Philipp Eng admits he was surprised by the level of competition in the Asian Le Mans Series when he made his debut in December.
The Spa 24 Hour winner led for much of the opening hour in Fuji, but two safety cars during his stint caused the Team AAI BMW M6 GT3 he shared with Ollie Millroy and team boss Jun San Chen to fall behind the early-stopping Ferraris of DH Racing and Team BBT, eventually finishing third.
It was the second 1-2 in as many rounds for Ferrari, after Marco Cioci’s Spirit of Race 488 took a narrow victory over Matt Griffin’s Clearwater Racing example in the opening race at Zhuhai.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect,” Eng told Racing.GT. “I had never been to Asia before and I’ve never raced there also. It was a completely new experience, but the people are really friendly, really helpful, so I really enjoyed it.
“I was surprised by the level of competition, there are many good drivers from Europe like Pier Guidi, Rugolo and those guys who are very quick. It was already clear that the level of competition will be high before going into the weekend, but it just proved to be right. You need to have a good line-up there to be up front, it’s a cool series.”
Eng also reserved praise for former karting rival Millroy, the Briton making his first appearance in the M6 after turning out at Zhuhai in the McLaren 650S.
“Ollie I have known for 10 or 15 years because we used to race karts together, so I rate him very high as a driver,” he said. “I think he only did a couple of laps in the car before the weekend started, so I tried to give him as much advice as possible, but he is a very good driver and actually he was not far off in pace. He adapted very quickly, so that was very good to have him in the team.”
Though Eng was satisfied with the Fuji weekend, the BMW factory driver is itching to break Ferrari’s stranglehold when the Series visits Buriram, Thailand this weekend and spent his winter break extensively preparing for the heat and humidity.
“As a racing driver, somehow there is not time when I really forget about it, even in the downtime, so [over Christmas] I was trying when nobody was watching to watch some on-boards from Buriram to see what the track is like,” he admitted.
“You are only as good as your last race, so I’m just trying to do the best job possible to improve the car always and improve myself. If I’m a Spa winner yes that’s nice to know, it was good to have that last year, but there is always a next race and you’re always only as good as your last one.
“Fuji was really good to us, obviously our car likes quick corners and Buriram will be similar. The track looks quite challenging, but I’ve talked to some drivers who raced there already and I feel well-prepared.”
The Austrian added that contesting the Asian LMS during the European off-season is important for BMW to gain a better understanding of the conditions the new-for-2016 M6 is best suited to, although the championship’s spec-Michelin tyres means not all data will translate over to the Blancpain GT Series, which runs on Pirellis.
“For sure it’s always good when the car is running, but don’t forget we are running on the Michelin rubber, so it’s kind of a different story,” said Eng. “If you ask the engineers, they would like to run the car 24 hours, seven days a week, so I’m sure in the setup and development side there is always something to find, but the Pirelli is really different to the Michelin, it’s difficult to compare.
“The Pirelli is more difficult to make it work and to bring it into a good operation window, whereas the Michelin is maybe a little bit easier to bring in and has a little wider range. But in the end as a racing driver it doesn’t really matter what’s on the car, it’s just about getting the maximum laptime out of it.”
— Philipp Eng (@Philipp_Eng) January 6, 2017
Rugolo currently leads the points, with VS Racing Lamborghini duo Corey Lewis and Kei Cozzolino two points behind in second after consistent finishes in the opening two races.