The Audi R8 LMS Cup made a dramatic debut at the iconic Suzuka Circuit today, where MGT by Absolute’s Alessio Picariello stormed to a dominant victory from pole on one of the most demanding and unforgiving race tracks on earth. Despite carrying 35kg of success ballast, the 23-year-old Belgian rocketed over the line more than seven seconds ahead of closest challenger, 22-year-old OD Racing Team driver Mitch Gilbert.
Earning the final podium place after the 12-lap race on the 5.807km track was Stéphane Richelmi of Castrol Racing Team.
“Today, almost all the drivers raced for the first time at this iconic and very technical Suzuka Circuit. This is what the Audi R8 LMS Cup is all about – providing premium opportunities for our customers at the highest level of motorsport in Asia,” said Martin Kuehl, Director of Audi Sport customer racing Asia. “Congratulations to Alessio Picariello for a very strong race against a fiercely competitive field.”
Absolute Racing took the win in the Am+ category, courtesy of Chinese driver Anthony Liu, making a welcome return to the Cup. Second was fellow countryman David Chen of Tianshi Racing Team, an impressive debut for both driver and team, ahead of Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan’s Jeffrey Lee.
Thailand’s Bhurit Bhirombhakdi took the Am win with his Singha Plan-B Motorsport team ahead of China’s Sun Jingzu of Milestone Racing. It was a disappointing Round 3 for KCMG’s Rick Yoon, whose race ended prematurely on lap two after an early spin.
Picariello’s win and pole position take his championship points tally to 71, extending his lead at the top. Cup triple champion, Alex Yoong of Team Audi R8 LMS Cup is in second place on 37 points, 34 behind his Belgian rival, with Gilbert in third on 33 points. Shaun Thong of Audi TEDA Racing Team is on equal points with Gilbert and fourth in the standings, one point ahead of FAW-VW Audi Racing Team’s Cheng Congfu of China.
Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan driver Jeffrey Lee leads the Am+ standings after three rounds on 42 points, while Rick Yoon of KCMG continues to lead the Am category with 28 points in total.
Picariello got away well from pole at the rolling start, maintaining control despite a challenge from Gilbert, with Richelmi giving chase. Behind them though, defending champion Alex Yoong came under pressure from Shaun Thong.
“So far it has been a good three races,” said an excited Picariello. “I’m so happy to win here in Suzuka. It’s nice to have on your CV. I feel confident in the car and was very comfortable in this race. I had an OK start and I pushed really hard in the first two laps to build a gap. Then it was all about keeping the car on track, but I can tell you that is not easy. Here you are on the limit on every corner, so it’s really tricky. But I enjoyed the race today. It’s a great result for my great team, Absolute Racing.”
Speaking about his challenge at the start, Mitch Gilbert told us that was his perfect opportunity to take the lead. “The start was probably my best chance of taking the lead. We were side-by-side, and I had a bit of an edge on Alessio. Just before I turned into turn one, I saw the yellow on Alessio’s car, otherwise we’d have both been out at the start. Otherwise it was quite a tough race for me. I’m not really sure why, but the first few laps I just didn’t have a lot of confidence. Alessio was just gone, and it’s not nice driving a very difficult track when you’ve got your teammate in the same car and he’s just pulling away. Stéphane was behind me and was putting a lot of pressure on as well, so it wasn’t a fun race for me. I need to look at the data and all the information we’ve got and come up with something better tomorrow.”
It wasn’t long though before the famously-challenging Suzuka figure-eight track, which includes sweeping straights, twisting esses, a tight hairpin and chicane as well as exhilarating elevations, began to extract its toll. Team Audi Korea’s Kyong-Ouk You made a big late dive up the inside of Chen at the chicane, getting on the grass and losing control before colliding with Champion Racing Team’s Martin Rump, who had just passed Chen. Liu benefitted from the incident to seize the Am+ lead from Chen.
KO You was later handed a 30-second penalty for the move, dropping him down the order to 13th. Rump continued, but the young Estonian had to drive conservatively to preserve his damaged tyre, eventually crossing the line in ninth.
Thong eventually found his way past Yoong, who was carrying the maximum 50kg of success ballast after his win in Round 2, and into podium contention. Audi Hong Kong’s Marchy Lee had fought his way to sixth from eighth on the grid, putting the Hong Kong driver right behind his Phoenix Racing Asia-serviced teammate, Yoong. Cheng closed in on the battling pair, but was unable to mount a serious challenge.
The legendary Japanese track was not done yet though, and the final lap saw Yoong spin in a cloud of dust while running fifth. The experienced former Formula One driver recovered superbly, wrestling the mighty Audi R8 LMS back under his control but dropped down to seventh at the flag.
With two victories in three races, a second place and a trio of pole positions, all eyes will be on the soaring Picariello tomorrow to see if his wings are clipped by the 50kg success ballast he will carry for the standing start of Round 4. The MGT by Absolute driver will start in third place. Ahead of him are Cheng, who is on pole after setting the fastest lap in the morning’s second qualifying session and Gilbert, carrying 35kg in second. Rump will be looking to put a tough race behind him, starting from fourth.
In the Am+ class, Liu is on pole, with Am Cup classification-leader Yoon starting first.
Round 3 results
- 15/Alessio PICARIELLO(BEL)/MGT by Absolute/25:02.264
- 86/Mitch GILBERT(MAS)/OD Racing Team/+7.050
- 11/Stéphane RICHELMI(MCO)/Castrol Racing Team/+7.555
- 8/Shaun THONG Wei Fung(HKG)/Audi TEDA Racing Team/+8.291
- 88/Marchy LEE(HKG)/Audi Hong Kong/+11.746
- 31/CHENG Congfu(CHN)/FAW-VW Audi Racing Team/+15.572
- 1/Alex YOONG(MAS)/Audi R8 LMS Cup/+16.853
- Anthony LIU(CHN)/Am+/Absolute Racing/+17.699
- 18/Martin RUMP(EST)/Champion Racing Team/+19.816
- 99/David CHEN Weian(CHN)/Am+/Tianshi Racing Team/+28.272
- 7/Jeffrey LEE(TWN)/Am+/Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan/+48.024
- 59/Bhurit BHIROMBHAKDI(THA)/Am/Singha Plan-B Motorsport/+55.281
- 13/Kyong-Ouk YOU(KOR)/Team Audi Korea/+57.806
- 39/Kane JIANG Xin(CHN)/Am+/KCMG/+1:14.812
- 3/SUN Jing Zu(CHN)/Am/Milestone Racing/+1:51.007
DNF. 77/Rick YOON(HKG)/Am/KCMG
Fastest Lap: Alessio Picariello/MGT by Absolute/2:04.073/Lap 2/168.49km/h