A great battle between WEC, Super GT stars and Bentley factory recruits saw the record drop repeatedly across Thursday’s two unofficial sessions.
With such an impressive array of local stars and international drivers entered for the second event on the 2015 GT Asia Series calendar, it was no real surprise that the two-year old lap record set by Craft-Bamboo Racing’s German star Stefan Mucke would come under fire, however no-one quite expected that improvement to be almost three seconds!
It may have been greater had the weather held for the second day of practice - Friday’s three ‘official’ sessions - however a great battle between WEC star Gianmaria Bruni, Super GT stars Richard Lyons and Andrea Caldarelli and Bentley factory recruits Andy Soucek and Duncan Tappy saw the record drop repeatedly across Thursday’s two unofficial sessions.
They weren’t alone though, local hero Keita Sawa was right in the mix with the Absolute Racing Bentley, as was returning international star Carlo Van Dam in the TP12 Racing Singha Ferrari of Todd Piti, whilst points leader Davide Rizzo enjoyed a full day of testing on Thursday after Anthony Liu was forced to miss the action due to business commitments, the Italian topping the timesheets in the first one hour session.
The last 14 years I’ve been coming here I’ve been able to claim quite a few podiums and quite a few wins,
Former champion Dilantha Malagamuwa was also in the mix, having recruited local Super GT star Kota Sasaki putting the bright blue Dilango Racing Lamborghini right amongst the leaders.
Ultimately by the close of Thursday practice we had a good indication that the racing across the two 50-minute rounds scheduled for the Okayama weekend will be intense, with just 45 one hundredths of a second covering the top seven cars, and less than a second covering the top 11..!
In the end though it was Lyons who set the quickest pace in the dry, the Ulsterman happy with his performance, but still believing the team could find more..
“The last 14 years I’ve been coming here I’ve been able to claim quite a few podiums and quite a few wins,” Lyons reflected. “It looks like we’re strong here this weekend, although it mightn’t be our best circuit, but certainly we’ll be in the mix at the top.
“We’ve got a pretty good base setup going, but it’s close amongst the top teams, so we’ll be looking for more, but I’m comfortable, and Frank [Yu] is getting quicker with every session.”
For new Clearwater Racing recruit, multiple WEC and Le Mans champion Gianmaria Bruni, he was just excited to be back behind the wheel with the team he helped to victory in last year’s Sepang 12-Hour.
“I like the track, even despite the weather,” Bruni admitted sheltering from the heavy rain during official practice. “Actually it looks bad, but once you’re inside the car it isn’t so bad, although there are a few areas where the water streams across the track, but apart from that it’s good, and it’s nice to be back in Asia.
I’m excited to come back to Okayama, which is where I started out my career in Formula cars.
“It’s not going to be easy here this weekend because there’s some big names and some great manufacturers in this championship, but we will do our best to keep the #1 car up the front and hand the Clearwater team some valuable championship points.”
Bruni’s experience and pace may not have been too much of a surprise, but after Thursday’s track walk, the whole Clearwater Racing team were in awe of the 34-year old Italian, who was on his fifth lap of the circuit.. on foot!
“The guy is such a professional, he just lives the sport and it lifts everybody to a whole new level,” Clearwater team-boss Arj Kulasegaram admitted.
Whilst Lyons and Bruni were quickest, behind them came a trio of rapid British Bentleys, with new recruit Andy Soucek leading the charge in Jeffrey Lee’s J-Fly Racing Continental GT3, just marginally clear of team-mate - and birthday boy - Duncan Tappy.
“I was on my way to Spa for the 24-Hour test day when I got the late call from M-Sport to see if I’d like to come to Okayama,” Soucek explained. “That was four days ago, and I jumped at the chance.
“The Bentley is working very well, and we were P3 in the dry, just one tenth of a second off P1, but there’s still some work to do. There is a good field of pro drivers here, and some good manufacturers, and the level of competition is extremely high, so it’s not going to be easy to get the car to the front, but we’ll do our best.”
... my team-mate Hamaguchi is a local driver who has had a lot of experience at Okayama, so I’m really proud of the job he’s doing.
Tappy was happy with his pace, admitting the depth of talent in the field was always going to be good for his career, the Englishman just four one hundredths slower than his team-mate, and happy that car-owner ‘Tiger’ Jacky Yeung was becoming more comfortable in the car.
Behind them overall were early pace-setters - points leaders - BBT Racing. With Liu away on business, Rizzo took the opportunity to set the pace in opening practice on Thursday, before running with the leaders in session two. Liu took over the reigns in the wet second session on Friday, and ran off the circuit a couple of times looking for the limit, but enjoyed the chance to get an idea about the Okayama layout.
“I was pushing because that’s what we’re here for, and wanted to find the limit,” he explained. “Sadly for me, tomorrow looks like it will be dry, so there wasn’t a lot to be gained by doing too many laps in the wet, but at least I know which way the circuit goes!”
Behind the BBT car on outright pace was the third Absolute Bentley with local stars Sawa and Adderly Fong behind the wheel, Sawa-san admitting that it was nice to be back at one of the venues where his career began almost 20 years ago.
“I’m excited to come back to Okayama, which is where I started out my career in Formula cars. I’m really looking forward to this weekend in the Bentley because I’m very comfortable in the car, and the car has had some improvements since South Korea with a change to the BOP, so I don’t see why we won’t be able to win the race.”
He wasn’t the only Japanese driver to impress, former Okayama GT Asia podium place-getter Hiroshi Hamaguchi was quick in the #55 FFF Racing Team by ACM McLaren, earning praise from his team-mate, former F1 driver Tonio Liuzzi...
“Even though it is a relatively short circuit, it is very technical,” Liuzzi explained. “Turn two and the last few corners in the final sector are really technical and it’s important to get the right apex to ensure a good run onto the straight because the right line can make a really big difference to your lap time.
“It can be tough for the lesser experienced drivers, but I have to say I’m very happy, my team-mate Hamaguchi is a local driver who has had a lot of experience at Okayama, so I’m really proud of the job he’s doing. He’s listening, he’s learning and he’s getting faster and faster every day, so I have to say I’m pretty happy about the job he’s doing.”
The team though weren’t without challenges, an off by Hamaguchi during afternoon practice in Friday’s rain saw the team elect to change a gearbox after it was discovered that debris had collected under the car, the team making the change in under 40-minutes, much to the pleasure of team-manager Alf Boarer.
“They had bumpers off, the door off, and with 20-minutes to go in that final session I didn’t think they’d make it, but with ten minutes to go Hiroshi left the pits and set a comfortable top six time in just two laps, so we were pretty pleased on a number of levels.”
Whilst the outright teams battled over the top positions, in the GTM class the battle was no less intense, although the big issue was just getting laps..
Local hero and former GTM class race winner Takuma Aoki was forced to sit out all of Thursday’s unofficial sessions after the team discovered an injector issue in the engine, whilst South Korean podium finishers Gulf Racing JP were forced to send their Type 991 Porsche Cup Car away from the circuit to arrange an electronics fix to a gearbox shifting issue they couldn’t resolve, whilst dual South Korea race-winner Jerry Wang was suffering his own issues.
“I fell over playing basketball and injured my left hand, so I’m giving myself as much time as I can to recover before I have to push things this weekend,” he admitted. “It’s no big issue, but in the heavy rain there wasn’t too much to learn, so I elected to limit the laps that I did, but it’s an impressive circuit.”
With practice now completed Saturday is about qualifying and race one, with two 15-minute qualifying sessions (one for each driver), and the opening 50-minute race of the 2015 event at 3:10pm (JST).
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