The GT Asia Series arrives at the iconic Fuji International Speedway this week to begin the second leg of the 2016 season, a season which has already proved to be the closest on record, with four different winners, in three different marques across the six rounds already completed. This will be the sixth season in succession the region’s leading GT category has hit Fuji, with every one of those six seasons conducted on the same weekend of the year, a time of year which can provide all manner of weather conditions, and usually does..
Leading the charge at the mid-point of the season is the very same team that was leading up to Fuji in 2015, the BBT Ferrari of Anthony Liu and David Rizzo. 12-months ago they were forced to miss the second Japanese event due to external commitments, effectively ending their championship challenge for the second season in a row and they’re looking to make amends and consolidate their championship position heading to China.
Historically, Ferrari has been the most successful marque at Fuji, with the Italian manufacturer claiming a victory in every one of the past five seasons, with four of those five wins going to three-time GT Asia Series champion Mok Weng Sun. He’ll be back this weekend with his illustrious side-kick ‘Rocket’ Richie Wee, and whilst they will be quick, they’ll have their work cut out to battle amongst the points leaders.
As a two-time winner in season 2016, Phoenix Racing Asia’s Marchy Lee is right in the title race this year, and he’s won at Fuji in the past – twice – taking Audi to it’s only victories at Fuji, standing on the top step alongside Jeffrey Lee in 2013, then again the following year alongside Audi factory star Christopher Mies. Perhaps ominously, his 2013 result was leading home an Audi 1-2, the driver of the second car, his 2016 team-mate Alex Yoong who was sharing a car with GT Asia Series partner Francis Hideki Onda (Tunewear).
The two Audi’s will be quick, but the Audi team will be hoping for rain to make great use of their immense downforce and gain an advantage over their rivals, many of whom are faster in a straight line. Bentley too could be hoping for rain, but they showed in 2015, that they had the momentum to win at Fuji – even in dry conditions – claiming their second win in Asia at the hands of Adderly Fong and Keita Sawa (who claimed his second win at Fuji in the process).
Like Audi, Porsche also have two wins to their name at Fuji in GT Asia, and both Craft-Bamboo Racing and GruppeM Racing will be hoping that history repeats itself this weekend as the two Porsche teams continue their development of the new 2016 Porsche GT3-R.
GruppeM made the podium last time out with GT Asia rookie Jono Lester, but it will be team-leader Philip Ma back behind the wheel with Tim Sugden this weekend, the pair hoping to capitalise on their solid result at Okayama, whilst Craft-Bamboo – the 2015 Series champions – will be looking to get their championship back on track and provide Frank Yu with a #1 trophy to adorn his cabinet alongside the two podium trophies he has collected from Fuji in recent years.
Yu’s team-mate Richard Lyons will be one to watch this weekend, the Ulsterman was incredibly quick in South Korea on the new car’s debut, and he’s a veteran of the Fuji circuit. He set a blistering pace early in 2015 in the team’s [then] Aston Martin – breaking the established lap record in practice after battling with Ferrari’s Carlo Van Dam, and the Craft-Bamboo star is looking to put that pace to good use this weekend.
As for Van Dam.. he’s already shown why he’s marked as one of the best Ferrari GT3 drivers in the world, claiming pole position in front of a legion of ‘home’ fans at Buriram, and running with the leaders in every race this year.
12-months ago the pace of the Singha Motorsport team was incredible, and with Ferrari’s record at Fuji, they stand as a serious threat this weekend, especially as team-mate Piti Bhirombhakdi has continued to develop into one of Asia’s leading amateur class drivers over the ensuing 12-months..
Throw in the two young Italian stars in the FFF Racing Team by ACM Lamborghini Huracan, and the Miedecke Stone Motorsport Aston Martin which is now shared by a former Australian V8 Supercar regular, and you have another great recipe for plenty of GT Asia Series action from one of Japan’s most famous venues..
And it doesn’t finish there..!
Aside from the outright battle, we also have a titanic struggle for Pro-Am honours. BBT Ferrari’s Anthony Liu currently leads the standings, but emerging stars Shaun Thong and Andrew Kim are hot on his heels, whilst 2015 Fuji winner Piti Bhirombhakdi is also well within reach of the leaders.. All of these drivers will be looking for a solid result to consolidate their position as the Series heads to China to close out the season.
Then there’s the GTC category, which sees two strong Japanese teams make their debut to put series points leaders Bhurit Bhirombhakdi and Kantasak Kusiri under pressure. Leading the charge will be Team Naoryu Age Age Racing’s Toshihito Funai and Masayuki Ueda, two experienced Ferrari campaigners at home in Japan, they will battle with Team Rosso Scuderia’s experienced veterans Akihiro Asai and Ken Seto in an identical Ferrari 458 Challenge making it a three-way Ferrari battle for the top step of the podium.
WHO TO WATCH OUT FOR
Using 2015 as a guide, you’d be hard pressed to look past Ferrari, the prancing horse took victory in race one, leading home a Ferrari 1-2-3… Okay, so the weather was a little suspect, but the 1.5-kilometre main straight saw the Maranello stallions put their straight-line speed advantage to good use..
With the BBT team leading the championship points and with the new Ferrari 488 GT3 at their disposal, they will certainly be a threat. As one of the smartest teams in pit-lane, they understand the position they are currently in, and have shown over the past two seasons that they are good at grafting points, even when they’re enduring a less than ideal weekend..
What that means is that their rivals – specifically the joint-second placed teams of Adderly Fong and Andrew Kim, and Marchy Lee and Shaun Thong – will have to bring their ‘A’ game..
The new Audi R8 LMS has a distinct aerodynamic advantage over its rivals, but with almost a third of the Fuji Speedway circuit occupied by the main straight, they will have their work cut out over the remaining sectors to stay with the faster cars.
Bentley too will endure a tougher run in a straight line, although they have their 2015 experience to draw on, whereas their Audi, Ferrari  and Lamborghini rivals will spend much of Friday’s practice gathering data for their new mounts.
If you were to choose a potential winner, you would be hard pressed to look past the points-leading BBT Ferrari or 2015 race winners Singha Motorsport, however winning in GT Asia comes with a burden – an additional compensation time penalty for the following race and without a Safety Car intervention, that can make your weekend a lot more challenging. For some, that’s not such a burden, the Keita Sawa/Jonathan Venter Bentley took-back-to-back wins at the opening round in South Korea, so it can be done, but a little bit of luck has to fall your way, as Adderly Fong and Andrew Kim found last time out at Okayama.
Discount the Bentleys at your peril – especially with Duncan Tappy returning to the wheel of the #9 car, and don’t wipe out the Audis and the Lamborghini, they too have the pace, and when it comes to straight line speed, you’d be hard-pressed to look past the might 6.0-litre V12 powered Aston Martin Vantage, and with one of Australia’s best young talents taking over the second seat in the Medecke Stone Motorsport #95 entry, you might just have a dark-horse in the mix to make things interesting..!
And don’t discount the weather to have an impact.. Japan’s summer weather is always a little unpredictable, so teams will be preparing for the arrival of torrential rain, something we saw during practice, qualifying and the opening race in 2015. In fact over the years, Fuji has provided plenty of torrential rain when the GT Asia Series has been in town, and 2016 could deliver more..