The brand new era of the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup has launched with Tony Bates of Tony Bates Racing and Yasser Shahin of Jamec Pem Racing winning tightly fought qualifying sessions.
Bates, making his ninth appearance on the Adelaide Street Circuit, will begin Saturday’s Round One on pole with Shahin, in his first races on the circuit, leading the grid on Sunday’s Round Two.
Just over one and a half seconds separated the top ten in both sessions, with the Australian track veterans delivering emphatically on their experience at the circuit and the Asian drivers improving markedly as the sessions progressed.
The street circuit, located in downtown Adelaide, played host to thousands of fans, with the scene set for an almighty tussle between the Cup’s Asian and Australian entries over the weekend.
“Today we have seen two hotly contested sessions signalling an exciting start to this new chapter in Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup history,” said Martin Kuehl, Director of Audi Sport Customer Racing Asia.
“It has been a display of close, fair competition on a level playing field amongst an evenly-matched field.
“The Australian drivers have set high benchmarks, but the newcomers have shown they are up to the task of catching them. Good luck to all for Rounds One and Two!”
After three free practice sessions on Thursday, the 20-minute qualifying session to set the grid for the opening round of the season was a battle for the top spot between Bates and the formidable Koundouris brothers, James and Theo.
However, it was a close-run thing, with the top six runners all within a second, and the top four clocking laps under the one-minute, 22-second mark.
James Koundouris, the fastest man across all free practice session, recorded the third quickest lap time in qualifying for Round One, but he will be relegated to the third row of the grid, courtesy of a two-place grid penalty picked up after Thursday’s second free practice after contact with Shahin.
After incident-filled practice sessions on Thursday, Friday’s qualifying sessions were uninterrupted, a testament to the speed with which the drivers have mastered this technical street track.
An error from Shahin, who was seeking the limits of both an unfamiliar car and the track, saw him spectacularly spin his Audi R8 LMS GT3.
He controlled the pirouetting car expertly to keep it clear of the barriers, and continued the session. Shahin clocked the fourth fastest time, securing a second row race start for Round One.
Despite not having topped the times in any of Thursday’s three practice sessions, Bates put it all together when it counted and sealed provisional pole early in the session before pitting.
However, Theo Koundouris put in a scorching lap as the 20-minute session neared its end to snatch the top spot.
Pre-warned by his team that times were expected to drop in the closing minutes of the session, Bates was already back out on track and was able to throw all he had into a last-gasp flyer to seal pole for Saturday’s Round One.
An impressive effort from Cup newcomer Andrew Haryanto of ProMax Team saw the Indonesian fifth quickest in the session, having pushed hard throughout the weekend so far to extract the maximum from himself, his car and the track.
Under the scorching Adelaide afternoon sun, but after a packed morning race programme, times in the afternoon qualifying session were not as quick as the morning.
The competition, however, was red hot with the newcomers to the Australian street track proving to be a true threat to masters of the notorious circuit.
CTVS Racers’ Mark Williams topped the time sheets early in the session, before Round One pole-man Bates bettered his time.
Rival James Koundouris was the next to take provisional pole until, with less than four minutes remaining, Bates snatched back the advantage.
While it looked as though Bates had secured pole, first James Koundouris bettered his time and then – with just seconds remaining on the clock – Shahin clocked a lap of 1:21.732 to emphatically lock in pole position for Sunday’s Round One by just seven hundredths of a second.
However, Shahin was not the only newcomer to raise eyebrows. Another superb run from Haryanto saw him secure a second row start for Round Two, alongside James Koundouris.
Thailand’s Bhurit Bhirombhakdi, reigning Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup Am champion, has proved a revelation this weekend, gaining pace with every lap in his Singha Plan-B by Absolute Racing GT3.
Less than half a second off pole at the end of the second session, Bhirombhakdi will start Round 2 in fifth, with Theo Koundouris alongside in sixth.
Cup stalwart Jeffrey Lee of Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan lines up in seventh, another new driver to the circuit to have improved session-on-session.
Professional drivers Adderly Fong and Cheng Congfu, in Australia as coaches and mentors for all the Cup drivers this weekend, were out on track for both sessions showcasing the new Audi R8 LMS GT4, which will make its debut as a Cup category in Rounds Three and Four.
Fong will start ahead of Cheng in both of the category’s exhibition races.