Matt Griffin believes that reigning Asian Le Mans Series champions Clearwater Racing will not head into the new season as automatic favourites, such is the competitiveness of the GT field this year.
15 GT3 cars will take to the grid for this weekend’s 4 Hours of Zhuhai, with former ELMS champion Griffin turning out in Clearwater’s newly-acquired Ferrari 488 GT3 alongside Keita Sawa and Weng Sun Mok. The Singaporean team won the title and entry to the Le Mans 24 Hours last year with a McLaren 650S GT3 co-driven by Rob Bell, who also joined them at La Sarthe as they finished fourth in GTE-Am.
However, despite Clearwater’s past success in the Asian LMS and the GT Asia Series – where Mok is a three-time champion – Griffin told Racing.GT that they can have no expectation of brushing aside strong competition from Mercedes, Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, McLaren and BMW.
“The Asian Le Mans Series is very, very different this year to what it’s been in previous years, I reckon it’s probably five or six times more competitive,” said the Irishman, following a podium in the final ELMS race at Estoril. “In the past it’s been a relatively easy championship to win, basically if you turned up and did a good job then you could win the championship. But this year I think there are six or seven teams that will turn up and do a good job, so I don’t think there is one favourite, even though Clearwater are the current champions.
“There are two really strong Lamborghinis, there’s the BBT Racing Ferrari which has a very strong line-up with Alessandro Pier Guidi as the Gold driver and there’s two Chinese [DH Racing] Ferraris, who I was supposed to be driving with until Clearwater made the decision to use their Ferrari. It’s going to be really competitive and will probably be one of those championships at the end where the winner won’t necessarily be the person who wins the most races, but has been the most consistent over the four.”
— Matt Griffin (@MGriffinRacing) October 25, 2016
Clearwater’s 488 has had limited running this year, with only a couple of GT Asia outings under its belt, however Griffin is optimistic that his experience of the car and the team’s local knowledge will allow them to challenge from the off.
“It’s a really good team, they are very experienced in Asia and doing all the big races there,” he explained. “Last year, James Calado, Gimmi Bruni and myself raced for them in the Sepang 12 Hour, they’ve done Bathurst four times, so Le Mans was just another big race for them really. Now back in the Asian Le Mans Series they’re in their home territory – obviously they are a Singapore-based team, but a lot of the staff are guys that I work with week in, week out in Europe.
“They haven’t had much running with it at all to be honest, so from that point of view there will be a little bit of a learning curve, but the head engineer there is a guy called Dario Armelin who engineered the Fisichella 488 in Blancpain Endurance this year. He knows the car very well and I know the car very well, so we should hit the ground running.”
Unlike the ELMS, the Asian LMS features the more cost-effective GT3-spec cars rather than Le Mans-eligible GTE cars, although Griffin argues that it could become a template copied in Europe.
“I’m a huge fan of GT3 – I think GTE within a couple of years will probably be the domain of full factory teams because the costs are escalating,” he added. “GT3 provides a good platform for customer teams to compete with factory teams on a level playing field, whereas GTE doesn’t really provide that anymore.
“Hopefully GTE will stay in the European Le Mans Series for a couple of years at least, but I wouldn’t be surprised down the road if we have GT-Pro for GTE cars and GT-Am in the WEC for GT3. That’s what I think will happen eventually.”
And the rest…
The Ferrari 488 is a popular choice among the Asian LMS field, with no less than five – including Clearwater – set to tackle the opening round. DH Racing have paired experienced hand Olivier Beretta with IMSA standout Alex Riberas, making his first appearance in a Ferrari, and experienced amateur Rino Mastronadi, while Michele Rugolo, single-seater convert Matthieu Vaxivière and Belgian journalist Stephane Lemeret campaign a second car. Team BBT narrowly missed out on the GT Asia title and see familiar pair Anthony Liu and Davide Rizzo team up with Alessandro Pier Guidi, while Marco Cioci and Rui Aguas join Nasrat Muzayyin in the Spirit of Race 488.
— Alex Riberas (@AlexRiberas) October 24, 2016
After making their bow in the final round of last season, Absolute Racing return with a Bentley for Pirelli World Challenge regular Adderly Fong, alongside an Audi entered for ex-A1 GP racer Cheng Cong Fu and Jing Zu Sun. Christopher Haase will lead the line-up in another Audi from the Chinese TianShi Racing Team, while a third R8 LMS will be entered by successful prototype squad KCMG.
Lamborghini are represented by two cars, with Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Matt Bell sharing the FFF Racing entry which won the GT Asia Series in the hands of Italian pair Edoardo Liberati and Andrea Amici, while Squadra Corse Academy drivers Corey Lewis and Kei Cozzolino join factory driver Adrian Zaugg in the Vincenzo Sospiri team.
Tom Blomqvist leads Team AAI’s three-pronged attack in the BMW M6 GT3, the ambitious Taiwanese team also fielding a McLaren for Xavier Maasen, Ollie Millroy and Jun-San Chen alongside a Mercedes-AMG GT3 with an unconfirmed driver lineup.
Finally, the OD Racing McLaren will be shared by Kiwi Jono Lester and Malaysian Fairuz Fauzy, a veteran of the European single-seater scene who completed Friday test sessions for the Lotus F1 team in 2010.
To view the full Asian LMS entry list, click here.