SHAUN THONG RETURNS TO AUDI R8 LMS CUP PODIUM IN KOREA
20 July 2017
Text/Photos: Motorsport Media
Rnd#5/6 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup
Korea International Circuit, South Korea
15-16 July, 2017
Audi Hong Kong’s Shaun Thong claimed back-to-back podium finishes in South Korea during the third stop of the Audi R8 LMS Cup season, closing the gap to his rivals in the battle for a championship podium, the 21-year old again one of the most prolific over-takers on a weekend where weather played an integral part.
For the Phoenix Racing Asia run team, the big focus was on improving the team’s performance on the new for 2017 Pirelli control tyre, something Thong and team-mates Alex Yoong and Marchy Lee had admitted was an Achilles’ heel for the three drivers across the early rounds of the season, but all that seemed to be resolved in South Korea with Yoong and Thong amongst the fastest in official practice.
They looked set to convert that strong practice pace in qualifying to start towards the front of the field, but drizzling rain ahead of the session caused havoc in pit lane. All teams started the 15-minute session on slick tyres, and some made a vital call just minutes in to come into pit lane and change to wet weather tyres as the clock ticked down to zero.
Any team that hesitated ultimately struggled to put a lap time together, whilst those who stopped were able to clock one or two vital laps before the end of the session, and it was those teams that would start at the front of the field. Sadly for Thong, he didn’t make pit lane quickly enough, the team taking a bet each way with Yoong in to make a change whilst Thong’s team felt the track may dry and that he’d be in the box seat for a front row start.
Off the sixth row of the grid, Thong had a mountain of work ahead of him for the opening race, whilst team-mate Yoong would start the fifth round from third, a position which very quickly became first in the early laps.
Conditions were challenging for all the drivers across the damp opening laps, with all cars starting on slick tyres, Thong amongst the most impressive, charging to fourth on the opening lap, then third very soon after, overtaking championship points leader Alessio Picariello in the process.
Reigning champion Alex Yoong in the end completed the round with his second win of the year, whilst Thong impressively held out Picariello over the closing laps to take his second podium finish of the year.
“Qualifying was a bit dramatic,” Thong admitted afterwards. “The rain hit and it was really frustrating. At the start of the race, I had nothing to lose so I decided to make it a really good one but stay out of trouble. I worked really hard before the start to warm the tyres up and it paid off. I was reeling in Mitch [Gilbert] in the last three or four laps. It was one of my toughest but best races – I can’t ask for more than a podium after starting almost last on the grid.”
In a new development for the Cup, teams were able to complete a second full qualifying session on Sunday morning to set the grid for the standing start second race of the weekend.
Again Thong was amongst the fastest drivers on track, at one stage sitting on the front row, but in the dying seconds of the 15-minute session, Mitch Gilbert and Franky Cheng were able to leap-frog the #8 Audi TEDA Racing Team entry, forcing Thong back down to fourth.
Off the standing start Thong attacked strongly to be in the mix going into the first two left handers, quickly working his way past pole-sitter Gilbert to be third, a position he would hold to the flag despite carrying the extra 20-kilograms of success ballast he received as a result of his round five podium.
Ultimately the round would be won by points leader Alessio Picariello – who extended his advantage over the field – but for Thong, the result moved the Hong Kong-based driver right into contention for second in points and he now sits just eight points behind Gilbert who is second, and just a single point behind two-time 2017 winner, Alex Yoong in fourth.
“I’m really pleased. I haven’t had such a smooth weekend before in the Cup,” Thong reflected. “My start was great. It was only my second time with success ballast. I was surprised how well the car handled, even with the extra weight. It was a good weekend, but it’s a bit frustrating still to be fifth in the points.
“I think the championship is down to Alessio to lose now, for the rest of us the fight is very much over second, and there are just 18 points between second and sixth, but for me, I’d like to end the season with a win. I think this weekend in South Korea we learnt a lot as a team, and I’m really looking forward to being a lot stronger in China to close out the year.”
For Thong, his next commitment will be back alongside team-mate Marchy Lee in the Blancpain GT Series Asia as that championship begins the second half of the season at Fuji in Japan on 19-20 August, whilst the penultimate round of the Audi R8 LMS Cup will come at Shanghai just three weeks later.