2016 TCR Asia Series champions Liqui Moly Team Engstler sometimes have started the latest season with two rookie recruits, but via the close with the opening event of the season, they looked a lot the well-oiled machine that dominated the 2nd season within the popular regional championship.
From pre-season testing to official practice after which it qualifying, it was clear that Thailand’s Kantadhee Kusiri – who had taken the reigns of outgoing champion Andy Yan’s Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR – would be the pace-setter at Sepang. He’d experienced the surface of the timesheets for four days, and started race one from pole position.
Despite the roll-out of an earlier Safety Car, Kusiri was untroubled, setting the swiftest lap within the race on his strategy to a cozy victory over new team-mate Diego Moran, with Moran coming under increasing pressure from Andy Yan’s 2016 nemesis Tin Sritrai, the Ecuadorian though holding station towards the flag.
In race two the identical trio were quickly with the field journey reverse grid start, but contact between Sritrai and Kusiri which ultimately saw these lose two laps within the pits afterwards, allowed Moran to leave the feuding Thai’s to get an additional win for your team, as well as championship points lead.
Sritrai seemed to be credited with second, before a 30-second post-race penalty dropped the Thailand driver to fifth, elevating new TCR Asia team R Engineering to second and third on the podium for WS Lai and Abdul Kaathir, a first-rate recovery for any Malaysia Honda operation who have been pushed to start both races through the rear in the field following a post-qualifying infringement.
The experience started quickly, with new Elegant Sports Team Seat driver Eric K. in the inside wall busy over the line following faintest of touches from Phoenix Racing Asia’s SK Tong from the jostle for position.
That brought the field underneath the control over the Safety Car, with pole-sitter Kusiri leading team-mate Diego Moran and WS Lai who had made a blistering begin from a final row on the grid to be third into turn one because yellow flags occured. Tin Sritrai was fourth, well before SK Tong and his awesome Audi team-mate Jasper Thong.
On the restart Moran had been able keep with Kusiri early, until the Thai driver assembled a sequence of low 2:17 laps to snap away to a lead which he ultimately extended to 10-seconds prior to when the flag.
Behind the class leading Volkswagens the most important battle had been waged between Sritrai and R Engineering’s WS Lai, the area driver holding third and under increasing pressure on the Thai driver through the early laps. Ultimately it took Sritrai until lap nine to make his way past the #39 Honda Civic using a late braking inside move at turn nine, but at the same time Kusiri was gone, Sritrai closing along the gap to Moran over the final laps, but is not enough to have within striking distance of second.
Lai crossed the cloths line fourth, with Audi Hong Kong’s Jasper Thong available five prior to the charging Kaathir, the pair classified second and third while in the new TCR Asia Cup classification.
Alex Liu made up to the disappointment of team-mate Eric K’s early demise with seventh because the top finishing Seat, in front of SK Tong during the second Audi and Viper Niza Racing’s Douglas Khoo who suffered a mid race spin, dropping the Seat driver here we are at ninth in the line.
For Kusiri, his original victory in TCR Asia extended his winning streak in TCR in Asian events for an Asian driver, to seven wins from seven starts, a record that included two international Series events in Thailand, and four races within the TCR Thailand Series.
While using top six qualifiers inverted for any start of the second race (the two main R Engineering Honda Civics pushed to start driving the inverted grid as a consequence of their post-qualifying exclusion) both gorgeous new Audis would start at the front end in the grid, in front of Tin Sritrai and Diego Moran, with Kantadhee Kusiri off position # 5.
With their relative not enough TCR experience, the two main Audi drivers were swamped journey start, Jasper Thong off P2 stalling the #5 RS3 LMS threatened dropping to rear-of-field by turn one, whilst his pole-sitting team-mate stalled allowing Diego Moran to fireside from the second row and on the race lead.
Sritrai were able to stop the interior of Tong while on the road to turn one, each drivers banging doors in order to establish enough room to help make the ideal apex, whilst to their rear Kusiri moved into fourth. That soon became second after the cross-over into turn two dropped Tong here we are at fourth, the Audi soon fifth from big move by way of the experienced Lai through turn six.
It was getting hectic further back into the pack, with Alex Liu, Kaathir, Jasper Thong and the Audi team-mate battling for position, Kaathir the massive mover nearly fifth with the close in the lap.
By lap two that it was clear that Sritrai remained being affected by his gearbox downchange issue throughout the mid-sectors of the lap, allowing Kusiri to lock in on his rival’s tail, the 2 main Thai drivers separated by mere inches. Turn 14 looked to get Kusiri’s best chance, but Sritrai surely could cover on lap two when the pair closed in a very little on Moran’s lead.
By turn nine this particular lap Sritrai had closed to within the car entire lead, but Kusiri continued to push him onto a protective line, the two getting in touch during the very fast right-hander at turn 13, slowing the progress of both, allowing Moran to acquire some breathing space as the two Thai drivers stuck in line-astern all over again.
The following lap both the rivals were advertising online again, Kusiri getting a late inside dive into turn 14, Sritrai moving over the counter, each Volkswagens making heavy contact which actually threw the #2 Golf of Kusiri in the air and journey circuit into the gravel trap on the exterior of the next corner. He kept the energy on and drove down pit lane to own Liqui Moly team Engstler operation look at the car, the seasoned touring car crew sending him out two laps later to accomplish the race, but at that point his perfect run of TCR victories was over.
Whilst disappointment for Kusiri, for Moran the incident allowed him to be able to extend his lead over Sritrai, the Thai driver closing him documented on the ultimate lap, however, not enough to allow for him to create a move, the TCR rookie crossing the road mere tenths afar from Sritrai, with WS Lai third.
Ultimately although the stewards judged that contact between Sritrai and Kusiri at turn 14 was avoidable, handing they Thailand driver a 30-second post race penalty, elevating Kaathir while in the second R Engineering Honda to third and victory while in the TCR Cup, with Japser Thong fourth [and second inside the Cup]. Sritrai retained fifth place and fourth overall in championship points, with SK Tong sixth.
Alex Liu claimed top honours just as before for Seat, with Douglas Khoo leading home Kusiri who set the quickest lap within the race in his charge round the closing laps.
For the TCR Asia Series competitors there is now a six week break towards the second round of this year at Zhuhai in China, in my ballet shoes the popular regional touring car championship should have competed at China’s single international circuit.