Like many of his rivals, Audi Hong Kong’s Shaun Thong came into the second event of the 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup season at Suzuka International Circuit - the home of the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix - with an appreciation for the history that surrounds the iconic venue, and just like his rivals, he too was faced to contend with what became a very challenging weekend.
Considered to be one of the few surviving ‘old school’ Formula One venues, Suzuka - which first opened in 1962 - provides a challenging mix of corners, with a narrow twisting figure-eight layout that offers little rest for the drivers, but despite the nature of the circuit, Shaun Thong left the event with a race lap record to his name, and two top six finishes to keep him well in the title hunt after four of ten rounds.
Things started strongly for the 21-year old from Hong Kong, Thong second fastest in the two official 60-minute practice sessions, even topping Phoenix Racing Asia team-mate Alex Yoong - a veteran of two Formula One starts at Suzuka - and points leader Alessio Picariello to be considered one of the favourites ahead of qualifying.
“It’s funny, but the nature of these older circuits which are so narrow and unforgiving, is something I love, and I’m always comfortable pushing to the limit - it was the same at the Nurburgring,” Thong explained.
“We’re still not 100% comfortable with our Pirelli tyre setup, so we have some work to do, but I’m really loving being here at Suzuka, a circuit I’ve spent so much of my life following on TV.”
Sadly both Thong and Phoenix Racing Asia team-mate Marchy Lee were unable to extract the maximum from their tyres in the qualifying sessions, pushing them both back towards the tail of the top ten, but mere tenths off a front row start - it was that close.
“Our rivals have been able to find the sweet spot with the tyres in qualifying quicker than we have, we’ll find it, but it cost us a few positions on the grid,” Thong explained. “As a team, we’re better racers than qualifiers, so we’ll do what we can across the two races to move ourselves forwards.”
Just a few hours after qualifying, Thong lined up for the first race at Suzuka, absorbing some of the atmosphere as he prepared for the coming 12-lap race.
A strong start saw the 21-year old battling behind international guest driver Stephane Richelmi and alongside China’s Franky Cheng and team-mate Alex Yoong into turn one. He held his ground and ultimately worked his way past Cheng and Yoong to be fourth at the flag in a race where very few overtaking moves were made, the bulk of the position changes as a result of retirements during the race.
“It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but I could do nothing more than push, there just wasn’t a way past Richelimi that would have been a safe move - as it was, he couldn’t get past Mitch Gilbert so we pretty much had to just hold station until the chequered flag,” Thong explained.
Starting from the fourth row for the standing start in race two, Thong made a great getaway, holding position into turn one, but by turn three, he - like those around him - were faced with a rapidly slowing Alex Yoong in the middle of the esses, the reigning champion suffering a broken right rear wheel as the result of contact on the race into turn one. The melee that ensued saw cars off in different directions, and drama for Richelmi soon after as he suffered his own failure, forcing Thong to take avoiding action which dropped him to the tail of the top ten.
The Audi TEDA Racing driver though calmly refocused and set about regaining his lost positions, locking in on the tail of Phoenix Racing Asia team-boss Marchy Lee who was amongst the fastest drivers in the field, the two breaching an almost five second gap to the battle for the lead across the final laps, to finish right on the tail of fourth-placed Martin Rump, Thong in the process setting a new Audi R8 LMS Cup lap record for Suzuka.
“After the drama early in the race, I was well down on the leaders, they were gone, but once through to be sixth behind Marchy, we could just focus on catching the leaders. If we’d had another lap or two, who knows what might have happened, but still I can be happy to come away from a circuit with such great history as Suzuka, and be the race lap record holder for the Cup, that will be a nice addition to the resume.”
For Thong, his next commitment will be back at Suzuka where he will join forces once more with Marchy Lee for the third event of Blancpain GT Series Asia on 24-25 June, where they will be looking to continue the form that has them sitting second in the overall standings after four of 12 races.
“This weekend has been incredibly valuable for our Blancpain GT Series program, it will put us ahead of many of our rivals as we get to the mid-point of the season. Importantly for us, the Pirelli tyre we use in Blancpain is different and we have been very successful tuning the car around it, so I’m really looking forward to coming back here, it should be a fantastic weekend!”
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Suzuka International Circuit, Japan (10 June, 2017)
Qualifying #1 (15-minutes)
1. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:02.712
2. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:02.738
3. 11. Stephane Richelmi (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:03.060
4. 1. Alex Yoong (Team Audi R8 LMS Cup Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:03.133
5. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:03.321
Qualifying #2 (15-minutes)
1. 31. Franky Cheng (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:02.679
2. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:02.694
3. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:02.806
4. 18. Martin Rump (Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:02.918
5. 1. Alex Yoong (Team Audi R8 LMS Cup Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:03.009
8. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) - 2:03.343
Suzuka International Circuit, Japan (10 June, 2017)
Rnd#3 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup (12-laps)
1. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3)
2. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +7.050
3. 11. Stephane Richelmi (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +7.555
4. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) +8.291
5. 88. Marchy Lee (Audi Hong Kong Audi R8 LMS GT3) +11.746
Suzuka International Circuit, Japan (11 June, 2017)
Rnd#4 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup (12-laps)
1. 31. Franky Cheng (Audi R8 LMS GT3)
2. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +1.762
3. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +5.257
4. 18. Martin Rump (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +5.582
5. 88. Marchy Lee (Audi Hong Kong Audi R8 LMS GT3) +7.487
6. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) +8.955
Championship Points (after four rounds of 10)
1. Alessio Picariello (89), 2. Franky Cheng (58), 3. Mitch Gilbert (48), 4. Martin Rump (42), 5. Shaun Thong (41), 6. Marchy Lee (38)