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SHAUN THONG BACK ON THE PODIUM IN JAPAN

22 August 2017

Text/Photos: Motorsport Media

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Rnd#7/8 2017 Blancpain GT Series Asia

Fuji International Speedway, Japan

21 August, 2017

Hong Kong’s Shaun Thong again proved his mettle against some of the best GT3 drivers in the world to claim another strong podium in Blancpain GT Series Asia to firm up second place in the championship alongside team-mate and Phoenix Racing Asia team-boss Marchy Lee at Fuji in Japan.

Coming into the second Japanese event of the season, Thong and Lee were classified second in points thanks to their round five victory in Suzuka, and with past experience at the iconic Fuji Speedway circuit, they were looking for a solid result to press home their advantage, and from opening practice, the two Hong Kong stars were right in the mix.

Against the strongest field of the year – an impressive 34 cars – both Thong and Lee were quick in the three 45-minute practice sessions, inside the top ten in all legs, before they improved to be amongst the fastest in qualifying, Lee second by just a tenth of a second, whilst Thong went four tenths faster in his session to claim a third row start immediately behind team-mate Alex Yoong who was just a tenth of a second quicker.

Sadly – despite being one of the favourites for the opening 60-minute race on Saturday – things were over almost as quickly as they had begun, with Lee forced off the circuit on the exit of turn one, in a four-wide battle for the lead.

On the outside of pole-sitter Nick Foster, Lee was swamped by the Rino Mastronardi Ferrari on the outside, whilst inside the trio, local star Kei Cozzolino in the Lamborghini took a big dive up the inside to make it four wide as they turned into the corner. Contact was inevitable as the four cars washed wide on the exit, contact which saw damage to the #5 Audi Hong Kong entry forcing Lee down pit lane at the end of the lap.

The experienced Phoenix Racing Asia team worked feverishly to limit Lee’s lost time, changing a damaged tyre and sending the experienced GT3 campaigner back out onto the circuit having remained on the lead lap.

Lee charged across his remaining laps, pitting at the mid-point of the session from 14th position, Thong rejoining towards the tail of the field before mounting a charge through the pack back to 17th having clawed back 20 seconds on the race leader as one of the fastest cars on the circuit across the closing 30-minutes of the race.

For Sunday’s second race, Thong would start from the third row of the grid, and very quickly he showed the kind of pace that has made the #5 Audi Hong Kong entry one of the most feared in the championship, moving forward to tuck under the rear wing of former F1 driver Alex Yoong in the #6 Phoenix Racing Asia entry in a battle for third.

Ultimately Thong would pit from P4, handing Lee the car in a position to challenge the leaders, and that’s what the team leader did across the closing laps, although his chance to go for the win was thwarted by an attack from Ferrari’s Rino Mastronardi in the closing stages.

Having held the Ferrari out for much of his stint, Lee was forced to focus on protecting his position, which ultimately stopped him moving forward on the race leader – who was also the team’s championship rival – in the end though, a deep braking duel allowed the Ferrari through for second on the penultimate lap, Lee securing third for more valuable championship points.

“It was great to be back on the podium again, but we should have been able to achieve a much better result here at Fuji,” a reflective Shaun Thong admitted post-event.

“The team had improved the car through practice and we knew we had the pace to battle the points leader and be in a position for the win in race one, but all that ended in the first corner. There was nothing Marchy could do, he was the meat in the sandwich and came off second-best. The fact that we were both amongst the top three fastest cars across the remainder of the race – even against the likes of Max Buhk who is one of the stars in Europe – shows that we had the pace to win.

“Sadly the points leader achieved two podium finishes to our own podium in race two, but just as we did in 2016, we’ve shown we are capable of being the best all-Asian team again, and we go into the final two races of the season with a chance to win the championship.”

The penultimate event of the 2017 Blancpain GT Series Asia will see Thong and Lee at Shanghai International Circuit on 23-24 September, a venue where two weeks before, Thong will compete against his team-mate in the fourth event of the Audi R8 LMS Cup in which the 21-year old is sitting fifth in points and looking for his first win of the season.