23 April 2017

Text/Photos: Motorsport Media

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Rnd#3/4 – 2017 TCR Asia Series, Zhuhai International Circuit, China

22 April, 2017

Phoenix Racing Asia’s Jasper Thong stopped the clocks in the closing stages of the second leg of TCR Asia Series qualifying in Zhuhai with an impressive best of 1:44.920 to claim Audi’s first ever worldwide pole position for the new Audi RS3 LMS TCR.

Thong had been on top right throughout dry practice at Zhuhai, buoyed by support from the Hong Kong-based operation who have been incredibly successful with the Audi product since the team’s inception in 2016, and despite being just fifth in the opening leg of qualifying, he put in a mature and measured drive to claim an historic moment for the German marque with their maiden pole.

Throughout almost every session in the leadup to qualifying across three days, the weather in Zhuhai had been wildly unpredictable, with very little dry running taking place. When it had been dry, it was Thong and Audi on top, but in the wet, things proved very different, with the 17-year old struggling to find the right balance in the car, his times well off the experienced touring car campaigners.

The big surprise to many though has been the relative lack of pace of points leaders and reigning champions Liqui Moly Team Engstler with both Diego Moran and Kantadhee Kusiri unable to match the dominance they showed during the opening event in Malaysia.

Kusiri performed the best of the two, and whilst inside the top five for most sessions – and on top in the wet first official session – he didn’t have the outright pace of the leading Audis and Hondas in the dry despite running at times on the ragged edge.

Unfortunately for Moran – who had shown great pace during the first leg of qualifying, he had a big spin on the exit of the final turn halfway through the session, beaching the #32 car which could not be recovered until the clock had wound down to zero. At the time he had been fourth fastest and was on his quickest lap before putting a wheel over the kerb on the exit of turn 14. That one slight error will see him start tenth for both races, however the Ecuadorian was typically upbeat and looking forward to the opportunity to work his way forward in the races and maintain his championship points lead.

One of the big surprises at Zhuhai though had been the pace of Malaysian WS Lai, the R Engineering Honda Civic driver quick from the outset despite having never competed at the circuit previously. Fast throughout both wet and dry sessions, Lai very nearly took Thong’s much lauded pole away in the dying stages, falling an agonising six one hundredths of a second shy of the top spot, but promising the young Hong Kong driver that he will need to be on his ‘A-game’ off the start of the first 14-lap race.

Track knowledge was clearly an advantage at Zhuhai, more particularly in the constantly changing conditions, and whilst Lai was an exception to that rule, much of qualifying was dominated by drivers with good experience on the 14-turn, 4.319-kilometre layout. Thong was a clear indication of that, the former Asian Formula Renault open-wheel star battling hard with new Audi rivals – Tianshi Racing Team drivers David Chen and Terry Huang – two drivers with relatively limited racing experience – almost all of which comes from their home circuit – Zhuhai!

With their new RS3 LMS TCRs arriving just days before the event, the two Chinese drivers had little time to settle in, but as every session passed, the two green and gold Audis crept further up the timesheets, and by the close of the opening qualifying session they were classified 1-2 with Huang two tenths clear of Chen.

Chen went one better in Q2 to take the top spot with a best of 1:44.678 but immediately the stewards began an investigation into track limits and disallowed his best lap after it was discovered he’d used too much of the kerb at turn four, his second best lap though still good enough for third, but ultimately, it was Audi on top and Jasper Thong who claimed their maiden pole position.

Across the two legs of qualifying the experienced Liqui Moly Team Engstler team continued to search for pace for Kantadhee Kusiri, the Thai driver inching ever closer to the top spot, but he too fell short of a front row start, classified fourth just three tenths off pole. Terry Huang at one point had been the pace-setter but he fell back to fifth just eight one thousandths slower than Kusiri and just four one thousandths faster than Tin Sritrai – the top six covered by less than four tenths of a second!

Sritrai surprisingly was back in the Honda Civic TCR he’d campaigned in 2016 after starting the season in the ex-Filipe de Souza Volkswagen, the Thai driver admitting he was more comfortable in the Japanese machine, although like his compatriot and fellow title favourite, he was battling to find a good balance with the car and was unable to stick with the pace-setters through practice.

After finishing fourth in the 2016 championship, former Liqui Moly Team Engstler driver Filipe de Souza was back in a one-off cameo appearance for the Macau David Racing Team in the Volkswagen campaigned last season in a limited program by Neric Wei, the Macanese driver enjoying the opportunity to be back in TCR Asia.

Eighth was TCR Cup front-runner and Sepang podium finisher Abdul Kaathir, the Malaysian not quite as comfortable as team-mate Lai on the Chinese venue, but still pushing hard to improve and he will be hoping to learn a lot from the opening race because the inverted top eight field will see him start race two from pole position!

Alex Liu was ninth and lead Seat for the Elegant Sports Team, with Moran tenth. Viper Niza Racing’s Douglas Khoo too was frustrated, admitting that constantly changing conditions from wet to dry and back again during the sessions was doing little to help him get a good understanding of the circuit, the team too battling to gain any useful data to apply ahead of qualifying.

Making his TCR debut for Audi Hong Kong, popular entertainer and former Olympic swimmer Alex Fong was improving too with every session, although the weather too was affecting his ability to get a good understanding of the car, although he was impressing team boss Marchy Lee with his ability to learn and process what the team were telling him.

The second of the Elegant Racing Team Seats brought up the rear of the field, with Eric K. still coming to terms with the new car, something which has surprised a number of people in the paddock after his podium run on his TCR Asia Series debut at Sepang in 2015.