GT Asia enjoyed another good season in 2015, solid grids of at least 14 GT3 cars but more importantly at least 10 cars at any round had a shout of victory on pace alone. The factory interest in the championship shows just how seriously particularly the European marques are taking this market.
A pre-season announcement from championship regulars Clearwater Racing that the names Bruni, Vilander and Calado would be adorning the side of their very shiny Ferrari showed the level of competition that was expected from Bentley, McLaren and Aston Martin and it was a season that did not disappoint.
Round 1 Korea international circuit (Races 1 and 2)
For Race 1 the Qualifying saw the Richard Lyons take pole in the #88 Aston Martin, he ended up qualifying just a tenth ahead of Calado in the #1 Clearwater Ferrari. Just behind on the 2nd row was the team FFF McLaren qualified by Andrea Caldarelli alongside the Duncan Tappy-piloted #77 Bentley.
Lap 1 of the race saw Calado make a move at the first corner Lyons held his ground but compromised his exit. By the time the leaders got down to the fourth corner Lyons, Calado and Caldarelli were all side by side. Lyons came off worst, had to take to the grass and dropped to 4th. The 1st lap also saw the retirement, after accident damage, of the #12 Clearwater Ferrari and two laps later after damage from the same incident Darryl O’Young in the #99 Craft Bamboo forced his retirement too.
Caldarelli in the McLaren was the first of the leaders to pit and he had a lead of practically nothing over the Aston Martin and the Clearwater Ferrari. Lyons and Calado continued until right at the end of the pit window and after some swift pit work the two came out with a healthy lead over the rest of the field.
Mok Weng Sun was then leading in the #1 Ferrari, with Frank Yu in the #88 Aston on his boot lid. The only other car in contention for the win on pace alone was the BBT Team #37 Ferrari. The #37 car in the hands of Anthony Liu was catching the leading duo hand-over-fist. Before long Liu had caught the pair and after making light work of getting by the Aston with just a couple of laps to go he took the lead.
So they finished in that order, the #37 Ferrari followed by #1 Ferrari and last step on the podium went to the #88 Aston.
From the off, Race 2 pole-sitter Jonathan Venter held the lead in the #99 Craft Bamboo Aston Martin with the first of the Absolute Bentleys in 2nd in the hands of Adderly Fong. Another 1st lap incident saw the retirement of Race 1 2nd place man Mok Weng Sun and the #9 McLaren which itself had finished 4th in the first race. Also effected by the 1st corner incident was the #88 Aston Martin which avoided contact, but Yu’s avoiding action dropped the car to the back of the field.
Unfortunately it was deemed that the #1 car could not be removed in time for the return of the field for the 2nd lap so the safety car was deployed. Once it was withdrawn, much of the first stint was over and before long the the mandatory stops were taking place.
Once the field settled down after the stops O’Young still held the lead in the #99 Aston with the Race 1-winning #37 Ferrari a little way back in 2nd. Despite a late race charge from Lyons in the #88 Aston, the top two remained the same. 3rd eventually went to Keita Sawa and Adderly Fong in the #8 Bentley.
Round one over, 5 different squads on the podium in two races the signs were certainly there for an exciting year ahead.
Round 2 Okayama (Races 3 and 4)
Qualifying for Race 1 saw the top eight cars covered by just half a second but it was Andy Soucek who headed the field with Richard Lyons joining him on the front row.
The big news before the race started though was a fire for the #1 Ferrari. With Gianmaria Bruni at the wheel he managed to get the car to a marshal post as quickly as possible but there was unfortunately too much damage for the car to continue over the whole weekend. An awful start to the season for last year’s champion Mok Weng Sun, four races three retirements.
The early running saw Lyons try to get by Soucek for the lead but in doing so gave Duncan Tappy the opportunity to get by in the 2nd of the Bentleys. Now back in 3rd Lyons had to go on the defensive as he had Tonio Liuzzi’s #55 McLaren all over him. In trying to keep him behind Lyons made an uncharacteristic mistake and spun into the gravel.
During the driver changes the McLaren managed to get in between the two Bentleys and then almost immediately both Bentleys were given a penalty for speeding in the pit lane. This handed victory to the #55 McLaren taken to the finish by Hiroshi Yamaguchi. 2nd was the #11 Team Singha Ferrari and back in 3rd was the extremely consistent #37 BBT Ferrari.
Qualifying for race two had seen Bentley on Pole once more but this time the #8 car, driven in qualifying by Adderly Fong. Fong was joined on the front row by Jonathan Venter in the Craft Bamboo Aston Martin.
The race itself endured a false start thought to be caused by an error with the starting system. The race was red flagged and started again. At the restart Fong kept 1st quite easily and was followed closely by Venter’s Aston Martin and Liu’s Ferrari.
A little further back in the field and just before the pit window Jeffrey Lee spun the #7 Bentley and was collected hard by the #24 Lamborghini both cars were out on the spot. The incident brought out the safety car.
With nobody able to pit under the safety car there was a flurry of cars that came in straight behind the safety car when it was withdrawn.
Once the dust had settled the leader was still the #8 Bentley, Fong had now handed over to Keita Sawa. Sawa held a slim margin over O’Young in the #99 Aston Martin with a hard charging Lyons in the #88 Aston just behind. With Lyons closing in quickly Sawa had to make his move and get away down the road. O’Young sensed of the two Astons Lyons had the better chance of the win and let his team mate by to chase the Bentley.
Lyons did a great job closing the gap but ultimately fell just short, crossing the line just 4 tenths behind Sawa. In holding on, Sawa had secured Bentley’s first win with the continental in Asia. Back in 3rd O’Young very nearly lost out to an inspired drive from Matt Griffin in the remaining Clearwater Ferrari but just held on to take the final podium position.
So round two over and still no one had taken the championship by the scruff of the neck. Four races four different winners.
Round 3 Fuji (Races 5 and 6)
The start of Race 1 had been a tense affair even before the lights went green. Intermittent rain in the hour before the race had left doubt in the minds of many of the teams as to which tyres to start on. Most went with slicks. One exception though was Matt Griffin in the #12 Clearwater racing Ferrari. He opted to go for wets but in realising his mistake on the first warm up lap he pitted to change back to slicks, meaning he would have to start from the pits.
It was a decision that didn’t end up being as disastrous as first appeared as it kept Griffin away from the carnage of the first couple of laps. Lyons made a great start and looked set to challenge the two front row Ferraris going in to the first corner. Lyons though, with his extensive knowledge of the Fuji circuit and the testing conditions it often offers, braked early. Andy Soucek though in the #7 Bentley didn’t read the script and went for a brave/ill-advised move up the inside of the Aston Martin.
The cars collided and though neither driver was aware until the following corner the contact had given them both a puncture. Keita Sawa, watching all this in front of him moved his #8 Bentley up alongside Lyons and Soucek and attempted to take them around the outside of turn three. Lyons though unaware of his puncture understeered into the side of Sawa forcing Sawa off the circuit.
The domino effect of the first corner incident wasn’t over yet though. In his haste to rejoin Sawa was a little over eager and clipped the #9 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Max Wiser. The contact ended Wiser’s race on the spot with rear suspension damage and a 30 second penalty for Sawa after the race denied him a top ten finish.
So with Lyons, Sawa and Soucek all limping back to the pits with punctures and Wiser out of the race the two leaders had managed to force a comfortable lead. A few seconds behind was the McLaren of Antonio Liuzzi with the Bentley of Duncan Tappy pushing him hard for 3rd position.
The opening stint saw the rain return and with it gradually getting heavier it was taking every inch of skill to keep the cars on the straight and narrow. One car that seemed to be enjoying the tricky conditions though was the sole Nissan GT-R in the very capable hands of Andre Couto, before the pit stops he had managed to get the GT-R into 3rd from 13th on the grid.
The tricky conditions were highlighted by a rare mistake from GTE world champion Vilander. He ran deep into a slower corner allowing Van Dam in the Singha Ferrari past just before the pit stops.
With the stops out of the way it didn’t take long for the #7 Bentley to cause further controversy this time in the hands of Jeffrey Lee. He got a little too close for comfort to Kota Sasaki’s Lamborghini tapping the Italian car into a spin.
Up front the #11 Thai Ferrari, now in the hands of Piti, was coming under increasing pressure from Mok Weng Sun. Mok appeared to have the pace to pass but in the tricky conditions and off the back off the fire that saw him score no points at the last round he appeared to settle for a safe 2nd.
That left Piti to take the chequered flag for a well deserved win that had been set up by a great drive from Van Dam who had forced the error from Vilander.
The #1 Ferrari of Mok and Vilander came home a comfortable 2nd but it was the 3rd podium spot that earned drive of the race for Richie Wee. The #12 Clearwater Ferrari had started in the pit lane in the hands of Matt Griffin who had done a good job to get the car back in contention but it was Lee who took the two late scalps of Jacky Yeung and Hiroshi Yamaguchi to take the final podium position.
It also meant an all-Ferrari podium.
The opening lap had been full of drama in Race 1 and so was was the first lap of Race 2. In the midfield, the #88 Aston Martin of Frank Yu was spun round scattering cars everywhere but mercifully all avoided contact.
Venter had got a good start from pole and found Adderly Fong tucked in behind him in the #8 Bentley after a cracking start.
Seemingly not content with the lack of carnage on Lap 1, race one-winner Piti clipped the rear quarter of Hamaguchi’s Mclaren sending both cars into the path of Mok in the #1 Ferrari. All three found themselves scuttling through the gravel. Hamaguchi ended up beached and Piti limped back to the pits with terminal damage. Mok continued but heavily delayed.
The unlucky recipient of unwanted contact in the first race – the #9 Spirit of Race Ferrari of Wiser and Jiang – found themselves benefitting from others’ misfortune this time. They had managed to get up into 3rd from the 3rd row of the grid.
Just before the pit stops Fong managed to prize the lead from Venter in what had been a very entertaining 25 minute nose-to-tail battle. The two leaders pitted a few seconds ahead of the #9,#12 and #1 Ferraris.
The Bentley had pitted in the lead but they chose to take on a new set of rubber, something not reciprocated by the Craft Bamboo squad instead opting to send O’Young out on used rubber and save the time in the stop.
In the laps that followed Sawa hunted down the Aston at such a pace it seemed the result was a forgone conclusion but once the Bentley had firmly placed himself on O’young’s boot lid the Aston driver went about some fantastic defensive driving.
Once the Bentley did get by, O’Young cleverly retook him twice but third time was the charm and with the superior grip the Bentley was able to pull away. Sawa ended up crossing the line over 11 seconds ahead which didn’t give O’Young the credit he deserved for a spirited drive.
O’Young endured a late-race scare as his tyres went off dramatically and the three chasing Ferraris nearly managed to catch him but O’young held on to 2nd. First of the Ferraris was the #9 Spirit of Race car of Wiser and Jiang. An exceptionally good drive by Wiser considering he held off the attentions of factory drivers Griffin and Vilander who finished 4th and 5th respectively.
Three rounds in and five different winners in six races. Just 25 points splitt the top 15 drivers in the championship!
Round 4 Sepang (Race 7)
Sepang was to be a one off 3 hour race as a response to requests from the teams in the close season to have one or two longer races.
Qualifying saw the #99 Aston Martin of O’Young and Daniel Lloyd take pole from a pair of Ferraris, the #11 Team Singha machine and the #37 BBT car.
From the start the Aston Martin held the lead but as the first stint came to an end and the rain began to fall The #11 Ferrari in the hands of Van Dam took the lead and #37 got by the Aston Martin too.
Another Aston Martin struggling in the rain was the #88 car, Frank Yu taking a trip into the gravel and needing to be dragged out. There was a lot of close racing all the way down the order but the best battle of the race came in the latter stages.
After a fierce battle between the #11 and #37 Ferraris the #11 Singha car began to really struggle with it’s tires in the final stages. First of all the #8 Bentley got by the struggling Ferrari and then the #99 Aston came by with Lloyd behind the wheel. Lloyd was by a distance the fastest on the circuit at this stage. Given a few more laps and the order would likely have been different with Sawa in the Bentley catching the leading Ferrari and the Aston catching both.
As they came over the line after 3 hours though, the Ferrari had held on by just a couple of seconds from Sawa’s Bentley then Lloyd was only a tenth back in 3rd.
In winning Rizzo and Liu had taken their 2nd win of the season and were certainly seeming to be the most consistent pair at this advanced stage of the season.
Round 5 Shanghai (Races 8 and 9)
Qualifying for race 1 saw Lyons in the #88 Aston Martin take pole ahead of Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #1 Clearwater Ferrari and Tonio Liuzzi in the #5 McLaren.
Come the race and Lyons held an early lead from the Ferraris of Van Dam and Guidi a lead he would hold all the way through to the pit stop window.
Upon exiting the pits the #88 Aston now in the hands Frank Yu came under a lot of pressure from the Singha Ferrari and going through the complex of corners at the start of the lap the two came together sending the Aston spinning. Yu got going quickly but dropped to 3rd behind Liu in the #37 BBT car.
Then a huge accident between Rod Salmon in the #15 McLaren and a GTM class Ferrari led to a prolonged safety car period. Salmon was okay but the car was destroyed after impacting the barrier hard at the front end.
Just before the accident the #1 Ferrari of Mok Weng Sun had managed to get up into 2nd. As the restart got under way and the field filtered through the tight opening turns was once again Frank Yu that found himself facing the wrong way contact from behind from the #37 Ferrari had spun him round and all he could do was watch as the whole field came by. Yu’s teammate Lloyd though in the sister car made use of the chaos and got by the #37 car first and then took Mok to take 2nd.
This led to one of the battles of the season and probably the pass of the season. First Lloyd caught Piti in the leading #11 Ferrari and the subsequent battle slowed them both backing them up into Liu’s grasp. This led to all three cars getting side by side on the start finish straight with just two laps to go. Lloyd then making the pass of the season to take the lead by outbraving the pair of Ferraris into the first corner.
Lloyd held on for the win with Liu getting by the Thai Ferrari to take 2nd for the #37 BBT Ferrari.
With the title looking like a three horse race at this point of the season it was the three title hopefuls that did battle in the 2nd race at in Shanghai. The leader from the off was the ever impressive Daniel Lloyd in the #99 Aston Martin. He knew he had to bring the car in with a healthy lead as due to their win in the 1st race they would receive a time penalty when they took their mandatory pit stop.
A lead is exactly what Lloyd provided. When he came into the pits he had drawn out a 14 second lead which was enough to give O’Young the lead of the race when he exited even after the extra time penalty.
Behind the Aston Martin the two other title hopefuls were battling away not seemingly on the same level as the Aston Martin this weekend but determined to take as many points into the final round as possible.
The #8 Bentley just missed out in the latter stages to the #37 Ferrari and thus relinquished the championship lead head to Thailand for the final round.
Round 6 Thailand(Races 10 and 11)
Qualifying saw the championship challengers all struggle. The highest of the three was the #8 Bentley which could only manage 7th in the hands of Keita Sawa the Ferrari found itself back in 11th and the Aston Martin of O’Young started way back in 20th.
The race itself was all about the championship challengers trying to make up as many places as possible but without jeopardising their chances of finishing. Sawa and Fong managed to get their Bentley up into 3rd at the flag getting themselves onto the podium in the process.
O’Young and Lloyd were the big movers though. Coming through the field to finish 4th after starting down in 20th. Rizzo and Liu only managed 8th meaning that going into the final race there were now only two contenders for the title.
The race itself was won by Duncan Tappy and new teammate Benny Simonsen in the #77 Bentley.
A great drive winning from pole and showing the kind of pace that may see the pair return next year for a full title tilt. 2nd ahead of the Sawa/Fong Bentley was the #55 Mclaren driven by factory man Alvaro Parente and championship regular Hiroshi Hamaguchi. The #55 another car that with more consistency and a slice of luck would have been right in the championship reckoning.
So the final race of the season had come and the title could not be tighter. The two cars in the reckoning the #8 Bentley and the #99 Aston were on the same points and both started on the front row. Things could not be set up better for a fitting finale to a great season.
The tension was palpable at the start so much so that the starters ordered an extra formation lap deeming that the field were not in formation first time round.
When they finally did get going the Bentley of Fong on pole stuttered slightly giving the Aston Martin enough speed differential to take the lead safely into the first corner. The Aston Martin in the hands of Lloyd was rapid from that point on. Lloyd appearing to treat every lap like a qualifying lap to trying give championship hopeful O’Young as much of a gap as possible in what was to be a nervous final 20 minutes of the race. Fong was holding on to 2nd with his rear gunner in the form of Simonsen in the #77 Bentley protecting the #8 car well.
As the stops came and went O’Young did indeed exit with a comfortable gap of around 8 seconds. Behind him things were starting to look bleak for the Bentley as the #37 Ferrari in the hands of Liu had exited the pits in 2nd and was splitting the title hopefuls.
With the time ticking down it was looking like only misfortune would rob O’Young of the title. But much to his relief his trusty steed got him home and celebration could begin for the 2015 champion. Liu held on back in 2nd with Sawa bringing home the #8 Bentley 3rd.
It was a fitting end to have the top three teams in the points standings represented on the podium. Sawa nearly missed out though with a hard charging Parente catching Sawa and Tappy’s Bentleys on the last lap but Tappy held the McLaren charger off well with the three of them separated by just 8 tenths across the line.
GT Asia 2015 was then another step forward for the series and the region in terms of GT racing. A great quality grid of current and well prepared cars, driven by highly talented drivers from across the Asia region who may not be household names in some cases just yet but their comparative pace compared to their World Championship winning and factory driving co drivers will certainly get some team bosses considering driver line ups all over the world.
There is a real sense that this is a championship going somewhere and with confirmation that Audi will be back in the championship next year and with no shortage of factory interest in 2015, I would not be surprised to see at least 20 highly competitive GT3 cars at most rounds next season.