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HISTORY MADE AS SUPER CAR GTM WRAPS UP THE TSS SEASON IN BURIRAM

Super Car GTM closed off the 2017 season with one of the most dramatic and sensational races – not just of the decade and a half existence of the power pumped headlining national motorsports category, but of contemporary Thai racing history – during the season closing round of Thailand Super Series (TSS) 2017 in Buriram. It really was a race to remember and one that will be talked about for years to come.

A dramatic title decider between two talented young drivers that had been anticipated for many years played out – albeit it probably came at least a season earlier than had been widely expected – but when the movement arrived the story took a life of its own, the young gladiators involved rose to a quite simply a different level as they produced one of the most electrifying and dramatic ever title showdowns.

And all that frenzied action took place on one of the wettest tracks to be seen for many years – they were part race drivers, part ice skaters, fusing a ruthless determination to win with the graceful precision of a ballet dancer asked to perform their finest moves on a treacherously slippery surface. But when the stage was finally laid out for this epic battle to take place, it seemed almost inevitable that the elements would throw everything they could muster up at this encounter.

Singha Motorsport Team Thailand’s Kantasak Kusiri came into the event with one hand on the title, but agonisingly he was struck by electrical problems during qualifying that left the Ferrari star at the back of the grid for the three races and with a real mountain to climb. Suddenly the battle was even. But if anyone can climb mountains Kantasak can and he gave it everything as he turned in sensational drives all weekend, fighting against a tide that swung sharply in the favour of this younger brother, Kantadhee.

Come Sunday and the final race of the weekend – and the year – there were three drivers within 3 points of each other, Kantadhee and Kantasak were sensationally level pegging on points with Toyota driver Nattavude Charoensukhawatana just three points adrift but crucially hogging the advantage of pole position.

The gods of Thai motorsport had always ordained that one day in time these two brothers – whose budding careers have been a real core component of the sport – would duke it out with each other for the Super Car title and when that day finally arrived it was almost inevitable that it would prove to be one of the most dramatic encounters to ever grace a racetrack in Thailand, in the pouring rain and with astounding levels of car control and skill on show they totally went for it and destroyed the rest of the field.

The hand of history cast a large shadow over Buriram on that Sunday afternoon, and the brothers weren’t finished as their ferocious pace also took them past the entire GTM Plus field and into P1 and P2 overall.

In the end Kantasak, despite the drive of a lifetime, couldn’t quite make up for starting from the back of the grid although he managed to pass every single car on the water streaming track bar one – and that unfortunately for him was Kantadhee, who nailed down a sensational title at his first attempt. That means in terms of Super Car titles, the brothers stand at 1-1.

Super Car GTM Race 1 Friday (Race 8 of the year)

The first race of the weekend brought both agony and ecstasy to the Kusiri family. The young brothers went into the event with 22 points separating them, the advantage being held by the elder, Kantasak. The Singha Motorsport Team Thailand driver’ had seen his advantage whittled down after a tough time at the last round, a fourth place and a DNF being very slim pickings for a driver of this calibre who had been seemingly on his way to the title. However, the cushion clearly seemed to be enough for him to get the job done – even with three races in store over the weekend.

That scenario went straight out of the window during the first race. Kantasak had suffered a deep rooted electrical problem that compromised his qualifying, left his team’s engineers scratching their heads as they tried in vain chased a solution and left him with a lot of work to do come the race – and then it all got even worse as that electrical issue reared its head again, hammering him hard and sending the young driver to the pits and eventually to finish the race without enough laps chalked up to even be classified. No points on the board.

While Kantasak was seeing everything falling apart in front of his eyes, younger brother Kantadhee enjoyed a dream race and he steered clear of trouble on a mixed conditions track as his rivals knocked themselves out of contention to win the race and bag a maximum 20 point haul. That reduced the deficit to just 2 points with two races remaining – and, crucially, Kantasak would be starting the rest of the weekend at the back of the grid thanks to his qualifying session woes. The momentum was clearly with Kantadhee.

It had looked a very different proposition on the grid as the Toyotas had executed a front row lockout in qualifying. Nattavude Charoensukhawatana’s best lap in 1:36.959 making him the only driver to post a sub-37 lap and he was fourth tenths up on the second quickest time, which was set by his teammate Nattapong Horthongkum.

It set an ominous tone for the weekend but – just like a few hundred metres ahead on the track in Super Car GTM Plus – it all went off in Super Car GTM and the Toyotas were the big losers, they would be left to fight back up the running order, the pair making up ground superbly to finish third and fourth, Nattavude leading Nattapong home albeit with a massive 10 second gap between them. However, the 12 points Nattavude picked up for third were something of a ‘get out of jail’ card as it kept him hanging onto the title fight – he would need to convert that clear pace superiority for the red and white cars into wins in the final two races if he was to close in on the title.

Instead it was Kantadhee who capitalised on the melee, from third on the grid with a car that was finally looking quick and sorted around Chang International Circuit he was elevated into the lead and he never looked back, hold a cushion at the front to win the race with just under three seconds in hand over Aekarat Discharoen, who also took full advantage of the opening lap dramas having started on the third row of the grid.

Behind the two Toyotas, Tanart Sathienthirakul came home fifth to nab the final step on the podium with Craig Corliss sixth in the big Holden Commodore, the New Zealander’s car somewhat patched up after a high speed tyre failure the previous day that had torn away a big chunk of the V8 Supercar’s right hand rear bodywork.

One of the expected front runners, Pitsanu Sirimongkolkasem, dropped out after 13 laps, ending a run of two straight runners up finishes here at the last round a month ago.

In Super Car GTM Am Naputt Assakul stormed to his first victory in his recently acquired Ferrari 458 Challenge, at the third time of asking, coming home 12 seconds clear of Thanavud Bhirombhakdi, the latter though officially sealing the Am title – although it was only a case of ticking off the final mathematics. This was Thanavud’s debut year in Super Car GTM AM after graduating from Super 2000 and five wins, one second place and one third place was enough to deliver the title with two races to spare. Third, fourth and fifth places went to Chinnapol Jongprasert, Chairat Sangtong (both Ferraris) and Paul Kanjanapas (Porsche).

Super Car GTM Race 2 Saturday (Race 9 of the year)

After their woes in the first race the two factory Toyotas ensured there was to be no repeat after they once again lined up together on the front row of the grid. This time they strangled the life out of the battle for P1 right from the green flag and Nattavude took his first win of the weekend – and his third of the season – after a very comfortable afternoon’s work. He opened out a cushion over teammate Nattapong which grew to just shy of three seconds by the time the chequered flag fell while reasonably happy with third place was Kantadhee, the first of the Porsche’s home.

Nattavude was delighted with the win and said afterwards that it had been a pretty routine victory. “My focus was on winning,” he said. “The weather was fine, I start with pole position and I’m happy to win this race, no mistakes, a really good race.”

Incredibly, in terms of the championship that meant Kantadhee drew level on points with his brother, Kantasak – with just one race remaining. The Ferrari driver had started the race from the back of the grid thanks to the electrical issues he suffered during qualifying and he did everything he possibly could, scything his way through the ‘AM’ class runners for track position and then hacking through the GTM midfield. He climbed to P4 but by that time his younger brother was long gone but he managed to reduce the gap to four seconds by the time the chequered flag waved, although Kantadhee had third place well covered. It was the drive of the race from Kantasak and agonisingly he was seeing an almost assured title slipping away from his grasp with little he could do about it. One race remaining, both equal on 109 points, but with Kantasak set to start from the back again – he would need a miracle.

But while a lot of attention was focused on the young Kusiri brothers, Nattavude’s win couldn’t have come at a better time as the 20 points he collected vaulted the former champion up to 106 points, just 3 points off the top of the classification. Nattavude would be starting the final race from pole – if he could convert that into a race win he would have the title, the Toyota was in a league of its own in dry conditions, so destiny was in his hands and suddenly the pendulum had swung in his favour.

The rest of the finishing order seemed rather less important although joining Nattavude, Kantadhee and Kantasak on the podium was Nattapong, following his teammate home to make it a 1-2 for Toyota, and Aekarat in fifth place, the A Motorsport driver making his second visit to the podium in just 24 hours. Tanart sixth, Pitsanu seventh and Craig eighth, wrapped up the Pro-Am finishing order.

In Super Car GTM AM, Thanavud ran out the winner, the already crowned champion taking an impressive sixth win from nine races held so far this year. Naputt backed up his win the previous day with the runners up spot in this race while Chairat third, Chinnapol fourth and Paul fifth, completed the ‘gentleman’ podium.

Super Car GTM Race 3 Sunday (Race 10 of the year)

‘Cliff-hanger’ doesn’t do justice to the introduction to this final race of the weekend and the year The Kusiri brothers led the standings on equal points with the veteran Toyota driver, Nattavude, as wily and cunning as they come, just three points adrift of the youngsters. Nattavude would have the advantage of starting from pole – if he stopped anyone getting past him over the next 15 laps the title was his – and he could count on the help of his teammate Nattapong, alongside him on the grid, to ride shotgun. Kantadhee was just shy of the Toyotas on the grid but Kantasak would have to do it all from the back of the field once again. It really was looking like a ‘winner takes all’ scenario, whoever came past the chequered flag first of this trio would most likely be the champion.

And if that wasn’t enough, finally, after threatening for so long, rain came into play. It had rained during the previous Super Car GTC, it had stopped by the time the grid formed up but the track was soaking and as ever different parts were wetter than other.

The atmosphere was electric as the cars sat on their grooved tyres on the grid, a couple of runners hedging their bets with slick tyres before swapping to wet covers at the last minute so the whole grid was ready for rain.

Over the first lap Nattavude lost his wingman as Nattapong dropped to sixth, instead he had the Porsches of Pitsanu and Kantadhee for company, but at the end of the first lap the Toyota driver passed a GTM Plus car to give himself a very brief buffer although the two chasing Porches would also pick off this Lamborghini by Turn 3.

Into Turn 5 the pair of Porsches would swap places, it was now Nattavude and Kantadhee in P1 and P2 while Kantasak, having sliced through the AM class and the tail end of Pro-Am, was now up to P6. As the cars thundered round the second lap the rain resumed, spray was being thrown up and visibility was down to a few metres.

Nattavude had another GTM Plus car in front which was hindering his pace and that allowed Kantadhee to close down the gap within a few turns.

Into the third lap Nattavude and Kantadhee came down towards Turn 1 side by side. 3 points separated them in the championship before the race, there is a 5 point difference between finishing first and second so there was no question of tactics, whoever came out on top would win the title. The Porsche clearly had superior traction in the wet and Kantadhee dummied to the outside as they approached Turn 1, came across to snap up the inside out of Turn 1 and was into the lead – all on a track that had the grip of an ice rink.

Kantadhee sealed that move as they came through Turn 3 and then the destiny of the title took another twist as Pitsanu took Nattavude through Turn 4. The Toyota driver, struggling with a clearly nervous car in the rain and reporting afterwards that the setup simply didn’t suit the conditions, wasn’t however giving the place up lightly, the pair touched between Turn 4 and 5 and that allowed Aekarat through into second. Nattavude though conceded as he was boxed in as the Toyota and the gold Porsche swept uphill side by side. Meanwhile, having disposed of the rest of the Pro-Am midfield Kantasak, driving like a man possessed, was now on the tail of this pair.

Kantasak dealt with Pitsanu and it was now the three title rivals – Kantadhee, Nattavude and Kantasak – running first, third and fourth overall on the road, and still in some of the worst conditions Super Car has seen for many years. As title showdowns do there had been nothing like this for years.

The Safety Car was deployed after a GTM Plus car went into the barriers out of Turn 11 and that bunched everyone up. At the restart, with 8 laps left on the clock, Kantadhee got safely away with Aekarat behind him, however in a crucial championship twist, Kantasak got past Nattavude, while Tanart jumped them both, as he moved up to third, with Kantasak fourth and Nattavude fifth.

Through Turn 4 Kantadhee ran wide but kept the lead, Tanart, looking pacey now, got past Aekarat and up into second place while a little further back Nattapong spun his Toyota.

With GTM Plus cars immediately ahead, Kantadhee was anxious to gain track position as he needed to get away from his rapidly closing older brother. Impressively he passed two GTM Plus cars on the restart lap to not only lead the GTM class but move up to second overall in the race.

Tanart’s sizzling run came to an abrupt end as he took a long trip through the gravel, clipped the barrier on the outside of Turn 1 with 7 laps to go, he recovered the car, had a further excursion onto the run off at Turn 6 as he limped into retirement. Showing just how treacherous it was out there, three Am class cars spun on that lap – Thanavud, Naputt and Chinnapol – but all were able to recover and continue.

Kantasak and Nattavude spent some time bottled up behind a GTM Plus Lamborghini and that was costly as Kantadhee was busy pulling away at the front, but both would eventually make their way past with 6 laps to go.

Nattavude, struggling with a car that didn’t suit the conditions, then lost track position to Aekarat as well as two GTM Plus cars. He was effectively now out of the title reckoning and that left its as Kusiri vs Kusiri, Kantadhee vs Kantasak, brother vs brother fighting for P1 and P2, for the championship title.

More than just a truly astounding race, it had turned into the exclusive ‘Kusiri Grand Prix’ as the two brothers went all out over the closing laps for the title, on a track that was still awash despite the rain stopping.

The gods of Thai motorsport had always ordained that one day in time these two drivers would duke it out with each other for the Super Car title, when that day finally arrived it was almost inevitable that it would prove to be one of the most dramatic races in memory, in the pouring rain and with astounding levels of car control and skill on show.

One imagines that their almost romantic upbringing in the confines of the tight, twisty, narrow, treacherous and crumbling Bira Circuit had taught them a level of wet weather ability that they were able to put to good use and revel in what mother nature was throwing at them. Distain for the machinations of the elements is at the core of any great ‘pro’ driver. The hand of history was hovering large over Buriram on Sunday afternoon, and they weren’t finished as their duel took them past the entire GTM Plus field and into P1 and P2 overall.

Having started from the back of the grid, Kantasak did everything humanly possible – and then some more – but he simply couldn’t bridge the gap to Kantadhee who crossed the finishline as the paddock rose to its feet with 2.2 seconds in hand to win the Super Car GTM Drivers’ championship at his first attempt.

An incredible result after one of the most amazing races in Thai motorsport history – one that will be talked about for a long, long time. Kantadhee dedicated his title to his mother, a familiar face in the paddock, who had just celebrated her birthday and was on the pitwall to see her sons rewriting the rules.

It also gave Porsche its first Super Car Drivers’ title since Vutthikorn Inthraphuvasak won Super Car Class 1-GT3 back in 2013, AAS Motorsport returning in triumph to the Super Car championship winners’ circle after a four year hiatus.

Despite a tough closing race, Nattavude and Nattapong in their red and white factory-supported Toyota 86 machines still delivered championship points with regularity all weekend with both drivers finishing on the podium in all three races (adding up to a win, a second, a third, two fourths and a fifth place) which meant Toyota Team Thailand was able to nail down the Teams’ crown rather comfortably in the end.

If there is a ‘moral champion’ though it’s certainly Kantasak. He came into this event with one hand on the trophy after a superb season so far. The reason he lost his grip on the title is quite simply down to electrical problems with the #34 Ferrari that destroyed his Friday lunchtime qualifying pace to leave him languishing at the back of the grid for all three races and then continued into the late afternoon, giving him with no points at all from the first race. He showed the mettle of a true champion by never letting his head drop at any point as he vainly battled his way up from the back of the grid, turning in two stunning drives on Saturday and Sunday when he had a car underneath him that was up to speed, but it wasn’t to be enough. Certainly Kantasak must be crushed to not to have added a second Super Car title to his blossoming CV, but he can be very proud of just where he now stands as a driver, in big picture terms he really is the big picture now.

Aekarat capped a very successful weekend on Sunday with his third trip to the podium in three races, this time the A Motorsport driver’ came home third, one place ahead of Nattavude, while Nattapong wrapped up the podium representation. Craig and Pitsanu completed the Pro-Am runners.

In GTM Am it was equally ferocious at the front as newly crowned champion, Thanavud, and outgoing champion, Paul, slugged it out all race, with plenty of slips and slides along the way. In the end Thanavud edged it, to take his second win of the weekend and his seventh from ten races, the rookie having crushed his rivals. A long way adrift of this battling pair, Naputt, Chairat and Chinnapol, wrapped up the podium positions. That made it a 2-3 in the finally Am class championship standings for Painkiller Racing’s Naputt and Paul with Chairat fourth. That went down to the wire too as 7 points separated the trio from second to fourth in the final classification.

Making more history

Kantadhee Kusiri really has had an amazing year – and his title haul hasn’t stopped with sealing the Super Car GTM championship. Last weekend he added the TCR Asia Series title to his fast growing ‘racing CV’, meaning he’s won a national and international championship in the same year, something that really sets him apart from the other Thai drivers of his generation. This year he graduated to TCR Asia Series having already stood out in these ‘touring cars’ during a part programme in TCR Thailand in 2016.

Last time Thai fans saw Kantadhee in action he had a torrid time of it at the Bangsaen Grand Prix where TCR Asia Series arrived to join the programme. Eliminated at the start of Race 1 he then had to serve a knock on drive through penalty in Race 2 that left him floundering at the back of the pack on a circuit where passing opportunities are strictly limited. Collecting just 5 points from his two ‘home’ races (as well as an extra 5 points for qualifying) was a complete disaster and saw him abruptly turn from a major championship contender to outsider status.

With just four races remaining, the tide seemed to have turned against the young Thai driver, but Kantadhee simply responded the way the top professional drivers do, he dug in and won the next three races on the trot and that hauled him the lead of the championship classification. He then superbly managed his advantage to compete the final race of the year in third place and lock down the Drivers’ championship, the first Thai to win an international TCR title. A stunning achievement to cap off an history making 2017.

Source. Edd Ellison

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