The WRC Esports Grand Final took place in Athens, Greece and saw Frenchman Lohan ‘Nexl’ Blanc surprisingly win.
The 2022 edition of WRC Esports was eventful to say the least. With five different winners from 12 events (it was supposed to be 13, but more on that soon), the season looked poised to become a classic after Japanese rookie Kazuho Iwata (Kazunokota) emerged as a serious contender for the championship, dominating the Lebanese Teenagers Sami-Joe Abi Nakhle.
Competitors using Kylotonn’s official WRC 10 match fought for eight vacancies in the WRC Esports Grand Final, where a live televised tournament at the Athens Olympic Complex would decide the overall winner of the year.
After Round 7 of the regular season, Iwata was absent, but his early-season form – including two wins – was still enough to earn a place in the Grand Finals. However, his non-appearance at the tournament led to the inclusion of local WRC Esports competitor geoant27, who unfortunately finished last among the drivers on the first day of the competition.
Of the other seven qualifiers, Abi Nakkhle won seven rallies, while Marco Bottinelli (Botti Jr), Michał Król (Katana) and John Bebnowicz-Harris (Izamusing) each recorded a single win. Lillian Richard (Crimea), Panagiotis Zeniou (Zeniou) and three-time WRC Esports Champion Lohann Blanc (Nexl) France were the other hopefuls aiming for Grand Final glory.
After 64 points clear of Bebnowicz-Harris in the regular season standings, Abi Nakhle was still the hot favorite in the Grand Final despite his – and Blanc’s – disqualification for corner cutting at Rally Finland.
In fact, cutting has been a hot topic throughout the WRC Esports season as the Rally Sardinia results were declared null and void at Round 9 due to the number of participants illegally shortening stages. Thankfully, since the Grand Finals were televised in their entirety, there could be no legality arguments.
Sami-Joe had an amazing pace throughout the Grand Finals
Grand finals on day one, semi-finals
The first day of competition took place on Wednesday (September 7th) and after eight rally stages, four participants fought for the title of WRC Esports Grand Final Champion 2022 the next day.
Unsurprisingly, Abi Nakhle emerged as the first pacesetter, followed by WIlliams Esports’ Blanc, Bebnowicz-Harris and Bottinelli. Cypriot Zeniou unfortunately just missed out on the top four as he was 13 seconds behind Bottinelli, with Król and Richard further down. Greek substitute geoant27 was a little trailing behind in eighth, almost five minutes behind the leader.
Everything goes wrong for Sami-Joe on the first stage
Grand Final Day two, the final
With the order for the final showdown settled, the drivers faced four stages of a head-to-head race, with testing from rallies in Monte-Carlo, Finland, Greece and Japan totaling 58km.
Stage one saw an unusual error from Abi Nakhle, who compounded a sluggish start by spinning after crossing a barrier and citing wheelbase issues. The consequential damage led to a loss of time of almost a minute and soon destroyed the Lebanese teenager’s hope of winning the championship again.
Both Blanc and Bebnowicz-Harris opted for the mixed tire to help over Monte’s slippery sections of ice and the pair parted three seconds before stage two, with Blanc just shadowing his Race Clutch teammate. Bottinelli was further back in third place, with Abi-Nakhle seemingly already out of the hunt.
Blanc extended his lead on the Finnish stage
On stage two, Abi-Nakhle pushed hard to take the win by over seven seconds, with Bebnowicz-Harris making a small mistake to allow Blanc to extend his lead.
Next up was the historic 1983 Acropolis Rally stage and Abi Nakhle again proved the class of the field with a commanding performance that finished six seconds ahead of his three rivals.
With a stage to go, however, it was Blanc who still held the overall lead, eight seconds clear of Bebnowicz-Harris. Bottinelli was third and Abi-Nakhle was 47 seconds off the pace in fourth.
Blanc was visibly shocked to have taken an early lead
The fourth stage was conquered by Abi Nakhle, who blew away the competition by 12 seconds. However, it wasn’t enough to defeat Blanc, who crossed the finish line first after building a lead of over 16 seconds over Bebnowicz-Harris in second place.
Bottinelli was clinging to a podium finish in third, just six seconds ahead of the recovering Abi Nakhle.
“I’m really surprised and of course very happy because it’s a World Cup. I really feel sorry for Sami because in the beginning I saw that he was just pulling on the ice but apparently it was a problem so it’s really bad luck. That’s how it is, it’s part of motorsport and sim racing,” said Blanc, winner of the 2022 Grand Final.
(LR) Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta, Bebnowicz-Harris, Blanc, Bottinelli and Lefteris Avgenakis, Greek Deputy Minister of Sport
“It was a weird situation because I really had to control my pace and I wasn’t expecting to fight… it was quite tough but I managed to get to the end so I’m happy.” The Frenchman was off visibly overwhelmed on this occasion, was delighted with the four-time WRC Esports Champion and the associated prize money of €25,000.
His performance was all the more remarkable as he was the only rider among the four finalists not to win in the regular season.
Did you enjoy the twists and turns of this year’s WRC Esports series? Let us know in the comments below.
Images courtesy of WRC