The WRC Esports Grand Final took place in Athens, Greece, and saw Frenchman Lohan ‘Nexl’ Blanc take a surprise win.
The 2022 edition of WRC Esports has been eventful, to say the least. Featuring five different winners from 12 events (it was meant to be 13, but more on that soon), the season looked like it was going to be a classic after the emergence of Japanese rookie Kazuho Iwata (Kazunokota) as a serious contender to the dominance of Lebanese teenager Sami-Joe Abi Nakhle.
Competitors, using Kylotonn’s official WRC 10 game, were gunning for eight vacant spots in the WRC Esports Grand Final, where a live televised tournament in the Athens Olympic Complex would decide the year’s overall champion.
After Round 7 of the regular season, Iwata was a no-show, but his early season form – including two wins – was still enough to secure a place at the Grand Final. However, his non-appearance at the tournament led to the inclusion of local WRC Esports competitor geoant27, who unfortunately finished last of the drivers on day one of the competition.
Of the other seven qualifiers, Abi Nakkhle won seven rallies, while Marco Bottinelli (Botti Jr), Michał Król (Katana) and John Bebnowicz-Harris (Izamusing) all took a single win apiece. Lillian Richard (Krim), Panagiotis Zeniou (Zeniou), and three-time WRC Esports champion Lohann Blanc (Nexl) France were the other hopefuls aiming for Grand Final glory.
However, after finishing 64 points ahead of Bebnowicz-Harris in the regular season standings, Abi Nakhle was still the red-hot favourite coming into the Grand Final, despite his – and Blanc’s – disqualification for corner-cutting on Rally Finland.
Cutting was a hot topic throughout the WRC Esports season in fact, as the results of Round 9’s Rally Sardinia were declared null and void due to the number of competitors illegally shortcutting stages. Thankfully, with the Grand Final being fully televised, there could be no arguments regarding legality.
Grand Final day one, semi-finals
The first day of competition took place on Wednesday (7th September), and after eight rally stages, four competitors would progress to battle it out for the title of 2022 WRC Esports Grand Final champion the following day.
Unsurprisingly, Abi Nakhle emerged as the early pace-setter, followed by Blanc, Bebnowicz-Harris and WIlliams Esports’ Bottinelli. Cypriot Zeniou was unfortunate to just miss out on the top four, being 13s behind Bottinelli, with Król and Richard further back. Greek substitute geoant27 was some way off the pace in eighth, nearly five minutes behind the leader.
Grand Final day two, the final
With the order set for the final showdown, the drivers were set to face four stages of head-to-head competition, featuring tests from Monte-Carlo, Finland, Greece and Japan rallies, totalling 58km.
The first stage saw an unusual mistake from Abi Nakhle, who compounded a sluggish start by spinning after clipping a barrier, citing wheelbase issues. The subsequent damage led to a time loss of nearly a minute, destroying the Lebanese teenager’s hopes of becoming champion again at an early stage.
Both Blanc and Bebnowicz-Harris opted for the mixed tyre to help over Monte’s slippery ice sections and the pair were separated by three seconds heading into stage two, with Blanc just shading his Race Clutch teammate. Bottinelli was further back in third with Abi-Nakhle seemingly already out of the hunt.
For stage two, Abi-Nakhle pushed hard to take the win by over seven seconds, with Bebnowicz-Harris making a small mistake to allow Blanc to extend his lead.
The historic 1983 Acropolis Rally stage was up next, and Abi Nakhle again proved to be the class of the field with a commanding performance, ending up six seconds ahead of his three rivals.
However, with one stage to go, it was Blanc who still held the overall lead by eight seconds from Bebnowicz-Harris. Bottinelli was third and Abi-Nakhle languished 47s off the pace in fourth.
The fourth stage was claimed by Abi Nakhle, blowing away the competition by 12s. However, it wasn’t enough to defeat Blanc, who crossed the line in first position after building a gap of over 16s to Bebnowicz-Harris in second.
Bottinelli clung onto a podium position in third, just six seconds ahead of the recovering Abi Nakhle.
“I’m really surprised and of course really happy because it’s a world championship. I’m really sorry for Sami because I saw at the beginning he was just dragging on the ice, but apparently, it was a problem so it’s really bad luck. That’s how it is, it’s part of motorsport and sim racing,” said 2022 Grand Final winner Blanc.
“It was a weird situation because I had to really manage my pace and was not expecting to struggle… it was pretty hard but I managed to get to the end, so I’m happy.” The Frenchman was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion, delighted at becoming a four-time WRC Esports champion and the 25,000€ prize money that goes with it.
His performance was all the more remarkable considering he was the only driver among the four finalists not to win during the regular season.
Have you enjoyed the twists and turns of this year’s WRC Esports series? Let us know in the comments below.
Images courtesy of WRC