TCR International Series rocked into Buriram with the title on a knife-edge with Stefano Comini (Leopard Racing VW Golf GTi) leading Pepe Oriola (Craft-Bamboo SEAT Léon) by just a solitary point; to be exact it was 169 and 168 points respectively. When they departed from Thailand the gap was just three points, but crucially they had both been eclipsed by Oriola’s Craft-Bamboo teammate James Nash, the Briton vaulting over them in the standings to seize the championship lead, albeit it by a slender margin of 7 points.
In fact it really was Craft-Bamboo’s weekend as they won both races, a 1-2 for Oriola and Nash in Race 1 followed up with a win for Nash in Race 2 to take up the top two spots in the Drivers’ championship and open up a very commanding lead in the Teams’ championship.
While Oriola and Nash were handing SEAT the top honours in Race 1, the latter having battled his way up to the runners up spot from the third row of the grid, veteran former Formula 1 driver Gianni Morbidelli salvaged some pride for Honda as he brought his WestCoast Racing Civic home in third place to claim the final step of the podium. Morbidelli, who competed in 70 grands prix between 1990-1997 driving for BMS Scuderia Italia, Minardi, Footwork and Sauber as well of course as his famous off one appearance for Scuderia Ferrari at the 1991 season closing Australian Grand Prix, deputising for Alain Prost who had just quit the team, has since then carved out a very successful career in touring car racing.
Title hopeful Comini lost some ground with fourth place; he was however the first VW Golf GTi home. Comini’s Leopard Racing teammate Jean-Karl Vernay wrapped up the top five ahead of Thailand’s star of the weekend Kantadhee Kusiri (Honda). Then came three SEATs, the cars of Dušan Borković, Attila Tassi, and the third Craft-Bamboo entry of Sergey Afanasyev, before Davit Kajaia (VW) rounded out the overall top ten.
Race 2 saw an early Safety Car after the fast starting Morbidelli crashed at Turn 8 on lap 1 while Comini saw his title hopes take a knock as he dived into the pits on the third lap following contact with another competitor. The race resumed on the fourth lap and from then to the checkered flag it was non-stop action all the way.
At the end of the 16 lapper Nash took the win for SEAT, with a comfortable 7 second margin, but this time Honda had a second place to its name as Morbidelli’s teammate Mikhail Grachev clinched the runners up spot ahead of Borković with Comini taking his second fourth place of the weekend and Kajaia rounding out the top five. Grachev raced well and after starting from pole with a car that wasn’t in tip top shape he battled hard with Nash but once the British driver had squeezed though on lap 8 he consolidated P2 all the way to the checkered flag. Tassi, Afanasyev, who ran wide at Turn 12 on lap 7 and dropped to tenth place and then had to fight his way back up the leaderboard, Vernay, Kusiri and Mat’o Homola (SEAT) rounded out the top ten finishers which had a broadly similar feel to the first race.
There was some late Thai driver drama as three laps from the end Narasak Ittiritpong (Vattana Motorsport) and Munkong Sathienthirakul, who driving an Engstler VW Golf in a one off appearance in TCR International Series, clashed; they would however be classified eighteenth and nineteenth, having eventually completed 14- and 13-laps respectively.
In the post Race 2 Press Conference, the new championship leader was pretty happy with how his trip to Buriram had shaken out. “A very good weekend for me, especially after the big accident on Thursday,” said Nash. “In Race 1, not much happened. I had a good start, passing both Comini and Vernay, and when Morbidelli went a little bit wide, I could take second. This is a circuit where you really have to avoid going wide, as there is much dirt out of the track. It’s a track that suits me very well, and Race 2 went very smoothly. I could pass Grachev, take the lead and keep it. I think we were clever throughout the weekend and keep raising our game. I am now leading the championship, but I don’t want to think about that until Macau.”
His teammate, Oriola, had a mixed weekend, winning Race 1 but collecting nothing from the second race after recovering to finish just outside the points – however he was also quite satisfied with how the trip to Thailand had played out. “It was a great weekend for the Team Craft-Bamboo Lukoil and for our title bids, so I am very happy,” he said. “In Race 1, I took the best start of the season and could stay in front of Gianni then it was a matter of managing the situation and the rise of temperatures. In Race 2, I had a normal start in the middle of the pack and a contact with Tassi at first corner. Then, Gianni had his accident and I had to go wide into the dirt to avoid him. Something must have punctured my front left tyre because at the following braking, the tyre blew together with body parts. Luckily, the safety-car was out and I did not lose much time, but finished 11th and took no points. Still, leaving Thailand with 30 points is very good for me.”
Grachev admitted afterwards that he had suffered problems all weekend in the WestCoast Racing Honda and the runners up spot in Race 2 after starting from pole had involved a lot of effort. In Race 1 he had pitted on lap 9 after contact before reappearing a few laps later. “Nothing went as planned, as I was hit from the back during the first lap in Race 1 and got the car damaged. I had to pit for repairs and the guys worked well. The car was fit enough for Race 2 but I had not enough pace to keep the advantage of pole position. It was useless to try keeping James at bay and preferred to take no risk. Under the circumstances, finishing second is almost like a win.”
WestCoast Racing’s Morbidelli earned himself a podium in the first race before crashing out of Sunday’s final race following a major incident. “Race 1 went well, but there was no way to keep the pace of the Bamboo cars,” said the 48-year-old Italian veteran.” I lost second to Nash because a little mistake, I hit a kerb and went wide. My biggest concern was the water temperature and I was trying to get fresh air with different lines, but the temperature kept going higher and that was making me nervous. Things went worse in Race 2, as I lost completely the car in Turn 8 during the first lap. I have no idea of what happened, maybe something got bent in a small earlier contact, the car just went into the barriers without any notice or anything I could do. I am sorry for the mechanics, as they will have some work to do…”
The final driver to step onto an overall podium during the weekend was Borković in the B3 Racing Team Hungary SEAT, thanks to his third place in Race 2 after he fended off Comini to the line by less than a second. “This is the first event of the year where we definitely did not have the pace of the front-runners, and still, we got a podium finish,” he said afterwards. “In Race 1, my tyres were immediately killed after a couple of contacts in lap 1. Race 2 was clearly livelier, with a great fight with quite a few other guys. I enjoyed it very much and I think it was a great show for anyone watching.”
There were some novelties for the spectators too. Petr Fulín in the Mulsanne Racing Alfa Romeo Giulietta, this car was being seen in Thailand for the first time, and the return of the Top Run Subaru WRX STi, which has been missing from the action ever since the opening two rounds of the year. Neither car made too much impact on proceedings, although Fulín climbed as high as P8 in Race 1 before missing the braking point at Turn 3 and crashing out on the penultimate lap while Ferrara pulled up on lap 10 with engine problems. Neither car reappeared for Race 2.