Alessio Picariello took a dominant pole-to-flag victory in Round 1 of the Audi R8 LMS Cup at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit.
His win capped off a great day for the youngster in which he also took pole position for both of this weekend’s races and set the fastest lap during the 13-lap sprint, securing him the Pirelli Best Lap trophy.
The 23-year-old Belgian, racing with MGT by Absolute, crossed the line more than four seconds ahead of his closest challenger, 21-year-old Estonian Martin Rump of Champion Racing Team.
Audi TEDA Racing Team driver Shaun Thong of Hong Kong was third and, at 21-years-of-age, completed a podium full of exciting young talent. KCMG driver Rick Yoon, meanwhile, took his first Am Cup win after a dramatic showing on the challenging 5.543km circuit.
“The Audi R8 LMS Cup provides ambitious young drivers with a strong platform to build their GT3 career, which is represented perfectly in the podium today,” said Bernd Goeres, Director of Audi Sport customer racing Asia.
“The highly competitive season opener of the 2017 Audi R8 LMS Cup has set the stage for an exciting new season.”
Push-to-pass, which gives drivers a temporary increase in horsepower, is back with the Cup for 2017, and the number of remaining boosts available to each driver is now illuminated on the side of the cars allowing spectators greater insight into driver race tactics.
This, along with pre-race thunder and the constant threat of a tropical downpour, added an enthralling additional element of tension during the race.
With separate qualifying sessions for each round this season, Malaysian-born Mitchell Gilbert of OD Racing Team started alongside Picariello at the rolling start. Defending champion Alex Yoong, this year in the Team Audi R8 LMS Cup car, was third with Rump making up the second row.
Picariello, second in the championship last year, made a superb getaway, maximizing his pole position advantage.
Gilbert held on to second, but after a tense two-abreast test of nerve, it was Rump who emerged ahead of Yoong as the field thundered into the opening lap.
While Picariello set about pulling out a gap at the front – more than two seconds by the end of lap 1 – Rump was on the chase to Gilbert but Yoong was desperate to reclaim his position.
Behind the leaders, Audi Hong Kong’s Marchy Lee, who had been looking for a way past FAW-VW Audi Racing Team’s Cheng Congfu of China, made his move on lap 4, only for Cheng to immediately reclaim the position.
Lap 5 saw Am driver Yoon, and Am+ racer and reigning Amateur Cup champion Jeffrey Lee come together, the pair spinning and Lee ending his race in the gravel.
Yoon was able to continue to the flag, however he was subsequently handed a drive-through penalty after the race, which translated to a 30-second time penalty. Following a double yellow flag period, the incident eventually brought out the safety car, eliminating the lead of more than five seconds Picariello had worked so hard to create.
When the safety car came into the pits on Lap 8, a confident Picariello was right on the throttle, perfectly controlling the restart to maximum advantage and heading off to once again pull out a gap from the chasing pack.
While Gilbert and Rump did their best to give chase, behind them young pretender Thong was piling on the pressure to three-time champion Yoong, audaciously flashing his headlights at the hometown star. Yoong, in turn, remained determined to catch Rump.
Yoong fought hard, pushing right on the limit but got on the grass and was unable to control the spin, dashing the hopes of his legion of home fans. He eventually crossed the line in eighth behind fellow countryman Akash Nandy of KCMG, and Team Audi Korea’s Kyong-Ouk You.
Just as Gilbert seemed assured of a podium finish on what was an impressive Cup debut, he was dramatically forced to retire just two laps from the flag. It was a cruel blow to the talented 26-year-old, born and raised in Malaysia.
Gilbert’s retirement promoted Rump to second, with Thong taking the final podium place ahead of Cheng, Lee and guest driver this weekend, Stéphane Richelmi who is standing in at Castrol Racing Team for former Formula One driver Will Stevens, who will make his Cup debut with the Cup in Japan next month. The Castrol car is serviced by new Cup service provider, WRT.
Picariello tops the championship leaderboard going into Round 2, his duo of pole positions earning him an additional two points. Yoong will be alongside the wunderkind for tomorrow’s standing start in a straight battle between experience and youth when the lights go.
The Audi R8 LMS Cup continues tomorrow at the Sepang International Circuit with Round 2 starting on Sunday, May 7 at 12:35 (all times UTC+8).
Round 1 – Results
1. 15/Alessio PICARIELLO(BEL)/MGP by Absolute/28:28.601 (13 laps)
2. 18/Martin RUMP(EST)/Champion Racing Team/+4:007
3. 8/Shaun THONG Wei Fung(HKG)/Audi TEDA Racing Team/+8.402
4. 31/CHENG Congfu (CHN)/FAW-VW Audi Racing Team/+9.697
5. 88/Marchy LEE(HKG)/Audi Hong Kong/+10.612
6. 11/Stéphane RICHELMI(MCO)/G/Castrol Racing Team/+12.875
7. 29/Akash NANDY(MAS)/KCMG/+13.335
8. 1/Alex YOONG(MAS)/Audi R8 LMS Cup/+16.183
9. 13/Kyong-Ouk YOU(KOR)/Team Audi Korea/+22.713
10. 77/Rick YOON(HKG)/Am/KCMG/+1:01.084
DNF. 86/Mitch GILBERT(MAS)/OD Racing Team
DNF. 7/Jeffrey LEE(TWN)/Am+/Team Audi Volkswagen Taiwan