The 2016 Audi R8 LMS Cup was one of the most thrilling seasons for this premier one-make series in Asia, and it was mainly due to the young Belgian driver Alessio Picariello taking the championship to the final chequered flag of the season.
This humble 23 year-old fighter stamped his claim in the first weekend of the season finishing second in Race Two and securing third place in the championship standings.
It was here that Alessio would stay for the rest of the season with six podiums and one win, never finishing out of the top five, except for two races- a DNF and a penalty in the final round that dropped him to 12th, and subsequently securing his second place in the championship by only one point.
You would think losing a championship by one point would make a race driver extra determined for next season. But Alessio prefers not to dwell on the past, and rather let his skills on the track prove what he is capable of. “I can’t say I’m extra pumped up with motivation because I lost last year, it’s always the case. I always give my best and try to be at 100% of my abilities so I’m just happy to be back and looking forward to fight again.”
Picariello was evidence to all drivers last year, that you have to push to your limits and always go for the gap. And if you don’t take chances and fight hard on the track, you’ll never know your true potential.
All season, Picariello was the most exciting driver to watch. Never the one to settle for position, the young-gun was always driving above and beyond his limits. Whether it was carving through the field or sitting comfortably at the front, Alessio Picariello knew he should be winning, and would try everything possible to do so.
It was at Sepang for races six and seven where this was highlighted the most. His on-track battle with once-off guest driver and GT legend Edoardo Mortara in Race 6 was one of the most thrilling of the whole season. Picariello, knowing that a top three finish would put him in equal lead of the championship, was no less than half a second behind the experienced Mortara the whole race. His aggressive foxing kept Mortara on his toes but Alessio had to settle for second, once again missing out on that allusive first win.
“I wanted to win. I showed Edoardo where I was trying to pass too many times so he ended up being able to defend very well.”
The next race weekend in Korea would be a crystal ball for the season finale. An edge-of-the-seat battle with his championship rival Yoong, fighting for the outright lead. It was an intense twelve laps, with both drivers exchanging the lead several times, and lots of contact. This was auto-gladiatorial fighting at its best. But the fight took its toll and the race ended for both drivers with only two laps to go. No points for either, but both still in the top three standings.
So close, yet again so far, it wasn’t until Race 10 when we would finally see Alessio on the top step of the podium, winning his first LMS Cup race and taking the lead of the championship. “It was a really good start in the second race, probably the best I’ve had in the Audi R8 LMS Cup. I had good pace throughout Round 10, the last laps were getting hard but we still managed to keep a small lead over Rahel. This is a great win for me and the Absolute Racing team. I don’t think about the championship. I take it race by race.”
We couldn’t have wished for a better scenario for the season finale weekend in Shanghai. The LMS Cup rookie leading the reigning champion with only two races to go.
Yoong fired the first bullet and finished in second place ahead of Picariello, with Martin Rump winning the first of his historical double win weekend, a feat not achieved in the Audi R8 LMS Cup before.
But Rump’s historical moment was overshadowed by the extraordinary championship fight that saw Yoong and Picariello starting two positions apart. The championship win would go down to whoever finished ahead. As Yoong worked his way up to third and sitting comfortably for the title, Picariello was trying everything in the book to get closer.
Due to a safety car, the crowd was treated to one of the best comeback fights seen in the series, with Picariello able to captitalise and make it to the rear bumper of Yoong. This was it, this was what all of Alessio’s previous on-track battles had been for. There were only centimetres in it.
The last lap was like watching a Scalextric slot-car race. Both drivers side-by-side with Alessio making passing attempts around parts of the circuit we hadn’t seen before. This fight was going to the chequered flag.
Until, on turn six the two drivers collided, forcing Yoong out of the race and Picariello to cross the line. The stewards would later give Alessio a penalty which gave Yoong the championship by one point.
It was a racing incident, and if he hadn’t continued to fight and go for the gap like he had done all season- a style of driving that kept him in the top three all year and only centimetres from wins- then it just wouldn’t have been the same Alessio who’s potential continues to grow.
But for a driver who proved to be an aggressive racer on the track, he also proved to be a humble gentleman off it, always looking ahead and getting on with the job at hand, as he explains to me. “Well, let’s be honest. I had a hard time right after and still a few weeks later to accept it. Not only for the decision but just because I lost for a point and it’s always hard to take. Obviously, the way I lost didn’t make it any easier especially because I’m not driving much, so I have to take all the chances that comes up to me. But at the end of the day, I’m back here so I’m happy.”
I was surprised when he told me how little he has prepared for the upcoming season. But with the skills he has, and what he proved last year, you can rest assured that he’s going to be in the midst of another championship fight. “The winter break was way too long for me as I didn’t race at all since the last round in Shanghai so 6 months ago. No simulators, no karting, so difficult to prepare but I’ve trained really hard in the physical side as well as the mental. Watching the other drivers racing in all kind of races while I was at home was a motivation for me to get ready, and I’m fitter than I’ve ever been before.”
As the older drivers now embark on their sixth Audi R8 LMS Cup, and start looking at their future beyond racing, and more younger winning drivers enter, does Alessio feel extra pressure to continue his impressive run, and does he consider any particular driver his main rival?
“Not at all. I actually like that challenge, it makes things more interesting, I learned a lot last year so it’s only a boost for me. There isn’t a main rival at the moment, the whole field is my rival. This season, there is a few really quick drivers so that will for sure change often in front.”
Spoken like a racer who may be humble off the track, but is a true fighter on it.