Thailand Super Series: The F1 Connection - 14.10.2013
Czech star Khun Tomáš Enge, once a racer for the Prost Grand Prix team and now one of the leading sports car racing star names was in the paddock to assist Vattana Motorsport, thanks to his role as a test driver for Reiter Engineering.The other Thomas, Khun Thomas Raldorf, was making his seasonal debut in Thailand Super Series having missed the trip to Sepang as his new team, CEA Racing, came together. He’s a wholly more familiar face to Thai paddock regulars and while he's back behind the wheel of his equally-familiar Subaru Impreza, he had a tough start to his Super Car season in new colours. But unquestionably he showed that the promise is there – now CEA Racing has to unlock that in time for Race 5 & 6, which take place again at Bira, next month.
The stars to be seen in the TSS paddock at Bira last month didn’t stop there and one of many household names out on the 2.4 km Pattaya circuit was top Thai drifter, Khun Daychapon Toyingcharoen, better known as ‘Pond Injec’ to his many fans. Khun ‘Pond’ was squeezing all his skills into one of the smallest cars in action as he debuted in ‘Super Eco’ behind the wheel of a Suzuki Swift.
Tomáš Enge: From F1 to Bira Circuit
It's not often a former F1 pilot pops up in the Thailand Super Series paddock, but that was exactly the case at the last round of the championship at Bira in August when Khun Tomáš Enge, a former pilot for the Prost Grand Prix team and one of the acknowledged top sports car pilots in the world today, was a part of Vattana Motorsport’s race weekend operation.
The Czech driver enjoyed a strong career in single-seaters, achieving much success in Formula 3000, before his big F1 break came with triple world champion Khun Alain Prost’s team. Then it was back to F3000 for a second stint, as well as representing his homeland in the nation-based ‘A1 Grand Prix’ series and racing stateside in Indycars. However, it’s since turning to sports cars that Khun Tomáš has really etched his name into the motorsport history books and that recognition arrived almost instantly as he won the GTS class of the historic Le Mans 24 hours in 2003 behind the wheel of a Prodrive-built Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello. In fact that win came part way into an impressive sequence of five straight GT1 class pole positions at Le Mans (2002-06) which reinforced his reputation of being able to hustle a race car round a track at a blistering pace. He actually added another pole at Le Mans in 2010 to notch up the half dozen mark.
He was retained by Prodrive when the UK outfit switched to run Aston Martin’s factory sports car team; Khun Tomáš and has since raced at Le Mans in their cars in both the GT1 and prototype class six times. He also raced Ferraris in ALMS. Last year he switched allegiance to Reiter Engineering – and that is the starting point of his long journey to Bira Circuit. Reiter Engineering is the German concern that develops and builds the highly successful breed of Lamborghini Gallardo GT3 sports cars that have won many victories and important titles across the globe in the FIA GT3 category over the last half decade.
Late last year one of Thailand racing's leading race teams, Vattana Motorsport, became the official Reiter Engineering agent for Thailand and this year the outfit is running two front-running Gallardo GT3 machines for Khun Chonsawat Asavahame and Khun Indharasak Techaterasiri under the Reiter-Vattana-Unity banner. The pair are acknowledged race winners, the former gave the Italian sports car its first overall win at Bangsaen last December and its second at Bira last month while the latter won the Super Car N/A title in 2012 on his comeback year. Vattana Motorsport also provides support for further Gallardos racing in Thailand Super Series.
Vattana Motorsport receives factory input at the races in terms of technical support - and for the Bira round that went one step further as Khun Tomáš, now an official test driver for Reiter Engineering, was on hand to assist in setting up the car and providing his unrivalled knowledge as he is involved in each step of the car’s evolution. That input is even more valuable as Khun Chonsawat is driving the brand-new ‘Model Year 2013’ Gallardo GT3 FL2 of which only a handful are racing worldwide so far. It’s also regarded as a big step in every area over the 2012 cars with improvements in key areas such as aerodynamics, weight, cooling and braking.
“I go to all the series round the world and we’re here with engineers and mechanics [to] support the Vattana Motorsport organisation to set up their cars and help them improve and help them with our experiences,” he explained in the confines of the paddock at Bira where he was a somewhat less than familiar sight to race regulars. “Vattana Motorsport is a satellite team of Reiter Engineering especially for Thailand [so] we’re trying to give them as much support as possible and for their customers as well,” he added. That meant the first job priority was to setup the #28 Gallardo GT3 FL2 of team owner Khun Chonsawat – and the Czech was thus posting his first laps of Bira Circuit. “I jumped in the car, we ran with Sepang [setup] in the car, but I’ve never been here, just two laps with a road car to have a look around, so [it’s] my first time with a race car,” he explained on the first day of official practice last month, following his late Wednesday evening and early Thursday morning runs.
“I have to say with the Sepang setup it was quite tricky to drive as this track is very, very bumpy, it has very low grip and you cannot ride the kerbs here,” he noted. Despite his first exploratory running being in the gloom of a Pattaya evening, with the Gallardo’s headlights blazing, his times were sensational. “Even if the track is short it takes time to learn it but I’ve done a few laps around here and we did a few changes on the setup and we improved about one second and that was the time I did, so in total I did only 10 or 12 laps yesterday,” he said. In fact it was a weekend of new records at Bira Circuit and ahead of the official sessions the timing was already dipping below the 1-minute mark. In the week up to the race, reigning champion Khun Vuttikorn Inthraphuvasak (Porsche 997 GT3-R) and Khun Pasin Lathouras (Ferrari 458 GT3) had both unofficially dipped into 59-second territory. The bar had well and truly been raised.
Khun Tomáš is known as one of the hardest, fastest and least compromising drivers in sports car racing and so it wasn’t a total surprise when he also hauled the black-and-silver #28 Lamborghini below the 1-minute mark on his first runs on a new track, in the dark and with a totally different car setup. Setting records wasn’t the priority though, even if there were psychological ‘laptime’ blows to be delivered in the run up to official qualifying, and Khun Tomáš was satisfied as he felt there was progress being made, even if in his ‘hard man’ image there was an off track excursion.
“I know that there was quite a lot in the car and we were working the whole [Thursday] night to set it up according to my feelings and according to the data,” he continued. “But the time is pretty short, there are only a few practice [sessions and] with so many classes and so short times it’s not easy to set it up quickly.” Khun Tomáš reckoned that with the limitations of the short, tight and twisty Pattaya circuit, a close focus on preparing the car was needed. “Because the track is so short it’s very difficult to find the time but I know suspension here is the key for success,” he said. “We optimise the suspension, optimise the damping, because of the enjoyably challenging chicanes and the double right fast corner.”
It wasn’t just the new Gallardo ‘FL2’ that Khun Tomáš was behind the wheel of during the practice periods as he also gave the Bangkok-based team’s Porsche 996, the regular mount of Khun Jack Lemvard, a spin round the circuit. “I because it belongs to and we try to help the whole organisation with anything they need to setup the car,” Khun Tomáš explained. “We’re here to provide factory support for them and with the Porsche I’ve been asked to try the car, to set a time and get a feel for it and maybe look at it closely as well and try to improve the handling of the car.”
In the practice session he tried out the #44 Porsche, which Khun Jack would later use in the two Super Car Class 1 races, the Czech driver posted a best lap of 1:03.3. “I’m very sure the car can go faster,” he added. It was a flying visit for Khun Tomáš, who is also the first Czech driver ever to race in F1, and he departed from Thailand on Saturday afternoon, such is the whistle stop schedule of the global factory test driver. So had he enjoyed the TSS experience? “Yes definitely,” was the response.
Khun Tomáš also reckoned that he would be back in his support role - and possibly even in the future he could also race. If that was to come off he would be the first former F1 driver to ever race in Thailand Super Series as well as the first Le Mans 24 Hours winner – and such is the rapid growth of this series’ stature that this can be even be considered. Khun Tomáš is unquestionably one of motor racing’s toughest, hardest and most committed drivers, he’s never taken the green light considering second place as an objective so to have him lining on the grid would be a quite experience.
© Copyright Tomas Enge 2013