Published on July 28th, 2015 | by Subhash Nair0
Weekend of mixed fortunes for FFF Racing in Japan
The FFF Racing Team by ACM were looking forward to the third stop of the GT Asia Series at the iconic Fuji International Speedway in Japan, not the least because the event had been a popular hunting ground for the #55 combination of Hiroshi Hamaguchi and Tonio Liuzzi, the two having tasted success at the venue in the past.
For the fifth and sixth rounds of the championship though, the popular three-car McLaren team took on a slightly different look, with two successful Australian drivers campaigning the third car, whilst team-leader Sean Fu was joined by series debutante Andre Couto, the drivers of the #5 machine though sadly losing their primary ride in a pre-race test accident, forcing the duo to take over the reigns of a Nismo Nissan GT-R.
Despite that and challenging conditions off the back of a passing typhoon, the team worked themselves into contention across the weekend, with all three cars challenging inside the top ten, whilst the #55 car narrowly missed a podium on Saturday, and was eliminated from a certain podium finish after contact early in Sunday’s second race.
It’s old news now that the McLaren campaigned in earlier rounds by Jiang Xin and Max Wiser was eliminated in pre-race testing at Fuji, forcing a shuffle of car numbers, which ultimately saw Australians Nathan Antunes and Rod Salmon promoted to the #5 car (which was soon changed to the #15 car), whilst Fu and Couto would take over the reigns of the Nissan.
Practice conditions saw torrential rain on Thursday for the two unofficial sessions, followed by mixed weather on Friday for the three official practice sessions where all six drivers spent time coming to grips with the 4.563-kilometre, 16-turn venue.
Sadly, all was not ideal, the Nissan team were faced with an ECU issue which kept them from contesting any serious laps, although by Friday afternoon conditions cleared enough for all three teams to see where they were against the competition, with the #55 car recording the best time, but just tenth fastest for the day.
With Saturday morning dawning dry, there was some hope that qualifying would stay that way, but just 15-minutes ahead of the opening session, the heavens opened again, forcing teams onto wet tyres. With only one real chance to record a strong lap, Liuzzi charged to set the seventh fastest time, whilst Couto battled the twin-turbo Nissan around for 13th.
Antunes sadly was plagued by a gearbox issue which made it almost impossible to downshift, a problem which saw team-mate Rod Salmon stranded for some time on track in Q2, which forced a rear-of-field start for round six. A post-session investigation by the team revealed no immediate problem, forcing a complete gearbox change to ensure the team would be okay for the two 60-minute races, the FFF Racing team by ACM crew effecting the replacement in the break between qualifying and the opening race.
Typically the action begins at Fuji into the tight turn one, and the opening race was no different with two of the Bentleys and the front-running Aston Martin eliminated almost immediately, and with it, the Ferrari of Max Wiser. In amongst all the activity, the experienced Liuzzi managed to ‘thread-the-needle’ to move into third position, although he was soon under fire from the remaining Bentley, and not too long after team-mate Couto.
The Mecanese driver was electric in the opening laps, moving the powerful Nissan up the order as the rain began to fall, the former Macau F3 winner showing incredible skill to move the FFF Racing team into third ahead of the compulsory pit stops (CPS). Behind him Nathan Antunes too was working his way forward, making it three FFF cars in the top six ahead of the stop, with Salmon, Fu and Hamaguchi taking over the driving duties for the run home. Ultimately all three cars were forced onto wet weather tyres as the conditions started to deteriorate, Hamaguchi hanging on to fourth, with Salmon moving up to eighth and Fu an impressive tenth.
For race two the weather finally cleared long enough for the teams to contest a dry run, and all eyes were on Hamaguchi who started from the front row. The Japanese driver began strongly, but mindful of the dramas into turn one for the opening race, he left enough room for the fast starting Jonathon Venter to lead through to turn two. Hamaguchi slotted into P2, but came under fire from the Bentley of Adderly Fong on lap two, the Ferrari of Todd Piti drafting in behind the round four winner to dive up the inside of Hamaguchi into turn one, turning the Japanese driver around into the path of Mok Weng Sun.
That forced all three cars wide and off the circuit, with Hamaguchi beached and with broken right rear suspension – sadly it was game over for the #55 team. Focus then turned to the #15 McLaren with Salmon working his way carefully through the field to pit from 12th position, whilst further back Sean Fu drove a consistent race to put Couto back in the seat just outside the top ten.
As the laps wound down the charging Antunes had worked his way up to a battle for seventh, but sadly contact with the similar McLaren MP4-12C of Akira Iida saw both McLarens forced off the circuit, with Antunes receiving a post-race penalty for the unintentional contact. Post race Salmon also revealed he’d made contact – with team-boss Sean Fu in the early laps of the race after miss-interpreting a pit-lane instruction to pass the Nissan, Fu opening the door at 130R, with Salmon taking that as a sign to make the move.
Little was lost, but the #15 team received a second 30-second penalty as a result, dropping them back to 12th after crossing the line in ninth place. Couto and Fu were 11th across the line, but with the penalty for the #15 car, were promoted to their second consecutive top ten finish. Hamaguchi and Liuzzi were understandably disappointed with the lap two retirement, believing that they could well have been on the podium to garnish some more valuable championship points.
Despite the less than perfect result, there were some highlights for the Fuji event, one of which was the performance of Sean Fu under challenging conditions, having had to switch his focus from the #5 McLaren, to a completely untried and untested Nissan GT-R, not just in dry conditions, but also in the wet. His efforts in race one under immense pressure from his rivals on a worsening track were rewarded with one of his best results in GT Asia to date, whilst for Liuzzi and Hamaguchi, they continued to show that they are a real threat in the championship, despite their race two DNF. With the Fuji round now completed, focus turns to the fourth event of the year, and the GT Asia Series’ first ‘mini’ enduro, with a single, double-points scoring three-hour race at Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit on September 4-5.