Although only three LMP2 prototypes took the start of the final Asian Le Mans Series race of 2013 at Sepang, Malaysia, a fascinating race was played out in front of largely empty stands. Murphy Prototypes had loaned Craft Racing their Oreca 03 Nissan, aboard which Richard Bradley took the lead as David Cheng in the #24 Oak Racing Morgan-Judd was judged to have jumped the start and ordered to back off.
As he did so, James Winslow in the KCMG Morgan-Nissan jumped past Cheng and these two kept us all entertained with a tremendous battle. Bradley (graded Gold) had a 20-second lead by lap six, and 37 seconds by lap 20 over Winslow (silver) in the KCMG car with Cheng (also silver) dropping back to the tune of 10 seconds as his tyres suffered from the intensity of his earlier battle, and a spin just before he came in to hand over to Ho-Pin Tung, 50 minutes into the race.
The Oak team made a different strategy call to the other cars, however, as Tung re-joined without changing tyres. By this time, Bradley had already handed the Craft Oreca over to Dan Polley (silver) who wasn’t able to lap as quickly, and his lead began to dwindle. Meanwhile, Tsugio Matsuda (platinum) had fallen back to third on the pit stop cycle, but was able to get back onto terms, on his fresher tyres, with Tung. Once again, we were treated to some great racing on the circuit, as the Japanese driver in the KCMG car tried to get past the Chinese in the Oak Morgan.
Eventually Matsuda got past, as the pair entered the start-finish straight, and next time round, after a stint of just 32 minutes, Tung headed to the pits for fresh tyres – the Oak Racing team working out at that stage that Ho-Pin would be able to get to the end of the three hour race with just one further stop.
In the Craft car, neither Polley nor Jun Jin Po were able to keep pace, and when Richard Bradley got back in the car for the final stint, the Nissan-engined Oreca was off the lead lap and unable to improve on its position, although Bradley was able to unlap himself, finishing 35.949s behind the KCMG entry.
KCMG kept Matsuda in the car to the finish, but Tung’s laps were simply too fast and consistent to allow the Morgan Nissan to catch the Nissan Judd. The gap at the flag was 1m 19.657s, but nevertheless it had been an intriguing race and David Cheng and Ho-Pin Tung worthy winners.
Equally importantly, they are enthusiastic and personable chaps too, their delight at the end of the race a joy to behold. David Cheng comes away as the Asian Le Mans Series P2 Champion as well (Tung was absent in Fuji), and Oak are guaranteed a Le Mans entry for 2014 on the back of their triumph in the Teams’ Championship.
In the GTC race, the Aston Martin Vantages, in the hands of Stefan Mücke and Darryl O’Young pulled away in the early stages, while behind there was the mother and father of a race between the BMW Z4 of Takeshi Tsuchiya, Weng Sun Wok in the Clearwater Ferrari, the BBT Lamborghini (Anthony Liu at the wheel) and the GTE Porsche of Marco Seefried.
Again, though, the less-experienced drivers taking over the Aston Martins (Keita Sawa in for Mücke, and Frank Yu, followed by Tomonobu Fujii taking over from O’Young) were not able to keep the pace of their more illustrious team-mates, and so the race swing towards the two Ferraris – Toni Vilander taking over the Clearwater 458 and Andrea Bertolini and Michele Rugolo in the AF Corse that Steve Wyatt had started.
The two Ferraris made their final pit stops together – the Clearwater car coming in just ahead. Both teams were flawless, despite the pressure of being placed next door to one another in an enormously long pit-lane, and Vilander was able to maintain his advantage over Rugolo throughout the final stint, opening the margin to 26.538s at the chequered flag.
In GTC Am, the Team Primemantle Aylezo can of Malaysian Zen Low, Sri Lankan Dilantha Malagamuwa and Italian Giorgio Sanna had the measure of the other two entries in the class and were never challenged. Indeed the only retirement of the race came as the Gama Racing Lambo of Han Lin gave up the ghost with no oil pressure (wonder why?) before either Hanss Lun or Michael Huang could drive it.
The GTE class went to the Ferrari 458 of Team Taisan Ken Endless, driven by Akira Iida, Naoki Yokomizo and Shogo Mitsuyama, who were not challenged by the only Porsche in the race, and also took the GTE championship, along with the coveted Le Mans entry ticket that it brings.
All things considered, it was a good race, despite the paucity of local interest and a mere fourteen car entry. The addition of CN category cars for 2014 is surely a good thing, and one can only hope that much-needed additional P2 cars and entrants can be found in order that the Asian Le Mans Series can grow next year and make real the vision that the ACO and its partners, Total and Michelin have for it.
Postscript: After the race there was a protest by KCMG, who suggested that the fuel tank of the winning Oak Morgan was too large. In the end the matter was resolved, although KCMG are, it would seem submitting an appeal. A Le Mans entry is a stake, but nevertheless, it left something of a sour taste in the mouth.