The Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia will play host to the birth of an exciting new era in Asian motorsport this weekend, with the debut of the new TCR Asia Series.
Asia has played an integral role in the development of the successful new Touring Car concept, as the host of the opening rounds of the 2015 International Series which began six months ago at the very same venue. The TCR Asia Series will also contribute to the closing rounds of the 2015 International Series, with the final three events of the TCR Asia Series – Singapore, Thailand and Macau – also playing host to the final three rounds of the International Series.
For David Sonenscher, the TCR Asia Series promoter and the Asian region’s representative of WSC Ltd, the Sepang event is the culmination of almost 12-months worth of hard work. “We’re finally here,” Sonenscher acknowledged with a broad smile. “We don’t just have a great field to start the season, but we continue to field enquiries every day about how teams and drivers can get involved in TCR.”
“I have to thank those teams that have made the commitment to be here this weekend. There have been a few logistical challenges in getting cars ready ahead of Sepang – in fact there are parts still coming to complete a couple of the cars, that’s how tight it has been, but the feeling in the pits is fantastic, everyone’s upbeat about what’s coming, not the least me!”
The successful Seat León TCR cars have been the pace-setters through much of the TCR International Series, with the Craft-Bamboo LUKOIL team currently leading the championship. They too will have a presence in Sepang, but not with the team’s popular local star Frank Yu who campaigned the car back in March, but Eric K. a rising young star from Hong Kong who has been handed the keys of the #99 ‘Hulk’..
Hong Kong’s Prince Racing were one of the first to signal their interest in the TCR Asia Series project, and armed with two brand new JAS Motorsport-built Honda Civic TCR’s, and support from JAS themselves, both Kenneth Lau and Michael Choi are expected to be right in the mix with the leaders.
But like any new project, it will take time for teams to gel with their new machines, and for drivers to understand the machinations of their new cars, something which already has drivers talking. “It’s certainly different to what I’ve experienced with all my years of GT cars and open-wheelers,” Roadstar Racing Team driver Samson Chan admitted.
For others though, the Touring Car philosophy was nothing particularly new, something which Hong Kong’s Andy Yan displayed only too well in official practice #2, shadowing the Asia Racing Team’s Philippe Descombes early in the session, taking the all-new FRD HK Racing Team Ford Focus to within two tenths of Descombes’ best.
That result was perhaps no surprise to fans of the China Touring Car Championship, a category in which Yan is the reigning champion and current points leader in his Ford Focus, whilst team-leader Kenneth Ma has been responsible for the development of the CTCC Ford’s, taking his Changan Ford Racing Team to six of the last eight CTCC titles.
Ma is scheduled to join Yan this weekend, however a delay with customs has slowed the delivery of the team’s second Mountune-built engine, which was going to power the first FRD-built Focus, the Yan car having been originally delivered by Onyx in the UK. “It’s funny how things go,” Ma admitted. “We were so keen to have the first of our FRD-built cars on track, but there’s not much we can do without an engine, so we’ll make sure Andy has the chance to show what the car can do, and we’ll ensure that if we are unable to make the grid for qualifying, that the second car will be more than ready for Singapore in two weeks.”
By the close of the two official practice sessions it was Descombes who set the pace with a blistering time in practice #1, the Frenchman ultimately keeping himself on top of the timesheets with the #14 Seat León in session two, with Yan second overall.
Third was local Malaysian driver Kenny Lee who missed unofficial practice in the local Seat León, the Sepang regular – a winner of the Sepang 1000km back in 2010 – showed the value of his immense local knowledge, to topple the leading Honda Civic of Kenneth Lau.
Lau is another driver with a strong Touring car background, the 2010 Hong Kong Touring Car champion enjoying the chance to gain valuable extra miles in the Prince Racing Honda Civic, sharing the experience with Michael Choi, who himself enjoys a long history in Asian competition, the Hong Kong-based driver recently finishing on the podium in a Lamborghini Super Trofeo on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
Like the Prince Racing Team, Hong Kong’s Roadstar Racing Team were taking their time to get acclimatised with their trio of Seat Leóns, with Masahiko Ida setting the early pace for the team, the Japanese driver though ultimately dropped back behind team-mate Filipe Souza in the second session.
There were two non-starters in official practice, ART’s Rodolfo Avila who took a leave of absence for a minor health issue, but is expected to return to push team-mate Descombes in qualifying, whilst Kenneth Ma was unable to make a start whilst waiting for his engine to clear customs.
The three 10-lap TCR Asia Series races will be streamed live via the TCR Asia Series website www.asia.tcr-series.com with internationally renowned commentator Jonathon Green calling the shots, make sure you tune in five minutes before the start of each scheduled race to catch the coverage – just remember to check the timezone you’re in against Kuala Lumpur time!