Shanghai International Circuit hosts the first leg of Blancpain GT Series Asia’s Chinese double header this weekend (September 23/24), and the Formula 1 venue could witness a piece of championship history with the awarding of its first titles.
Following rounds in Malaysia, Thailand and Japan the inaugural pan-continental GT3 and GT4 campaign visits China’s most populous city for the first time before heading south to Zhejiang, which is due to stage 2017’s season finale one month later.
A packed grid of 29 supercars has once again been assembled, with the usual cast of full-season entries supplemented by several teams and drivers making one-off appearances. All new entries competing for the first time this season at Shanghai, and then Zhejiang, are not eligible to score points, which could have a bearing on the championship outcome.
With that in mind all eyes will be on the front of the field where Hunter Abbott and GruppeM Racing have a mathematical chance of claiming the GT3 Drivers’, Pro/Am and Teams’ titles with a weekend to spare.
Abbott, who once again shares the #999 Mercedes-AMG GT3 with 2016 Blancpain GT Series Europe champion Maxi Buhk, currently leads Audi Hong Kong duo Marchy Lee and Shaun Thong by 33 points. Extending that advantage by another 18 over the course of this weekend’s two hour-long races would leave him 51 points ahead with only 50 still to fight for at Zhejiang.
Inadvertently, Lee and Thong’s efforts to keep the overall championship alive could help them seal GT3 Silver Cup honours at Shanghai where they’ll resume battle with primary class rivals Aditya Patel and Mitch Gilbert. The two Audi crews have been closely matched all season with both taking an overall victory apiece.
However, it’s Lee and Thong who have proven most adept at scoring maximum Silver Cup marks courtesy of four wins to the OD Racing pair’s two, while a double DNF has also hobbled the latter’s challenge. 37 points currently separates them with 100 still to play for, while Tim Sugden and Jules Szymkowiak are a further 12 back in third.
The GT3 Pro/Am crown could also be settled in Abbott’s favour, with the Briton currently 75 points clear of Rui Aguas in second while Jeffrey Lee is another two behind in third. Again, a 51-point advantage at the end of the weekend would be enough to settle the title.
Meanwhile, GruppeM’s second Mercedes-AMG comprising Sugden and Szymkowiak could contribute towards deciding the Teams’ title at Shanghai. A total of 172 points are still available for a two-car team that finishes first and second in each of the remaining four races. That means GruppeM will be crowned GT3 Teams’ champions if they leave Shanghai with an 87-point lead over their nearest two-car rivals. Spirit of Race, currently 90 points behind, must therefore out-score GruppeM this weekend in order to take the title down to the wire.
However, pitstop success penalties for Abbott and Buhk plus Lee and Thong will give other crews an opportunity to fight for the podium. Patel and Gilbert are undoubtedly contenders, as well as the resurgent Craft-Bamboo Racing whose #88 Porsche driven by Nick Foster and Devon Modell has finished second at each of the last two events and also recorded pole position at Fuji.
Lamborghini claimed its first Blancpain GT Series Asia victory last time out in Japan, and both the VSR and FFF Racing Team Huracan GT3s should be somewhere near the front once again. However, it’s Alessio Picariello who could be the one to watch this weekend after the Belgian recently sealed this year’s Audi R8 LMS Cup title at Shanghai with an event to spare. He once again joins Jeffrey Lee in the J-Fly by Absolute Racing Audi.
And what about Absolute Racing’s two Bentley Continental GT3s, which make their championship debut this weekend? Adderly Fong and Andrew Kim are certainly no strangers to GT success in Asia, while Vutthikorn Inthraphuvasak contested a Blancpain GT Series Asia round on home soil in Thailand earlier this year.
China’s full-season contingent are likely to be led by Spirit of Race’s Jiang Xin whose co-driver Max Wiser sealed a pole position at Fuji. However, there are plenty of Chinese race-by-race candidates who could also spring a surprise, not least HubAuto Racing’s Leo Ye who’s joined in Shanghai by Tim Bridgman.
Elsewhere, Lin Yu returns with FIST – Team AAI for the first time since the opening round at Sepang, while Japanese driver Yuki Nemoto makes his Blancpain GT Series Asia and GT3 debut in VSR’s #66 Lamborghini.
There are other newcomers too, not least reigning Le Mans 24 Hours winner, factory Porsche LMP1 ace and former Porsche Carrera Cup Asia champion Earl Bamber who joins Arrows Racing to partner fellow debutant and Blancpain GT Series Asia’s first American driver, Will Hardeman.
HubAuto Racing have also shuffled their second driver line-up, which now comprises Brian Lee and Super GT regular Hideto Yasuoka in the #33 Porsche.
One title unlikely to be decided this weekend is the GT3 Am Cup where four crews are currently separated by just 14 points. The T2 Motorsports Ferrari driven by Greg Teo Bee Tat and David Tjiptobiantoro lead Naoto Takeda and Takuya Shirasaka’s KCMG Audi by 11 points, while Andrew Haryanto – who is unbeaten in his last four outings – lies a point further back in third. James Cai and Kenneth Lim’s CMRT Eurasia Aston Martin is fourth.
GT4 also looks incredibly unpredictable with only 11 points covering the top-three. And with the Clearwater McLaren that won both Fuji races not travelling to Shanghai, the stage is set for one of the championship-chasing crews to stamp their mark on proceedings.
Craft-Bamboo Racing’s Frank Yu and Jean-Marc Merlin currently lead with 136 points, but they’re just three clear of EKS Motorsports pairing Eric Lo and Byron Tong, while Top Speed Racing’s Keo Chang is only another eight behind.
This weekend’s qualifying session and two hour-long races will be shown live on the Blancpain GT Series Asia website and Facebook page, as well as SRO’s GT World Youtube channel. Chinese fans will also be catered for thanks to both races being streamed live with Chinese commentary on Douyu, Toutiao, Iqiyi, Beijing Time, Octopus TV, Quanmin TV, Zaker, Huajiao and Hi Sports.
SHANGHAI PITSTOP SUCCESS PENALTIES (RACE 1)
10s – Abbott/Buhk – #999 GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3
07s – NOT ATTENDING
05s – Lee/Thong – #5 Audi Hong Kong R8 LMS GT3
10s – NOT ATTENDING
07s – Chong/Kan – #89 HubAuto Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR
05s – Yu/Merlin – #77 Craft-Bamboo Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR
Friday 22 September
13:00 – 13:45: Free Practice 1
15:45 – 16:30: Free Practice 2
Saturday 23 September
09:10 – 09:40: Official Practice
12:35 – 12:50: Qualifying 1
13:00 – 13:15: Qualifying 2
16:15 – 17:15: Race 1
Sunday 24 September
13:45 – 14:45: Race 2
Source. SRO Motorsports Group