As it did 12-months ago, the Okayama round of the GT Asia Series proved to be an entertaining event, with the first race at the popular Japanese circuit delivering plenty of intrigue, right from the opening lap of qualifying through to the final lap of the opening race.
Ultimately it was Absolute Team Bentley’s day, with 2015 Okayama winner Adderly Fong and new co-driver Andrew Kim claiming the top spot in both Q1 and the 50-minute race, whilst in the second qualifier, pole was claimed by Fong’s 2015 team-mate and co-winner of the Okayama round, Keita Sawa.
Whilst you could argue that the performance of the Absolute Team Bentley cars in season 2016 has made them favourites at every stop on the calendar to date, the result perhaps disguised just how close the field was, and just how dramatic the race became as the laps wound down.
In the end the podium saw Fong and Kim joined by Lamborghini’s Edoardo Liberati and Andrea Amici – the Italians carding their third podium of the season in as many rounds – and the first visit by a Porsche team to the GT Asia Series podium this season. Unusually it was not the Craft-Bamboo Racing operation who dominated the 2013 running at Okayama that stood on the third step, but the satellite team of Tim Sugden and GT Asia Series rookie Jono Lester.
Andrew Kim’s brilliant drive in the second leg of the race also provided him the win in the Pro-Am Cup, ahead of Phoenix Racing Asia’s Alex Au and his Audi team-mate Shaun Thong. Despite the recent domination of the silver-silver graded drivers in GT Asia, the Pro-Am drivers held the top four spots in the closing stages of the race, before some late race contact dropped a number of them down the order, but the field was so close at Okayama, that the podium positions were never guaranteed..
It was clear that Adderly Fong’s recent US excursion which handed him his maiden pole in the American-based GT series had given the Hong Kong-based driver plenty of confidence, so it was perhaps no surprise that almost immediately the Absolute Team Bentley driver hit the top of the timesheets.
He was very quickly up to speed, and set a benchmark time of 1:29.601 – fast, and at one point a full second clear of the pack, but the result was still four tenths off the pole time of 2015 team-mate Andy Soucek, Fong explaining afterwards that the track conditions weren’t going to give him any more.. Almost as quickly as Fong went to the top, Alex Yoong punched out an impressive 1:30.013 to be second, but almost as quickly Buriram top qualifier Carlo Van Dam delivered a 1:29.880 to take the spot away from the Malaysian former F1 star.
Points leader Davide Rizzo was the next threat to emerge, the BBT Ferrari driver only though managing fourth, before a late session push from Edoardo Liberati in the FFF Racing team by ACM Lamborghini saw the young Italian leap from near the rear of the field to second, falling just two tenths shy of Fong.
Another to make a big step forward late in the session, was reigning champion Darryl O’Young, the Craft-Bamboo driver claiming a third row start for the Porsche team.
Whilst Fong’s lap was impressive, the Bentley driver admitted afterwards that he was expecting a strong challenge from Ferrari star Gianmaria Bruni, although whilst capable of running at the front, Bruni was struggling to put a competitive lap together, the most successful team in GT Asia Series history admitting afterwards that they’d made a rare error.
“We’re not sure how, but we made an air pressure adjustment on the tyres that was nothing like what we needed,” team-boss Arj Kulasegaram admitted. “We made a change almost immediately, but with just 15-minutes in the sessions, we ran out of time for Gimmi to go after pole, so we’re pretty disappointed.”
In the end the session concluded with one of the closest fields in recent GT Asia Series history, the top eight separated by just six tenths of a second, the top ten by eight tenths, with Bruni incredibly just twelfth whilst Shaun Thong could only manage thirteenth in the beautiful gold Bathing Ape Audi after a technical issue saw him spend much of the session in pit lane.
As it had done in the opening two events of the season, session two promised to be a battle between the points leading Ferrari of Anthony Liu, and the Buriram race winning Audi of Marchy Lee, the two immediately to the top of the timesheets, but at Okayama you can never rule out the pull of the local fans, and 2015 race winner Keita Sawa duly delivered, stopping the clock with a best of 1:29.818 to take the top spot..
Showing no ill-effects from the issue that sidelined the team in Q1, Marchy Lee continued punching out quick laps to claim a place on the front row alongside Sawa, whilst the big star late in the session was Porsche rookie Jono Lester, the New Zealander extracting an impressive 1:30.242 from the GruppeM car to claim third, displacing points leader Liu to fourth in the process.
On Liberati’s tyres, Andrea Amici could only extract a 1:30.8 from the gorgeous black FFF Huracan, ahead of the impressive Vutthikorn Inthrapuvasak – who claimed the top spot for the bronze-rated drivers – he, like Amici, used the tyres that team-mate Christer Jöns had used in Q1.
Australian GT points leader Nathan Morcom was next, the Aston Martin driver getting more comfortable in the car, but both he and team-mate George Miedecke were suffering from what they felt was a chassis issue they couldn’t dial out, the team later discovering a brake balance problem which was forcing the car to pitch unpredictably leading them to chase a suspension problem.
Sadly for Craft-Bamboo Racing, their tough start to the season continued, with ‘Toy’ Bhirombhakdi unable to improve on his practice pace, the young Thai thwarted on his quickest lap by an off which caused some minor cosmetic damage, whilst dual 2013 Okayama winner Frank Yu admitted he was struggling to find a comfortable balance in the #88 Interush Porsche.
Due in part to the tight nature of the Okayama circuit and the closely matched pace of the teams, contact on the run into the first turn was almost inevitable, but few expected to see contact between former team-mates Jonathan Venter and Richard Lyons, an impact which saw Venter turned sideways on the run into the right hander.
“I made a pretty good start, but Richard has a lot of experience around here, so it was no surprise he attacked,” Venter admitted afterwards. “Unfortunately though I had a car on the outside of me which was moving across for the corner, and I had nowhere to go, it really wasn’t a move but he was there and that was that.”
Sadly for Lyons the contact saw a post-race visit to the stewards and a penalty, which did nothing to improve the mood of the #88 team, although the Craft-Bamboo operation could take plenty of positives about the resurgence of their reigning title holder who was quickly up to fourth in the VLT Porsche.
Up front though, Fong controlled the field off the start, but contact from Liberati in the Lamborghini had the Bentley driver momentarily focused on keeping on the circuit, but once through the opening turn, the Bentley star put on a masterful display on cold tyres to disappear into the distance.
Behind Liberati, a fast starting Carlo Van Dam moved into third place, then second, with Alex Yoong locked in behind O’Young, and Rizzo leading Sugden, Christer Jöns and Bruni who unlike George Miedecke in the DPO Aston, chose the correct line around the spinning Bentley of Venter to move onto the tail of the leaders.
Whilst Fong was impressive up front, all eyes were on Bruni’s charge up the order, the Italian Ferrari star on fellow former Minardi F1 driver Alex Yoong early, but Yoong wasn’t about to make the multiple Le Mans winner’s life easy, the pressure actually lifting Yoong’s pace as the dual Audi Cup champion began to close in on the rear of the FFF Lamborghini.
As the pit stops approached, Liberati was in early as Bruni worked his way past Yoong and set the fastest lap of the race – 1:30.574 – in pursuit of the leaders, catching Carlo Van Dam ahead of Fong’s visit to pit lane towards the end of the compulsory pit stop window.
The two Ferraris took over the lead and circulated for one more lap, but despite everything he tried, Bruni couldn’t get past the Singha Motorsport Ferrari, Van Dam pitting from the lead.
At the conclusion of the stops it was Kim who emerged well clear of Piti Bhirombhakdi with Mok third and Alex Au fourth in the #6 Phoenix Racing Asia Audi, a position which soon became third after Piti was handed a drive-through penalty for speeding in pit lane.
“I got my marking points wrong,” the Thai driver admitted afterwards. “I thought I’d crossed the timing line where the limit ended, turned off the pit-lane limiter and immediately saw the 60kph sign.. I knew I’d made an error so had no choice but to take the drive-through penalty.”
As the laps wound down some of the faster cars started to make their presence felt at the front of the field, but mid-pack the action started to make things interesting.
First Alex Au caught second placed Mok Weng Sun, and made a dive up the inside into turn five turning the three-time champion around, a move which was later judged to be a racing incident, although the Clearwater Racing team were clearly displeased at the contact.
That dropped Mok back to fifth after the Lamborghini of Amici and the Marchy Lee Audi moved through, but just a couple of laps later, the turn five hairpin was the scene of another incident, this time ‘Toy’ Bhirombhakdi on compatriot Vutthikorn, the Thai Bentley driver looking to make a move on points leader Anthony Liu, oblivious to the VLT Porsche’s dive under brakes.
Contact turned Vutthikorn around, but also broke the right rear of the Bentley which ultimately allowed the axle to depart company with the car, the Buriram runner-up forced to park the car two corners later and retire, whilst Bhirombhakdi continued on to claim a ninth place finish.
Up front though there were no such dramas for race leader Andrew Kim who managed to constantly extend his lead until Amici broke through for second two laps from home. New Zealander Jono Lester also moved through to the podium with a late race dash that saw him displace Alex Au for third within sight of the flag.
Au crossed the line fourth ahead of team-mate Marchy Lee who turned in some of the fastest laps of the race over the closing stages to catch the battle for third, whilst Anthony Liu finished a distant sixth ahead of a resurgent Piti Bhirombhakdi, the two drivers displacing Mok in the closing laps.
The result saw Fong’s first victory of the season – and his second at Okayama, whilst Kim claimed his first victory – ever – and just couldn’t stop smiling. Liu’s sixth saw the BBT team continue their points lead – now over the jointly scored #7 Bentley and #55 Lamborghini crews.
For the fans that arrived at Okayama for the fifth round, they were entertained from lap one, to lap 32 – as were the amassed teams, and for all, they get a chance to do it again on Sunday, with the 60-minute second race (round six) where the weather may play a significant part with threatening storms predicted for the afternoon.
What the drivers had to say;
1. Adderly Fong (#7 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3)
“This is what we’ve been working towards for the whole year. Andrew [Kim] has been a quick learner and applied everything we’ve worked on perfectly. Japan is one of my favourite places to race, so today couldn’t have been any better. The start was a little hectic. The Lamborghini got a little close to me in the braking zone and sent me a bit sideways, but luckily it gripped up, and once I was clear out of turn one, I just pushed every lap like a qualifying lap without doing too much harm to the tyres. “The more you drive, the more you understand the car – especially when you drive the same kind of car – and I just tried to learn from my team-mate in America – Andrew Palmer, who is very fast and learn how he was quicker than I was and apply that. That win was for Andrew Palmer, I hope he gets well soon.”
1. Andrew Kim (#7 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3)
“It’s actually my first win in my racing career, so I’m really, really happy. I’ve learnt so much from Adderly, so very happy to be team-mates with him. In the past I’ve focused on being fast, but in this race I just focused on what I needed to do, where to brake, where to hit the apex and to not make any mistakes.”
2. Edoardo Liberati (#55 FFF Racing Team by ACM Lamborghini Huracan GT3)
“There was no big difference for us to be honest this weekend over the previous races, but we are understanding more and more about the car. We’re getting closer, but we’re still missing some pace. With new tyres we’re very good, but later in the race it gets harder, but our focus is on consistency right now and getting points towards the championship.”
2. Andrea Amici (#55 FFF Racing Team by ACM Lamborghini Huracan GT3)
“I was on the limit across the closing laps, but it was difficult with the grip of the used tyres. We’re really happy with the result and what that means for the championship.”
3. Tim Sugden (#98 GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R)
“It’s nice to have a step forward like this. The car was a lot better this weekend, there’s a few things we’ve done to the car which has helped it, and this is a track that probably suits us. My stint was great, a bit of understeer to start with but kept out of trouble and handed over to Jono [Lester] and he did a great job at the end there and closed everyone down and made the podium, which is just what the GruppeM team needed.”
3. Jono Lester (#98 GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R)
“I was told I needed to do the job for the team, and it’s been fantastic to work with Tim who’s got a great pedigree in the sport. We had the car set up perfectly, we knew it was good with it’s tyres across a long race, it’s why we were so strong at the end and able to close everyone down and make some decisive passes. I had no idea where I was in the field, I’d accidentally pulled the radio out when I got in at the driver change, so I thought maybe fifth or sixth, but I knew I had the pace and a little bit more bite with the tyres, so I was able to pull of that move with the Audi and take the position away, and was rapt to find out it was for the podium!”
GT Asia Series – Okayama International Circuit, Japan (2 July)
1. 7. Adderly Fong (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:29.601
2. 55. Edoardo Liberati (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) – 1:29.824 3. 12. Carlo Van Dam (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 GT3) – 1:29.880
4. 6. Alex Yoong (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:30.013
5. 91. Darryl O’Young (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 1:30.139
6. 37. Davide Rizzo (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) – 1:30.195
7. 8. Jonathan Venter (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:30.206
8. 98. Tim Sugden (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 1:30.223
9. 88. Richard Lyons (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 1:30.326
10. 9. Christer Jöns (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:30.477
11. 95. George Miedecke (Miedecke Stone Aston Martin Vantage) – 1:30.744
12. 3. Gianmaria Bruni (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) – 1:30.875
13. 5. Shaun Thong (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:31.398
1. 8. Keita Sawa (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:29.818
2. 5. Marchy Lee (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:30.121
3. 98. Jono Lester (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 1:30.242
4. 37. Anthony Liu (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) – 1:30.545
5. 55. Andrea Amici (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) – 1:30.818
6. 9. Vutthikorn Inthraphuvasak (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:30.868
7. 95. Nathan Morcom (Miedecke Stone Aston Martin Vantage) – 1:31.192
8. 12. Piti Bhirombhakdi (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 GT3) – 1:31.489
9. 7. Andrew Kim (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:31.889
10. 6. Alex Au (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:32.069
11. 3. Mok Weng Sun (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) – 1:32.482
12. 91. Naiyanobh Bhirombakdi (Craft Bamboo Porsche GT3-R) – 1:33.599
13. 88. Frank Yu (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) – 1:33.859
1. 7. Fong/Kim (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 32-laps
2. 55. Liberati/Amici (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) +18.292
3. 98. Sugden/Lester (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R) +19.568
4. 6. Yoong/Au (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) +20.397
5. 5. Thong/Lee (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) +22.057
6. 37. Rizzo/Liu (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) +38.307
7. 12. Van Dam/Bhirombhakdi (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 GT3) +48.168
8. 3. Bruni/Mok (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) +41.976
9. 91. O’Young/Bhirombakdi (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) +48.168
10. 88. Lyons/ Yu (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) +51.842
11. 95. Miedecke/Morcom (Miedecke Stone Aston Martin Vantage) +1:06.553
12. 8. Venter/Sawa (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 31-laps
DNF. 9. Jöns/Inthraphuvasak (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 26-laps