There are many ingredients that will make the 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup the most exciting series in Asia this year. One being Alessio Picariello who finished second in the championship by only one point, being determined to win more races and stop reigning champion Alex Yoong from scoring a fourth title.
But it may not be that easy for Picariello, because this year he has a new team mate that has every chance to get in between the Belgian and the reigning champ, and make a name for himself. A driver who is new to the Audi R8 LMS Cup, but comes to Sepang this weekend hot on the heels of an historic win in the inaugural Blancpain GT Series Asia- also at Sepang- and in the same Audi R8 GT3.
This driver is Australian born, Malaysian raised Mitch Gilbert. And I caught up with him during an intense, but enjoyable game of squash.
Moving across from the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia where he won two races and was challenging for the title last year, Mitch is now going to unleash is raw talent on the Audi R8 LMS Cup grid, starting this weekend at Sepang.
I asked him about the differences between the PCCA GT and Audi R8 LMS GT3. “They’re very, very different. It’s quite hard to put them in the same category really. The Audi R8 LMS GT3 car is a really special car to drive. The amount of aero it has, and the way it works is really unlike a GT car and more like a formula. The Carrera Cup is quite the opposite. You really have to get your technique spot on to be quick in that car, and it’s very easy to make mistakes without ABS and Traction Control. But I really like the Audi!”
Competing in a different series can sometimes take time for a driver to get use to the car and the other competitors. But considering Mitch is racing on his home circuit, and won his first race in his new Audi R8 LMS Cup car just last month in the Blancpain GT Series Asia, it’s safe to say he should be one of the favorites to challenge for a win, or at least a podium.
“I guess I’m just expecting to be fighting at the front of the grid. I know how tough this grid is, and I’m not getting ahead of myself. If I can be fighting for podiums at the first race that would be a great start.”
But don’t take this as cockiness in any way. Mitch is quite a humble driver during normal hours and doesn’t like to dwell too much on what could be. Although when there is a chance for competition, he pushes himself to the absolute limit, concentrating on leaving the rest behind. Even on the squash court, he gives no thought to having a breather, as I quickly learnt.
“I’m not getting ahead of myself because I know how tough the grid is. But I like to think I’m one of the title contenders, but I do think almost every driver on the whole grid is a contender this year, that’s how tough it is.”
You would think that racing in two different series during the year must take its toll on drivers. But for Mitch Gilbert it is only making him stronger. “I just feel sharper because I’m in the car more. It’s nice to actually not have to feel so much pressure when I jump in the car.”
Along with a new race series comes a new race team. This year Mitch will be racing for OD Racing, a team that is quickly becoming the best race team in Malaysia. Has this transition been a successful one?
“Yeah it’s great! It’s been fun. It was tough putting the whole project together, but it’s ended up great. Winning the Blancpain race helped us all gel together a bit. My engineer has experience in the Audi cup, and so does my team mate- Alessio Picariello- so I have a good platform to learn off.”
It is this partnership with Picariello that will make the 2017 series one of the most exciting to watch in Asia. One driver who was in the top three overall standings the whole of 2016, finishing second in the championship, and more experienced with the other competitors on the grid. And the new wunderkind who wants to keep his winning momentum and stamp his authority early in the season.
“Considering his last season, Alessio is a pretty good benchmark for me. So far in testing we’ve been similar, he’s had a slight edge over me, but I think we’re pretty close. I think we can learn from each other and we’ll push each other a lot, and that’s where we have a bit of an edge as a team because we share the same engineer. We’re looking at everything and comparing everything together and pushing each other forward. And I hope we can push each other further ahead of the rest and then we can fight it out between the two of us.”
Spoken like a true competitor who has only one thing on his mind this weekend- to win, to beat his teammate, and to stamp his authority on the Audi R8 LMS Cup.
As our time on the squash court comes to an end, I may have given him a run for his money, but Mitch Gilbert is miles ahead on the race track.