The Lionheart Indycar Series Presented by First Medical Equipment departs North America for the first time this season with a stop at the virtual Twin Ring Motegi oval on Wednesday, June 22nd.
The CART Retro Series 150 is an appropriate title for the Motegi event because the Honda-owned facility opened in 1998 with a CART-sanctioned race. Adrián Fernández won that inaugural race, and repeated as champion in 1999. Overall, CART visited Motegi for five seasons, while the Indycar series raced at the circuit for an additional nine years. During that time, Lionheart series namesake Dan Wheldon earned his first career Indycar win here in 2004, along with a repeat victory in 2005.
The oval portion of the circuit sustained damage during the 2011 earthquake and has never returned to use, meaning that Iracing's virtual re-creation is currently the only way to see Indycars racing at the Japanese track.
Lionheart last ran here during its first season in 2014. Of the 19 drivers who participated in that race, only 6 remain on the active roster. It's unclear if that experience will pay off for a league veteran, or if some of the league's newer members will be fastest to conquer the unique and challenging 1.5 mile circuit.
“Big Joe” Hassert is one of the six veterans who drove at Motegi in season one. Hassert qualified on pole for that race, and led 60 laps before difficulties dropped him to a disappointing fourteenth-place finish. Now, Hassert returns to Motegi in the midst of a slump that has seen him finish no higher than tenth in his last four starts. All signs point to a rebound for “Big Joe” this week; he has been fast in practice, and he should be a threat to win if he can remain clear of trouble in the 100-lap race.
Team NaildIt's Michael Gray has been enjoying much better fortunes of late, finishing fifth or higher in each of his last three races. Gray also competed at Motegi in season one, crossing the line in fifth – the highest finisher among active drivers. Although the Australian generally favours road courses, a solid finish at Milwaukee suggests that Gray should not be overlooked on the oval this week.
At the top of the standings, Jake Wright currently leads Jonathan Goke by 109 points, with James Krahula close behind in third. While all three drivers are threats to win again this week, none of them has started a Lionheart race at Motegi. Surprisingly, Jake Wright has yet to win an oval race this season, while Goke has two oval victories and Krahula one. Despite that, the pressure will be on Goke and Krahula, both of whom have struggled to post good results in recent events and can ill-afford to fall any further behind Wright.
Dark-horse picks this week include Brandon Limkemann, who has posted very solid practice times while running over 600 laps in preparation for the race. Also not to be forgotten is Milwaukee winner Joe Branch. Coming off his first series win, Branch excels at shorter ovals, and he will be tough to catch if he gets into clean air. Finally, rookie Brian Neff has been posting very impressive practice times and could find his way to a strong finish in just his third career race.
Lionheart will also welcome a new driver to the fold this week with Ronald Henrie joining the full-time roster. Henrie, the fourth Canadian in the paddock, will fill the fifth and final seat at AGR Motorsports.
The race will be broadcast on the Global Sim Racing Channel (GSRC) and Iracing Live beginning at 10:35PM ET. For more information about the Lionheart Indycar Series Presented by First Medical Equipment, please visit www.lionheartracingseries.com.