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GT ASIA SERIES 2016 – THE TOP 5’s.. THE WINNERS

After what was the closest season in the six years of the GT Asia Series, we take a look back at the winners – and we don’t mean the championship top five.. For this piece we’ve taken the race and podium winners in order of their success, and interestingly, that drops 2016 champions Edoardo Liberati and Andrea Amici to just fourth.. It was that kind of season!gtasia_kic_q1_8_bentley_venter_140516_med

1. Jonathan Venter/Keita Sawa (#8 Bentley Continental GT3)
3x wins (South Korea x2, Fuji – race two), 4x podiums*

Okay, so they didn’t win the championship – in the end, they didn’t really come close – Jonathan Venter claiming fifth in the points, his high-profile Japanese team-mate Keita Sawa seventh, Venter a full 31 points down on title holders Liberati and Amici despite amassing the greatest number of wins..

Sadly they were plagued by misfortune mid-season which took them from title favourites at the close of the opening round – where they’d impressively recorded back-to-back wins – to dark horses by they time they arrived in Shanghai for the season finale.. Such had been their tale of frustration.

Thailand saw Germany’s Fabian Hamprecht subbing for the absent Keita Sawa who was in Le Mans preparing for the annual endurance classic, the young Bentley recruit fitting in well to the team and qualifying strongly in the oppressive Buriram heat.

Race one saw the team forced to contend with a seriously long compulsory pit stop [CPS] compensation time, which dropped them well behind the field, but in race two, things were looking good for Hamprect, who was leading up to his CPS. Sadly an odd occurrence on the circuit saw the field brought into line behind the Safety Car as track officials worked to resolve a loose manhole cover on the inside of one of the far corners of the circuit. The timing couldn’t have been worse for those who hadn’t committed their CPS, they were forced to circulate in line before the window was open again once the Safety Car returned to pit lane – ultimately, despite a mammoth effort in a cockpit that was comfortably north of 60 degrees, Venter could do no better than 11th..

Sawa was back at Okayama, a strong hunting ground for the Japanese driver who claimed a win alongside Adderly Fong in season 2015 in the #8 Bentley, yet disappointingly, despite claiming pole position for race two, things started badly for Venter who was turned around by former team-mate Richard Lyons in the opening corner, their recovery leading to a 12th placed finish after Venter was forced to come down pit road to check damage to the car.

Things went from bad to worse in race two, Sawa making a strong start before being sideline with a turbo issue, something the team attributed to the heavy knock in race one, sidelining them just after half race distance.

Wet weather was the feature of the opening race at Fuji, Venter and Sawa gathering a solid haul of points with sixth in the opening race, then second in race two, after a stunning drive by Venter in slippery conditions with an ABS issue which forced the young Australian to adapt his driving style to cope with being unable to brake as heavily.

By Shanghai in August, the duo were looking to work their way forward once again, a solid haul of points would keep them in the hunt heading into the final round, but things didn’t start as they’d hoped, practice and qualifying seeing the #8 Bentley languishing towards the tail of the top ten. Typical of the reigning GT Asia Series team champions though, they wouldn’t be down for long, the Absolute Racing operation slipping into overdrive to gain back the momentum they’d lost in Fuji – the benefit of that experience showed with their third win of the season coming in race two.

The rain returned for the final round of the season with the GT Asia Series Shang Peng Race of Shanghai, where sadly the championship run would come to an end in the opening race after the treacherous conditions and the long pit stop compensation time for their round ten victory held them back to eighth place at the flag, although a recovery to fourth in race two elevated Venter to fifth in the points.

Ultimately though, despite their domination of the opening round as one of few teams in the modern era who had gone back-to-back with a big CPS compensation time and their third victory in Fuji, the unlucky Safety Car intervention in Thailand, and the incident in Okayama kept them from what could have been a final round with more than two outright contenders.. There’s always 2017!

2. Anthony Liu/Davide Rizzo (#37 Ferrari 488 GT3)
2x wins (Thailand – race two, Shanghai#1 – race one), 5x podiums*

Since their debut in South Korea in May 2014, BBT Ferrari team-mates Anthony Liu and Davide Rizzo have been right in the title race all the way down to the final round in the last three seasons, and there’s good reason why.

In season 2014, Anthony Liu – who went into the final round in Macau as the sole entry – won four events in his maiden season to finish second just five points in arrears of Mok Weng Sun. The duo then claimed two wins in 2015 (including the Sepang 3-Hour race) to finish third in the championship despite missing an entire round (Fuji)..

Undeniably they started amongst the title favourites in 2016, and immediately proved why, by claiming their sixth consecutive podium finish in South Korea, ahead of their first victory in Thailand, a victory that was celebrated by Liu with much emotion on the roof of their new Ferrari 488.. Another podium in Okayama during the second race of the season saw them comfortably leading the points on the run into Fuji, up by 11 over two-time 2016 winners Marchy Lee and Shaun Thong.

Sadly, despite impressively qualifying on the front row for both races at the iconic Japanese circuit, a rare engine failure – and just their second DNF in three seasons – saw them sidelined in race one, scoring zero points.

A magnanimous gesture by three-time GT Asia Series champion Mok Weng Sun saw the engine donated from the #3 Clearwater Racing Ferrari overnight, allowing the pristine red and yellow BBT car to make its way to the grid for race two, although starting from rear-of-field.

An epic drive by team-owner Liu saw the #37 Ferrari move into the top five ahead of the compulsory pit stop, with Rizzo leaving pit lane towards the rear of the top ten ahead of a charge back through to eighth at the flag, leaving them second in the points heading into the final two races of the season.

Masters of strategy, the AF Corse-supported BBT team recorded arguably their best ever victory in the challenging conditions of round nine in Shanghai, claiming the win by a mere 53 one thousandths of a second after an epic end to the opening one hour race, Liu charging from a distant third to pull alongside race leader Vutthikorn Inthrapuvasak across the line to record one of the most incredible wins in GT Asia Series history.

The result saw them draw level on points with Liberati and Amici in the Lamborghini, but carrying the maximum pit stop penalty for victory in race one, saw a lengthy CPS in race two – a race in which their title rivals scored their only victory of the season. Crossing the line just tenth, the BBT team dropped to nine points in arrears ahead of the final event of the year.

Heading back to Shanghai – their home race – the two drivers were full of confidence and ready for everything the Lamborghini team could throw at them, including a second car with two factory superstars behind the wheel..

Thing started perfectly with both Rizzo and Liu claiming front row starts, Rizzo alongside Audi’s Alex Yoong, and Liu alongside title rival Andrea Amici.. It was going to be a fitting end to a tough season.

Tragically, despite the challenging weather and the promise of a title fight to remember, it was all but over on the opening lap, thanks in part to outgoing champion Darryl O’Young who tagged Rizzo into the tight turn one-two complex, spinning the Italian to rear-of-field.

Rizzo then mounted the comeback of the year to close in on the lead pack within a handful of laps, but with limited visibility in the worsening conditions, he tagged the rear of the GruppeM Porsche under brakes at the hairpin on lap four, forcing their instant retirement.

The team worked feverishly, supported by the drivers themselves to repair the car ahead of the second race, but tragically, an almost identical situation presented itself, with Liu spinning on the exit of the turn three left-hander whilst fighting Amici for the lead, fortunately with little contact, but again the team were on the back foot.

They recovered, Rizzo storming through the closing laps to be sixth, but the damage had already been done, the two Ferrari drivers once more forced to endure another team claiming the championship silverware.

Arguably, they have been the fastest combination in GT Asia across the last three seasons, but despite amassing eight race wins – the most of any single team in the sport across that time – they have missed out on title victory. Ultimately the engine failure in Okayama was the decider, had they managed to continue on with the strategy that had seen them leading the points coming into the first Japanese event, it may well have been a very different Italian manufacturer holding the champions trophy in 2016!

3. Marchy Lee/Shaun Thong (#5 Audi R8 LMS GT3)
2x wins (Thailand – race one, Okayama – race two), 4x podiums*

A veteran of the GT Asia Series, having finished fifth alongside Jeffrey Lee in 2012 and seventh in 2013 (each season with a win apiece), Marchy Lee started season 2016 at the helm of an ambitious new project – leading the all-new Phoenix Racing Asia team as not just a driver, but also co-team principal with one of Europe’s most successful team bosses; Ernst Moser.

It was a big project to kick off a new season, behind the wheel of one of two brand-new Audi R8 LMS GT3s, and to add to his level of difficulty, he took on a series rookie as his co-driver – 20-year old Shaun Thong..

In South Korea the Audis proved themselves to be fast, Thong an impressive sixth on debut in the ‘Pro’ drivers leg, whilst Marchy used a little strategy to make himself the ‘B’ driver for the #5 team, topping the timesheets to claim pole for race two (Silver ranked drivers could choose the order in which they started).

Race one looked promising, Thong circulating not far off the lead pack, handing the car to Lee within striking distance of the front runners, but an error leaving pit lane saw the impressive gold Aape by Bathing Ape/Audi Hong Kong R8 exit just a fraction fast, forcing Lee back into the pits with a drive through penalty, yet despite that, they still finished an impressive fifth.

Fifth became fourth in race two, the two Hong Kong-based drivers finishing the opening round equal third on points – but the best was yet to come..

Qualifying in the heat in Thailand saw both drivers record a front row starting position, and despite a drama in the opening laps for Thong with a brake pressure issue which led to on off in the final corner, the team recovered to hand Lee the car in a position to attack, and as his rivals faded in the immense heat, the Audi driver charged, putting in one of the best stints of his career to cross the line for his new team’s first win of the season.

Frustratingly for Thong, a rare technical issue kept the team to limited laps in opening qualifying at Okayama, leaving the 20 year old only 13th on the grid, but a recovery by Marchy Lee in the second session netted the experienced driver another front row start, his third in succession. Race one saw the #5 Audi cross the line fifth, but it was race two which saw the team back on the top step of the podium, with victory number two – moving them to equal second in the championship.

Unfortunately, the following two events stalled their forward progress; Fuji saw the weather impact the results, so too the longest straight in Asian motorsport which had an effect on the outright performance of the naturally aspirated V10 Audi, ninth in race one and eleventh in race two, a result impacted by a spinning Aston Martin in the early laps which forced Lee to take avoiding action which dropped him to rear of field.

Shanghai’s opening event delivered little relief.. Despite setting amongst the fastest times in practice, a rare gearbox failure in qualifying saw Shaun Thong forced to settle for the twelfth fastest time, whilst Lee was unable to record a lap, forcing him to start rear of the 17-car field.

Despite the challenges, the Phoenix Racing Asia team dug deep, claiming a fourth and fifth placed finish to retain fourth in points and be in with a mathematical chance of title victory in the season final.

Again the Audi’s started strongly in the final event, team-mate Alex Yoong claiming his second pole position of the year in race one, with Thong starting from the fourth row, whilst Marchy Lee was again strong, claiming yet another top three start for the final race of the year despite the wet conditions.

A tough start for Thong saw him battling to hold position as around him cars were involved in contact, the series rookie though keeping a cool head to hand Lee the car within grasp of the lead pack, the team leader working his way forward as one of the fastest drivers on the circuit to cross the line in third place, standing on the podium alongside race winners – team-mates Alex Yoong and Alex Au.

A brilliant start by Lee to avoid the melee into turn one for the start of the second race saw him emerge in the top three, the veteran hanging out until the final stages of the compulsory pit stop window to pit from an impressive lead, the experienced Phoenix Racing Asia team turning the car around to have Shaun Thong split the two leading Lamborghinis on the run out of pit lane for second.

From there – despite immense pressure from points leader Liberati, Thong held his ground with a mature and defensive drive to hand the team second place outright and with it, elevate he and Lee to second overall in the championship points, just 19 points back from title victory. In the process Thong earned enough points to claim the Pro-Am title in his debut year, rounding out an impressive first season for Phoenix Racing Asia.

Ultimately, it was consistency that earned them the result – they were the only team in the Series that was classified a finisher in every race – but Fuji and a tough second race in Thailand cost them the title!

4. Edoardo Liberati /Andrea Amici (#55 Lamborghini Huracan GT3)
1x win (Fuji – race two), 7x podiums*

They may have won the championship, but on race wins and podiums, FFF Racing Team by ACM Lamborghini juniors Edoardo Liberati and Andrea Amici only rank fourth..

The two fresh new faces for the Chinese-Italian team arrived in South Korea with little prior knowledge of the Asian scene, although both had campaigned races in Asia previously, Liberati the most experienced with time in the one-make Super Trofeo Asia championship for which he was the 2015 Pro-Am champion.

Very quickly though the two likeable young Italians proved to be fast, although their reputations were a little circumspect after the opening two events of the season, which were plagued by an error under brakes in Korea, and an error off the line in Thailand – both credited to Liberati who was clearly putting himself under immense pressure to perform.

By Okayama though they – and the relatively new FFF team – were starting to gel as a team, and despite not always being the fastest, were rarely outside the top five, their seven podiums from 12 starts a good indication as to why they became champions.

Korea was quickly forgotten by all outside of the Craft Bamboo team (Liberati eliminated race leader Richard Lyons under brakes early during the opening race of the season), and by Fuji the duo made their mark on the championship, racing from pole to victory in the second race, adding to their second placed finish in race one – ultimately they left Japan as the championship points leaders and were never headed from that point on..

Consistency was the key, one win, but seven podiums and eight top five finishes was a difficult record to beat, their worst result outside of failing to finish the opening race – eighth in race two at Okayama, and that still gave them six valuable points..

Undeniably they were the deserving champions, although unlike the Anthony Liu/Davide Rizzo combination, it took them two cars to do the job, a second car for the man who developed the Huracan GT3 – Jeroen Mul – and co-drivers Richard Antinucci and Marco Mapelli allowed the team to run ‘interference’ for the #55 car, paving the way to a comfortable win in the final. It was ultimately a moot point as their rivals suffered a less than ideal final round after failing to finish the penultimate race, effectively handing the two Italians victory ahead of the final round..

5. Adderly Fong/Andrew Kim (#7 Bentley Continental GT3)
1x win (Okayama – race one), 5x podiums*

Runner-up in the 2015 championship, many expected Adderly Fong to go one better in 2016, but the ‘dream team’ of Fong and Keita Sawa went separate ways for 2016, Sawa joining Australian Jonathan Venter, and Fong joined by rising South Korean star Andrew Kim.

It was a bet each way by Absolute Racing who paired a fast amateur [Bronze] with Fong, whilst the Venter-Sawa combination was Silver-Silver, a combination which had proven almost unbeatable in season 2015 (Silver-Silver combinations finished 1-2-3).

The #7 Bentley team started strongly, Fong claiming pole first time out in South Korea before the duo claimed second in the opening race, but a rare mechanical issue sidelined them as they prepared to start the car for race two, forcing their instant retirement.

They recovered with another podium in the heat of Thailand, then drove brilliantly in Okayama for a repeat victory for Fong and a maiden victory for Kim to take a share of second in the championship at the mid-point of the season.

Frustratingly the closing half of the season wasn’t so kind – stark contrast to Fong’s USA campaign where he was regularly a podium finisher for the Absolute Bentley team in the PWC.. Fuji provided little joy, with weather plaguing their pace and they were forced to watch their team-mates run at the front end of the field, whilst during the opening race in Shanghai, they just missed the podium in race two, but gained enough points to keep them in with a mathematical chance of title victory.

Rain again fell on the GT Asia Series parade during the final event of the season, but this time the #7 crew were ready, and Andrew Kim’s drive to second in the opening race was fantastic, battling with the Craft-Bamboo Porsche for position in the closing laps, then weathering an assault from Audi’s Marchy Lee as the chequered flag approached – it had been arguably Kim’s best drive of the year.

Ultimately the team rounded out the year with another top ten finish to claim fourth in the championship and take Absolute Racing to their second consecutive Team’s Championship title, in the end falling just four points shy of third and lamenting what might have been if they hadn’t suffered a gearbox issue in the second race in South Korea – a race where their team-mates were able to claim back-to-back wins..

* including race wins

The list of 2016 GT Asia Series winners..
Rnd#1 (South Korea) – Jonathan Venter/Keita Sawa (#8 Bentley)
Rnd#2 (South Korea) – Keita Sawa/Jonathan Venter (#8 Bentley)
Rnd#3 (Thailand) – Shaun Thong/Marchy Lee (#5 Audi R8 LMS)
Rnd#4 (Thailand) – Anthony Liu/Davide Rizzo (#37 Ferrari 488)
Rnd#5 (Okayama) – Adderly Fong/Andrew Kim (#7 Bentley)
Rnd#6 (Okayama) – Marchy Lee/Shaun Thong (#5 Audi R8 LMS)
Rnd#7 (Fuji) – Carlo Van Dam/Piti Bhirombhakdi (#11 Ferrari 458)
Rnd#8 (Fuji) – Andrea Amici/Edoardo Liberati (#55 Lamborghini)
Rnd#9 (Shanghai#1) – Davide Rizzo/Anthony Liu (#37 Ferrari 488)
Rnd#10 (Shanghai#1) – Keita Sawa/Jonathan Venter (#8 Bentley)
Rnd#11 (Shanghai#2) – Alex Yoong/Alex Au (#6 Audi R8 LMS)
Rnd#12 (Shanghai#2) – Jeroen Mul/Marco Mapelli (#15 Lamborghini)

Source. Motorsport Media

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