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THAILAND SUPER SERIES GOES ‘PLUS SIZE’ IN BURIRAM

The new Thailand Super Series (TSS) season kicked off in real style last weekend in Buriram – and at the top of the billing Super Car GTM made a big stride forward as the new GTM Plus class expanded the category upwards to take Thai motorsport to the next performance level while the unleashed GTM field provided equally explosive racing to superbly set the tone for the fifth season.

GTM Plus fuses the most powerful ‘Cup’ machines, the Lamborghinis and Audis, with GT3 cars that have been built up to the end of 2013 and that cocktail really roared into life with two exciting races. In the end the reigning Super Car GTC champion Narasak Ittritpong claimed both wins in Vattana Motorsport’s Lamborghini Gallardo GT3 FL2 as he fended off the attentions of the potent mix of dynamic thoroughbreds that have pitched up in the GTM Plus class. After just its first races it all bodes very well for the future of this dramatic new category and TSS moves up another big step in the power stakes.

That has galvanised Super Car GTM which in turn provided two races of non-stop close action with a win apiece going to two former champions, Nattavude Charoensukhawatana (Toyota) and Kantasak Kusiri (Ferrari). They didn’t have it their own way at all though and the tussling for the podium was frantic, a gaggle of very evenly matched Porsche runners swapped places continually to chase them home.

Super Car GTM Plus Race 1 (Saturday)

The grid for the first ever GTM Plus race was a thoroughly pumped up affair. The all-Lamborghini front row featured Gallardo vs Huracán, with the Reiter Engineering-built Gallardo GT3 FL2 entered by Vattana Motorsport and driven by Narasak Ittritpong having edged out the later generation factory built Huracán Super Trofeo of Sarun Sereethoranakul by just a couple of hundredths, 0.021 seconds to be precise.

Then came a Ferrari 458 GT3 driven by Voravud Bhirombhakdi, the first time a GT3 version of the Italian sportscar had been seen in TSS since Pasin Lathouras raced one to the vice champions spot during our first season – 2013 to be precise; so that was a very welcome return. Behind them came the trio of B-Quik Racing Audis, with Daniel Bilski getting the edge over his teammates Henk J. Kiks and Shaun Varney. Finally, PSC Motorsport’s second Huracán Super Trofeo, which had just arrived in Thailand and was in the hands of Saravut Sereethoranakul, wrapped up the inaugural grid for Super Car GTM Plus.

At the green lights Narasak enjoyed a smooth getaway to lead the ‘Plus’ runners away for the first ever time while Voravud took a good look down the inside of Sarun into Turn 1 although he wasn’t able to make a pass stick; behind them the trio of yellow and black Audis slotted in.

Sarun got a good run down the hill into Turn 3 and went for the inside but there was contact with Narasak who defended his position and the Huracán had to back off.

At the end of the first lap Narasak had four car lengths over Sarun as they crossed the line with Voravud tucked in tight on the black and white #55 Huracán in front and then there was a gap to the three Audis which had shaken out to the running order of Daniel, Henk and Shaun, with the latter two quickly swapping around.

At the end of the first lap Saravut was slipping backwards quickly and dropping through the GTM runners and he got out of shape as he went through Turn 1 for the second time, spinning out on the inside; his debut in PSC Motorsport’s new Huracán lasting no more than 5 kilometres.

Through the second lap the top runners started to split up a little, a few car lengths appearing between Narasak, Sarun and Voravud. The main battle was between Shaun and Henk for P4, the Dutchman was all over his teammate and wanted the place he had forsaken back.

Three laps into the race through and the destination of P1 was decided barring mechanical issues or any mistakes as Sarun suffered a puncture which ended his race abruptly. That left Narasak out front and seemingly able to control his advantage over Voravud.

The game would change on the seventh lap, just as the race ticked towards half distance as Voravud spun off the track through Turn 5, handing over his second place at a stroke to Daniel while he also lost position to the other two Audis to drop down to P5 – and he had a lot of GTM traffic to deal with if he wanted to chip his way back up the order.

On the ninth lap Shaun ran very wide at Turn 5 and that allowed Henk to close back down his teammate, it was game on for P3 and by the end of the lap the two Audis were nose to tail.

By lap 11 Voravud was on a real charge and was dramatically cutting down his deficit to the Audis of Shaun and Henk with every lap, the game was on to realistically haul his way back up to P3 if he could wring every ounce of the Ferrari. He also had to deal with the front running GTM cars that were engaged in their won battles for position, quickly but carefully picking his way past the Porsches, finally getting past the gold 991 of Pitsanu Sirimongkolkasem to leave clear air between himself and the black and yellow cars ahead.

Through the final turn of lap 11 Henk settled the battle for P3 between himself and Shaun as he got a better run up the inside and as the two B-Quik cars powered down the start-finish straight side-by-side he had the line for Turn 1. However, Voravud was now right on their tail. Complicating matters further was the Toyota of Nattapong just in front as the GTM car started to see the race going away from him.

Voravud passed Shaun on the run up to Turn 4 but Henk was all over the Toyota and through Turn 5 he got on the outside and that allowed Voravud to jump up the inside. Boxed in Shaun tried to get back up the inside of his teammate into Turn 7 but Henk had it covered. Voravud though was through and into third place.

As the race went into the final three laps Henk was still bottled up behind Nattavude, he just didn’t have the car pace to make a move and that allowed Shaun to keep tight on his rear bumper. While complicating matters further the GTM cars behind were closing up. It would finish that way though, Narasak, Voravud, Daniel, Henk and Shaun – and unquestionably GTM Plus was off to a flying start.

Super Car GTM Race 1 (Saturday).

Kantasak Kusiri, the 2015 Super Car GTM champion, lined up the #34 Singha Motorsport Team Thailand Ferrari 458 Challenge on pole position but he had the two factory Toyotas for close company. The previous day’s winner, Nattavude Charoensukhawatana, planted the #39 car alongside him on the front row and he was just a tenth of a second away from the Ferrari in front while his teammate Nattapong Horthongkum led out the second row edging out a trio of fast drivers all in Porsche’s 991 GT3 Cup – Kantadhee Kusiri, Tanart Sathienthirakul and Pitsanu Sirimongkolkasem.

Kantadhee was a very noteworthy addition to the grid as for the first time ever both of the young Kusiri brothers would be together on a Super Car grid. Older brother Kantasak has already been racing in Super Car for three seasons and impressively bagged the 2015 championship title. Kantadhee meanwhile is chasing at his heels and after winning the Super 1500 title and notching up victories in Super 2000 last year he switched continents to race in European F3 series, Euroformula, as well as finding time to bang in wins in TCR Thailand in Buriram and most recently at the rescheduled Bangsaen Grand Prix. This year he’s racing in TCR Asia Series and now makes the grade to Super Car GTM. Expect him to be chasing for the top spots as soon as he gets to grips with the Porsche 991 GT3 Cup – an unfamiliar machine for this youngster to learn how to extract the max from.

Meanwhile, in GTM Am pole went to Painkiller Racing’s Naputt Assakul (Porsche) who edged out the debuting Thanavud Bhirombhakdi (Ferrari), the latter graduating from Super 2000.

At the green lights Kantasak had a tardy start and the Toyotas needed no second invitation, they powered through into a 1-2 lead with the Ferrari tucking in behind. Craig Corliss in the big green Holden came from nowhere to rocket up to P4 while showing their newness to the Porsche 991 at Buriram were Kantadhee and Tanart who both ran wide through Turn 1 and that allowed Pitsanu to squeeze his gold coloured version of the ‘991’ ahead of the young pair and as they were unsettled through Turn 3 Aekarat Discharoen also got through as a four way Porsche battle erupted.

Pitsanu squeezed past Craig through Turn 5 and the gold #90 Porsche was now up into fourth place. At the front though Nattavude was already being compromised by the slower GTM Plus cars and, unable to match their superior power, he was having to fend off his teammate who in turn had the recovering Kantasak all over him.

Through lap 2 Kantasak passed Nattapong to move into P2 and that squabbling allowed Nattavude to break away and build up a few car lengths.

Nattavude was now being slowed up by the GTM Plus class Audi of Henk Kiks in front and with Kantasak rapidly closing down the gap he needed to make a move which duly came at the end of the second lap when Henk ran wide through the final turn and that allowed Nattavude to put a car between him and the Ferrari, albeit not for position. He had a small breathing space.

Further back there was a real ding dong battle going on in GTM Am between the similar Ferraris of pole sitter Thanavud and Thamrong Mahadumrongkul for the lead of the GTM Am class, pole sitter Naputt having pitted on the warm up lap with a throttle problem, and by the end of the second lap they had Craig for company as the Holden slid back down the field following its superb start. They passed Craig at the end of the third lap but down the hill to Turn 3 the New Zealander used the raw power of the ‘V8 Supercar’ to power down between them and that pushed Thanavud to the outside allowed Thamrong – in his newly ‘black and blue’ wrapped Ferrari – to nip up the inside and pass them both, the top two in GTM Am changing places. However, up the hill to Turn 4 Craig got back past them both and that stopped Thamrong taking any advantage.

By the end of four laps Kantasak had cleared the GTM Plus Audi ahead and had clear air again between himself and the leading Toyota.

As the race approached half distance Pitsanu was now pushing hard at Nattapong’s Toyota in front in the battle for P3 as he continued to set the ‘991’ pace while a few car lengths behind him the young hotshots – Kantadhee and Tanart – were locked in a scrap that would last all race. Kantadhee on his race debut in the Porsche was just managing to hold back Tanart who made his Porsche debut at Bangsaen back in February and also can could on the opening round of Porsche Carrera Cup Asia last month for experience of the rear engine German sportscar.

At the front the pace wasn’t letting up one bit as Nattavude kept the gap back to Kantasak at around two seconds and he was having to fight through the GTM Plus traffic to defend that lead, on the eighth lap he moved up past another ‘Plus’ Audi, this time the #93 of Shaun Varney, and that pass gave him another respite from Kantasak. However, into the final turn Shaun muscled his way back through down the inside but Nattavude wasn’t having any of it and the experienced pro did what he does best, hustling the Toyota back past the young New Zealander as they powered down the start-finish straight.

On the ninth lap Kantasak squeezed past the Audi to keep the gap down to Nattavude but now the front runners were starting to lap the GTM Am class runners and certainly the traffic could come into play either way. The race was still alive and well.

Meanwhile in GTM Am Thanavud had wrestled his way back past Thamrong and into the lead as the battle for P1 looked like it was going to go all the way to the wire.

Into the final couple of laps the big battle was for P3. Nattapong had held onto the position all race and had the buffer of a couple of GTM Plus Audis behind him to keep the chasing porches of Pitsanu, Tanart and Kantadhee at bay. But with a couple of laps to go the pressure cooker boiled over as the two Audis finally cleared Nattapong and the three Porsches went nose-to-tail down the hill towards Turn 3 for the last time. As they ran downhill out of Turn 2 they were side by side, something had to give. Tanart and Pitsanu were side by side through the sweeping hairpin and touched, losing a few tenths and that allowed Kantadhee on their heels to nip through on the inside. Tanart also got the better of the gold Porsche but as they braked for Turn 5 Pitsanu came back at him and grabbed the outside line. Out of the turn though Pitsanu spun round and off the track, digging into the gravel to end his race with half a lap to go. It was cruel luck for this driver who had shown superb race pace and put a difficult 2016 season behind him.

That was race over and Nattavude duly took the chequered flag to claim the win with just over five seconds in hand over Kantasak, the Ferrari driver after his slow start having no response. The veteran was back in the winners’ circle after quite some absence – and was the provisional championship leader to boot. Nattapong came home third to make it a Toyota 1-3 and also give them the Teams’ trophy, so the Japanese factory outfit was back at the top with a bang.

The final podium places went to the two young chargers, Kantadhee and Tanart, the former impressively making the podium on his Super Car debut. That was also a 2-4 finish for the ‘Kusiri’ family as these two young stars of tomorrow finally both appeared in Super Car together for the first time – and were both on the podium. A small moment of history in the making – expect them to be hustling for podiums for many years to come. Aekarat wrapped up the Pro-Am runners in P6 before Thanavud claimed GTM Am victory on his Super Car debut, just three tenths of a second ahead of Thamrong, the two inseparable for the whole race, from green lights to chequered flag.

After starting from the back having missed qualifying due to other commitments, the reigning GTM Am champion Paul Kanjanapas very quickly battled his way up from the tail of the grid and up to fourth by the end of the first lap. He then picked his way past another runner to move up to third but promptly spun and had to do it all over again to eventually finish third. However, he showed great maturity and demonstrated that his title was no flash in the pan and he certainly isn’t going to give up the crown easily. Fourth in GTM Am went to Chairat Sangtong who is returning after a few seasons away and he got straight into the groove to come home in a podium position; there’s a lot of work to do with the ‘rusty’ driver, the car that’s not at its potential and also for his new team, Innovation Motorsport, which is graduating to Super Car, so expect a lot more from this package as the season progresses.

The final step of the GTM Am podium went to Supachai Weeraborwornpong in the Lamborghini Gallardo Super Trofeo, back for a mixed programme in Super Car this year. Debutant Chinnapol Jongprasert (Ferrari) was next up and then came Naputt in the second Painkiller Racing entry, he had been scheduled to start from pole but his throttle cable broke on the warm up lap forcing him to pit to have it fixed just as the rest of the field got the green lights and then the airjacks wouldn’t retract which cost him more time. However back in the race he picked up the pace although seventh place the best he could achieve as he was three quarters of a minute adrift of the sixth place car when the chequered flag was waved.

Super Car GTM Plus Race 2 (Sunday)

Sunday’s second race again saw an all-Lamborghini front row but this time the roles were reversed as the Huracán of reigning champion Sarun was on pole with the previous day’s winning Gallardo sitting alongside. Having failed to score any points on Saturday Sarun would need to convert pole to the race win and lop some points back off Narasak if he was to get his title defence quickly back on track. Row 2 was unchanged from the day before with Voravud edging out Daniel, while on Row 3 it was Saravut and Henk with Shaun next up.

At the green lights Sarun defended his pole position into Turn 1 but got an outside line as the pack thundered down the hill to Turn 3 and Narasak was able to grab the inside line and assume the lead of the race. Behind them it was Voravud from Daniel, a fast starting Saravut who was moving up just as his brother was moving down, Henk and Shaun.

The early action was the battle for P4 as the fast starting Saravut defended his position from Henk and Shaun. Henk was looking at the Lamborghini everywhere but had to keep his eyes on the mirrors as Shaun was tight on his tail although the latter would soon start falling away while Henk would get past Saravut.

Into the fourth lap one of the GTM Am runners hit the barriers on the exit of Turn 1 and that brought out the Safety Car. As they formed up it was Narasak from Sarun, Voravud, Daniel, Henk, Saravut and Shaun, the New Zealander suffering problems with his car and was by now dropping down through the GTM field.

When the Safety Car went back in at the end of the fifth lap the GTM Plus runners resumed action without any position changes. Over the sixth lap Narasak was able to pull out a second and a half over Sarun who in turn had a couple of cars lengths over Voravud as they crossed the line and the top order seemed to be splitting up now.

On the eleventh lap Saravut, who had suffered an off track moment that had dropped him down the pack, and Shaun swapped track position with the black Lamborghini drifting further back. It would stay that was to the finishline as Narasak took his second win in two days and with it maximum championship points from the weekend. Voravud took second place while Daniel led the B-Quik cars home with Henk and Daniel next up. Shaun and Saravut, with just three tenths of a second between them, completed the classified runners after a second impressive race for the inaugural GTM Plus weekend.

Super Car GTM Race 2 (Sunday)

Kantasak lined his Ferrari up on pole position with the first of the Toyotas alongside. Row 2 saw a couple of the Porsche stars of the day before, Tanart and Pitsanu, getting ready to scrap away again while the third row saw the second Toyota and Tanart, with the similar 991 of Aekarat next up and he had Kantadhee next to him. In GTM Am it was Naputt on pole for the second day from Thamrong and Thanavud.

At the green lights Nattapong came round the outside into Turn 1 but Kantasak defended his pole and inside line with Nattavude pushing up to P3 and Tanart next up while Pitsanu got a bit of a wide line. In the midst of the pack Kantadhee and Aekarat touched, the latter spun round in the middle of the exit of Turn 1 but the rest of the runners managed to stream either side of him.

Over the open lap the two Toyotas were locked onto the back of the #34 Ferrari with Tanart in P4 dropping a few car lengths back. Into the second lap Nattavude started to pressure Nattapong and that allowed Kantasak to pull a car lengths clear but he now had the dynamically superior GTM Plus cars ahead of him which would be difficult to pass. Behind them the three Porsches of Tanart, Pitsanu and Kantadhee looked all set to reprise their battle of the previous day’s race as all three appeared to be very equal.

On the third lap Nattavude got a better line into Turn 3 as the Toyotas swapped places and a couple of turns later Kantasak squeezed ahead of one of the GTM Plus Audis but the respite was only momentarily as Nattavude also took advantage and nipped through and was straight back all over the tail of the Ferrari. However, Nattapong made heavier weather of getting past and that broke up the top three as they raced into the final section. Nattapong though got past the Audi into the last turn and the top three were once again back together again.

At the start of the fourth lap Sangtong went wide on the exit of Turn 4, spun round and clouted the barriers on the inside with his left hand rear corner. That brought out the Safety Car as the Ferrari was retrieved. Meanwhile at the end of the third lap Kantadhee had pitted and as the car went onto the jack and the bonnet of the Porsche came up it appeared he had serious problems and the race had been robbed of this young contender chasing his second consecutive podium very early on. As the Safety Car picked up the field it was Kantasak from Nattavude, Nattapong, Tanart, Pitsanu and Craig. In the GTM Am class Naputt continued to hold the lead with Thanavud and Thamrong his closest challengers.

When the Safety Car went in at the end of the fifth lap Kantasak was able to jump a GTM Plus Audi and put a car between himself and the two Toyotas.

On the eighth lap the race lost Supachai who spun off at Turn 1, the bright red Lamborghini spearing backwards through the gravel until it whacked the tyres barriers with the rear end, the tail bouncing into the air, ripping the bumper off and putting him out on the spot.

After his early spin Aekarat was now charging back into contention in the #11 A Motorsport Porsche and by the eleventh lap he had cleared the GTM Am class runners as well as Craig’s Holden and was up into sixth place – and on the cusp of a trip to the podium. However, that sixth place would turn out to be somewhat brief as a lock up into Turn 3 saw Craig regain the position and the New Zealander would go on to successfully fend the blue and white Porsche off for the remainder of the race.

Meanwhile, although he was four laps down Kantadhee had re-joined the race and was making a strong pace and mixing it up with the GTM cars although not in terms of track position – however he was in P8 and on the way to being classified so a small handful of championship points were on offer. Small crumbs though.

Also on the eleventh lap Chinnapol suffered a somewhat deflationary end to his debut weekend as he shed the right hand rear tyre through the final esses. He was holding down the final GTM Am podium position at that point but it had been a solid weekend and he had looked at home in the ‘amateur’ class – plenty more to come from this driver.

On the penultimate lap the GTM Am class would lose another runner due to a flat tyre as Paul also lost his right hand rear through the final esses and he would trundle into the pits to retire. The defending champion was running in P4 at that point and in fact it would be the first time he had failed to make the podium since the inception of the ‘Amateur’ class.

There was to be one final sting in the tail as Nattavude, who looked seemingly to be on his way to second place to back up his win the previous day – and a result that would have planted him at the top of the provisional championship classification – saw his weekend long braking issues blow up in his face into the final turn, the Toyota wreathed in a plume of tyre smoke more appropriate to a drift event as he tried to control the car and by the time he had regained momentum and got to the line Nattapong, Tanart and Pitsanu had all taken advantage and he was dumped down to P5, although still able to claim the final step on the podium.

After 15 laps and almost 27 minutes of races on a hot Buriram afternoon Kantasak thus led the pack across the line to take his first win of the year and when added to his runners up spot the day before he moved into the provisional lead of the Drivers’ classification after two of ten races, albeit by a margin of just 8 points. Kantasak, the 2015 Super Car GTM champion, has already staked his claim to bounce back after a much less rewarding 2016 season and is clearly intent on making a run at the title.

Nattapong was the biggest beneficiary of his teammate’s last corner brake problems and he claimed second place to add to his third the previous day which moves him up to second in the provisional Drivers’ championship standings. The Toyotas looked quick all weekend and they came away with the Teams’ trophy for the second consecutive day. They departed Buriram with a cushion at the top of the Teams’ championship classification and are going to very hard to beat on current form.

After grabbing the last step of the Pro Am podium the previous day Tanart zipped up the finishing order and after a strong race where he had looked very comfortable behind the front running Ferrari and Toyotas he was a beneficiary of Nattavude’s last corner misfortune to nip up a place and collect a well-deserved third place finish.

Tanart is starting his first full season in TSS after spending most of his career thus far racing in Europe, for several seasons plying his trade in EuroFormula 3 and last year in the Renault Sport Trophy, the one make series reserved for the Renault Sport RS01. He also raced at Bangsaen during what was his first time out in the Porsche 991, had some extra cockpit time last month as he’s also contesting Porsche Carrera Cup Asia this year in a similar car while he can count on some prior experience of Buriram having driven an LMP3 car here during the Asian Le Mans Series’ Thai round early last year. Finally switching his budding racing career to Asia means Thai fans will be able to better get to know this young driver.

After agonisingly dropping out at the end of previous day’s race Pitsanu made up for it by coming home fourth during a weekend that’s saw him in the thick of the hunt for the podium positions in both races; he also made the most of Nattavude’s trouble to pick off another place in the final few hundred meters of the race, while the Toyota star recovered to salvage fifth place and the final step of the rostrum. The remaining finishers were Aekarat, Craig and Kantadhee, the latter returning to the race four laps down but doing enough to be classified and pick up useful points.

Super Car GTM Am saw a very high attrition rate and in the end only three cars finished. However, at the front of the gentleman pack Naputt made up for his troubles the day before in real style and imperiously powered his way to the win. No one saw him all afternoon and his winning margin was a massive 12.876 seconds. Not only that but his fastest lap was a superb 1:41.078 which demonstrated that the ‘amateur’ class is turning into a useful proving ground where the gentlemen are quickly turning into fast gentlemen. The squabbling Ferrari drivers of the previous day, Thamrong and Thanavud, came home in second place and third place with roles reversed this time.

Source. Edd Ellison

 

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