As a new era for GT racing dawns in Sepang, James Newbold explores how SRO’s new Blancpain GT Series Asia has changed the regional status quo.
Following the passing of the late 80s and early 90s F1 fad, the Asian motorsport scene fell on hard times. Where once Japanese F3000 served as a popular final destination for the likes of Salo, Irvine, Ratzenberger, Krosnoff and Apicella before heading off to Formula 1 or IndyCars, by the new millennium, Asia had lost its lustre for young drivers hoping to make the grade.
20 years on, it’s a very different story and the Asian market is now booming once again. Pierre Gasly is set to become the second GP2 champion in a row (after Stoffel Vandoorne) to complete his education in Japan, where he will be joined by fellow wide-eyed expats Felix Rosenqvist and Jann Mardenborough. However, it’s not just single-seaters that have seen an uptake in interest.
Just as in Europe, GT racing in Asia has never been healthier and this year welcomes a new pretender on the scene, set up in direct competition to Motorsport Asia Limited’s GT Asia Series.
But while it may be new, the Blancpain GT Series Asia is no ordinary start-up. The latest venture from SRO Motorsports Group, the body responsible for organising the Sepang 12 Hours and coordinating the FIA GT World Cup in Macau, Blancpain Asia has started off on a very strong footing, with a 30-car grid featuring 24 GT3 cars and five GT4s entered for the first event in Sepang this weekend.
“I’m a bit short of garages, that’s my main problem!” joked championship manager Benjamin Franassovici.
“We’ve got more cars than expected. We were aiming for 18 cars which I think would have been an achievement in year one. I have to remind myself that six months ago we had zero cars and that hard work is paying off.”
A large percentage of those cars have been plucked directly from the rival GT Asia Series, which only signed a formalized alliance with the ACO’s Asian Le Mans Series last October.
The terms of the agreement would give 2016/2017 Asian Le Mans Series GT champions DH Racing a free entry into this year’s GT Asia Series, while the 2017 GT Asia champions would in turn receive a free entry into the Asian Le Mans Series next year. In a new initiative backed by Michelin, the team that scores the most points from the combined 2016/2017 Asian Le Mans Series and 2017 GT Asia Series would also be granted an invitation to the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours in GTE-Am.
However, following an Asian Le Mans Series campaign dominated by Ferraris, which prompted two Lamborghini teams to withdraw from the final round in protest, GT Asia was forced to cancel its first event at Sepang in March due to a lack of entries.
Reigning GT Asia champions FFF Racing Team by ACM, Phoenix Racing Asia, Clearwater Racing, Craft-Bamboo Racing, BBT, GruppeM Racing and Absolute Racing (under the Milestone Racing and OD Racing Team banners) have all switched to Blancpain, while Mark Goddard’s CMRT Eurasia team – which joined Team AAI and Bentley Team Absolute on GT Asia’s initial entry list – will bring their Aston Martin.
There have been no communications from Motorsport Asia Limited since February in the wake of the announcement and it remains to be seen whether GT Asia will return later in the year.
Franassovici believes the mass defections from GT Asia vindicates SRO’s decision to enter the Asian market and is confident that Blancpain Asia will only continue to grow.
“GT Asia has thrown in the towel, so we’ve inherited some of their cars and new cars have come in, GT4s have come in, which is something we’ve introduced,” Franassovici explained.
“We gave teams a very attractive option between the sporting regulations, the format, our BOP, also the prize money, live TV. I think we’ve got all the ingredients in our recipe to make it successful and teams have analysed it and said ‘yes, this is where we want to go’.
“The growth potential is there, we already have a very healthy grid, so we’re very optimistic. GT4 has started well but we will see new models coming in next year. At the moment Porsche is the main model, but look at British GT, we had one McLaren last year and now we’ve got six, so I expect that car will be popular in Asia.”
Another factor in Blancpain Asia’s strong grids stems from SRO’s collaboration with the one-make Audi R8 LMS Cup. The two championships follow a similar pan-Asian calendar, including a joint final round at the new Zhejiang International Circuit in October, allowing teams to save on freight costs.
Five cars have been entered for both championships, including one for three-time R8 LMS Cup champion Alex Yoong run by his championship-winning Phoenix Racing Asia outfit.
Yoong, who will return to defend his LMS Cup title from bitter rival Alessio Picariello, believes that SRO has followed the right path by copying the tried and tested British GT model of Pro-Am, Silver Cup and Am-Am driver pairings, rather than the Blancpain Sprint Cup, where all-Pro teams are permitted.
As in British GT, Silver Cup cars will be balanced against the Pro-Am entries with weight penalties. Teams will receive further success penalties depending on their finishing position in the previous race, extending from 10 seconds for the winner to seven for second place and five for third.
“It’s about understanding the market and I think Blancpain has done that by going with a Pro-Am, which I think is a good idea because the market isn’t ready for Pro-Pro yet,” Yoong told Racing.GT.
“It’s only going to go up and in a big way. I’m really enjoying it at the moment because the professionalism is getting higher and I feel like I’m being challenged more and more every year.”
The 40-year-old became the first and so far only Malaysian driver to reach Formula 1 in 2001, when there was very little infrastructure to support Asian drivers coming through the ranks. While it may not lead to Formula 1, Yoong believes the new Blancpain championship is a step in the right direction towards providing young Asian drivers with opportunities to turn professional.
“It is healthy for sure – you’ll see it in the next few years,” added Yoong. “The competition will rise and there will be younger drivers coming along.
“What it won’t help is when the Asian drivers go to Europe and they want to try and get to Le Mans or try and do Formula 1, because you need to be based in Europe. You get used to the kind of tracks here and it’s very different, you always drive in good weather conditions and so on.”
Franassovici is also optimistic that the championship will be around to stay and cultivate local stars to pitch their skills against the likes of Blancpain Endurance Cup champion Rob Bell, ex-F1 racer Will Stevens and highly-regarded Italian Raffaele Marciello.
Having recovered from his monster F3 shunt at the Red Bull Ring last year, Chinese driver Peter Li has teamed up with former GT Asia champion Darryl O’Young in a Craft-Bamboo Porsche, while Thai racer Sandy Stuvik joins Super Trofeo graduate Martin Kodric in a VSR Lamborghini after two disappointing seasons in GP3.
“It’s a natural evolution – I mean, just look at not just in Asia but around the globe, look at how many young drivers are looking at GT for their next step of their career,” Franassovici added. “You’ve got kids that are 16, 17 or 18 going to GT cars because they see it as a stepping stone, the same should happen in Asia.”
Without a doubt, the status quo has changed in Asia, but the true effects may not be felt for a long time to come.
Who to watch
Split between Pro-Am and Silver Cup, the 24-car GT3 field in Sepang contains some fascinating entries, with eight different manufacturers represented.
Defending GT Asia champions FFF Racing by ACM carry the number one on the door, but have an all-new driver line-up in their Lamborghini Huracan GT3. Formula Masters China graduate Aidan Read is hotly tipped for stardom after winning on his first appearance in LMP2 in the Asian Le Mans Series finale, but has just one previous start in a GT car at Bathurst. Team-mate Alberto di Folco had a forgettable Blancpain Sprint debut at Misano in 2015, but won twice with Antonelli Motorsport in Italian GT last year. Ho-Pin Tung will share with Zhu Junhan will share the team’s second car in the Pro-Am class, while Sandy Stuvik and Martin Kodric form another promising Silver Cup pairing with Vincenzo Sospiri Racing.
Audi is the most populous brand, with seven R8 LMS GT3s on the grid. Fronting the four rings attack is Phoenix Racing Asia’s Silver-Silver pairing Shaun Thong and Marchy Lee, who finished second in GT Asia last year, with a second car entered for Alex Au and home hero Alex Yoong, who took the only non-Ferrari victory in the Asian Le Mans Series at Sepang in January. Pro-Am class rivals Will Stevens and Jeffrey Lee will link up at Team WRT Asia, while Franky Cheng/Sun Jingzu (Milestone Racing) and Martin Rump/Rick Yoon (KCMG) will harbour podium ambitions. Porsche Carrera Cup Asia graduate Mitch Gilbert will benefit hugely from running a parallel campaign in the R8 LMS Cup and could spring a surprise in the OD Racing Audi alongside Aditya Patel.
One of the strongest line-ups on paper comes from the Team AAI BMW stable, with talented Finn Jesse Krohn and underrated Brit Ollie Millroy forming a very capable Silver-Silver pairing. A second M6 GT3 is one of five cars entered in the Am class, with team patron Jun San Chen and Lam Yu driving.
After a dominant opening round of the Blancpain Sprint Cup at Misano last weekend, don’t be surprised to see the Mercedes-AMG GT3 up near the sharp end at Sepang, with GruppeM Racing switching over from Porsche to run two cars. Tim Sugden may be entering the twilight years of his career, but will be an excellent foil for rising star Jules Szymkowiak, while Raffaele Marciello and BTCC convert Hunter Abbott will be among the favourites in Pro-Am.
There is only one McLaren 650S GT3 on the grid, but it ought to be highly competitive. Singaporean Richard Wee is joined at Clearwater Racing by Blancpain Endurance champion Rob Bell, who won the Asian Le Mans Series GT title with Clearwater in 2015-2016.
The striking BBT Ferrari 488 GT3 driven by Anthony Liu and Davide Rizzo provided one of the most thrilling moments of the GT Asia Series in Shanghai last year, as Liu overtook the Inthraphuvasak Vutthikorn-driven Bentley on the run to the flag to win by just 0.053 seconds. This Sino-Italian pair will be instantly on the pace in Malaysia, as will the Spirit of Race 488 GT3 driven by WEC GTE-Am champion Rui Aguas and Nasrat Muzayyin.
Craft-Bamboo have entered two Porsche 911 GT3-R’s in the Silver Cup and a third car in GT4 for Frank Yu and Jean-Marc Merlin. Jules Gounon received a late call up to race his third different GT3 car of the year alongside Joel Camathias, with former GT Asia champion Darryl O’Young and Peter Li in the sister car.
The single Aston Martin V12 Vantage on the grid entered by CMRT Eurasia is shared by James Cai and Kenneth Lim in the Am class.
To see the full entry list, CLICK HERE.