The FFF Racing Team by ACM were looking forward to the third stop of the GT Asia Series at the iconic Fuji International Speedway in Japan, not the least because the event had been a popular hunting ground for the #55 combination of Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Tonio Liuzzi, the two having tasted success at the venue in the past.
For the fifth and sixth rounds of the championship though, the popular three-car McLaren team took on a slightly different look, with two successful Australian drivers campaigning the third car, whilst team-leader Sean Fu was joined by series debutante Andre Couto, the drivers of the #5 machine though sadly losing their primary ride in a pre-race test accident, forcing the duo to take over the reigns of a Nismo Nissan GT-R.
GTAsia_Fuji_FFF_UP2_SHDespite that and challenging conditions off the back of a passing typhoon, the team worked themselves into contention across the weekend, with all three cars challenging inside the top ten, whilst the #55 car narrowly missed a podium on Saturday, and was eliminated from a certain podium finish after contact early in Sunday’s second race.
It’s old news now that the McLaren campaigned in earlier rounds by Jiang Xin and Max Wiser was eliminated in pre-race testing at Fuji, forcing a shuffle of car numbers, which ultimately saw Australians Nathan Antunes and Rod Salmon promoted to the #5 car (which was soon changed to the #15 car), whilst Fu and Couto would take over the reigns of the Nissan.
Practice conditions saw torrential rain on Thursday for the two unofficial sessions, followed by mixed weather on Friday for the three official practice sessions where all six drivers spent time coming to grips with the 4.563-kilometre, 16-turn venue.
Sadly, all was not ideal, the Nissan team were faced with an ECU issue which kept them from contesting any serious laps, although by Friday afternoon conditions cleared enough for all three teams to see where they were against the competition, with the #55 car recording the best time, but just tenth fastest for the day.
“We have a bit of work to do overnight ahead of qualifying, but at least with the drier weather conditions, we had a better benchmark to see where we were and what we needed to work around,” Team Manager Alf Boarer admitted.
With Saturday morning dawning dry, there was some hope that qualifying would stay that way, but just 15-minutes ahead of the opening session, the heavens opened again, forcing teams onto wet tyres. With only one real chance to record a strong lap, Liuzzi charged to set the seventh fastest time, whilst Couto battled the twin-turbo Nissan around for 13th.
GTAsia_Fuji_FFF_Liuzzi_P1_0715_BL_medAntunes sadly was plagued by a gearbox issue which made it almost impossible to downshift, a problem which saw team-mate Rod Salmon stranded for some time on track in Q2, which forced a rear-of-field start for round six. A post-session investigation by the team revealed no immediate problem, forcing a complete gearbox change to ensure the team would be okay for the two 60-minute races, the FFF Racing team by ACM crew effecting the replacement in the break between qualifying and the opening race.
Typically the action begins at Fuji into the tight turn one, and the opening race was no different with two of the Bentleys and the front-running Aston Martin eliminated almost immediately, and with it, the Ferrari of Max Wiser.
In amongst all the activity, the experienced Liuzzi managed to ‘thread-the-needle’ to move into third position, although he was soon under fire from the remaining Bentley, and not too long after team-mate Couto.
The Mecanese driver was electric in the opening laps, moving the powerful Nissan up the order as the rain began to fall, the former Macau F3 winner showing incredible skill to move the FFF Racing team into third ahead of the compulsory pit stops (CPS).
Behind him Nathan Antunes too was working his way forward, making it three FFF cars in the top six ahead of the stop, with Salmon, Fu and Hamaguchi taking over the driving duties for the run home.
Ultimately all three cars were forced onto wet weather tyres as the conditions started to deteriorate, Hamaguchi hanging on to fourth, with Salmon moving up to eighth and Fu an impressive tenth.
For race two the weather finally cleared long enough for the teams to contest a dry run, and all eyes were on Hamaguchi who started from the front row. The Japanese driver began strongly, but mindful of the dramas into turn one for the opening race, he left enough room for the fast starting Jonathon Venter to lead through to turn two. Hamaguchi slotted into P2, but came under fire from the Bentley of Adderly Fong on lap two, the Ferrari of Todd Piti drafting in behind the round four winner to dive up the inside of Hamaguchi into turn one, turning the Japanese driver around into the path of Mok Weng Sun.
That forced all three cars wide and off the circuit, with Hamaguchi beached and with broken right rear suspension – sadly it was game over for the #55 team. Focus then turned to the #15 McLaren with Salmon working his way carefully through the field to pit from 12th position, whilst further back Sean Fu drove a consistent race to put Couto back in the seat just outside the top ten.
As the laps wound down the charging Antunes had worked his way up to a battle for seventh, but sadly contact with the similar McLaren MP4-12C of Akira Iida saw both McLarens forced off the circuit, with Antunes receiving a post-race penalty for the unintentional contact. Post race Salmon also revealed he’d made contact – with team-boss Sean Fu in the early laps of the race after miss-interpreting a pit-lane instruction to pass the Nissan, Fu opening the door at 130R, with Salmon taking that as a sign to make the move.
Little was lost, but the #15 team received a second 30-second penalty as a result, dropping them back to 12th after crossing the line in ninth place.
“I think we had a pretty good weekend for our first time in the McLaren,” Salmon admitted post-race. “We crossed the line with an eighth and a ninth on debut with the team, I’d have to say we’re going home pretty happy with top tens in what is a quality field.
“After a tough qualifying session with the gearbox issue, I started 24th on the grid and moved up to 12th before the CPS, and Nathan moved us up to eighth before we got pinged. The car was much better in the dry than the wet – a very nice car to drive, but it was clearly down on power, but hopefully they’ll address that for the next event because I think we have a combination and a car capable of a podium in Sepang.”
Couto and Fu were 11th across the line, but with the penalty for the #15 car, were promoted to their second consecutive top ten finish.
“It was a tough weekend in the conditions, but my team-mate did a fantastic job to come to grips with the Nissan, which under these circumstances was an amazing job, so we can’t be too disappointed with two top ten results,” Couto admitted.
Hamaguchi and Liuzzi were understandably disappointed with the lap two retirement,  believing that they could well have been on the podium to garnish some more valuable championship points.
“I’m definitely disappointed about the overall result because we’ve really had to work hard as a team since the beginning of this week,” Liuzzi explained. “We’ve had really difficult conditions because every day was raining and drying, so it was quite messy to work with the setup, but we had some good information for the race. Qualifying wasn’t great, but Hamaguchi did a great job in Q2, but overall we couldn’t optimise our performance this weekend.
“In race one we finished P4 which wasn’t too bad, but we didn’t have really good pace in the first part of the race, so P4 was okay for the points towards the championship, but unfortunately in race two, Hamaguchi got hit from behind so we weren’t able to finish the race but we will regroup for Sepang and look to fight for our place on the podium.”
Despite the less than perfect result, there were some highlights for the Fuji event, one of which was the performance of Sean Fu under challenging conditions, having had to switch his focus from the #5 McLaren, to a completely untried and untested Nissan GT-R, not just in dry conditions, but also in the wet. His efforts in race one under immense pressure from his rivals on a worsening track were rewarded with one of his best results in GT Asia to date, whilst for Liuzzi and Hamaguchi, they continued to show that they are a real threat in the championship, despite their race two DNF.
With the Fuji round now completed, focus turns to the fourth event of the year, and the GT Asia Series’ first ‘mini’ enduro, with a single, double-points scoring three-hour race at Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit on September 4-5.
All event details will be updated regularly on the FFF Racing Team by ACM Facebook page;
Rnd#5/6 – 2015 GT Asia Series
Fuji International Speedway, Japan (19 July)
Qualifying #1 (15-minutes)
1. 1. Toni Vilander (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 GT3) – 1:51.773
2. 11. Carlo Van Dam (TP12/Singha Racing Ferrari 458) – 1:51.862
3. 88. Richard Lyons (Craft-Bamboo Aston Martin Vantage GT3) – 1:52.329
4. 7. Andy Soucek (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:52.669
5. 12. Matt Griffin (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 GT3) – 1:52.792
6. 8. Keita Sawa (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 1:52.806
7. 55. Tonio Liuzzi (FFF Racing Team by ACM McLaren GT3)
 – 1:53.240
13. 5. Andre Couto (FFF Racing Nissan GT-R) – 1:54.452
15. 15. Nathan Antunes (FFF Racing Team by ACM McLaren 650S GT3) – 1:55.217
Qualifying #2 (15-minutes)
1. 99. Jonathan Venter (Craft-Bamboo Aston Martin Vantage GT3) – 1:53.642
2. 55. Hiroshi Hamaguchi (FFF Racing Team by ACM McLaren 650S GT3) – 1:54.122
3. 1. Mok Weng Sun (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3) – 1:54.199
4. 12. Richard Wee (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3) – 1:54.722
5. 9. Jiang Xin (Spirit of Race Ferrari 458 GT3) – 1:55.020
6. 7. Jeffrey Lee (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3)
- 1:55.305
17. 5. Fu Song Yang (FFF Racing Nissan GT-R) – 2:01.041
21. 15. Rod Salmon (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3) – 2:02.544
Race #1 (60-minutes)
1. 11. Carlo Van Dam/Piti Bhirom Bhakdi (TP12/Singha Ferrari) – 32-laps
2. 1. Toni Vilander/Mok Weng Sun (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458) +0.243
3. 12. Matt Griffin/Richard Wee (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458) +32.861
4. 55. Tonio Liuzzi/Hiroshi Hamaguchi (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3) +49.589
5. 77. Duncan Tappy/Jacky Yeung (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3)
6. 24. Kota Sasaki/Malagamuwa (Dilango Racing Gallardo FL2) +1:46.474
8. 15. Nathan Antunes/Rod Salmon (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3) – 31-laps
10. 5. Andre Couto/Fu Song Yang (FFF Racing Nissan GT-R)
Race #2 (60-minutes)
1. 8. Adderly Fong/Keita Sawa (Absolute Bentley Continental GT3) – 35-laps
2. 99. Jonathan Venter/Darryl O’Young (Craft-Bamboo Racing Aston) +11.194
3. 9. Jiang Xin/Max Wiser (Spirit of Race Ferrari 458 GT3) +14.557
4. 12. Richard Wee/Matt Griffin (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458) +19.996
5. 1. Mok Weng Sun/Toni Vilander (Clearwater Racing Ferrari 458) +34.418
10. 5. Fu Song Yang/Andre Couto (FFF Racing Nissan GT-R)
12. 15. Rod Salmon/Nathan Antunes (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3)
DNF. 55. Hiroshi Hamaguchi/Tonio Liuzzi (FFF Racing McLaren 650S GT3) – 1-lap
*GTM Class
2015 GT Asia Series – Championship Points
GT3 (after round six of 11)
1. Adderly Fong/Keita Sawa (63-points), 1. Darryl O’Young/Jonathan Venter (63), 
2. Anthony Liu/Davide Rizzo (57), 3. Piti Bhirom Bhakdi (52), 4. Richard Wee (51), 
5. Carlo Van Dam (42), 5. Matt Griffin (42), 6. Mok Weng Sun (41), 7. Richard Lyons/Frank Yu (39), 8. Hiroshi Hamaguchi/Vitantonio Liuzzi (38), 9. Jacky Yeung/Duncan Tappy (36), 10. Jeffrey Lee (32), 13. Sean Fu (25), 15. Andrea Caldarelli (17), 
19. Andre Couto (8), 20. Rod Salmon/Nathan Antunes (7)

Ben Potter

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