AP: Bira preview

Grunwell leads the way for Thais Pattaya, Thailand -- Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, or Prince Bira as he is often called and after whom Thailand's race track is named, was racing internationally in the 1950's and remains arguably ...

Grunwell leads the way for Thais

Pattaya, Thailand -- Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, or Prince Bira as he is often called and after whom Thailand's race track is named, was racing internationally in the 1950's and remains arguably the country's most famous racing driver. Today, the country boasts a vast and growing young karting community, and the popularity of all-things automotive in the media is testament to the almost fanatical interest in motorsport at every level.

Why then, given its mature motorsport heritage, are there currently fewer than half a dozen Thais racing internationally? There are several answers, says BMW Junior James Grunwell (Team Meritus) who, at just 17, is aiming to lead the way for the countless youngsters he believes will follow when it comes to competing overseas: "A Thai needs to do really well overseas, and I believe I can be that someone. There is loads of interest amongst my karting friends. I'm their 'test' case. They want to see how I do and they call up every race to check on my progress. These guys, like me, grew up karting and they're really interested in me."

Grunwell who, despite his English parentage, grew up in Bangkok, speaks the language fluently and considers himself a true Thai, also believes that rapid growth in the karting scene, and a greater understanding of commercial sports sponsorship will help youngsters make the transition to competing outside their native country: "As well as BMW Motorsport, I'm also very fortunate to have the support of the Pizza Company. The owner is a racing driver himself who competes internationally and he and his company really understand the value of sponsorship. And not just at home. We had a press conference in Beijing before the races there and received a massive amount of media coverage."

"There are also new developments on the karting scene in Thailand this year," he continues. "Europeans are now being brought in for the first time to lend their technical expertise as the standards increase, and the fields are getting very full. Several new karting tracks are under construction, as well as two car circuits. There will be two international karting events in 2006 held here, and several local karters have made forays into Europe. So, the sport is very much on the increase."

The challenges, Grunwell believes, are mainly that no Thai in recent years has made a full career of motor racing, and many do not yet accept the sport as a bona fide profession. This, coupled with the strong tradition of family, has meant many youngsters are reluctant to spend time outside their country. However, Grunwell is upbeat that this will change: "Somebody has to make it, and that somebody could be me!" With six podium finishes so far this season, currently 3rd in the overall Driver Classification and 2nd in the Rookie Cup standings, there is no reason to doubt him.

As he leads the charge for international motorsport in Thailand, Grunwell will be looking for the win that has eluded him so far this season, but Australia's Sam Abay (Team E-Rain) and 17-year-old Kiwi Earl Bamber (Team Meritus) will be hard to beat. Abay was dominant in Beijing in June, with a trio of lights-to-flag victories, and Bamber was on track to mirror this result in Sentul last month when a technical glitch put him out of the final race. In addition, Grunwell's fellow BMW Juniors won't be making life easy even if it is his "home" event: James Ricciardo (AUS/Eurasia Motorsport) trails Grunwell by just six points in the Driver Classification; Aaron Lim (MAS/Eurasia Motorsport) who, with the help of a new car is starting to find his true form; and Dominic Storey (NZL/Eurasia Motorsport) who was very much under-the-weather at the Indonesian meeting.

Rounds 12 to 14 of Formula BMW Asia 2006 will be held at Bira Circuit on September 2 and 3.

-credit: bmw.asia

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Series Formula BMW
Drivers Aaron Lim , James Grunwell , Sam Abay , Earl Bamber