James Baldwin (McLaren Shadow) will take a two-point championship advantage into the GT World Challenge Europe Esports Sprint Series finale after edging title rival David Tonizza (FDA Esports Ferrari) in tonight's race at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya (29 October).
Tonizza had led the standings from the opening round of the season after exploding out of the blocks with three wins from four outings, but Baldwin has fought back over the second half of the campaign and edged in front with a stylish win in tonight's 60-minute Assetto Corsa Competizione contest.
He was made to work for it, however, as a rejuvenated Tonizza matched him every step of the way. It began with an ultra-close qualifying session that saw the McLaren driver edge his Ferrari rival by just 0.024s, ensuring that two of the fastest drivers in sim racing would share the front row of the grid.
This did not last long as Tonizza was passed by Maciej Malinowski (Random Pasta Bowl Porsche) through the opening sequence of corners, while Baldwin got a good launch to lead from pole. It was vital that Tonizza cleared the Porsche as quickly as possible to stay on terms with his title rival and the Italian wasted no time, drafting past Malinowski on the pit straight as the field began its second tour.
It took a few more laps, but he was soon on Baldwin's tail. The gap dwindled from half a second to a few tenths and it seemed as though an overtaking move was just a matter of time. But, try as he might, Tonizza did not have the top-end speed to get alongside the McLaren on the long run to turn 1.
The leaders stopped together with a little under half an hour left on the clock. They were were evenly matched yet again, ensuring that Baldwin exited just clear of Tonizza. If there was going to be a change for the lead, it would need to happen on-track.
The Ferrari closed to within a few tenths, but Tonizza faced the same problem as during the first stint: so long as Baldwin executed the final chicane cleanly, he would have enough in hand on the run to turn 1. Whether it was Baldwin unleashing a little extra pace or Tonizza accepting defeat, the McLaren was able to pull clear over the final few laps to win by two seconds – a small deficit, but still the biggest that Baldwin enjoyed throughout the entire race.
This completed an inch-perfect drive to victory, giving the McLaren Shadow ace his third win of the campaign and a two-point lead ahead of next month's finale at Spa-Francorchamps. It has been a remarkable turnaround from Baldwin, who was 53 points adrift of Tonizza just four races into the season.
Though beaten on the day, this result was no disaster for Tonizza. After back-to-back finishes outside the points the Italian was back to his best today and goes to the finale with the title in his hands: should he win at Spa, he will be champion regardless of Baldwin can do.
Malinowski came home third, securing his maiden podium in the series. Having run second on the opening lap he slipped back to fourth during the first stint when series newcomer Michael Tauscher (Unicorns of Love Porsche) made a pass on-track, but the Random Pasta Bowl driver jumped back ahead during the stops.
Daire McCormack also got ahead of Tauscher to finish fourth, matching his best result of the season, while the Unicorns of Love Porsche was a strong fifth on debut. Sixth went to Kevin Siggy (Team Redline McLaren), who was back in the points after two non-scores. The Porsches of Juri Petritchenko (AJAR Simracing Team) and Sam Bagnall (Indigo Lime Racing) were next, while Arthur Kammerer (BMW SIM Racing G2 Esports) made good progress from 15th to 9th and Niklas Houben (GTWR R8G Academy Audi) completed the top-10.
Tonizza and Baldwin are now the only drivers in title contention heading into the finale, which takes place on 12 November at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps. Hot-lap qualifying for the deciding contest will open on Monday 1 November and continue through Sunday 7 November. With nine races run and one remaining, the 2021 GT World Challenge Europe Esports Sprint Series champion is close to being crowned.