2016 TCR Asia Series champions Liqui Moly Team Engstler may have started the new season with two rookie recruits, but by the close of the opening event of the year, they looked very much the well-oiled machine that dominated the second season of the popular regional championship.
From pre-season testing through to official practice and then 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 been on top of the timesheets for four days, and started race one from pole position.
Despite the introduction of an early Safety Car, Kusiri was untroubled, setting the fastest lap of the race on his way to a comfortable 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 to the flag.
In race two the same trio were quickly through the field off the reverse grid start, but contact between Sritrai and Kusiri which ultimately saw the latter lose two laps in the pits afterwards, allowed Moran to get away from the feuding Thai’s to collect a second win for the team, and the championship points lead.
Sritrai was initially credited with second, before a 30-second post-race penalty dropped the Team Thailand driver to fifth, elevating new TCR Asia team R Engineering to second and third on the podium for WS Lai and Abdul Kaathir, an outstanding recovery for the Malaysia Honda operation who were forced to start both races from the rear of the field after a post-qualifying infringement.
The action started almost immediately, with new Elegant Sports Team Seat driver Eric K. in the inside wall on the run across the line after the faintest of touches from Phoenix Racing Asia’s SK Tong in the jostle for position.
That brought the field under the control of the Safety Car, with pole-sitter Kusiri leading team-mate Diego Moran and WS Lai who had made a blistering start from the last row of the grid to be third into turn one as the yellow flags came into play. Tin Sritrai was fourth, ahead of SK Tong and his Audi team-mate Jasper Thong.
On the restart Moran managed to stay with Kusiri early, before the Thai driver put together a sequence of low 2:17 laps to break away to a lead that he ultimately extended to 10 seconds before the flag.
Behind the leading Volkswagens the biggest battle was being waged between Sritrai and R Engineering’s WS Lai, the local driver holding third and under increasing pressure from the Thai driver through the early laps. Ultimately it took Sritrai until lap nine to make his way past the #39 Honda Civic with a late braking inside move at turn nine, but by then Kusiri was gone, Sritrai closing down the gap to Moran over the final laps, but not enough to get within striking distance of second.
Lai crossed the line fourth, with Audi Hong Kong’s Jasper Thong in position five ahead of the charging Kaathir, the pair classified first and second in the new TCR Asia Cup classification.
Alex Liu made up for the disappointment of team-mate Eric K’s early demise with seventh as the top finishing Seat, ahead of SK Tong in the second Audi and Viper Niza Racing’s Douglas Khoo who suffered a mid race spin, dropping the Seat driver back to ninth at the line.
For Kusiri, his first ever victory in TCR Asia extended his winning streak in TCR in Asian events as an Asian driver, to seven wins from seven starts, a record that included two international Series events in Thailand, and four races in the TCR Thailand Series.
With the top six qualifiers inverted for the start of the second race (the two R Engineering Honda Civics forced to start at the rear of the inverted grid as a result of their post-qualifying exclusion) the two gorgeous new Audis would start at the front of the grid, ahead of Tin Sritrai and Diego Moran, with Kantadhee Kusiri off position number five.
With their relative lack of TCR experience, the two Audi drivers were swamped off the start, Jasper Thong off P2 stalling the #5 RS3 LMS on the line dropping to rear-of-field by turn one, whilst his pole-sitting team-mate bogged down allowing Diego Moran to fire off the second row and into the race lead.
Sritrai managed to pull up the inside of Tong on the run to turn one, the two drivers banging doors to try and establish enough room to make the ideal apex, whilst behind them Kusiri moved into fourth. That soon became second after the cross-over into turn two dropped Tong back to fourth, the Audi soon fifth after a big move by the experienced Lai through turn six.
It was getting hectic further back in the pack, with Alex Liu, Kaathir, Jasper Thong and his Audi team-mate battling for position, Kaathir the big mover up to fifth by the close of the lap.
By lap two it was clear that Sritrai was still struggling with his gearbox downchange issue through the mid-sectors of the lap, allowing Kusiri to lock in on his rival’s tail, the two Thai drivers separated by mere inches. Turn 14 looked to be Kusiri’s best chance, but Sritrai was able to cover on lap two as the pair closed in a little on Moran’s lead.
By turn nine the following lap Sritrai had closed to within a car length of the lead, but Kusiri continued to force him onto a protective line, the two making contact in the high speed right-hander at turn 13, slowing the progress of both, allowing Moran to gain some breathing space as the two Thai drivers locked in line-astern once more.
The following lap the two rivals were at it again, Kusiri making a late inside dive into turn 14, Sritrai moving across the counter, the two Volkswagens making heavy contact which actually threw the #2 Golf of Kusiri into the air and off the circuit into the gravel trap on the outside of the final corner. He kept the power on and drove down pit lane to have the Liqui Moly team Engstler operation look at the car, the experienced touring car crew sending him out two laps later to complete the race, but by then his perfect run of TCR victories was over.
Whilst disappointment for Kusiri, for Moran the incident allowed him an opportunity to extend his lead over Sritrai, the Thai driver closing him down on the final lap, but not enough to allow him to make a move, the TCR rookie crossing the line mere tenths clear of Sritrai, with WS Lai third.
Ultimately though the stewards judged that contact between Sritrai and Kusiri at turn 14 was avoidable, handing the Team Thailand driver a 30-second post race penalty, elevating Kaathir in the second R Engineering Honda to third and victory in the TCR Cup, with Japser Thong fourth [and second in the Cup]. Sritrai retained fifth place and fourth overall in championship points, with SK Tong sixth.
Alex Liu claimed top honours once again for Seat, with Douglas Khoo leading home Kusiri who set the fastest lap of the race in his charge across the closing laps.
For the TCR Asia Series competitors there is now a six week break to the second round of the season at Zhuhai in China, the very first time the popular regional touring car championship will have competed at China’s first ever international circuit.