After taking his third win of the season at Zandvoort, Maciek Sakowicz was now really standing out as the championship favourite in the ETCC, coming to Zolder with a 23 point gap back to Stephen King, who was going strong despite not winning a race yet, and an additional 27 point advantage over Donni Henriksen in third, who triumphed in the Dutch darkness.
Zolder would be a very tricky evening for the drivers. Lots of kerbs that were out to get you, a narrow surface and very tricky overtaking spots meant that contact was inevitable and there was potential drama on the horizon. Combine this with the grid gaining four newcomers and you've got yourself a great build-up to a race evening.
The four new drivers were;
#17 Mats Borge Andersen - a Norweigian driver joining Derrington Francis to replace the outgoing Kenny Mitchell.
#25 Mikey Doble - a man who had proven himself in the real world, racing in BMW Compact Cup and the Ginetta GT5 Challenge, replacing Ben Hoffmann at DNA Motorsport.
#26 Zack Gould - a viewer of the series from the start, deciding to take the leap and get on the grid. He would be racing for Dragonfly Competicion with Tim Cox.
#83 Mark Woodhouse - a sim racer that needs no introduction in the UK community. Always fast and consistent, but often just unlucky, joining EMKA Racing.
Woodhouse had gone fastest in Practice, albeit only just, instantly getting back into the rhythm with a car he'd competed in a lot throughout his time on iRacing, before the Audio RS3 LMS came along, but it was Mats Borge Andersen that would pull out a phenomenal lap in Qualifying to take the top spot, sitting there with a comfortable margin over the rest of the field for most of the session. Morgan Butler would grab 2nd with Woodhouse an impressive 3rd. Stephen King and Donni Henriksen would complete the five point scorers from the session, while Jason Rowe and Michael Blake would inherit the front row from 12th and 11th.
Round 7 - Sprint Race
Rowe got an excellent start and gained ground on the field but Sakowicz was incredible once again, getting up to 2nd place by the exit of Turn 1. Adam Wright ended up off the circuit in a bit of a melee but would carry on as the rest of the field scrambled for empty space. At the first chicane, contact between Doble and King would see Morgan Butler lose positions as an innocent bystander, before he accidentally gave Donni Henriksen a headbutt at the end of the lap.
A slow down for Stephen King would see him drop positions, setting the tone for what was going to be a tough evening. In recovery, he narrowly avoided an incident with Adam Wright before trying his hand at overtaking Ben Benneyworth, who was out of position down in 14th. Morgan Butler would receive yet more contact as Jacolette misjudged an overlap into Turn 1 - they would both continue but with damage.
Up at the front though, an epic train of 8 cars was developing, with Rowe leading Sakowicz, followed by Michael Blake, Jack Johns, Mark Woodhouse, Jon Bayliffe, Ciaran Dempsey and Mikey Doble. Come the end of Lap 3 though, and championship leader Maciek would take the lead and begin what was becoming his signature drive away, over the horizon.
Things hotted up behind as Jack Johns got ahead of Michael Blake and brought Mark Woodhouse into the picture, but no further changes would occur just yet. In Stephen King's continued attempt to climb back up the order, he had a slight coming together with John Roberts that would cost the latter 16th position, as Tim Cox slid through.
Before long, Johns was up into 2nd place ahead of Jason Rowe, slipping down the inside at the last chicane, but this would spell the end for the ever unlucky Michael Blake's race. He tried to take advantage after Rowe's run out of the final corner had been compromised, but the two cars became stuck together and Blake ended up in the barriers, luckily not hitting anybody else as he bounced back on to the circuit.
A few corners later, Adam Wright's race came to a very abrupt end with a massive accident heading down to the Villeneuve Chicane. Morgan Butler was trying to get through and his damaged car seemingly found grip from nowhere as he turned in and caught Adam's right rear wheel, spearing him into the barriers at full tilt. After a multitude of bounces, the car settled but his race was over.
Mark Woodhouse had now made it up into 2nd ahead of Jack Johns, while Bayliffe had cleared Jason Rowe in the previous incident. He was waiting, poised to take a podium place, while Doble also tried his hand at overtaking Jason. It didn't end as well though, with Rowe's Team Euramet car being punted off into the gravel after Doble's car moved around under brakes.
At the front, Sakowicz was flawless once again, winning the race by over four seconds from Mark Woodhouse, who drove brilliantly on his debut. Jon Bayliffe overcame Jack Johns for a podium finish with Mikey Doble in 5th. Donni Henriksen would end up 6th ahead of Ciaran Dempsey, Mats Borge Andersen, who didn't make as much progress as expected after Qualifying, Morgan Butler and Jason Rowe.
Morgan would receive a post-race Penalty for his incident with Adam Wright, which promoted Craig Shill to 16th, meaning he secured a championship point.
Round 8 - Feature Race
Sakowicz made another clean start in the second race of the night but it was Jack Johns who flew off the line to grab 2nd place before Turn 1. Everyone kept it relatively clean on the first lap with plenty of position changes happening in the opening 30 seconds. The initial casualty of the race would be Carl Jacolette who got caught in an incident in the first chicane as everybody slammed on the anchors.
Michael Blake had started his climb back up the order and by the end of Lap 2 had made it up to 16th from the very back. Stephen King was going well too, up to 9th place in the early stages ahead of Mats Borge Andersen. Just ahead of them, Morgan Butler was making a case to overtake Mikey Doble, but much like in Race 1, as he turned in, he clipped the rear corner of his opponent's car (unintentionally) and sent them packing.
Adam Wright had latched on to the back of the progressing Michael Blake after his Sprint Race DNF as the pair grabbed a few more spots - one of which at Scott Malcolm's expense, as he misjudged an overlap and was sent into the wall - the car rolling over and clearing the barrier, bringing his evening to an early close.
Up front, Sakowicz was coming under pressure from the very quick Team Mood Springs car of Jack Johns, who seemed completely determined to overcome the places lost at the end of Round 7. Into the Villeneuve Chicane on Lap 4 he got the job done and Maciek was left having to deal with Woodhouse, Bayliffe, Henriksen and Dempsey who were all queuing up behind. A little bit further back, Andersen had finally cleared King.
Next time through the Villeneuve Chicane though, it was a very different story - Johns going in a little too hot, and as the cars switched from right to left, Maciek stuck his nose down the inside and the lead changed once again as the Team Mood Springs machine was off into the gravel. This again left Maciek under attack from the train of cars behind him!
At the end of Lap 9, the majority of the Top 10 all pitted together, with Andersen staying out for another tour. Jack Johns and Tim Cox were the two drivers looking to gain advantage from staying out the longest, but would come back out from their pit stops 11th and 13th respectively, with Zack Gould between them. While they were on their way in though, the real talking point of the race occurred.
Stephen King got a great run on Jason Rowe coming out of the long right hander on to the back straight, but with barely a car's width to his left, Jason held his line. The two of them tangled and bounced off the walls on either side of the track, getting Mats Borge Andersen involved as well, putting all three out on the spot. John Roberts received a bit of damage from contact on his way through, but would finish the race.
Teammates outside of the championship, Sakowicz and Woodhouse were now in a league of their own, miles up the road from Ciaran Dempsey who had gained spots in the pit window and made a run for it from Bayliffe, Blake and Butler, who were sizing each other up for a great final few laps. Further back, a feisty battle between Craig Shill, Tim Cox and Adam Wright had broken out - Adam not able to get into much of a rhythm in the latter stages.
Bayliffe soon turned things around and caught back up to Dempsey, even overtaking him, but when Dempsey wanted to put the pressure back on, he got a bit too close for comfort under brakes for the final chicane and put Bayliffe off the road. He very kindly waited for Jon to recover and gave the place back, but lost ground himself to Blake and Butler, who were still glued together fighting over 4th.
Into the final few laps it became apparent that some drivers had under-fuelled their cars and would need to start lifting to make it to the end - Maciek Sakowicz being the most obvious one. Before long, Woodhouse had taken the lead before having to do some fuel saving of his own, but this wouldn't stop him from taking a victory in his first appearance in the championship! Sakowicz would still grab another fantastic points haul in 2nd ahead of Jon Bayliffe who took his second podium of the night.
Donni Henriksen had no such fuel worries and overtook Morgan Butler at the final corner, while John Roberts got 6th from Dempsey in 7th and Jack Johns in 8th. Unfortunately, the ever-unlucky Michael Blake was another driver that needed to save fuel, and he dropped down to 9th by the flag. Ben Benneyworth would round out the Top 10 after a very under-the-radar performance all night.
Woodhouse had certainly shown his worth straight out of the gate here, with Sakowicz making even more strides towards an easy-looking title charge. He now sits 59 points clear of Stephen King and 66 points ahead of Donni Henriksen. Everyone from 7th place down was at least four race victories away. The other newcomers, Andersen, Doble and Gould had impressed the regular drivers as well, getting stuck in with battles and showing good pace, so the grid is looking strong once again as we head across Belgium to Spa Francorchamps in two weeks!
For now, if you missed out, you can watch the action back here;