The penultimate race of the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup under the floodlights of the Sepang International Circuit has set up a nail-biting season finale.
ProMax Team’s Andrew Haryanto took his second victory of the year to close the gap to just two points from championship-leader Bhurit Bhirombhakdi of Singha Plan-B by Absolute Racing, who was third across the line.
Despite carrying 20kg of success ballast, The Bend Motorsport Park’s Yasser Shahin thundered to second place on his night race and Sepang Circuit debut.
Fourth across the line was early race-leader Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan’s Jeffrey Lee, putting the Cup star in pole position to clinch the final “Road to Spa” seat – a reward on offer to the highest points-scorer across the Malaysia double-header.
Cup returnee Rick Yoon of APM Monaco Team KCMG caught the eye, seizing the lead off the rolling start but then spun dropping him down the field.
Another big mover was Cup newcomer Martin Berry of Absolute Racing, who finished fifth from the back of the grid on his series debut after an off in qualifying prevented him from recording a lap.
“Today we saw the story of our season condensed into one race: close battles, drama and sportsmanship,” said Martin Kuehl, Director of Audi Sport customer racing Asia.
“Congratulations to both Andrew Haryanto and Bhurit Bhirombhakdi for their determination and professionalism in keeping the championship battle alive right down to the final race of the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup season. We are all on tenterhooks to see who will be crowned 2018 GT3 champion tomorrow!”
As the Cup’s second-ever night race and first in Malaysia got underway, Yoon grabbed the lead from pole-sitter Bhirombhakdi, with Lee, Shahin and Haryanto also diving past the Thai, demoting him to fifth in the order ahead of Cup returnee Daniel Bilski in the of B-Quik Racing Audi R8 LMS ultra.
Newly-crowned Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup GT4 champion Anderson Tanoto of Absolute Racing, making his debut in the Audi R8 LMS GT3 this weekend, spun early on, but was able to re-join the action.
As Yoon tried to pull away from Lee at the front of the field, Haryanto was closing in on Shahin, who was third, the leading four drivers covered by less than three seconds.
However, Bhirombhakdi, running fifth, was not letting his title rival, Haryanto, out of his sights, working out the points computations while trying to adjust to the radically different night driving conditions.
Mid-race drama struck when Yoon and Lee, who was challenging for the race lead, made contact. Yoon lost control of his car as he got too near the kerbs and spun leaving Lee with nowhere to go.
Yoon fell down the order, while Lee continued on in race lead, albeit with what appeared to be a damaged car. Shahin tried to take advantage of the coming together to dive past Lee, but Cup mainstay, Lee, was having none of it, firmly slamming the door on the Australian to maintain the race lead.
However, a hard-charging Haryanto, who had slipped by Shahin, then got past Lee to seize first place. Shahin followed him past Lee to move into second with Lee dropping down the order to third.
Meanwhile, as Haryanto pulled away at the front, Bhirombhakdi was growing accustomed to racing under lights and, in characteristic style, closed up to Lee and began heaping on the pressure.
Knowing he had to finish ahead of Lee in third to retain his place at the top of the championship leaderboard the Thai made a daring move.
The pair made contact as Bhirombhakdi went up the inside, but he made the move stick to claim the final podium position and stay two points ahead of race-winner Haryanto in the title fight.
Lee crossed the line fourth in a dramatic ending to a 13-lap race you could not take your eyes from. Newcomer, Berry was fifth with Yoon sixth. Absolute Racing’s Sun Jingzu, who was carrying 30kg of success ballast, finished seventh ahead of Bilski and B-Quik Racing’s team boss Henk Kiks, who was making his Cup debut. Axle Motorsport’s Zen Low, another debutant, was tenth.
As the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup prepares for an electrifying climax to its seventh season, just two points separate championship-leader Bhirombhakdi (163 points) and title rival Haryanto (161 points). Shahin lies third (121 points), but, despite his sixth podium finish from nine races, is out of championship contention.
The title-deciding final round gets underway with a 15-minute qualifying session at 10:15am, with the 13-lap season finale starting at 13:40 (all times UTC +8).
1.28/Andrew HARYANTO(INA)/GT3/ProMax Team/28:09.636
2.74/Yasser SHAHIN(AUS)/GT3/The BEND – Motorsport Park/+12.518
3.59/Bhurit BHIROMBHAKDI(THA)/GT3/Singha Plan-B by Absolute Racing/+14.337
4.7/Jeffrey LEE(TPE)/GT3/Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan/+20.403
5.15/Martin BERRY(SIN)/GT3/Absolute Racing/+27.043
7.13/SUN Jing Zu(CHN)/GT3/Absolute Racing/+39.977
8.27/Daniel BILSKI(HKG)/GT3/B-Quik Racing/+50.488
9.26/Henk KIKS(THA)/GT3/B-Quik Racing/+1:03.040
10.29/Zen LOW(MAL)/GT3/Axle Motorsport/+1:09.896
11.89/Anderson TANOTO(INA)/GT3/Absolute Racing/+1:17.477