To close out what has been an intense season of GT3 competition, Hong Kong’s Shaun Thong arrived at the new Zhejiang Circuit in south-eastern China ready for some solid results with both the closing rounds of the Audi R8 LMS Cup and the Blancpain GT Series Asia finales just a week apart.
Coming into the Audi R8 LMS Cup final, the Audi Hong Kong driver was looking for a solid result to close out his season, with second in the championship up for grabs, but whilst he claimed an emphatic second place result in the penultimate race, the final delivered nothing but heartache after contact with a rival in the hectic opening lap saw him forced to retire from an almost certain podium finish.
Whilst that result wasn’t what the popular 21-year old Audi TEDA Racing driver was looking for, the bigger prize was on offer just a week later, with the Blancpain GT Series Asia points leader gaining valuable experience on the tight and twisty 3.2-kilometre circuit ahead of the final two rounds of the season on October 13-15.
One of four drivers in contention to claim the runner-up position in the Cup behind newly crowned champion Alessio Picariello, Thong and his Phoenix Racing Asia team-mates battled to make the most of the control Pirelli tyre, all four drivers languishing much further down the order in qualifying than they would have liked.
The penultimate race of the year – the first at Zhejiang – proved to be the most dramatic of the season, with many leading drivers eliminated by the opening turn, Thong though used a wise head to move from seventh to third and very quickly second on a circuit that had quickly established a reputation as being one on which overtaking was almost impossible.
Closing on local driver and race leader David Chen within a couple of laps, Thong was unable to effect a clean pass, although at one point he did make the front only for Chen to take advantage of his push-to-pass (he had double the number of Thong by virtue of being classified an amateur) to claim back the position.
From there Thong was thwarted by waving yellow flags at the first turn, one of few overtaking opportunities – forcing him to settle for second and a big haul of championship points.
Sadly in race two his assault on second in the championship was over almost as soon as it had begun, with the tight run into the opening two corners seeing the Hong Kong driver squeezed into a rival forcing the bodywork onto the right front tyre which ultimately ended his race, in the process dropping him back to fifth in points.
“It was a tough weekend in the end that started with so much promise,” Thong admitted afterwards. “We struggled as a team to find the optimum setup on the DHC Pirelli tyre, something which has plagued us a lot this year, but despite that we were able to fight through to second in race one.
“Sadly I never had a chance to use the data we gained after that race to build on in race two after the first turn incident, but on the flip-side, we gained an incredible amount of data for next weekend with the final round of the Blancpain GT Series Asia championship upon us.”
After ten rounds Thong and team-mate Marchy Lee have the championship points lead in the hotly contested GT3 championship, having amassed two wins during the year (Suzuka/Shanghai), so despite the hiccups at Zhejiang for the Cup, both drivers achieved a lot of valuable miles on the circuit to give them an advantage for the final event.
Zhejiang Circuit, China (7 October, 2017)
Qualifying #1 (15-minutes)
1. 19. Jake Dennis (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:26.519
2. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:26.683
3. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:26.972
4. 18. Martin Rump (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:27.286
5. 99. David Chen (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:27.312
7. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:27.439
Rnd#9 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup (18-laps)
1. 99. David Chen (Audi R8 LMS GT3)
2. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) +0.694
3. 1. Alex Yoong (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +15.677
4. 88. Marchy Lee (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +21.797
5. 31. Franky Cheng (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +22.778
Zhejiang Circuit, China (8 October, 2017)
Qualifying #2 (15-minutes)
1. 19. Jake Dennis (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:25.926
2. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:26.107
3. 99. David Chen (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:26.390
4. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:26.749
5. 18. Martin Rump (Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:27.077
7. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 1:27.176
Rnd#10 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup (18-laps)
1. 19. Jake Dennis (Audi R8 LMS GT3)
2. 86. Mitchell Gilbert (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +6.885
3. 99. David Chen (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +15.850
4. 18. Martin Rump (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +16.182
5. 15. Alessio Picariello (Audi R8 LMS GT3) +19.189
DNF. 8. Shaun Thong (Audi TEDA Racing Team Audi R8 LMS GT3) – 8-laps
Championship Points (after 10 rounds of 10)
1. Alessio Picariello (178), 2. Mitch Gilbert (134), 3. Franky Cheng (127), 4. Alex Yoong (121), 5. Shaun Thong (109), 6. Martin Rump (76), 7. David Chen (67), 8. Marchy Lee (50)