While having expanded its customer racing activities with the growth of other championships, the Audi R8 LMS Cup has remained a key pillar in the Asian motorsport scene, having concluded its sixth season earlier this month.
The popular single-make series, won this year by Alessio Picarello, who clinched the title one race meeting early, is set to see further growth next year, with the introduction of a GT4 class for the new Audi R8 LMS GT4 car, as well as a greater focus on amateur drivers.
Sportscar365 caught up with Martin Kuehl, the Director of Audi Sport customer racing Asia, to get his thoughts on the season, the state of GT racing in Asia and preview some possible changes ahead for the Cup next year.
How would you rate the 2017 season?
“After five years where the championship was decided on the very last lap and by a few points in most cases, it was the first time we had a driver being so conditionally strong and ahead of the others. We had an early champion but I think it showed the attractiveness of the Asian platforms in general, for these very strong drivers from Europe, to come over and compete.
“If you look at the reaction to Alessio’s performance and with Dries Vanthoor also coming to Asia [for the final weekend] it raised the profile of racing in Asia. For that, we were very happy.
“Mitch Gilbert has also been a very strong addition to the team. He earned second in the championship in his first full season in the car.
“Another highlight for me was from Suzuka onwards when David Chen entered competition. Tianshi is the first 100 percent Chinese team to join the Cup.
“David improved so much, it was really amazing to see how a driver takes big steps in each big race weekend and being the first Am class driver to win [overall] in Zhejiang. It’s great to see that the platform works for this kind of development of regional drivers.”
How do you strike the balance between Pro and Am drivers in the series?
“We will definitely re-strengthen our focus on the gentlemen drivers. Audi Sport customer racing always needs to put the amateurs in the focus. It’s a little bit early at the moment but we’re looking to make some changes [in this area] for next year.
“I’ve been very happy with this year’s performances [in both Pro and Am] but we want to focus even more on the future on the amateurs.”
When do you expect to release the 2018 calendar?
“We expect to say something about the general calendar soon. We have to sign a few more documents but we’re very excited.”
How are you working to balance the calendar to allow some of the Cup teams and drivers to enter multiple championships in Asia?
“It’s not possible to run the Cup and Blancpain [GT Series Asia races] on the same weekend, as some of our cars compete in both.
“What we did this season, to try and be on the same continent around the same time, worked quite well. We definitely are trying to make it possible again for next season.”
Have you been pleased with the level of success of the Audi R8 LMS in other Asian championships?
“We have already seen it this season with a couple of drivers that have taken part in both the Cup and other [Asian] championships. For the Cup, it should also be a breeding ground for new amateur drivers and talents that could develop to multi-OEM series.
“For us, overall, the Audi Sport customer racing platform is not just the Cup. The Cup is the core of our activities. Each entry counts for us.
“Our platform in general has really grown. Of course we have more competition in the Asian market, with China GT, Blancpain Asia, Asian Le Mans and even some other series in China. The industry itself is really expanding and we never saw more Audi entries in the region overall than this year.
“For sure, and also next season, we want to show the competitiveness or our cars and drivers against other manufacturers. For that we need strong entries in [other series].
“We’re really happy to have a big footprint all over Asia, with the Cup but also in other series.”
Have you been pleased with the growth in teams within Asia?
“It’s very important that more and more teams develop a local footprint in Asia with local engineers, mechanics and also workshops to really serve the industry here.
“For us, to work together with them, so they have a base where they can start, like for Phoenix Racing that’s been here for a few years, and WRT for the last year… We want the teams to develop in Asia to bring part of their expertise here, but developed locally. This is something that’s very important and very good to have a choice in competition.”