Sunday, May 07, 2017

Motorsport: At the Audi R8 LMS Cup Rounds 1 & 2 at Sepang International Circuit - Photographs and Race Reports

The Audi R8 LMS Cup 2017 has started. The sixth season of the prestigious one-make championship happened this weekend with Rounds 1 and 2 at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit. This year, the 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup season sees a number of exciting developments like new drivers, the entry of new Audi factory team WRT and two new race tracks on the race calendar. In addition to that, the push-to-pass button – whereby drivers receive a limited number of temporary boosts of 50 horsepower – returns, bringing an additional layer of strategy to each race. 

It was a great opportunity for Yours Truly to attend this weekend’s races. There were other race series going on, but since I was invited by Audi Malaysia this weekend, I basically spent my time with some people from Audi Malaysia and other automotive journalists who also attended. It was fun. There is a whole lot of energy going on at Sepang on any race day. It may not be Formula 1 or the Moto GP, but down in the pits and the grid, especially just before a race is electrifying. There are so much emotion and energy. It depends on the situation actually. If the team is prepared, then the mood is less serious. More jovial. 

Up above in the Paddock where we were seated most of the time is a different thing from down below of course. This is where we can just sit and view the drivers battling it out in the comfort of air-conditioning. And then there's the food and drinks of course. 

The thing about the Sepang Circuit is that if you’re not the driver, team personnel or some circuit official, time just passes by so slowly over there. It’s like you are caught in a time warp. So the paddock is a nice place to be. The pits, pre-race and post race are also nice to capture the emotions of the drivers and the crew. It is just marvelous to be at such an event every once in a while.

Let’s now talk about the Championship. For the first time in Cup history, the number of remaining push-to-passes that each driver has will be visible to all on an LED display on each car. Amateur competitors will receive double the engine boosts than their professional counterparts. Leveling the playing field even further, the weight success ballast system continues in 2017 for the overall podium finishers. The race winner will have to drive with an extra 50 kilogrammes in their car in the following race with the second place driver carrying 35 kilogrammes and the third place driver 20 kilogrammes. The qualifying format has also been overhauled, now with two sessions, each setting the respective grid of the two races. 

Another interesting thing is the fact that Pirelli joins the Audi R8 LMS Cup for the first time as official tyre partner. The partnership sees the launch of the Pirelli Best Lap trophy, which is awarded to the driver who records the fastest lap of each race. The total number of wins over the season will be tallied creating a mini-championship within the Cup over the season. With new tyres, those that are already familiar with the performance of last year’s R8 and tyres would have to start their learning curve again. All drivers would have to learn how the tyre works, the level of grip and how much tyre degradation throughout the race.

To underline the Cup’s commitment to its gentlemen drivers, Am Cup competitors will not only receive double the number of push-to-passes than their professional counterparts, the classification winner will also receive free tyres for the season. In a further incentive, the Am Cup champion will win his team free entry into the prestigious Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2018. That incentive is part of an agreement between the endurance event’s organiser, SRO, and the Audi R8 LMS Cup. At the base of that agreement is a strategic partnership between SRO’s Blancpain GT Series Asia and the Cup. The calendars follow a similar route around Asia, with logistics support offered to teams taking part in both series. This resulted in six Audi R8 LMS Cup team entries at the Blancpain launch weekend in April in Sepang.

All of these make exciting racing. Like last year, it was down to the wire where the championship was won by one point. So, leading the field of identical second-generation Audi R8 LMS cars is triple-champion Alex Yoong of Malaysia, who won his impressive third-consecutive title last year. Speaking of which, there are a total of three Malaysian drivers this year, including Alex Yoong. 

Race 1 Report 
(more photos are right at the end)

Alessio Picariello took a dominant pole-to-flag victory in Round 1 of the 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit. His win capped off a great day for the youngster in which he also took pole position for both of this weekend’s races and set the fastest lap during the 13-lap sprint, securing him the Pirelli Best Lap trophy.

The 23-year-old Belgian, racing with MGT by Absolute, crossed the line more than four seconds ahead of his closest challenger, 21-year-old Estonian Martin Rump of Champion Racing Team. Audi TEDA Racing Team driver Shaun Thong of Hong Kong was third and, at 21-years-of-age, completed a podium full of exciting young talent. KCMG driver Rick Yoon, meanwhile, took his first Am Cup win after a dramatic showing on the challenging 5.543km circuit.

With separate qualifying sessions for each round this season, Malaysian-born Mitchell Gilbert of OD Racing Team started alongside Picariello at the rolling start. Defending champion Alex Yoong, this year in the Team Audi R8 LMS Cup car, was third with Rump making up the second row. 

Picariello, second in the championship last year, made a superb getaway as Round 1 of the 2017 season got underway, maximising his pole position advantage. Gilbert held on to second, but after a tense two-abreast test of nerve, it was Rump who emerged ahead of Yoong as the field thundered into the opening lap. While Picariello set about pulling out a gap at the front - more than two seconds by the end of lap 1 - Rump was on the chase to Gilbert but Yoong was desperate to reclaim his position. Behind the leaders, Audi Hong Kong’s Marchy Lee, who had been looking for a way past FAW-VW Audi Racing Team’s Cheng Congfu of China, made his move on lap 4, only for Cheng to immediately reclaim the position.

Lap 5 saw Am driver Yoon, and Am+ racer and reigning Amateur Cup champion Jeffrey Lee come together, the pair spinning and Lee ending his race in the gravel. Yoon was able to continue to the flag, however he was subsequently handed a drive-through penalty after the race, which translated to a 30-second time penalty. Following a double yellow flag period, the incident eventually brought out the safety car, eliminating the lead of more than five seconds Picariello had worked so hard to create. (12 cars racing each other on a large track and they still can come together. Now that’s racing for you.)

When the safety car came into the pits on lap 8, a confident Picariello was right on the throttle, perfectly controlling the restart to maximum advantage and heading off to once again pull out a gap from the chasing pack. While Gilbert and Rump did their best to give chase, behind them young pretender Thong was piling on the pressure to three-time champion Yoong, audaciously flashing his headlights at the hometown star. Yoong, in turn, remained determined to catch Rump. Yoong fought hard, pushing right on the limit but got on the grass and was unable to control the spin, dashing the hopes of his legion of home fans. He eventually crossed the line in eighth behind fellow countryman Akash Nandy of KCMG, and Team Audi Korea’s Kyong-Ouk You.

Just as Gilbert seemed assured of a podium finish on what was an impressive Cup debut, he was dramatically forced to retire just two laps from the flag. It was a cruel blow to the talented 26-year-old, born and raised in Malaysia.

Gilbert’s retirement promoted Rump to second, with Thong taking the final podium place ahead of Cheng, Lee and guest driver this weekend, St├ęphane Richelmi who is standing in at Castrol Racing Team for former Formula One driver Will Stevens, who will make his Cup debut with the Cup in Japan next month. The Castrol car is serviced by new Cup service provider, WRT.

Picariello tops the championship leaderboard going into Round 2, his duo of pole positions earning him an additional two points. Yoong will be alongside the wunderkind for tomorrow’s standing start in a straight battle between experience and youth when the lights go.

Race 2 Report

Local hero, Alex Yoong of Team Audi R8 LMS Cup found redemption in Round 2 of the Audi R8 LMS Cup. The Malaysian star passed yesterday’s winner, Alessio Picariello of MGT by Absolute, before the first corner to lead until the end. In spite of carrying a burdensome 50kg of success ballast following victory in race 1, the blistering Belgian, Alessio, clocked the fastest lap of the day as he finished second to extend his championship lead. OD Racing Team's Mitch Gilbert came home in 3rd on home turf for his first podium in his second ever Cup race. Further down the field, Jeffrey Lee of Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan won in the Am+ category. 

Martin Rump of Champion Racing Team leaves the weekend in a strong third place overall after finishing fifth in Round 2, with FAW-VW Audi Racing Team driver Cheng Congfu’s set of fourth places at the opening double-header of the Cup sees him in fourth overall. Intense competition, hard fought battles, emo-tional highs and lows… just another weekend with the Cup.

Following the Cup’s two races in Malaysia, the championship travels to Japan where it makes its debut at the famed Suzuka Circuit for two races from June 10-11. The series travels next to the Korea International Circuit for two races in July. The 2017 season continues with a double-header at the Shanghai Audi International Circuit in September before rounding out the season at the new Zhejiang International Circuit in October.

2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup
Provisional entry list –Sepang International Circuit, Malaysia
1/Alex YOONG/Malaysia/Audi R8 LMS Cup
7/Jeffrey LEE/Chinese Taipei/Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan/Am
8/THONG Wei Fung/Hong Kong/Audi TEDA Racing Team
11/St├ęphane RICHELMI/ Monaco/Castrol Racing Team/G
13/Kyong-Ouk YOU/South Korea/Team Audi Korea
15/Alessio PICARIELLO/Belgium/MGT by Absolute
18/Martin RUMP/Estonia/Champion Racing Team
29/Akash NANDY/Malaysia/KCMG
31/CHENG Congfu (Franky)/China/FAW-VW Audi Racing Team
77/Rick YOON/Hong Kong/KCMG/AM
86/Mitch GILBERT/Australia/OD Racing Team
88/Marchy LEE/Hong Kong/Audi Hong Kong

Am = Amateur Cup Competitor
G = Guest Driver

 Pre-Press Conference candid shot

 Customer race car

 Alex Yoong walking past Alessio Picariello's car

 Stock Audi R8 V10 with the light bar is the Safety Car

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