Virtual fuel strategy was the name of Saturday’s IndyCar iRacing Challenge game at Twin Ring Motegi as changing packs of leaders shuffled to the front, then fell back as their tanks ran dry.
At the end of the 113-lap Firestone 175, it came down to two familiar protagonists as Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing fought for the win. The final surprise on the rapid oval was Simon Pagenaud, who watched as errors cleared the path for him to score back-to-back iRacing wins in the No. 22 Chevy.
“Today was a lot about tire saving, the right strategy once again,” said Pagenaud, who competed while wearing his real racing suit. “At the end it got a bit crazy. Yeah, what’s fun to me, it’s actually that you’re racing the exact same guys as usual, exact same moves as you would in real life. You keep turning your wheels in your head.
“Right now we’re not racing (on real tracks), so we’re racing (virtually) on the weekend. That gives me a lot of joy. The adrenaline was definitely at the maximum level at the end of the race.”
The win for Pagenaud at Motegi comes on the fourth-anniversary-plus-one-day of his first win for Team Penske, taken on April 17, 2016, at the Long Beach Grand Prix.
With 10 laps to go, Team Penske held a 1-2-3 until Arrow McLaren SP’s Oliver Askew slid up the track and made contact with leader Will Power, who was knocked up into teammate Scott McLaughlin. Power gathered up his No. 12 Chevy and kept moving, but McLaughlin wasn’t as fortunate as his No. 2 Chevy was pitched into the wall.
Pagenaud looked set to inherit the lead, but Power, missing his right-front wing, refused to back off. Banging wheels and defending without consideration of the Frenchman’s chances, Power would soon feel the effects of the damage as Ganassi’s Scott Dixon swooped by into second and set off after Pagenaud with five laps to go.
Dixon would make a hearty thrust inside Pagenaud on the final lap entering Turn 1, but his No. 9 Honda wiggled, forcing the New Zealander to lift and giving the Penske driver just enough breathing room to earn his second consecutive checkered flag.
But the action wasn’t exactly over at the front of the field: Dixon, having crossed the finish line, held the throttle down and hammered the back of Pagenaud’s slowing car in Turn 1. The end result saw the back of the Penske Chevy missing rear wing and bodywork while Dixon spun and flipped into the fencing—along with Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who hit the back of Dixon.
The end result left Pagenaud to turn celebratory donuts in a virtual car that was decidedly worse for wear.
“Honestly, what happened at the end, I didn’t know we were racing actually for the lead,” Dixon said. “I thought we were racing for second place. I was so focused on trying to get to the end, I didn’t even know we were racing for the win.
“Everybody’s racing hard. I thought it was awesome. It was a great show, a lot of fun. I think it was exciting. Simon did a hell of a job. That’s what it takes at the end to win, is you’ve got to take risks. Kudos to them. It was fun to be a part of it and fun to watch.”
Fourth at the finish was Dixon’s Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson, while Robert Wickens, the polewinner, wound up fifth.
Wickens’ pole-winning time was a stunner and the Arrows McLaren SP driver paced a lead pack of four cars that included Power, his rookie teammate Oliver Askew and Jack Harvey pulling away from the rest in the opening laps. But an early yellow flag and several dramas dropped the Canadian down the order; he clawed his way back, though, to claim a top-five.
Reigning NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch produced a steady performance after starting towards the back. Using a manual shifter on his stock car-based sim rig, the Nevada native soldiered home to 13th on his IndyCar iRacing debut.