As it did 12-months ago, the Okayama round of the GT Asia Series proved to be an entertaining event, with the first race at the popular Japanese circuit delivering plenty of intrigue, right from the opening lap of qualifying through to the final lap of the opening race.
Ultimately it was Absolute Team Bentley’s day, with 2015 Okayama winner Adderly Fong and new co-driver Andrew Kim claiming the top spot in both Q1 and the 50-minute race, whilst in the second qualifier, pole was claimed by Fong’s 2015 team-mate and co-winner of the Okayama round, Keita Sawa.
Whilst you could argue that the performance of the Absolute Team Bentley cars in season 2016 has made them favourites at every stop on the calendar to date, the result perhaps disguised just how close the field was, and just how dramatic the race became as the laps wound down.
In the end the podium saw Fong and Kim joined by Lamborghini’s Edoardo Liberati and Andrea Amici – the Italians carding their third podium of the season in as many rounds – and the first visit by a Porsche team to the GT Asia Series podium this season. Unusually it was not the Craft-Bamboo Racing operation who dominated the 2013 running at Okayama that stood on the third step, but the satellite team of Tim Sugden and GT Asia Series rookie Jono Lester.
Andrew Kim’s brilliant drive in the second leg of the race also provided him the win in the Pro-Am Cup, ahead of Phoenix Racing Asia’s Alex Au and his Audi team-mate Shaun Thong. Despite the recent domination of the silver-silver graded drivers in GT Asia, the Pro-Am drivers held the top four spots in the closing stages of the race, before some late race contact dropped a number of them down the order, but the field was so close at Okayama, that the podium positions were never guaranteed.
Due in part to the tight nature of the Okayama circuit and the closely matched pace of the teams, contact on the run into the first turn was almost inevitable, but few expected to see contact between former team-mates Jonathan Venter and Richard Lyons, an impact which saw Venter turned sideways on the run into the right hander.
“I made a pretty good start, but Richard has a lot of experience around here, so it was no surprise he attacked,” Venter admitted afterwards. “Unfortunately though I had a car on the outside of me which was moving across for the corner, and I had nowhere to go, it really wasn’t a move but he was there and that was that.”
Sadly for Lyons the contact saw a post-race visit to the stewards and a penalty, which did nothing to improve the mood of the #88 team, although the Craft-Bamboo operation could take plenty of positives about the resurgence of their reigning title holder who was quickly up to fourth in the VLT Porsche.
Up front though, Fong controlled the field off the start, but contact from Liberati in the Lamborghini had the Bentley driver momentarily focused on keeping on the circuit, but once through the opening turn, the Bentley star put on a masterful display on cold tyres to disappear into the distance.
Behind Liberati, a fast starting Carlo Van Dam moved into third place, then second, with Alex Yoong locked in behind O’Young, and Rizzo leading Sugden, Christer Jöns and Bruni who unlike George Miedecke in the DPO Aston, chose the correct line around the spinning Bentley of Venter to move onto the tail of the leaders.
Whilst Fong was impressive up front, all eyes were on Bruni’s charge up the order, the Italian Ferrari star on fellow former Minardi F1 driver Alex Yoong early, but Yoong wasn’t about to make the multiple Le Mans winner’s life easy, the pressure actually lifting Yoong’s pace as the dual Audi Cup champion began to close in on the rear of the FFF Lamborghini.
As the pit stops approached, Liberati was in early as Bruni worked his way past Yoong and set the fastest lap of the race – 1:30.574 – in pursuit of the leaders, catching Carlo Van Dam ahead of Fong’s visit to pit lane towards the end of the compulsory pit stop window.
The two Ferraris took over the lead and circulated for one more lap, but despite everything he tried, Bruni couldn’t get past the Singha Motorsport Ferrari, Van Dam pitting from the lead.
At the conclusion of the stops it was Kim who emerged well clear of Piti Bhirombhakdi with Mok third and Alex Au fourth in the #6 Phoenix Racing Asia Audi, a position which soon became third after Piti was handed a drive-through penalty for speeding in pit lane.
“I got my marking points wrong,” the Thai driver admitted afterwards. “I thought I’d crossed the timing line where the limit ended, turned off the pit-lane limiter and immediately saw the 60kph sign.. I knew I’d made an error so had no choice but to take the drive-through penalty.”
As the laps wound down some of the faster cars started to make their presence felt at the front of the field, but mid-pack the action started to make things interesting.
First Alex Au caught second placed Mok Weng Sun, and made a dive up the inside into turn five turning the three-time champion around, a move which was later judged to be a racing incident, although the Clearwater Racing team were clearly displeased at the contact.
That dropped Mok back to fifth after the Lamborghini of Amici and the Marchy Lee Audi moved through, but just a couple of laps later, the turn five hairpin was the scene of another incident, this time ‘Toy’ Bhirombhakdi on compatriot Vutthikorn, the Thai Bentley driver looking to make a move on points leader Anthony Liu, oblivious to the VLT Porsche’s dive under brakes.
Contact turned Vutthikorn around, but also broke the right rear of the Bentley which ultimately allowed the axle to depart company with the car, the Buriram runner-up forced to park the car two corners later and retire, whilst Bhirombhakdi continued on to claim a ninth place finish.
Up front though there were no such dramas for race leader Andrew Kim who managed to constantly extend his lead until Amici broke through for second two laps from home. New Zealander Jono Lester also moved through to the podium with a late race dash that saw him displace Alex Au for third within sight of the flag.
Au crossed the line fourth ahead of team-mate Marchy Lee who turned in some of the fastest laps of the race over the closing stages to catch the battle for third, whilst Anthony Liu finished a distant sixth ahead of a resurgent Piti Bhirombhakdi, the two drivers displacing Mok in the closing laps.
The result saw Fong’s first victory of the season – and his second at Okayama, whilst Kim claimed his first victory – ever – and just couldn’t stop smiling. Liu’s sixth saw the BBT team continue their points lead – now over the jointly scored #7 Bentley and #55 Lamborghini crews.
For the fans that arrived at Okayama for the fifth round, they were entertained from lap one, to lap 32 – as were the amassed teams, and for all, they get a chance to do it again on Sunday, with the 60-minute second race (round six) where the weather may play a significant part with threatening storms predicted for the afternoon.
- 7. Fong/Kim (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 32-laps
- 55. Liberati/Amici (FFF Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3) +18.292
- 98. Sugden/Lester (GruppeM Racing Porsche GT3-R) +19.568
- 6. Yoong/Au (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) +20.397
- 5. Thong/Lee (Phoenix Racing Asia Audi R8 LMS GT3) +22.057
- 37. Rizzo/Liu (BBT Ferrari 488 GT3) +38.307
- 12. Van Dam/Bhirombhakdi (Singha Motorsport Ferrari 458 GT3) +48.168
- 3. Bruni/Mok (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 488 GT3) +41.976
- 91. O’Young/Bhirombakdi (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) +48.168
- 88. Lyons/ Yu (Craft Bamboo Racing Porsche GT3-R) +51.842
- 95. Miedecke/Morcom (Miedecke Stone Aston Martin Vantage) +1:06.553
- 8. Venter/Sawa (Absolute Racing Bentley Continental GT3) – 31-laps
DNF. 9. Jöns/Inthraphuvasak (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 26-laps