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Marchy Lee and Shaun Thong blew the Blancpain GT Series Asia Drivers’ title wide open by claiming victory in this weekend’s opening race at Shanghai earlier today. The Audi Hong Kong crew took the chequered flag 2.5s clear of fellow championship hopefuls Mitch Gilbert and Aditya Patel, while Alexs Au and Yoong completed the podium after an action-packed hour of racing in wet/dry conditions.
The top two pairings kept themselves in title contention thanks to a combination of results and misfortune for championship leader Hunter Abbott whose GruppeM Racing Mercedes-AMG suffered a left-rear wheelnut issue that dropped the car out of the points. It means Lee and Thong are now just eight points behind with 75 still available over the season’s remaining three races.
Elsewhere, Craft-Bamboo Racing’s Jean-Marc Merlin and Frank Yu extended their GT4 championship lead over Byron Tong and Eric Lo by beating the EKS Motorsports pair to victory.
GT3: PATEL’S SLIP HANDS LEE/THONG IMPORTANT VICTORY
Pre-race talk was dominated by tyre discussion and the choice between wets or slicks given the drying track. And it was those conditions that played a role in the first corner antics that helped shape the race as well as its ultimate outcome.
Sandy Stuvik lined up on pole but was just behind the fast-starting Leo Ye as the pack approached Turn 1. Trying desperately to hold position, the VSR driver opted for a shallower line by diving for a gap down the inside which forced the fast-starting HubAuto Racing Porsche wide. That allowed Nick Foster – up from sixth on the grid – to undercut both and briefly take the lead. However, it was short lived and, by the exit of Turn 2, his Craft-Bamboo Porsche was facing the wrong way. The resulting point-blank clout from Bentley Team Absolute’s Andrew Kim put paid to both drivers’ races.
Stuvik and Ye weren’t finished though and made contact again before the Safety Car was required to enable Foster’s stranded Porsche to be towed away. All of that saw Aidan Read, who originally started seventh, somehow leading when racing resumed.
The FFF Racing Lamborghini’s advantage lasted only a lap-and-a-half before Stuvik, who’d taken the restart third behind Darryl O’Young, pounced and pulled away.
Further back Gilbert and Lee, who had dropped down the order during the first corner confusion, were making inroads of their own, and it wasn’t long before both Audis were closing in on Stuvik. They caught the Lamborghini just before the pitstop window opened after 25 minutes, and although the lead did briefly change, it was the Huracan that pitted first from the front.
While Mitchell and Lee continued nose-to-tail, Stuvik’s co-driver and championship debutant Yuki Nemoto was setting faster laps after switching to slicks. And by the time the leaders followed suit, the Lamborghini had built a healthy advantage.
Lee and Thong’s five-second pitstop success penalty ensured they were a little behind Patel after the stops shook out, but were still close enough to take advantage when the Indian misjudged the final corner, ran wide on to the still-wet astroturf and completed a full 360-degree spin.
“We were already in a good position when I got in the car so I initially concentrated on getting my head down and having a good stint just to see how much time I could make up,” said Thong. “Of course it turned out a bit differently with what happened to Aditya [Patel] and the Lamborghini. The team made the right call to stick with slicks at the start – that was a really difficult decision given the track conditions on our lap to the grid.”
Thong’s rapid pace meant he was then soon catching Nemoto. However, just like Patel, he was handed the position on a plate when Stuvik’s lap one incident with Ye, which resulted in the Porsche spinning, was punished with a drive-through penalty.
From there it was plain sailing for the Audi Hong Kong-entered R8, which was never threatened by the pursuing OD Racing example.
Audi’s podium clean sweep was completed by Yoong and Au largely thanks to the latter’s storming first run. The Audi R8 LMS Cup entry started eighth and lost further ground amidst the first lap shenanigans before carving through to end the opening stint fourth. Yoong was then frequently amongst the fastest drivers on track and picked up third when Nemoto served Stuvik’s drive-through penalty.
The VSR Lamborghini finished eight seconds shy of the podium and ahead of another hard charger, Bentley Team Absolute’s #20 Continental. Vutthikorn Inthraphuvasak lined up only 20th and struggled in the worst of the conditions before coming alive as the track started to dry out. The Thai driver completed his stint in the lower reaches of the top-10 before co-driver Adderly Fong maintained the crew’s impressive progress en route to fifth.
O’Young and Marvin Dienst spent all race jostling in the group behind the leaders and duly finished sixth, albeit just 0.5s ahead of GruppeM’s Sugden and Jules Szymkowiak. Jiang Xin and Max Wiser finished eighth despite taking the Safety Car restart running last of the GT3 entries, Ye and co-driver Tim Bridgman similarly recovered from their first lap spin to come home ninth, while Sun Jingzu and Franky Cheng completed the top-10.
Andrew Haryanto starred in the opening stint by battling up to sixth but ultimately had to settle for 11th overall and a fifth-straight Am Cup victory. His X-One Racing Lamborghini finished 12s ahead of class rivals James Cai and Kenneth Lim, who fought off Lin Yue and Zhu Junhan.
GT4: MERLIN AND YU PREVAIL IN TRICKY CONDITIONS
Everyone in the GT4 class seemed to suffer a problem of some sort, but ultimately it was Craft-Bamboo’s Jean-Marc Merlin and Frank Yu who came through to win their fourth race of the year.
Yu started second behind Ringo Chong, instantly jumped into the lead and then slipped to third after running wide in the tough early conditions. There he remained over the course of his stint before benefitting from the top-two of Keo Chang and Ringo Chong both receiving penalties before the pit window opened.
Speaking about his race, Frank Yu: “I completed my lap to the grid on slicks but it was still drizzling and our championship rivals were on wets, so we made a very late call to do the same. They worked well for the first few laps but then I ran wide and dropped into third. The guys in first had the slicks, which it turned out was the right choice for the whole stint. Then the team asked me to stay out four laps longer because they were worried about the rain returning, and by then they were cooked. By the time I handed over to Jean-Marc we were only three or four seconds ahead of Eric and Byron, and that was too close for comfort. But he did a great job and really earned our win today.”
Merlin still emerged from his pitstop behind the Taiwan Top Speed car but, after a few laps of acclimatising to the conditions, closed in and passed debutant Jeff Lu. By that stage pressure was also building from behind courtesy of EKS Motorsports title rival Eric Lo who then lost time after contact with Lu, who was back in the pits as a result shortly after.
All of that allowed Merlin to take a comfortable win ahead of the EKS Motorsport Porsche and HubAuto Racing Cayman driven by Chong and James Wong.
The result sees Merlin and Yu extend their lead over Lo and co-driver Byron Tong to 10 points.