03 July 2017

Text/Photos: Motorsport Media

Bangsaen Grand Prix, Chonburi, Thailand

Rnd#7/8, 2017 TCR Asia Series

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Coming into Thailand for the fourth stop of the 2017 TCR Asia Series calendar, the anticipation for what the iconic Bangsaen Grand Prix circuit would deliver was high. As expected the local stars with their valuable track knowledge were fast, and ultimately, the drivers to dominate practice and qualifying, but whilst everyone knew they would figure strongly in the outcome of the weekend, no-one could have quite anticipated just how much, nor what would unfold during the opening race..

Sadly the first standing start lasted just 100-metres before two of Thailand’s most successful motorsport exports made contact, spinning pole-sitter – and favourite –  Kantadhee Kusiri across the circuit in front of the closely following pack. Chaos ensued before the circuit was blocked by a wall of twisted metal and carbon-fibre. When the dust cleared, five cars had been eliminated from the race, with a lengthy red flag period to remove the damaged cars from the circuit.

The race was ultimately given a full restart 20-minutes later, with points leader WS Lai getting the jump on pole-sitter Tin Sritrai, before the local hero eventually forced his way back to the front to the cheers of the big Bangsaen crowd, to win comfortably over Lai and TCR Thailand points leader Pasarit Promsombat.

Qualifying (Friday, 30 June)

After dominating the TCR Thailand round held at Bangsaen in February, Liqui Moly Team Engstler’s Kantadhee Kusiri was the undeniable favourite for a return to the top step of the podium for the Bangsaen weekend, with local hero Tin Sritrai considered the only driver likely to prevent a Kusiri whitewash.

That prediction only firmed after practice, with Kusiri matching his lap record pace from earlier in the year in both free practice sessions, although by P2, Sritrai had closed significantly to be right on the tail of his long-time rival, his 1:44.429 just under half a second slower than Kusiri.

Third fastest was the returning Shaun Thong, the Audi Hong Kong driver impressive on his Bangsaen debut, putting past experiences of street circuits to good use to be less than a second off Sritrai’s pace ahead of qualifying, with TCR Thailand points leader Pasarit Promsombat fourth almost two seconds back from Thong.

Not surprisingly, qualifying saw additional red flag incursions but a stunning pace from Kusiri and Sritrai, the two rivals pushing themselves to almost two seconds under Kusiri’s February record, the Liqui Moly Team Engstler driver dropping to a 1:42.386 in the closing stages after Sritrai also pushed into the 42s, the margin in the end seven tenths of a second..

Shaun Thong continued to improve on his Bangsaen debut, the 21-year old Audi Hong Kong star dropping to a 1:44.477 although his pace was hampered by a tyre failure towards the end of the first leg of qualifying, damaging the left front guard and forcing an early return to the pits.

The TCR Thailand teams too were putting their track knowledge to good use, and were right in the mix at the front of the field, but ultimately it was TCR Asia Series points leader WS Lai who rose to the occasion, the Malaysian in the end just six tenths slower than Thong, with title rival Diego Moran a similar distance further back in fifth.

In the end, the best of the Thai drivers was TCR Thailand co-Pro Am points leader Kittipol Pramoj Na Ayudhya who qualified sixth ahead of Elegant Racing’s Alex Liu and TCR Cup points leader Abdul Kaathir. AK’s Cup points rival Jasper Thong was just two tenths slower than the Malaysian before bringing out a late red flag for light contact with the barriers after getting caught on a bump under braking, whilst young Thai female driver Nattanid Leewattanavaragul – currently third in the TCR Thailand Am standings – rounded out the top ten.

Round#7 (7-laps)

The excitement ahead of the first ever round of the TCR Asia Series on the Bangsaen circuit was almost at fever pitch. The building crowd was aware of the importance of the high profile regional series racing for the first time on the famous street circuit, whilst the 16 drivers were nervously awaiting what would transpire across the 3.700-kilometre street circuit over the coming 30-minutes.

That answer sadly came within 100-metres of the start after pole-sitter Kantadhee Kusiri was jumped off the start by Sritrai, the Liqui Moly Team Engstler Volkswagen driver moving immediately to his left to counter Sritrai with the two Thais making contact. Ultimately that spun Kusiri around and into the path of the closely following pack.

By the time the dust settled, more than half the field was brought to a stop just ahead of the start line, with five of those cars terminal. The field was immediately shown the red flag, and ultimately escorted back to the pit lane by the safety car as the impressive Thailand Super Series recovery and safety crews worked feverishly to clear the circuit.

In the end TCR Asia regulars Kusiri, Kaathir, Douglas Khoo and TCR Thailand drivers Rattanin Leenutaphong and Kittipol Pramoj Na Ayudhya were forced to sit out the restart, whilst for drivers like Sritrai, Shaun Thong, Jasper Thong and Eric K. they were able to return to the pits for repairs and take their places for the restart.

Afterwards the stewards would talk to all the drivers concerned in the incident, with Kusiri handed a pit-lane drive through penalty during Sunday’s second race, and a written warning as a result. To the Thai driver’s credit he did admit that he moved across to counter Sritrai’s better start, but couldn’t actually see where the Honda driver was, then couldn’t pull out of the contact after he’d realized his mistake.

For Sritrai, he was surprised by Kusiri’s move, which ultimately damaged a wheel on the #79 Team Thailand car, but he was able to return to the pits ahead of the full restart.

With Kusiri missing from pole position, an ideal window opened for WS Lai to attack once more off the start, the experienced Malaysian making a flawless start to work his way past both Shaun Thong and Sritrai to lead into turn one, the field fortunately able to make their way through – this time – unscathed.

Sritrai and Shaun Thong pushed Lai hard, and just two laps in Sritrai made his way past at turn 16, although not without some contact. Not long after Alex Liu was in the barriers at turn 18, likely as a result of damage incurred during the first stanza of the race, the Elegant Racing Seat driver forced to retire shortly after although with mostly superficial damage.

Up front Sritrai started to eke out a small advantage as Lai came under fire from Shaun Thong who likewise was under pressure from Diego Moran. Behind them Jasper Thong was battling hard with TCR Thailand points leader Pasarit Promsombat, the Thai driver ultimately pulling away to set the fastest lap of the race and close in on the battle for third.

With advice that the race would be shortened to just over ten minutes, the clock was ticking for the leaders and down at turn 16 Shaun Thong was right under the rear wing of Lai, but he locked a brake on the bumpy entry to the corner and was forced to run deeper into the turn as Lai turned in on the apex. Thong quickly regrouped just as Moran looked to make a move stick up the inside. Sadly a combination of Thong’s location on the exit, and a touch of understeer for Moran saw them both into the barriers on the outside of the corner with the old ‘two into one won’t fit’ rule applying. That dropped them both down the order as Promsombat took advantage to move into third place with Jasper Thong hot on his tail.

Shaun Thong managed to rejoin, to cross the line in sixth place, whilst Moran was sadly forced out with damage to the front of the car, stewards deeming post-race that it was a racing incident with no penalties applied.

Up front though it was all Tin Sritrai who went on to his second win of the season, more than seven seconds clear of Lai with the hard-charging Promsombat third.

The second of the RMI Racing Team Seat’s of Nattanid Leewattanavaragul was an impressive fourth after Jasper Thong was excluded from the results post-race for a technical infringement (ride height). Chariya Nuya claimed fifth in the BBR Honda Civic that took Kusiri to back-to-back wins in February, with Shaun Thong credited with sixth place.

Nattachak Hanjitkasen was seventh with Eric Kwong bringing up the rear of the field as the only other classified finisher, taking maximum TCR Cup points in the process.