Alexander Thiebe and Sergi Maturana put on clinics on how to fast at Circuit Zolder on the way to becoming the first winners of the new NGK & NTK Esports Cup season.

Thiebe of URANO Esports held off a late charge by Vince Peeters to take the win in the first of two sprint races on Dec. 15. Meanwhile, Maturana ran away from the rest of the pack in the second sprint – after a field invert – to take his victory by more than three seconds.

It was not only the series’ first time racing with Toyota GR86s in its history, but also its first races ever on iRacing.

“(Race 1) was quite good,” said Thiebe after the races. “It was really hard to pull away, so I had to make sure I didn’t cook the tires. That was a bit of a task and I struggled with that towards the middle of the race. By the last few laps, I could pull away again.”

Thiebe, who had previous experience in several iRacing world championship events, started off the opening round of the season from the pole after out-qualifying Norbert Leitner by a few tenths of a second. Jeffrey Lund, Peeters, and Daniel Muth rounded out the top five starting spots.

From the start, Thiebe controlled the pace of the main pack. After having a solid start in the opening corners, Thiebe built a one-second buffer early after Leitner hit the curbing in the Kleine Chicane, costing him a spot to Peeters by the midway point of Butte. Leitner’s battles continued in the following laps as both Muth and Veloce Esports’ Tamas Simon fought hard with him for third place. As a result, Thiebe and Peeters pulled away by three seconds from the next pack in the first 10 minutes.

As the first 25-minute sprint race approached the finish, Thiebe slowly started losing time to Peeters while trying to save his tires. Peeters, a driver for Visceral Esports, closed the one-second gap to under three-tenths in the span of five minutes.

However, it would not be enough.

Thiebe finished the race by not allowing a single car to go side-by-side with him – outside of coming to the green flag – the entire first race.

Peeters, Leitner, Simon, and Muth rounded out the first top five of the season.

“I was quite fine towards the end,” said Thiebe. “I would have preferred to pull away from (the field) this race. However, that wasn’t possible. It was just too strong.”

With the full field inverted for Race 2, several newcomers got the chance to showcase their speed up front.

Reuben Simmonite, Maturana and Dominik Plona led the field to the start in Race 2. As Simmonite and Maturana battled for the lead into Turn 1, half the field got involved in chaos after Noor Hendricks was spun into the heart of the pack. Chaos ensued as at least 10 drivers were sent into the gravel trap. Multiple drivers who battled up front in Race 1, including Thiebe, Muth, and Leitner, were all involved.

“I tried to survive, but Lap 1 was really chaotic,” said Thiebe. “My spotter didn’t tell me if there were four cars beside me or three, so I couldn’t see them. If I would have known that, I would have stayed more on the left side out of Turn 1, so I got turned around sadly. That cost me a potential top five or top three finish.”

Up front, like Race 1, the top two cars pulled away from the main pack quickly. Alexander Wewers attempted to charge up to third place quickly, zipping alongside Mergim Aliu in Sector 2. That allowed both Maturana and Simmonite to break away by more than a second by the end of the opening lap.

Maturana, who mentioned prior to the race about his love for the circuit due to past experiences there on iRacing, stayed composed much of the race. After Simmonite had a slowdown penalty, the Spaniard had a three-second lead by three seconds with 15 minutes to go.

Within four minutes, Simmonite fell back into the clutches of the main group. With 10 minutes to go, Apex Racing Team’s Gaël Valero set up a slingshot move out of Lucien Bianchibocht, using the better corner exit speed to get to the right side of Simmonite. By the time the two cars entered the Kleine Chicane, Valero was clear by several car lengths.

By the checkered flag, Valero had closed what had been a seven-second deficit to Maturana to under four seconds.

Alessio Bender, Peeters, and Alexander Wewers completed the top five.

During post-race interviews, RaceSpot commentator Connery Maddick told Valero he thought he had a Driver of the Day performance. While he called his qualifying performance “utterly shocking”, Maddick praised Valero’s race pace.

“It was all part of the plan. It was a plan made about five minutes before the race,” said Valero. “I thought ‘Race 1, we’ll start at the back. Then Race 2, (we have the) reverse grid and everyone who is slower is up front.’ Amazing.”

The next round of the NGK & NTK Esports Cup will take place at MotorLand Aragón on Jan. 19, 2024. Sign-ups for the second round open sometime in January 2024.

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