A dramatic (at times perhaps a little TOO dramatic) opening round of the 2016/17 Asian Le Mans Series at Zhuhai International Circuit saw an LMP2 1,2,3, but only after dramas up and down the field.
The headlines were that Jackie Chan DC Racing took wins in both LMP classes with the #38 Spirit of Race Ferrari taking the GT win.
The manner of those results though are the bigger and better stories.
Even before the off there was major drama as the #37 Team BBT Ferrari 488 GT3 caught fire en route to the grid, Anthony Liu baling out as the rear of the car was engulfed in flame.
That left 28 to take the start and a first period of the race that saw just too many incidents that left race director Eduardo Freitas with little choice but to deploy the Safety Car three times in the first hour, and a total of five across the four-hour race.
That saw the #35 Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA 03-R stretch out a lead more than once, the team taking the strategic choice to splash for fuel under the Safety Cars whenever prudent to do so.
The initial running saw Struan Moore in contention in the #8 Race Performance Oreca Judd in contention, though the #26 Tockwith LMP3 Ligier (started by Nigel Moore) also led for a short while around pitstop rotation as the Algarve Pro Ligiers burned their Gentleman drivers laptimes from the off and would profit later.
When the Pros climbed aboard the major fight for the lead came down between Struan Moore and Nicky Catsburg (#25 Algarve Pro Ligier Nissan) the fight was close, hard and fair, until the Ligier man fumbled a move to try to grab second and both ended up deep into the gravel, The Safety Car was again scrambled, both cars made it back to the pits, but the Ligier emerged four laps down on the leaders, and the ORECA Judd six down.
Both would later be penalised, Catsburg for the contact, the Race Performance team for a pass under a caution flag, the Ligier would recover to third overall, Catsburg seeking out Moore to apologise post race, and the ORECA getting back into the top 10 to score class points but with little else to smooth furrowed Swiss brows.
At the front it turned into a game of cat and slightly faster cat, the Oreca proved to have the better pace than the Ligier Judd but Matt McMurry put in a storming stint and then saw the gap start to tumble as Ho Pin Tung’s pace fell off a metaphorical cliff; a 50-second gap slashed to under 20 in just a handful of laps.
He later explained that the ORECA was having a major problem.
“I ran over a big piece of carbon debris and afterwards I was getting huge understeer and the temps were going sky hight. I was short shifting and lifting everywhere to get to our pit window.”
Mark Goddard (Eurasia are managing the effort in Asian Le Mans for the Jackie Chan DC Racing team) revealed later that the debris had “stripped half of the front tyre down to the canvas and then lodged in the side of the car where it was blocking airflow, that’s why the temperatures were rocketing. We were lucky it wasn’t worse. As things stood the pit stop to remove the debris lost us an extra minute!”
The pace of the ORECA though would be good enough to prevail, the #35 coming home a comfortable winner after fine drives from both Tung and Gustavo Menezes, despite the best efforts of Andrea Roda and Matt McMurry, both of whom drove very well to bring the car back into contention after a conservative start from Tack Sung Kim.
The #25 would see encouraging performances from both Catsburg and, particularly Andrea Pizzitola, a star in the making for sure. Both built on a conservative start from Michael Munemann who was smart to stay out of the early trouble – without the clash with Struan Moore this could have been very close indeed!
LMP3 saw a catalogue of misfortunes, most affecting the Ginetta runners, with the well-fancied #99 WInEurasia Ligier also involved in the catalogue of sad post-race stories.
The #99 car ran quickly but fell victim to an early contact which damaged the connector at the rear of the car that is used to raise the car on the air jacks. The team lost time on pitlane trying to fix it but then opted to take the car into the garage instead, it’s competitive run was effectively over thereafter.
Far earlier than that the #69 Aylezo Ecotint Ginetta was in trouble on the grid the clutch sleeve failing on the grid, the team effecting a quick fix to start (a lap down) from pitlane and finding that they were progressively suffering knock-on race long issues thereafter, the car unclassified in the final results.
The #67 Ginetta was another to see issues arise after contact from the rear, the team firefighting niggles all through the race. the car was fast when it had clear running, that opportunity din’t come often enough!
The #4 Ginetta was running very well, despite a broken nose cone and splitter suffered in the chaotic early laps by Darren Burke until Miro Konopka, running a strong fourth in class, tenth overall, was distracted coming into a braking zone and spun any potential improvement away into the gravel, the car would still finish fourth in class, but laps down.
The luckless Neale Muston put the sister #7 car into the gravel in the second half of the race ensuring that the second ARC car made no late improvement either.
“It was a shame but actually our pace was good all weekend, particularly when you take into account that this is a brand new car with very little testing indeed under its wheels. The team are learning this Series as we go so I think we’re actually quite encouraged by this.”
The PS Racing Adess had a number of minor issues, including a visit to a gravel trap, that saw it tumble down the order, the car would finish 34 laps down, but classified with valuable points awarded.
That left a trio of Ligiers to take the podium honours. the #85 G-Print by Triple 1 Racing JSP3 had a far from trouble free race but it’s problems proved to be niggly rather than gravel trap and/or garage based! It would come home a distant, somewhat fortunate third.
The lead battle came down to a duel in the final hour between Phil Hanson in the #26 Tockwith Motorsport car and James Winslow in the recovering #1 Jackie Chan DC Racing Ligier. The more experienced driver won through but Hanson gave his best and he is getting better, James may not find the youngster such an easy target later in the season! For now though the experienced, now Australia-based Briton, was easily capable of pulling away from the LMP racing newcomer.
It was a fine run by both teams, certainly worthy of the points haul they’ll take from Round 1 – both have already shown that they are likely to be amongst the serious title contenders here.
GT came down to a stunning duel between a pair of Ferraris, both Marco Cioci and Matt Griffin, who told DSC later that this was amongst the best and hardest races of their professional careers. The race ended with the pair just 1.1 seconds apart, but for lap after lap it was closer even than that as the #38 Spirit of Race Ferrari fended off the close attentions of the mechanically identical #61 Clearwater car.
The Clearwater car led the early running, Mok Weng Sun having a drive to remember at the same track he became the first ever Gentleman driver on the overall podium in Porsche Carrera Cup Asia some 6 years ago. He stayed cool, calm, and fast as others, in numbers, suffered contact and off-track dramas.
The Zhuhai-based TianShi Audi squad were early retirees with the #86 OD Racing McLaren squad starting a stream of cars that suffered race-long niggles after contact, the #86 would finish unclassified, the #10 Lamborghini after a good run stopped on circuit, we believe out of fuel after a radio glitch and all three Team AAI cars failed to finish too, the AMG GT3 into the gravel at T12 and retiring as a result, the other two cars struggling for pace in the latter stages, the #91 McLaren penalised for filing to observe blue flags waved for cars ahead in the class when already laps down.
The #88 Bentley was hit, hard, suffering substantial front end damage, the team effecting a quick fix but later opting for a more permanent, and safer, solution.
That left the remaining Ferraris and Audis and the VS Lamborghini to take account of.
Neither DH Racing Ferrari seemed in the best of form, the #3 retiring with clouds of steam emitting from the rear after suffering an earlier gravelly moment. The sister #5 car would finish fourth after a fast but rather unspectacular race ahead of the gorgeously liveried Absolute Audi that seemed to lack its earlier pace as the race progressed, Cong Fu Chen leading the class early on but the car fading later.
The similar #51 KCMG car would have a less spectacular, and less successful run, picking up a stop go penalty en route to sixth in class.
That left the battling pair at the front to do battle, but they found the VS Racing Lamborghini a handful, only the fortune of how the mix up of strategies through Safety Car periods kept the #6 car out of ultimate contention after it had led for a considerable chunk of the race. Ultimately a podium finish was richly deserved, on another day, with another caution period, the Ferraris might have been chasing down the Huracan for the win in the closing minutes!
To complete the picture the solo CN Ligier lapped off the pace until something broke, the CN stranded on track and a retirement in the first half of the race.
Thoughts on the event, and the Series will come in a day or two when the DSC Editor has had two of the basic staples required: beer and sleep!
For now however this was four hours, in front of a crowd believably released as 20,000, that entertained, gave food for thought and ticked off another thing on the todo list for the seemingly resurgent Asian Le Man Series.
A regular part of the weekend has been one or other of the Series management either asking how we think things are going, or being observed doing the same with the teams and drivers. Putting aside anything else that’s a welcome thing.
As one gentleman driver said to me post-race. “I’ve not had the best day on track, but you know it sort of helps when the guy in charge noticed that and came to have a chat, that’s why I am racing here rather than elsewhere.”