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by Edd Ellison

There now seem to be a never ending list of ‘firsts’ for Thai motorsport and 2016 has kicked off with yet another ‘first’ for the country as ‘Le Mans’ racing arrived here and specifically the famous ‘Le Mans Prototypes’ rolled into town. A truly iconic racecar shape that’s never been seen in Thailand before.

Since the new state-of-the-art circuit in Buriram opened a year and a half ago the motorsport landscape has been turned upside down and the inaugural visit of the Asian Le Mans Series didn’t disappoint one bit. The cars were spectacular, the drivers oozed top-level skills and the racing was fierce.

At the end of three hours of frenetic action victory went to the series debuting Oreca LMP2 driven by Indonesian driver Sean Galeal and his Italian teammate Antonio Giovinazzi. 22-year-old Giovinazzi was in Buriram for the first time and also driving an LMP2 car for the first time, but he looked quick and sharp from the very first moment the cars hit the track. Despite his youth he’s enjoyed a very successful single-seater career already in karts, Formula Pilota China, and F3 in the British and European championships.

“For sure it’s very nice to be in Thailand, it’s my first time in Thailand and also first time also for me to be in an LMP2 car so everything is new,” he said in the intensive build up to the race. “But the track looks really good, it’s really smooth, a lot of nice corners, slow speed corners, so it will be interesting also to see the start of the race. I’m really enjoying it.” He converted that pole into victory, but it certainly wasn’t an easy afternoon’s work for Giovinazzi or Galael, they had to work hard to pull off the win and fight back into contention after an early problem.

Thai motorsport fans though had plenty to cheer when it was announced that Tanart Sathienthirakul had made a late entry into the race; he was driving an LMP3 prototypes for Team AAI. Tanart’s certainly a well-known young Thai driver name, but the fans have had to follow his racing career abroad for the last half a decade.

“My last race [in Thailand] was karting five years ago,” he explained as he prepared to get out on track. From domestic karting Tanart went straight to Europe to race in F3 and has been a little bit out of sight ever since. “I race in Europe so I kind of live in the UK so I don’t have to fly back and forward every time,” he explains.

So it was a little bit of a surprise when his name was lodged with the race organisers’ but he reckoned that the combination of driving a prototype racecar in Thailand simply wasn’t one to be missed. “I would like to experience LMP cars and decide what I’m doing this year, so we will step up from here and see what happens,” he says. When he went off to race in Europe, Buriram’s striking Chang International Circuit wasn’t even a distant dream in its proud owners’ eyes. But now well used to racing on the most famous tracks in the world, Tanart was pleased to be finally out on this circuit the first time. “I think the track is a fast track and a flowing track so you have to get in the rhythm and it’s not so bad, but when you’re not in the rhythm it’s a bit tricky,” he says.

With practice successfully done his first big test would be qualifying. A workmanlike effort focused on steadily improving really did the trick, although with all the teams and virtually all the drivers new to the track, the pace was hotting up session by session. “I’m one and a half seconds faster than yesterday and I think I can still improve [further], not by much, but a few tenths,” he said after qualifying.

And in a vote of confidence in him, Team AAI had entrusted Tanart with its #89 LMP3 for the 30-minute qualifying session. “The [team] wanted me to gain as much experience as possible as I’m going to be the one starting the race,” he explained just after the qualifying session finished. “I don’t think my time is too bad, if I went one second quicker it would [have been] great, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “But I think in the race tomorrow if I can keep the gap I think we still have a chance.”

Tanart had a lot of weight growing on his young shoulders by the time the lights went green for the race, dubbed the ‘3 Hours of Thailand’. The only Thai driver on the grid he would be representing his home country on the occasion of the first ever visit by a Le Mans’ status event to Thailand. He quite simply rose to the occasion as he drove a neat and tidy stint to safely hand over the car to his teammate around the hour mark. The crew eventually finished second in LMP3 and that handed them a well deserved trip to the podium. A very good weekend’s work.

It wasn’t just about acclimatising to a ‘prototype racecar with its enclosed cockpit and enclosed wheels though during the race as driving an hour-long stint was another new experience for this young driver. “One hour, it’s different, because I always do a sprint race,” Tanart said after his trip to the podium. “With this [race] you have to be consistent [and] not make mistakes.” Departing with a trophy on his long awaited return to a Thai racetrack was an excellent way to wrap up the weekend. “I quite enjoyed it, it’s been hot, it’s been roasting inside [the cockpit] but it’s been good fun,” he added.

The first ever visit of the ‘Le Mans prototypes’ breed was a big success and the good news for Thai fans is the series will be back again next year. The Asian ‘franchise’ of Le Mans is growing fast from virtually a zero base so expect a lot more cars on the grid in Buriram next January.