The fourth season of the TCR Asia Series began with very much a sense of deja-vu after two Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen’s emulated the team’s double victory from 12-months prior, to hand new recruits Luca Engstler and Mitchell Cheah a win apiece at Sepang International Circuit.
Qualifying had delivered the two-time TCR Asia Series Team’s and Driver’s champions a 1-2-3 grid, with reigning TCR Middle East Champion Luca Engstler claiming the narrowest of pole positions (15 one thousandths of a second).
Ultimately Engstler was untroubled in round one, despite immense pressure from team-mate Mitchell Cheah, whilst in round two, the reverse grid start led to a dramatic opening lap which saw a Safety Car intervention, leaving Cheah untroubled up front as Engstler was forced to work his way forward after early contact to be third, behind Hong Kong sensation Lo Sze Ho.
Set for early Sunday morning, the field lined up in warm and clear conditions, although with the humidity quickly starting to climb.
Off the standing start Engstler got away cleanly whilst beside him, tell-tale smoke suggested that Micthell Cheah had suffered too much wheel spin opening the door for both Diego Moran and Lo Sze Ho to get around him on the run down to turn one.
Sadly it would transpire that Diego Moran had gained too great a start off the line to be second by the time they hit their brake markers, the Ecuadorian - who was a round winner at Sepang 12 months prior - delivered a mid-race drive through penalty after officials had double checked the available footage.
Lo had made it to P2 on the outside of Engstler heading into the right-hander and despite immense pressure from Moran, Cheah and the fast-starting Akash Nandy, was able to hold his rivals out, but a slide on the exit of turn two opened the door for Cheah who was through by turn four, Moran taking back P3 by turn six.
Further back reigning TCR Asia Cup champion Abdul Kaathir was embroiled in a great battle with reigning TCR Thailand champion Chariya Nuya and Vattana Motorsport’s Pattarapol Vongprai, that battle running through the bulk of the 11-lap journey with Kaathir ultimately emerging on top.
Sadly the first casualty came on lap two, Ivan Szeto running off the circuit at turn nine in an odd incident that saw him drive off the circuit and down the grass, deep into the gravel trap on the outside of the corner, a failure as a result of contact further back in the pack during the opening lap deemed the culprit.
Up front though no-one could stop the Liqui Moly freight-train, with teenagers Engstler and Cheah separated by just over a second, sprinting away from the field.
After Moran’s drive-through penalty, Lo was able to recover third position, holding out R Engineering’s Akash Nandy for third, Honda hanging on to positions three through seven with AK fifth ahead of battling Thai stars Vongprai and Nuya.
Behind them 2017 TCR Thailand runner-up Leewattanavaragul finished right on her title rival’s rear bumper in the Moran Racing Team by Sunoco Seat Leon ahead of the recovering Moran who had worked his way back to ninth after falling to 12th after his penalty.
Kelvin Wong claimed tenth place on his return to the Elegant Racing Team, five seconds up on team-mate Alex Liu, with Jakraphan Davee and Douglas Khoo rounding out the finishers.
The second of the 11-lap races late on Sunday afternoon saw a reverse top ten grid, with Saturday’s qualifying order inverted handing Leewattanavaragul pole position ahead of TCR Thailand rival Jakraphan Davee, whilst the Liqui Moly Team Engstler drivers would start positions eight, nine and ten for Moran, Cheah and Engstler.
Off the second standing start Davee got away better than Leewattanavaragul to lead into turn one, with Nuya under fire from Lo Sze Ho who got a great start from the fourth row. Behind them Vongprai and Nandy battled hard with Ensgtler already past Kaathir and into seventh with team-mate Cheah wedged under his rear wing.
Sadly for Davee, his time at the front lasted mere metres before the fast charging Nuya tagged him as the Seat driver looked to find a better line into turn two, spinning him to the outside of the circuit. That bunched up the pack allowing Engstler to look down the inside of Leewattanavaragul into turn two, but she also had Vongprai to her outside.
The result saw Engstler forced to back out of the throttle as the Seat and the Honda made light contact, dropping him back into the clutches of Kaathir and Lo as Nuya led down to turn four from a smoking Vongprai.
By turn six things got ugly as Leewattanavaragul was turned sideways on the run through the fast right-hander, in the process causing cars to take avoid action, but with the tightly bunched pack, there were always going to be casualties..
Ultimately Luca Engstler was forced wide onto the grass, but couldn’t avoid contact, whilst Diego Moran came off as badly as Leewattanavaragul after she was forced into the side of the Ecuadorian’s Volkswagen, ultimately breaking suspension components which forced him off into the turn seven gravel.
A Safety Car was called soon after to recover Moran, but by that stage Nuya was clear of Vongprai, Cheah, Kaathir and Lo. Vongprai was called down pit lane by his team to check on damage and repair the guard rubbing on the tyre, but for Leewattanavaragul and Moran it was game over, and sadly for Akash Nandy, he too was forced to retire soon after suffering from a technical issue as a result of the opening lap melee.
Nuya led away from the restart, although ultimately he had a cloud hanging over him as a result of that opening lap contact with Davee - behind him Cheah was looking to get through quickly knowing team-mate Engstler would be on the move from his ninth placed restart position.
By turn six Lo took over third, whilst Cheah made a move on Nuya for the lead at turn nine, on his way to opening a big advantage over the field.
It took just three laps for Engstler to make it through to the tail of Nuya, but by that stage Cheah had been pumping out a series of fastest laps to open up an almost six second lead.
With Nuya forced down pit lane to serve a drive through penalty, Engstler had only to contend with Lo in the Maximum Racing Honda, but despite trying almost everything in his playbook, Lo was up to the challenge allowing Mitchell Cheah to extend his lead, the Malaysian ultimately crossing the line more than ten seconds clear of the battle for second.
Lo held on to claim a second podium finish in a fantastic debut for the new TCR Asia Series team, with Engstler third to cap off a superb start to his TCR Asia campaign.
Kaathir was fourth across the line, in the process claiming third in the new South East Asia Cup, whilst Kelvin Wong and Alex Liu made it a strong finish to the weekend for the Elegant Racing team with fifth and sixth.
Ivan Szeto recovered from the disappointment of race one to make it two Maximum Racing Honda’s inside the top seven, with Davee recovering from the opening lap contact from Nuya to be eight. Nuya was across the line for ninth, ahead of the recovering Vongprai and Viper Niza Racing’s Douglas Khoo.
For the TCR Asia Series and TCR Thailand teams, their focus now shifts to Chang International Circuit in Thailand, for the second event of the 2018 season on June 1-3.
Keep up to date with the 2018 TCR Asia Series through the Series website - www.asia.tcr-series.com - through Facebook; www.facebook.com/TCRAsiaSeries and get involved in the conversation on www.twitter.com/TCRAsiaSeries
What the drivers had to say;
Mitchell Cheah - #29 Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR
“First of all, I have to thank Sepang Circuit for their support, and Alex [Yoong] for guiding me throughout this year. It was a perfect start. I also want to thank the team, Liqui Moly Team Engstler, they’ve done a great good job giving me a very good car, it was a perfect start for the team. I jumped from P9 to P2 in race two before the Safety Car came out. I didn’t have a fast enough start but I was lucky enough to avoid all the incidents. After the Safety Car, I was confident and pulled away comfortably.”
Lo Sze Ho - #28 Maximum Racing Honda Civic TCR
“This [R2] was a tough race! I had a great start and I was really lucky to avoid all the incidents in the first lap. After that I tried to keep pace, but honestly I was watching Luca [Engstler] because he was chasing me. I’m happy that I managed to defend and hang on to second place.”
Luca Engstler - #8 Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR
“It was one of the most difficult races I have had. I had a nearly perfect start, going through the grid then I suffered two crashes - two cars went into me and then my steering was bent. I just tried to hold on after that. It was not easy to get around Lo, I tried to make him nervous, flashing my lights at him all the time - nearly every corner - but in the end he did a perfect job, no mistakes. This is the reason we are here in TCR Asia, the best drivers are here so I feel great to finish third. A big congratulations to Mitch [Cheah], but I am sorry for Diego who got kicked out twice but we will all stay focused and look forward to Buriram.”
Sepang International Circuit, Malaysia
Round#1/2 - 2018 TCR Asia Series (30 March-1 April, 2018)
Round#1 (01 April, 2018)
1. 3. Luca Engstler - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR - 11-laps
2. 29. Mitchell Cheah - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR +1.541
3. 28. Lo Sze Ho - Maximum Racing Honda Civic TCR +10.149
4. 2. Akash Nandy - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR +12.598
5. 23. Abdul Kaathir - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR +21.111
6. 59. Pattarapol Vongprai - Vattana Motorsport Honda Civic TCR# +29.454
7. 15. Chariya Nuya - Billionaire Boy Racing Honda Civic TCR# +32.128
8. 96. Leewattanavaragul - Morin Racing Team by Sunoco Seat Leon TCR# +33.342
9. 32. Diego Moran - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR +36.560
10. 30. Kelvin Wong - Elegant Racing Team Seat Léon TCR +42.224
11. 3. Alex Liu - Elegant Racing Team Seat Léon TCR +47.037
12. 33. Jakraphan Davee - Alphafactory by Pulzar Seat Leon TCR# +51.438
13. 65. Douglas Khoo - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR +55.874
14. 66. Nattachak Hanjitkasem - TBN MK ihear Racing Team Honda Civic TCR# +56.906
DNF. 22. Ivan SzeTo - Maximum Racing Honda Civic TCR - 1-lap
Round#2 (01 April, 2018)
1. 29. Mitchell Cheah - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR - 11-laps
2. 28. Lo Sze Ho - Maximum Racing Honda Civic TCR +10.243
3. 3. Luca Engstler - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR +10.565
4. 23. Abdul Kaathir - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR +17.969
5. 30. Kelvin Wong - Elegant Racing Team Seat Léon TCR +29.148
6. 3. Alex Liu - Elegant Racing Team Seat Léon TCR +33.972
7. 22. Ivan SzeTo - Maximum Racing Honda Civic TCR +39.000
8. 33. Jakraphan Davee - Alphafactory by Pulzar Seat Leon TCR# +40.594
9. 15. Chariya Nuya - Billionaire Boy Racing Honda Civic TCR# +42.969
10. 59. Pattarapol Vongprai - Vattana Motorsport Honda Civic TCR# +49.582
11. 65. Douglas Khoo - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR +1:41.401
DNF. 66. Nattachak Hanjitkasem - TBN MK ihear Racing Team Honda Civic TCR# - 5-laps
DNF. 2. Akash Nandy - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR - 4-laps
DNF. 96. Leewattanavaragul - Morin Racing Team by Sunoco Seat Leon TCR# - 1-lap
DNF. 32. Diego Moran - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi - 0-laps
TCR Asia Series Driver’s Championship points (after two rounds of ten)
1. Mitchell Cheah (47-points), 2. Luca Engstler (45), 3. Lo Sze Ho (35), 4. Abdul Kaathir (22), 5. Kelvin Wong (16), 6. Akash Nandy (13), 7. Alex Liu (12), 8. Diego Moran (11), 9. Ivan Szeto (6), 9. Douglas Khoo (6)
TCR Asia Series Team’s Championship points (after two rounds of ten)
1. Liqui Moly Team Engstler (92-points), 2. Maximum Racing (42), 3. R Engineering (37), 4. Elegant Racing Team (32), 5. Viper Niza Racing (8)
South East Asia Cup Driver’s Championship points (after two rounds of ten)
1. Mitchell Cheah (55-points), 2. Lo Sze Ho (40), 3. Abdul Kaathir (29), 4. Akash Nandy (18), 5. Kelvin Wong (16), 6. Chariya Nuya (13), 7. Alex Liu (12), 7. Pattarapol Vongprai (12), 9. Ivan Szeto (8), 10. Jakraphan Davee (7), 11. Nattanid Leewattanavaragul (6), 12. Douglas Khoo (1), 13. Nattachak Hanjitkasem (0)