For the second event in a row, Zhuhai provided an unpredictable weekend of TCR racing delivering two first-time winners with strategy and good old-fashioned door-to-door racing highlighting again the strength of the new touring car formula.
Just three weeks ago teams were at Zhuhai for the second event of the season, on that occasion we saw a ‘world first’ with Audi Hong Kong teenager Jasper Thong claiming the first ever victory for Audi’s impressive new RS3 LMS TCR in round three, before Thai star Tin Sritrai grabbed the win in round four.
Then - as was the case this past weekend - the weather was wildly unpredictable, with conditions changing constantly making setup strategy difficult for teams and engineers.
Ultimately it was R Engineering’s experienced touring car campaigner WS Lai who was quickest in the damp conditions in opening practice, the Malaysian driver drawing on his years of experience to put the R Engineering Honda on top in the opening wet session ahead of the Liqui Moly Team Engstler cars of Kantadhee Kusiri and points leader Diego Moran.
In session two though it was Thai star Kusiri - the man many believe is the likely heir to the TCR Asia Series throne this season - who set the pace ahead of team-mate Moran and Lai, the Thai driver more than a second clear of the Malaysian Honda pilot.
Of interest to most in pit lane was the performance of new Phoenix Racing Asia recruit Shaun Thong, the rising GT3 star stepping in to the team’s second entry to support younger brother Jasper’s title aspirations, and very quickly the reigning GT Asia Series Pro-Am Cup champion was right in the battle at the pointy end of the field.
Qualifying was damp and it was Honda who claimed the top spot with Lai and team-mate Abdul Kaathir leading the field ahead of Kusiri and Shaun Thong. They, together with Moran, Jasper Thong and the twin Viper Niza Racing entries of Douglas Khoo and the returning Bill O’Brien would make the second leg of qualifying, whilst the two Elegant Racing Team Seats and the luckless Sritrai would be forced to start both races from the rear of the field.
Whilst Lai held the advantage heading into second qualifying, it was Kusiri who would emerge fastest, the #2 Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen topping the charts ahead of Kaathir, Lai and Moran. Phoenix Racing Asia team-mates Shaun and Jasper Thong were next for Audi, with Douglas Khoo topping new team-mate and 2016 TCR Asia Cup rival O’Brien for position seven - O’Brien as a result, claiming the pole for the second race of the weekend (grid is set by an inverted top eight order from Q2).
As was the case during round three of the championship, race one was dry, with many expecting the Audis as a result to be the greatest threats for the win. For Kantadhee Kusiri who came into the round seconds in points behind his Liqui Moly Team Engstler team-mate, his race was over almost immediately, a technical issue ahead of the start leaving the Thai star stranded on the grid as the field drove around him on the run down to turn one.
Jasper Thong was the big mover, the Audi driver quickly moving from sixth to third by turn two but that soon became second after the two R Engineering Hondas almost clashed on the exit of turn two, race leader Kaathir forced wide onto the grass.
That was all the incentive Shaun Thong needed as he dived into fourth after a slow start off the line, and then very quickly third behind his brother, the two Audi drivers flashing their lights feverishly in an attempt to distract Lai in the leading Honda.
The experienced touring car campaigner though was up to the challenge and able to weather what the Audis were throwing at him, but very quickly that pressure subsided with Jasper Thong taking a run down pit lane for a drive through penalty as a result of being too far forward of his allocated position at the start.
With his younger brother now out of the way, Shaun Thong edged up under the rear wing of Lai and started to apply pressure in what became a fantastic stand-off that continued until the final lap, the experienced Malaysian was not disturbed by the talented young GT campaigner, whilst Thong used his experienced to leave his attack until the end, having conserved his tyres in the process.
It all came down to the final lap, Thong immediately moving onto the tail of the #39 Honda, with Lai immediately responding to defend. The battle went down to turn nine, with Thong using the cross-over to dive from the inside to the outside under brakes, and set himself up for the exit to be on the correct line for turn ten.
Lai wasn’t giving in, the two going side by side through the corner, but both were carrying plenty of speed by virtue of braking very, very late, the result being a wide exit, with both cars forced off into the gravel trap. For Thong it was game over, despite leading into the turn, whilst Lai was able to negotiate the gravel and continue.
The big winner was Kaathir who watched all this unfold in front of him, before accepting the opportunity provided to him and take an important first win for R Engineering. Lai recovered for second, with points leader Diego Moran a distant third ahead of the recovering Jasper Thong.
For Shaun Thong he was clearly shattered by the result of what may well have been victory on debut in TCR Asia, the 21-year old visibly disappointed, slamming shut the door of the #3 car, before taking out his frustrations on the tyre wall he’d narrowly avoided.
Ultimately stewards saw no malice in Lai’s move, although both warring parties had their own view on the driver at fault. Lai as a result claimed valuable championship points, whilst Thong admitted he would get his revenge with a solid result in race two.
For Kaathir - a driver who had already shown how much success means to him in TCR with one of the widest smiles in world motorsport - he just couldn’t believe his luck in becoming the fifth different winner of the season, but he - like Lai - attributed the result to the performance of his hard-working Malaysian team.
Kaathir’s results also gave him the top points in the TCR Asia Cup battle, moving him clear of Jasper Thong, with Eric K. claiming third in the class after a fifth-placed finish, just ahead of Elegant Racing team-mate Alex Liu.
Bill O’Brien won the battle of the Viper Niza Racing Seats, although both cars had suffered off-track excursions during the race, whilst Kantadhee Kusiri - who was the fastest man on track over the closing stages of the race - recovered from his aborted start after stopping the #2 Volkswagen to reset the electrical systems, and from there fight through to the tail of the leaders, although by the time he’d done that, the field was well over half a lap down the road.
Sadly for Tin Sritrai there was to be no return victory after his win at Zhuhai in round four, the Team Thailand driver battling to make up ground after starting last thanks to an off in the opening lap of qualifying, he would retire mid race with a left front tyre failure, ultimately put down to a faulty valve.
In a case of deja-vu race two saw light rain start to fall just ahead of the race, in an almost identical scenario to the second Zhuhai race three weeks prior, although unlike the April event, this time around it looked as if it could very quickly clear prompting almost all teams to stick with their original choice to start on Michelin slicks.
Race officials elected to delay the start for five minutes to give teams - and themselves - time to determine which way the weather would go, but only one team elected to take a gamble, and that gamble paid off very, very handsomely..
With the clock ticking down to start time, the two Elegant Racing Team Seat Leons elected for wet weather tyres, and as the rain intensified on the sighting lap, at least half the field decided to come down pit lane to do the same thing, but by the time they’d made the change, the race start had been given and they were almost half a lap behind.
Of those still on slicks, local specialist Bill O’Brien led the field away, with Jasper Thong in close pursuit, the young Audi Hong Kong driver coming through turn three completely sideways, but able to stay off the grass. He quickly inherited the lead after O’Brien failed to make it through turn eight, the Viper Niza Racing driver completely without grip as he tried to turn into the apex of the corner.
Despite leading, Phoenix Racing Asia called Thong in for wets, allowing WS Lai to inherit the lead with team-mate AK close behind. The rain continued to fall, and within half a lap, the two Elegant Racing Seats were making their presence felt, Eric K and Alex Liu quickly through on the round five winner, and hot onto the tail of Lai.
Sadly Tin Sritrai’s horror weekend was about to get worse, the Thai Honda driver off the circuit and bogged at turn eight joining O’Brien in retirement, a safety car intervention the only option for the Race Director.
The fastest car on the circuit by this stage was Shaun Thong. Now fitted with the control Michelin wet tyre, Thong was charging around the 4.3-kilometre circuit to quickly reel in round five rival Lai who was continuing to circulate on slicks.
Douglas Khoo too was running strongly, holding fourth behind Thong with Lai doing his best to hold on to the Viper Niza Racing team-boss.
Sadly for Jasper Thong his horror run in the wet at Zhuhai continued, the round three winner off into the gravel at turn one and retirement, whilst up front Eric K. and Liu continued to punch out consistent laps to maintain their 15-second advantage back to Shaun Thong, the GT3 specialist unable to breach the gap more than a second or two a lap over the closing laps to finish third.
Lai was an impressive fourth, his pass on Khoo late in the race giving him valuable championship points which allowed him to move into the title race lead at the mid point of the season, with Khoo an impressive fifth, his best run of the season to date, the result also handing him third in the TCR Asia Cup, making it a 1-2-3 in the class for Seat.
Kantadhee Kusiri crossed the line sixth, the Thai driver some two to three seconds a lap faster than the leaders over the closing laps, but a first lap stop for wets put him well down the order by the time he set off in pursuit of the pack. Kaathir was seventh, with Diego Moran unfortunately not classified after failing to finish the required number of laps, having spent much of the race in pit lane chasing a technical issue. The team ultimately resolved the problem to send Moran back out on track, but unfortunately for the points leader he wasn’t able to clock up the minimum amount of laps.
For Eric K. who had endured a tough start to the season with a wreck off the start of the opening round in Malaysia thanks to contact on the run to the line, the result was all down to the team’s decision to change to wet weather tyres, a decision which effectively won them the race before the lights had gone out to signal the start.
At the mid-point of the season WS Lai’s consistency has handed him the outright championship points lead, whilst team-mate Kaathir tops the points in the TCR Asia Cup and R Engineering holds the team’s Championship points. To complete a perfect opening stanza to the season, Honda now leaps to the Manufacturer’s points lead thanks in part to Kaathir’s round five win - the Japanese marque’s second of the season.
Teams now enjoy a six-week break before the second leg of the 2017 TCR Asia season begins with the much anticipated Bangsaen Grand Prix street circuit in Thailand during the first weekend of July.
What the driver’s had to say;
1. Abdul Kaathir - #23 R Engineering Honda Civic TCR [Race 1]
“I have no words to describe what I’m feeling.. I didn’t think it would be easy for me, but I pushed from the opening lap and try to stay with my team-mate [Lai] and not let anyone through. Against the pro driver [Shaun Thong] I wasn’t sure I could match his pace, but I pushed hard, and on the final lap I was left with no other choice but take the win! The team really pushed me hard in qualifying, not just for the points, but also for a good starting position. Last time we were here I was forced to start at the back and it was tough to get through, so that front row start was important.”
2. WS Lai - #39 R Engineering Honda Civic TCR [Race 1]
“Our goal was to finish 1-2 but it was very difficult at the beginning with the pressure from the Audis. My goal was to protect my position because last time it was very aggressive and I took a more careful approach, this time I wanted to make sure the attacks weren’t going to affect my track position. I had never driven against Shaun Thong before so I didn’t know how aggressive he would be, so I just tried to defend my position as hard as I could.”
DNF. Shaun Thong - #3 Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR [Race 1]
“I waited until the closing laps and started to put a lot of pressure on the leader and could see a few opportunities to take the lead. I got a better drive than him out of turn seven and went side by side with him in turn nine. I was disappointed of course because I knew it was only a few corners more before I could take the chequered flag for a debut TCR Asia win. But, the result is sealed, so the focus now has to turn to race two. I expect to see some more action in race two and for sure we’re aiming for a podium finish.”
1. Eric K. - #98 Elegant Racing Team Seat Leon TCR [Race 2]
“At the start we didn’t think it was going to be as wet, but once the officials declared it a wet race, the team decided to change straight away to wet tyres whilst others stayed with slicks, so it was a gamble, but thanks to the team it paid off - then it was down to us to keep the car on the circuit and finish the race. I think track knowledge certainly helped and whilst we struggled a little at the start of the weekend, it all came to us in the race. For the team to finish 1-2 is an exciting result for all of us and gives us the momentum to keep pushing for the remainder of the season.”
2. Alex Liu - #99 Elegant Racing Team Seat Leon TCR [Race 2]
“I have to thank the team for making the right decision, because when they made that choice it wasn’t clear whether it would continue to rain, or whether it would be dry, so I’m very happy to be on the podium. It wasn’t as easy as it may have looked because the conditions were changing quite regularly so we had to be very careful how we completed the final laps.”
Round#5/6 - 2017 TCR Asia Series
Zhuhai International Circuit, China
Qualifying - 13 May, 2017
1. 2. Kantadhee Kusiri - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR - 1:50.249
2. 23. Abdul Kaathir* - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR - 1:51.120
3. 39. WS Lai - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR - 1:51.623
4. 32. Diego Moran - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR - 1:51.948
5. 3. Shaun Thong - Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR - 1:55.546
6. 5. Jasper Thong* - Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR - 1:56.561
7. 65. Douglas Khoo* - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR - 2:00.331
8. 7. Bill O’Brien* - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR - 2:33.789
9. 99. Alex Liu* - Elegant Sports Team Seat Léon TCR - 2:05.989
10. 98. Eric K*. - Elegant Sports Team Seat Léon TCR - 2:11.886
DNQ. 79. Tin Sritrai - Team Thailand Honda Civic TCR
Round#5 - 2017 TCR Asia Series
Zhuhai International Circuit, China
14 May, 2017
1. 23. Abdul Kaathir* - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR - 14-laps
2. 39. WS Lai - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR +7.079
3. 32. Diego Moran - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR +8.585
4. 5. Jasper Thong* - Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR +23.735
5. 98. Eric K*. - Elegant Sports Team Seat Léon TCR +33.479
6. 99. Alex Liu* - Elegant Sports Team Seat Léon TCR +41.894
7. 7. Bill O’Brien* - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR +62.950
8. 65. Douglas Khoo* - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR +63.603
9. 2. Kantadhee Kusiri - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR +74.829
DNF. 3. Shaun Thong - Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR - 13-laps
DNF. 79. Tin Sritrai - Team Thailand Honda Civic TCR - 5-laps
Round#6 - 2017 TCR Asia Series
Zhuhai International Circuit, China
1. 98. Eric K*. - Elegant Sports Team Seat Léon TCR - 14-laps
2. 99. Alex Liu* - Elegant Sports Team Seat Léon TCR +6.083
3. 3. Shaun Thong - Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR +13.122
4. 39. WS Lai - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR +20.539
5. 65. Douglas Khoo* - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR +22.249
6. 2. Kantadhee Kusiri - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR +38.818
7. 23. Abdul Kaathir* - R Engineering Honda Civic TCR +43.821
NC. 32. Diego Moran - Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR - 8-laps
DNF. 5. Jasper Thong* - Audi Hong Kong Audi RS3 LMS TCR - 8-laps
DNF. 79. Tin Sritrai - Team Thailand Honda Civic TCR - 2-laps
DNF. 7. Bill O’Brien* - Viper Niza Racing Seat Léon TCR - 0-laps
* TCR CUP