After an epic battle over the opening laps of the first round of the 2016 GT Asia Series season, Bentley has claimed an emphatic 1-2 in South Korea, weathering an early storm from the new Lamborghini and the Craft-Bamboo Porsche of Richard Lyons.
Earlier in the day, 2015 season runner-up Adderly Fong had smashed Andrea Caldarelli’s 2014 lap record in the opening qualifier, whilst former race winner Marchy Lee stunned his rivals in qualifying#2 after displacing the most successful team in GT Asia history at Korea International Circuit [KIC] – the BBT Ferrari of Anthony Liu and Davide Rizzo.
Ultimately Bentley prevailed in the opening round with Fong’s 2015 team-mate Keita Sawa, and new driving partner Jonathan Venter claiming the win after Sawa chased down Fong’s new team-mate Andrew Kim five laps from home, but whilst the result looked good for the British built supercar, things could well have been very different if not for an early race incident between the new FFF Racing Lamborghini, and the Craft-Bamboo Porsche of Lyons.
After a rough start to the day with damage to the #88 Interush Porsche in qualifying, Lyons stormed off the start from the second row to lead into turn two. Behind him there was contact between the #55 Lamborghini of Edoardo Liberati and pole-sitter Fong, but they soon sorted things out before an error by the young Italian at turn four removed he, and race leader Lyons, from the equation.
From there it was all down to the Bentleys, with Liu and Rizzo keeping their perfect score of South Korean podiums intact with third from Piti Bhirombhakdi and Carlo Van Dam in the Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458.
In the battle for GTM honours, former champion Dilantha Malagamuwa and Armaan Ebrahim claimed the win despite some mid-race damage to the Dilango Racing Lamborghini, whilst in GTC, Bhurit Bhirombhakdi and Kantasak Kusiri took the win for Singha Plan-B Motorsport in their Ferrari 458 Challenge.
With the third Absolute Racing Bentley sitting in the garage sans engine, all eyes were on the expected battle between the two remaining Bentley Continental GT3s and the FFF Racing Team by ACM Lamborghini of Andrea Amici and Edoardo Liberati.
The 2015 race winners (Okayama, Rnd#3) elected to play a strategy game in qualifying, with Amici expected to qualify, but he stepped out and handed the reigns to Liberati who – as expected – was right on the pace. Ultimately he was in the mix, but it was Absolute Racing debutante Jonathan Venter who did what he had done at KIC 12-months prior for Craft-Bamboo – leaping to the top of the timesheets.
Liberati soon responded, but Venter stepped things up again to break the standing qualifying record set by Richard Lyons last year to a 2:06.649.. but was it enough?
Liberati then punched out a 2:06.360 to take back the top spot, with Adderly Fong almost immediately dropping under that mark in the #7 Bentley, the 2015 Series runner-up then extended his advantage, to break Caldarelli’s outright lap record by four tenths of a second to put pole completely out of question; 2:06.014. Liberati retained second, with Venter third.
Richard Lyons put in an impressive 2:07.025 in the dying stages to slip under Carlo Van Dam in the Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458, the Thailand team using the impressive top speed of the naturally aspirated 458 to good effect on a circuit that features two very long straights.
Shaun Thong made an impressive debut for the new Phoenix Racing Asia operation, the team also using strategy by changing their silver-silver lineup (Pros are expected to qualify first, but in a silver-silver ranked driving combination, teams are free to choose ahead of qualifying which are their A and B drivers), putting the rising young star in first.
Just as impressive was reigning champion Darryl O’Young, who despite relatively limited laps in the new Type 991 Porsche GT3-R, called on all his Carrera Cup experience to qualify just four tenths off team-mate Lyons for a seventh place start alongside former F1 driver, Alex Yoong.
Three-time KIC winner Davide Rizzo shared the fifth row with Chinese star Franky Cheng, the Italian lamenting what was an eight kilometre-per-hour deficit in straight line speed over their rivals. Experienced British veteran Tim Sugden put Philip Ma’s new GruppeM Porsche GT3-R on row six alongside three-time GT Asia Series champion Mok Weng Sun.
GTC class stars Kantasak Kusiri and Suttiluck Buncharoen actually outqualified the GTM class Dilango Racing Lamborghini Gallardo FL2 of rising Indian star Armaan Ebrahim as the Sri Lankan team battled with some minor issues and were unable to complete a lap.
Whilst the ‘Pro’ drivers settled in to debrief with engineers, the ‘B’ drivers of each team began their 15-minute session, but there appeared to be very little separating the driving partners.
Andrew Kim’s opening flyer put the Korean driver immediately to the top, and into the 2:07s, where he was quickly joined by Keita Sawa, who unlike Kim, had elected to use the tyres Venter had run in Q1. Perhaps the most impressive opening lap went to Craft-Bamboo team boss Frank Yu who was fourth on his first flyer, but sadly whilst on a quick lap soon after, he was forced off line at turn eight and ultimately into the barriers.
Fortunately there was little structural damage to the once immaculate Interush Porsche, but the experienced Craft-Bamboo team soon had the car repaired and ready for the opening race five hours later looking as pristine as it had for opening practice.
By this stage the most successful GT Asia Series team in the history of the event at KIC stepped up, with Anthony Liu turning an impressive 2:07.211, and whilst that looked like being the pole time, the ever determined Marchy Lee put in a blinding lap late in the session – a 2:06.979 – to claim pole in the glorious gold Aape Audi for round two.
Sawa’s time was good enough for third, with team-mate Kim improving again to finish less than two tenths slower than the experienced Japanese driver.
Andrea Amici – like Sawa – used Liberati’s tyres to claim a third row start, alongside the impressive Piti Bhirombhakdi who had effectively been out of the seat of the Singha Motorsport’s Ferrari since the close of the 2015 season in Thailand, 30 weeks ago!!
‘Rocket’ Richie Wee was seventh alongside Series rookie ‘Toy’ Bhirombhakdi in the #91 VLT Craft-Bamboo Porsche, the young Thai star doing an impressive job on his GT3 debut. Despite an early finish to the session, Frank Yu’s first flyer was good enough for ninth alongside JingZu Sun in the new Absolute Racing Audi R8.
Alex Au made an impressive, but cautious GT Asia Series debut with a sixth row start, alongside the experienced Philip Ma in the gorgeous GruppeM Racing Porsche, the GT Asia veteran admitting that he felt the Porsche really suited his driving style.
Dilantha Malagamuwa and the Dilango Racing team overcame the setbacks of Q1 to claim the 13th fastest time, with 2015 Buriram race winner Bhurit Bhirombhakdi getting the best of the GTC class battle ahead of Suttiluck ‘Bobby’ Buncharoen in the True Visions Porsche Type 991 Cup Car.
Such is the nature of the Formula 1 designed Korea International Circuit, that first turn contact is almost inevitable. The long run down the front straight is immediately met with an almost 180-degree left-hander, which flows into the second longest straight in Asia (behind Fuji).
Off the start pole-sitter Adderly Fong controlled the field, but he was soon under fire from Liberati and Venter.
As the leaders jostled for position, Richard Lyons called on his extensive GT3 experience to fire up the inside and lead out of the opening corner after Fong and Liberati ran deep into the braking zone.. “I couldn’t believe it,” the Ulsterman admitted afterwards.
Behind them the field did what they could to avoid contact and negotiate the opening turn. By turn three it was on again, Liberati making contact with Fong at turn three which dislodged the bonnet of the Roger Dubuis liveried Huracan.
Lyons knew he had to make the most of his opening lap advantage, and the Craft-Bamboo star pushed hard early on cold tyres, opening up a lead of over a second, but very quickly Fong, Liberati and Venter closed in.
On lap six, it was game over for Lyons, the Craft-Bamboo star wiped off the circuit after heavy contact in the left front from Liberati who was forced to take avoiding action at turn four to miss the rear of the #7 Bentley.
“I had a good start and I was following the Bentley and in the braking zone he braked very early, and not to hit him I hit the Porsche in the side and broke the [right-front] damper and had to pit,” Liberati explained. “It was very disappointing, it was my mistake in the braking zone, I didn’t expect the Bentley to brake so early, it was earlier than he’d braked the lap before, and I didn’t expect that.”
Sadly for both teams it was game over – the damage to the #88 Interush Porsche forcing its immediate retirement, Liberati returning to the pits where the FFF team assessed the damage (which included a missing door on the right side) and retired the car.
Their demise paved Bentley’s success, with Fong moving from second to the lead, and Venter from fourth to a very close second.
By that stage Franky Cheng was through to third and pushing hard, but the two Bentley’s pushed their advantage all the way to the compulsory pit stops [CPS], to hand their co-drivers a solid lead.
Venter was one of the first to pit, handing across to Sawa, the pair held in pit lane an additional 12-seconds by virtue of being a silver-silver graded driver pairing [a new rule for 2016]. Fong continued to push, handing the car to Andrew Kim who left pit lane with a nine second advantage [gold-bronze combination] over Sawa, with JingZu Sun hanging onto third.
Behind them a strong early charge from Alex Yoong in the second Phoenix Racing Asia Audi stalled just ahead of the stops, the former F1 driver spinning at the back of the circuit whilst finding the limits of the new R8 LMS GT3.. he was still beating himself up after the race.
“The car was brilliant, the best it had been all weekend and I was so comfortable to just push it, but the back just stepped out and around I went. We were looking good at that stage for comfortable top five, but I lost a bit of time righting the car and getting going again. The positive is that it’s a brilliant car, I obviously just need to spend a bit more time with it and I think we’ll be right in the mix.”
After the pit stops the focus was on the lead, and the battle for third. The two Absolute Team Bentleys held an almost 30-second lead over the field, but Sawa was on a charge and eating into Kim’s lead, the Korean though turning an impressive pace to maintain the point before running off track with 10-minutes to go to avoid one of the slower cars.
That was all the incentive that Sawa needed, the multiple GT Asia Series race winner pushing hard to close onto the tail of the leading car, where he used all the tools in the book to find a way past, flashing his lights at every opportunity to upset the rhythm of the race leader.
For Kim – who admitted later he didn’t look in the rear vision mirror once – he was unphased, but it was hard to miss the #8 car fire past him on the outside on the run into turn one with eight minutes to go. Off the ideal line, Sawa couldn’t make the move stick, but he was soon through and off to the chequered flag.
Behind them one of the fastest men on track for much of the second stanza of the race was three-time KIC race winner Anthony Liu, the bright red and yellow Ferrari 488 GT3 running in the low to mid 2:09s whilst around him, most of his rivals were lucky to break into the 10s, Sawa one of few to go faster.
Despite starting almost 30-seconds down on the leaders, Liu crossed the line 20-seconds behind Sawa, still lamenting a lack of straight line speed in relation to the Bentleys. “I feel like Sebastien Vettel,” he quipped post-race.. “Holding the honour of the red team, whilst there are two cars ahead from the same team that are in a different league..”
Fourth was Piti Bhirombhakdi who inherited a solid starting position from Van Dam’s opening stint, the Thai driver also taking advantage of a drive-through penalty for the unfortunate Marchy Lee who left pit lane after the CPS just marginally too quickly.
Despite that the top qualifier in the second of the morning’s qualifying sessions finished fifth, leading home stablemates JingZu Sun and Alex Au.
Former champions Clearwater Racing were next, Richie Wee taking over from three-time champion Mok Weng Sun, the pair driving a solid and consistent race in their new Ferrari 488 GT3 to claim eighth and victory in the Am Cup.
Naiyanobh ‘Toy’ Bhirombakdi was next, the new Craft-Bamboo recruit a little hard on himself post race for a couple of minor spins in his stint which dropped the #91 car down a lap on the leaders.. team-mate and reigning champion Darryl O’Young reminding him though that he’d scored championship points on debut against some of the toughest drivers in the world.
Tim Sugden and Philip Ma were classified tenth after a solid run on the debut of their new GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R, Sugden enjoying a spirited battle early with Indian GTM class star Armaan Ebrahim, the Dilango Racing driver battling at the tail of the top ten before handing the car back to former champion Dilantha Malagamuwa at the CPS.
Sadly for the Sri Lankan team, a mount on the front splitter broke, creating a vibration in the front of the car which also let the bonnet come loose, Malagamuwa using his years of experience to nurse the car home eleventh for victory in GTM.
Next were GTC class front-runners Kantasak Kusiri and Bhurit Bhirombhakdi, the Singha Plan-B Motorsport duo adding the win to the victories they took at Buriram at the close of the 2015 season after an early battle with Thai Porsche star Suttiluck ‘Bobby’ Buncharoen in the True Visions 991 Cup Car.
Fortunately there were only two retirements, with both cars expected to be on the grid for race two, whilst the #9 Bentley of Andrew Palmer and Vutthikorn Inthraphuvasak was also expected to be ready for race two after an engine replacement overnight after a technical inspection post-practice revealed an issue the Absolute team were not prepared to run with.
Korea International Circuit, South Korea (14 May)
1. Adderly Fong (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 2:06.014
2. Edoardo Liberati (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) – 2:06.360
3. Jonathan Venter (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 2:06.481
4. Richard Lyons (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 2:07.025
5. Carlo Van Dam (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 Italia GT3) – 2:07.128
6. Shaun Thong (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 2:07.257
7. Darryl O’Young (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 2:07.431
8. Alex Yoong (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 2:07.558
9. Davide Rizzo (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) – 2:07.579
10. Franky Cheng (Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 2:07.687
11. Tim Sugden (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 2:09.193
12. Mok Weng Sun (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) – 2:10.127
13. Kantasak Kurisi (Singha Plan-B Motorsport Ferrari 458 Challenge) – 2:13.284
14. Suttiluck Buncharoen (True Vision Motorsports Porsche 991 Cup Car) – 2:21.582
15. Armaan Ebrahim (Dilango Racing Lamborghini Gallardo FL2) – NTR
16. Andrew Palmer (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – DNQ
1. Marchy Lee (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 2:06.979
2. Anthony Liu (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) – 2:07.211
3. Keita Sawa (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 2:07.289
4. Andrew Kim (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 2:07.690
5. Andrea Amici (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) – 2:07.834
6. Piti Bhirombhakdi (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 Italia GT3) – 2:09.227
7. Richard Wee (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) – 2:09.897
8. Naiyanobh Bhirombakdi (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 2:10.466
9. Frank Yu (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 2:10.574
10. JingZu Sun (Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 2:10.601
11. Alex Au (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 2:10.601
12. Philip Ma (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 2:14.617
13. Dilantha Malagamuwa (Dilango Racing Lamborghini Gallardo FL2) – 2:15.354
14. Bhurit Bhirombhakdi (Singha Plan-B Motorsport Ferrari 458 Challenge) – 2:15.375
15. Buncharoen (True Vision Motorsports Porsche 991 Cup Car) – 2:21.301
16. Palmer/Inthraphuvasak (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – DNQ
1. Venter/Sawa (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 28-laps
2. Fong/Kim (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) +1.858
3. Rizzo/Liu (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) +20.531
4. Van Dam/Bhirombhakdi (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 Italia GT3) +33.723
5. Thong/Lee (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) +54.792
6. Cheng/Sun (Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3) +58.941
7. Yoong/Au (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) +1:17.768
8. Mok/Wee (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) +1:23.754
9. O’Young/Bhirombakdi (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 27-laps
10. Sugden/Ma (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R)
11. Ebrahim/Malagamuwa (Dilango Racing Lamborghini Gallardo FL2)
12. Kurisi/Bhirombhakdi (Singha Plan-B Motorsport Ferrari 458 Challenge) – 25-laps
13. Buncharoen (True Vision Motorsports Porsche 991 Cup Car)
14. Amici/Liberati (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) – 6-laps
15. Lyons/ Yu (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 6-laps
NTR. Palmer/Inthraphuvasak (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3)
Source. Motorsport Media