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2017 CHINA GT CHAMPIONSHIP; MID-SEASON REPORT CARD

18 August 2017

Text/Photos: Motorsport Media

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2017 China GT Championship

17 August, 2017

We’re already at the mid-point of the 2017 China GT Championship, with six rounds now committed to the history books, so it’s timely to take stock of the season to date and look at who have been the standouts.

Certainly GT racing in China has been the big winner in the world’s biggest supercar market, with China GT Championship organisers forced to split the fields into two groups, one catering for the GT3 category, the other a combined field of GTC and GT4 cars – and in both – the racing has been exceptional.

2017 also saw the introduction of teams with serious international credentials, with drivers from across Asia and Europe committing themselves to the series. Both Porsche and Audi have made China GT very much a priority in season 2017, and both have developed a championship within a championship for those teams campaigning either product, Porsche with the GT3 Cup Trophy China and Audi with the China GT Audi Challenge.

GT3 – Battle of the titans

Before the season had even turned a wheel the expectation that the GT3 category would be a tough competition was high. Experienced teams like Absolute Racing, Phoenix Racing Asia and the expanding FAW T2M teams committing their entries with some seriously impressive driver lineups.

China GT powerhouse JRM were also back for more with two pristine Type 991 Porsche GT3-Rs whilst Spirit-Z Racing would field the mighty Nismo GT-R GT3, again with an impressive driver lineup, whilst 2016 front-runners Kings Racing arrived at the opening round with all eyes focused on two brand new Audi R8 LMS GT3s and a shining Ferrari 458 GT3..

The Kings team didn’t just look the goods either, team-boss Xu Jia signaling just how competitive they would be with back-to-back wins in the #07 Audi at Goldenport to carry a championship lead he would not relinquish until a big off at Zhuhai after collecting the barriers in a big way in round five. To that point though he looked every bit a winner, but it was new Kings recruit Martin Rump who really laid the foundations for the teams lead at the mid-point of the season with two victories alongside car owner Wang Liang in the #08 Kings Audi.

Those two wins together with two additional podium finishes in Rump’s four starts in the 2017 championship have also given Liang the series points lead, the young Estonian second whilst Xu Jia is still within striking distance despite having been unable to start round six.

Also two-time winners in season 2017 are Audi Hong Kong, led by the experienced Marchy Lee, an icon at home in Hong Kong and already a winner in China GT this year.

Sadly for Lee and team-mate Alex Au, they had a tough start to the season with two DNFs at Goldenport, forcing them to start their title assault in Zhuhai where they recorded three podiums and four top five finishes to catapult themselves into a share of fifth overall in points and just a single podium finish from the points lead!

Team-mate Melvin Moh in the #16 Audi Hong Kong entry recorded his first win of the year at Zhuhai in July alongside Eric Lo who was subbing for Lim Keong Wee, making it six wins for the second generation Audi R8 LMS GT3 from six starts.

Sadly, despite claiming a season high four pole positions, the Bentley Team Absolute operation has been unable to convert their qualifying pace to outright results.

At Goldenport the mighty twin-turn V8-powered British built machines were fast but the tight twisty nature of the circuit didn’t suit the three-car Bentley operation, Adderly Fong and team-mate Vutthikorn Inthrapuvasak claiming the team’s only podium of the season to date with second during the opening round.

Team-mates Weiron Tan and Andrew Kim have been fast, but unlucky, involved in a number of incidents – one of which included team-mates Fong and Vutthikorn – despite being the fastest qualifiers in three of the last four rounds at Zhuhai. With the next event at Shanghai International Circuit, the scene of Bentley’s Asian GT3 debut back in late 2014, the team will be expecting to get their championship on track ahead of the final two events of the season.

Quite likely though the greatest threat to Audi’s ongoing string of victories, will be Porsche, with both FAW T2M and JRM showing impressive speed at Zhuhai last time out.

Bao Jin Long and Martin Ragginger have been impressive since the opening round, and despite being unable to convert their pace into victory, the FAW T2M drivers sit equal second in points with Martin Rump, just two points in arrears from the championship points lead thanks in part to their ongoing consistency which has delivered four podium results from the six races to date, three of those runner-up finishes.

Likewise Li Chao and JRM team-mate Chris van der Drift have also been strong, although with just two podium finishes but four top six results, they too are within striking distance of the points leaders, just 26 points back from Wang Liang.

GT3 – Promising starts

It would be easy to discount those drivers who are yet to make the podium consistently this season, but consider for a moment the depth of talent in the 2017 China GT Championship, especially when the likes of Bentley Team Absolute have recorded just one podium finish for their three teams so far this season, yet all three cars have shown race winning pace!

Whilst speed has been a big draw-card this season, so too has celebrity, and not just the string of drivers with impressive international credentials, the series also includes a name well known within celebrity circles, with screen and music sensation Hang Geng entered in the #09 ‘Hard Memory’ Bentley alongside Swiss sportscar star Alexandre Imperatori.

Imperatori has often been the pace-setter for the team, but whilst his speed is unquestioned, his role with the #09 team is to work with HG to improve his pace and performance behind the wheel in what is his GT3 debut this season in what has become a real baptism of fire for the Chinese star.

Likewise FAW T2M team-boss Morris Chen, the experienced Porsche campaigner has had a tough run of luck, including two difficult starts at Zhuhai on the opening lap which has put the HubAuto boss well behind the eight ball. Like HG, his team-mates – German Marco Seefried and former SuperGT star Hiroki Yoshimoto – have been super-fast to date, and with a little luck they will be able to assist Chen to stronger results in the second half of the season to add to their third placed finish in Goldenport during round two.

The same could be said for the second JRM entry, the #991 Porsche of Li Jiaqi and rising young French star Maxime Jousse. In both races last time out at Zhuhai, Jousse fought his way through the field to lead by the close of the compulsory pit stops, but despite strong pace, Jiaqi was unable to convert that pace to a podium after a spin in round five whilst leading, however he recovered strongly in round six to claim the team’s second top six finish of the year.

Zhuhai also saw a great turn of speed for D2 Mercedes AMG star Kuo Kuo Hsin, the Chinese driver joined for the July event by young Zhuhai-based Canadian Maxx Ebenal. Qualifying right in the midst of the strong GT3 field, the team recorded their best finish of the year in round five with a sixth placed finish, but sadly Kuo’s run of bad luck continued in round six whilst in a strong podium position, after being spun around by a rival in the closing stages.

Unfortunately for 2016 GT3 winners Spirit-Z Racing, they have also suffered a tough run of luck, team-boss Sun Zheng and Sunny Wong striking technical issues during the opening round in Goldenport, forcing them to sit out of the GT3 category from that point on (although expect them back in the mighty Nismo machine at Shanghai), whilst team-mates Andre Couto and Yuey Tan also endured a tough start to the season with Couto’s season-ending accident in round three.

GTC – Huang Hsi Chan stakes his claim

Like the GT3 category, the GTC battle too has seen some impressive racing, yet despite the unpredictable nature of the action on track, there has been no question about the driver that is most intent on stringing a championship together this year; D2 Racing’s Huang Hsi Chan.

The 2016 Pan Delta Super Racing Festival Hero One GT champion has been a sensation in season 2017, amassing three wins from six starts in his striking green and yellow Lamborghini Huracan Super Trofeo a result which may well have been four wins if not for a late race penalty in round six whilst leading in the closing stages.

His consistency has certainly been the key to opening up a commanding 23.5-point lead at the mid-point of the season, three wins and a second-placed finish laying the foundations from which the Chinese driver will be looking to launch his title assault across the closing rounds despite amassing a hefty success ballast with each victory.

Whilst the points suggest that he has had a pretty straight forward time of it so far, the absence from Zhuhai’s most recent round of his closest title rival, and the man who has led more laps than anyone except Huang – Kimi Qin – has made the Lamborghini pilot’s tilt at the title a lot simpler.

Qin had been a star in his all-purple Audi R8, running strongly in both races at Goldenport, one of which he won (round two), the other of which saw him pull out whilst leading with a technical failure. During rounds three and four he was again right in the mix, dominating round three before being caught out during a red flag incident – leading the field into parc ferme thinking it was the end of the race – before firing back to lead from rear of field after just five incredible laps in round four, but a final lap off under fire from New Zealander Will Bamber dropped him back to third at the flag.

Whilst Huang and Qin had been standouts, consistency also played a part in the championship results with the Radical RXC pairing of Xu Wei and Ling Kang claiming second twice so far from six rounds to be second overall, whilst Bian Hao and New Zealander Will Bamber are third in the JRM Lamborghini after starting the season in a Porsche GT3 Cup Car – Bamber’s drive through the field over the closing laps of round four one of the highlights of the season to date.

Andrew Tang and Pan Chao though are just ten points behind their JRM team-mates in their R+ Racing liveried Porsche, a result which could have been very different if not for a number of tough rounds, including being forced into retirement whilst in a battle for the podium last time out in Zhuhai.

After missing the opening round in Beijing, TSRT’s David Chen and Jiao Peng have tasted success with a victory at home in Zhuhai and they are locked in a tight battle for a position in the top six with Thailand’s Suttiluck ‘Bobby’ Buncharoen and Spirit-Z Racing stars Sun Zheng and Sunny Wong who came very close to victory after starting from pole position in round five.

GT4 – Mighty McLaren claims four round wins to start the season

Whilst the battle in GT3 has been a closely fought affair, and GTC has seen some great racing for a position on the podium, GT4 by contrast has been very much a one-horse race, with McLaren and lead driver Roelof Bruins so far dominating all but the most recent event of the championship.

Still in it’s infancy globally, GT4 is in a building phase and as such the depth of competition doesn’t exist as it does in GT3, but typically China GT is on the forefront of developing the new program and as such, there are a number of new teams who are building their experience in unison with the new cars.

Of those teams, the team that is arguably on the steepest learning curve is the new ZIA FEA Racing Team which is fielding a pair of stunning Aston Martin Vantage GT4s for relative newcomers Zhang Dongqi, Yin Jinge, Yang Zhiyi, Sheng Yanwen and Dong Liang, all of whom have improved in leaps and bounds as the season has progressed, aided in part by experienced Chinese touring car star Ma Qinghua who jumped behind the wheel for rounds three and four to help fast-track the project.

The big news though late in the season has been the emergence of the Team Lotus Evora operation who entered three cars for the most recent event in Zhuhai, the result of which saw victory for Ray Mak and Anthony Chan in round five at Zhuhai, before Sam Lok and Clement Li claimed the top step of the podium in round six, making them the first teams to take a win in the maiden season of GT4 outside of ‘The Winning Team’s’ McLaren 570S GT4 of Bruins and David McIntyre.

Despite the fact the McLaren arrived just days ahead of the opening round in Beijing, Bruins has been virtually unstoppable, only a technical issue in round six slowing their charge towards the championship. For team-mate David McIntyre, his involvement in the team has helped Bruins to three of those four wins, but external commitments kept him from competing in the opening round, with China’s Dong Liang subbing for the Englishman.

For the China GT teams, the focus next is China’s home of Formula One, Shanghai International Circuit, with the fourth event of the season on 9-10 September.