The final round of the 2017/2018 Asian Le Mans Series at Sepang International Circuit saw every title go to the wire in soaring temperatures.
The overall title went the the #8 ORECA 05 Nissan of Jackie Chan DC Racing, Thomas Laurent, in his final race for the team, Stephane Richelmi and LMP2 rookie Harrison Newey sealing the deal with a drive that saw the race result, but not the title race, under real pressure almost throughout.
With only the #37 Team BBT Ligier able to snatch the title from the #8 crew, and then only if the #8 failed to finish, the game plans were clear.
BBT needed to push – hard, and the #8 crew could run to a controlled and conservative pace.
The confounding factors for the race though were the Buriram winning all Malaysian crew in the #7 JCDC ORECA and the surprise late addition to the party, the Marko Asmer, Nabil Jeffri, Jake Parsons pedalled #33 Eurasia Ligier that set pole as several other contenders hit freak tyre issues in qualifying.
From the off the two leading Ligiers made a good start, but the JCDC ORECAs made even better ones, Stephane Richelmi toughing it out through the first corners to lead Jazeman Jaafar, #8 ahead of #7
Up into third, in a trademark mugging of LMP2 machinery, came 2016/17 LMP3 Champ Nigel Moore in the #65 Viper Niza Racing LMP3 Ligier, a position he held for some little time, extending his advantage in class using the chasing LMP2 Ligiers as rear gunners for a while at least.
In GT the #66 TianShi Racing Audi took the lead at the start as Jun San Chen fell back into “finish the race, win the title” mode in the #91 FIST team AAI BMW M6 GT3.
The #4 ARC Bratislava Ligier was in early trouble, Konstantis Calko warned by the team as he came through T15 not to pass the cars ahead, the car relegated to the back of the grid after changing the engine post qualifying, the original Nissan V8 suffering a failure that left the car unable to set a qualifying time.
Unfortunately, Konstantis instantly forgot this advice and overtook four car before the line, and was rapidly penalised for his forgetfulness with a drive through, added to a 2 minute stop and go for the engine change. Effectively it was game over thereafter as the car pushed on for the finish.
The #25 Algarve Pro Ligier saw Dean Koutsoumidis drop back initially but then recover as his times improved. The car though would expire fairly early on, a dnf for the #25.
The ORECAS pulled away as Moore executed a solid defence of his position until overwhelmed on the straights by first one, then the second P2 Ligier.
That allowed him though to pull away from his P3 opposition, and gave the #7 and #8 a healthy early edge.
In GT the Audi took control, and remained so until the last 65 minutes, Jesse Krohn charging behind to get back onto the lead lap after solid stints from San and with Markus Palttala putting down further groundwork. TSRT looked set to mount a defence for the final hour until, under the Safety Car for recovery of the Ferrari, stalled out on circuit, the Audi rolled to a halt on the start finish straight as just installed Mitchell Gilbert emerged from a pit stop and came around to join the Safety Car train, he’d be pushed to the pit lane and would get the Audi back to the garage under power but the race was run, broken gearbox, the team bereft after a very, very strong run.
The Ferrari meanwhile eventually returned to the pits after instructions from the team finally saw the car re-fire, it would emerge to come home a distant second, the BMW taking the win and the Championship, the Ferrari securing another 1,2 and the second auto entry for Le Mans.
The Team NZ Porsche meanwhile would bring it home for the final race for their ex Earl Bamber Carrera Cup Asia winning 2013 car!
LMP3 provided some great racing, some rather ropey pitlane discipline, but certainly the most dramatic moments of the season.
Coming into the race the Championship could have been won by four different cars, though the #18 KCMG and #6 Jackie Chan DC Racing crews, separated by just 2 points, were the clear favourites.
The early race pace of Nigel Moore was electric but couldn’t be matched by his less experienced team mates, worse still there were multiple pitlane penalties for speeding violations, the car would tumble down the order, but this is a learning year for Messrs Ang and Khoo, better days will come.
The #1 WIN Motorsport car had a steady run once again, a tough series of results and they adopted a conservative strategy for the final race, it would prove to be a bonus as events turned out!
The #11 Taiwan Beer GH Motorsport effort looked racey, but again lacked some discipline with pitlane penalties again taking the edge off the obvious pace. The team were the only ones in the class to run with 2 drivers and post race Hanss Lin was another driver to feel the heat with stomach cramps having not helped the run to the flag. They would emerge third on track into the closing stages.
That left the two main title contenders up front in the closing stages.
Patrick Byrne pushed hard in the opening stages enjoying several battles and staying in touch with the front of the field. Guy Cosmos started the business of making up ground and made his way into contention, the title battle was very much on.
Their chief rival, the #18 KCMG car was started by Neric Wei who battled to stay in touch, Louis Prette taking over and showing once again that the Series has made a real difference to his pace and racecraft.
This was going down to the line and a head to head between the two Ligiers, and their young guns Gabriel Aubry (#6) and season standout Josh Burdon (#18)
The times were close but the Aussie looked to have the race under control, albeit by pushing to the very edge Aubry though was close enough to take advantage of any small error or issue.
That error came, and it was one of the tiniest with the most effect possible!
The final pit stop was short, by just 2 tenths of a second, than the minimum allowed. A 1 second stop and hold was ordered from Race Control and as the #18 rolled toward pit exit Aubry stormed by.
Now Burdon had to push, but this was going to have even further consequences. Controlling the gap from the front there was the opportunity to save fuel, now that had gone and Josh was in fuel trouble, big trouble. The gap closed, but Aubry responded and held the gap, the penultimate lap though saw the KCMG car back into the pits, a splash required, job done and Burdon was rolling once again. “I knew the end of the race was very close and was watching both my mirrors and ahead. I saw the checkered flag waved and the red light went on at pit out!
That meant the car could not rejoin, and could not cross the line, the title gone, and a podium finishing consolation gone too, that was a VERY costly 2 tenths of a second!
Aubry crossed the line to take the win with a delighted Guy Cosmo and Patrick Byrne greeting their team-mate under the podium, Champions and an auto Le Mans entry.
The disaster for KCMG meant the rest shuffled forward in the order, second for the #11 and a podium to finish the season for the #1!
That checkered flag had waved for the overall race winners, that would prove to be the title winning #8 Jackie Chan DC Racing x Jota ORECA 05 Nissan, Thomas Laurent, Harrison Newey and Stephane Richelmi a high octane trio from the very start of the season.
They had been in a near race long battle, right up until the final scheduled pit stops indeed when the all Malaysian crewed #7 failed to restart, frantic efforts failed to remedy the situation and the car was wheeled into the garage, up until then the car had been competitive, though he sister car usually had the legs on it, alternator issues were the diagnosis, a loose wire fixed the car was released to complete the race, but had tumbled back off the podium.
The #33 Eurasia Ligier, had set pole position in the hands of Nabil Jeffri and they too had an impressive run, left a little flat footed at the start, Marko Asmer somewhat perplexed that what had felt like a good start saw his car overhauled into T1 by both ORECAs.
The #33 then commenced a fine duel with the #37 in the hands of a defensive Anthony Xu Liu, Asmer managed to get by, and then dealt with the charging Nigel Moore. The run was curtailed though later in the race, with the #33 still running well, by a spin for Jake Parsons, the young Aussie suffering in the searing heat with a broken drinks bottle, dehydration playing a part in the error no doubt, he’d finish the afternoon in the medical centre as a result.
Nabil Jeffri put in another good performance to impress once again, the #33 taking advantage when the #7 stumbled to claim a podium finish.
That left the title contending #37 car, Liu’s opening stint kept the car in sight of the lead but the team was unlucky with the timing of the first Safety car and Pipo Derani had a mountain to climb when he got aboard. Pipo though it seems quite likes mountaineering and set about clawing back the time. Fantastic pace saw well him bring the car into contention for second place and by the time Davide Rizzo climbed aboard there car looked set fair for a podium.
That then left the race with two remaining questions. Could the #8 come home trouble free, and if it didn’t would the #37 be in a position to take advantage, if the BBT car won and the #8 dnf-ed it would be the title deciding result in favour of the Ligier.
The trouble for the #7 made that scenario even edgier, the #37 now with just the #8 between it and an unlikely title but, ultimately, Rizzo, lest we forget yet another LMP2 rookie this year, did not have the speed to take advantage and the #8 did indeed bring the race result home that the team had wanted.