Ferrari dominate in the changeable conditions with 1-2-3 podium lockout
Despite a dramatic opening lap and conditions that were constantly changing, Fuji International Speedway provided yet another outstanding round of the GT Asia Series, and with it, the fifth different race winning combination of the year, although the round was undeniably the domain of Ferrari, with the Italian marque claiming a podium lockout.
Ultimately it was the two teams that had dominated since Thursday’s opening practice that featured at the top of the podium - the #1 Clearwater Racing Ferrari of Mok Weng Sun and Ferrari WEC factory star Toni Vilander, and GT Asia rookies TP12 Racing, with Carlo Van Dam and Piti Bhirom Bhakdi that kept the big local crowd entertained, the two teams battling from lap one, to the conclusion of the 60-minute opening race.
With a 60-minute grid walk scheduled for the fans, teams endured a tough wait as intermittent rain swept across the circuit, although without making the track surface significantly wet. It cleared just prior to the roll-around laps, with almost everyone deciding to go onto slicks, Clearwater Racing’s Matt Griffin gambled, but was forced to make a pit-lane start after changing back to slicks before the light went green.
The start was typically manic with the long run down arguably the world’s longest straight to a hard braking 60-kph right-hander where two of the Bentleys and the much fancied Craft-Bamboo Aston Martin of Richard Lyons were all but eliminated from contention, whilst two corners later, Max Wiser was forced into retirement after heavy contact from Keita Sawa’s Bentley.
That left the two pace-setting Ferraris clear at the front of the field, the duo running relatively untroubled in the changeable conditions to take a comfortable 1-2, with the second Clearwater car of Matt Griffin and Richie Wee recovering from their pit-lane start to make it a Ferrari trifecta.
Local hero storm from rear-of-field for GTM class win
In the battle for GTM class honours, former Honda F1 test-driver Ryo Fukuda led to the pit-stops, where the team suffered a delay changing to wet weather tyres, handing former 500cc motorcycle star Takuma Aoki and co-driver Ken Urata an incredible victory from rear-of-field.
Race#1 (Round 5)
Fuji always throws up an interesting start thanks to the inherent nature of the circuit, and this race was to prove no different, although this time there were a couple of contributing factors.. a damp circuit, and an impressive entry of ‘Pro’ drivers all looking to make an impression off the line.
The two Ferrari’s got away okay from the rolling start, but Richard Lyons was able to make the better start to challenge the two leaders in the V12 Aston. Despite his pace he considered the state of the circuit, and braked early into turn one, which left the door wide open for Any Soucek who had dived up the inside.
... knowing the track dries quickly, we knew we would stay with the slicks.
Carlo Van Dam
Contact ensued which almost immediately ended their chances of contention, although neither were aware of their deflating tyres until the battle continued on down to turn three. By that stage the fast-starting Keita Sawa had moved alongside Lyons, the round four winner looking to go around the outside of the Aston and his team-mate, but Lyons deflating right front tyre meant he understeered into the corner, and the side of Sawa. That threw the Japanese driver into the runoff zone, however he carried on to rejoin at turn four, although the move failed with dramatic effect, as he clipped the rear of the #9 Max Wiser Ferrari putting the Italian out of the race with broken right-rear suspension.
Ultimately that saw the #8 Bentley handed a 30-second post-race penalty, although he was able to continue on, but forced to pit a few laps later, the battle-scarred Continental GT3 suffering from a deflating tyre as a result of the impact with the Ferrari.
With Lyons and Soucek working their way back to the pits, that left Vilander and Van Dam to open up an impressive lead, the two experienced GT campaigners driving away from the field, as behind them Toni Liuzzi inherited third, but was soon under fire from Duncan Tappy in the JV Global Bentley of Jacky Yeung.
It didn’t take long for the rain to return, with light drizzle intensifying as the pit stop window approached. The Michelin slicks hung on, and so too the drivers, although as the rain intensified, the pace began to drop, engineers working feverishly on calculations to determine if stopping to go for wets early would provide greater advantage than hanging on in case the conditions changed again.
As the rain intensified though, so did the pace of the FFF Racing Team by ACM Nissan GT-R in the hands of former Macau F3 champion Andre Couto. Starting from the seventh row of the grid, Couto avoided the opening lap fracas to move forward in the pack and past Tappy for third, setting the fastest lap of the race in the process.
Vilander ultimately got caught out in the wet conditions, running too deep into turn one, which handed Van Dam the lead ahead of the compulsory pit stop [CPS] window opening, but he was soon back up to speed and onto the tail of the Dutch star.
As the CPS window opened, a number of drivers elected to pit early, including Matt Griffin who was recovering from his pit-lane start, whilst Vilander too came in ahead of Van Dam, the TP12 Racing Ferrari pilot electing to go around again prior to handing over to Piti.
Having moved into the top six, Fairuz Fauzy was battling hard with fellow Lamborghini driver Kota Sasaki, and he too stayed out a little longer, but was tapped into a spin by Jeffrey Lee, who had the J-Fly Bentley back in the wars after his team’s CPS.
In the end the battle for the lead came down to the closing laps, with Piti having exited with the lead, almost six seconds up on Mok in the #1 Ferrari. The reigning champion applied plenty of pressure to close onto the tail of the Thai Ferrari with five minutes to go, but with memories of the Okayama fire still fresh in his mind, the Clearwater driver decided second was better than risking any potential damage, crossing the line immediately behind Piti.
Behind them ‘Rocket’ Richie Wee turned in another sterling effort to claim third, having worked his way past former team-mate Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Bentley’s Jacky Yeung late in the race, with Hamaguchi recovering from a late race spin to take fourth.
One of the drives of the race came from reigning GTM class champion Jacky Yeung who held on for fifth in the testing conditions, for his best result in the new Bentley, with former champion Dilantha Malagamuwa sixth ahead of the recovering Zen Low in the OD Racing Lamborghini, and Rod Salmon in the second FFF Racing Team by ACM McLaren. Jonathon Venter was able to hang on to ninth place after completing the entire event on slicks, the team forced to pit early after Darryl O’Young was hampered by a wheel-sensor failure that eliminated their ABS and traction-control. Sadly their stop came before the heavier rain, so they elected to leave him on slicks, the young Australian doing a brilliant job to finish inside the top ten.
In the end, despite battling a new car and slippery conditions, Sean Fu hung on for an impressive tenth placed finish, the FFF Racing Team by ACM driver enduring one of the toughest races of his relatively short career, to claim one of his best results in GT Asia.
Whilst the outright result was typically hotly contested, the GTM class race was also great to watch, with Taiwan Top Speed Racing’s Ryo Fukuda dominating early, before a problem during the CPS tyre change dropped them back to second, as former 500cc motorcycling star Takuma Aoki and co-driver Ken Urata used their intimate knowledge of the Fuji circuit to work their way through from rear-of-field to claim their second win of the year.
Carlo Van Dam - 1st [GT3] TP 12 Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3: “Ten minutes before the formation lap it was pouring down, then you only had five more minutes to make a call, but knowing the track dries quickly, we knew we would stay with the slicks. It turned out to be the right decision, because for the first 10 laps it was okay, after that it got worse, and it was ‘exciting’. When Tony was in front, he was first to hit the wet patches, so I benefited from seeing that.”
Piti Bhirom Bhakdi - 1st [GT3] TP 12 Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3: “Every team wants to win, but this weekend especially I think we had a very good chance. Last year I had a chance to learn this track, and I’m about two or three seconds faster than I was last year, so that experienced helped. I managed to maintain the gap at the start of my stint [to Mok], but after my tyres started to heat up, he was able to close in, so I just concentrated on my lines and getting to the end of the race.”
Toni Vilander - 2nd [GT3] Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3: “I knew that for the first two or three laps that I needed to push really hard to get clear of the guys battling behind, but I don’t know what happened behind me, but I saw straight away that Carlo and I had a really big lead. I was pretty comfortable at that stage I could hold Carlo behind me, but I overshot turn one. After that I just followed him around and controlled the gap behind me. After the rain started to increase, knowing the trouble the team went through in the past race, I just wanted to bring the car home for Weng.”
Mok Weng Sun - 2nd [GT3] Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3: “There were many instances where I thought I could have a go [at taking the lead from Piti], but the guys have worked so hard to rebuild this car, that I was so happy with this result at the end, that I could have cried! When I was chasing down Piti, I thought only if he makes a mistake will I give it a go. There were a few opportunities, but I really didn’t want to give the guys and more work.”
Matt Griffin - 3rd [GT3] Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3: “I sat on the grid and it started to rain quite heavily, so I asked the guys to send me out on wets. It was really just a roll of the dice - if it had rained on the formation lap, we would have won the race by a mile. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut-feeling and that’s what I did, and it ended up being the wrong decision. The difference you can then make is understanding the decision was wrong very quickly and limit your losses. The defining moment of our race was when we wanted to pit. The engineer wanted me to go around again, but I said that we’d gambled at the start and it didn’t work, now we need to gamble again, so we pitted one lap ahead of the leaders and a couple of laps ahead of some of the others, ands that really won us a lot of time.”
Richard Wee - 3rd [GT3] Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3: “This was really unexpected. Before the race I wouldn’t have dreamed of being here.”
Race #1 (60-minutes)
1. 11. Carlo Van Dam/Piti Bhirom Bhakdi (TP12/Singha Ferrari) - 32-laps
2. 1. Toni Vilander/Mok Weng Sun (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458) +0.243
3. 12. Matt Griffin/Richard Wee (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458) +32.861
4. 55. Tonio Liuzzi/Hiroshi Hamaguchi (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3) +49.589
5. 77. Duncan Tappy/Jacky Yeung (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) +56.792
6. 24. Kota Sasaki/Malagamuwa (Dilango Racing Gallardo FL2) +1:46.474
7. 86. Fairuz Fauzy/Zen Low (OD Racing Lamborghini Gallardo GT3) +1:50.671
8. 15. Nathan Antunes/Rod Salmon (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3) - 31-laps
9. 99. Darryl O’Young/Jonathan Venter (Craft-Bamboo Racing Aston)
10. 5. Andre Couto/Fu Song Yang (FFF Racing Nissan GT-R)
11. 88. Richard Lyons/Frank Yu (Craft-Bamboo Racing Aston Martin GT3)
12. 98. Ho-Pin Tung/Philip Ma (Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS ultra)
13. 8. Keita Sawa/Adderly Fong (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3)
14. 7. Andy Soucek/Jeffrey Lee (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3)
15. 32. Akira Iida/Taiyou Iida (Bingo Racing McLaren MP4-12C GT3)
16. 22. Keiichi More/Yutaka Yamamoto (Gulf JP Porsche GT3-R) - 30-laps
17. 34. Takuma Aoki/Ken Urata (Dilango Racing Gallrdo LP560)*
18. 70. Ryo Fukuda/Craig Liu (Taiwan Top Speed Ferrari Challenge)*
19. 23. Jerry Wang (Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3)* - 29-laps
20. 20. Kimihiro Yashiro/Hasashi Kunie (Gulf JP Porsche GT3 Cup)*
21. 69. James Cai/Kenneth Lim (Ferrari 458 Challenge)* - 28-laps
DNF. 78. George Chou/Jeff Lu (Taiwan Top Speed Ferrari Challenge)* - 20-laps
DNF. 9. Max Wiser/Jiang Xin (Spirit of Race Ferrari 458 GT3) - 0-laps
DNS. 95. Mitsuyama/K.S. Wang (Taiwan Top Speed Ferrari Challenge)* -