinowski, Veloce Esports