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TOP THAI TRIO TAKE ON MACAU CHALLENGE

by Edd Elllison

At the end of last year a trio of leading Thai drivers, all well-known names to Pattaya race fans, took on one of the biggest challenges in Asian motorsport, the Macau Grand Prix.

The annual street race, now in its 62nd edition, is the most important ‘temporary’ circuit in Asia – and in fact one of the most important in the world, probably ranking only behind the famous Monaco F1 circuit. The ‘Guia Circuit’ is hugely demanding on drivers and cars; tight and twisting it’s only for the bravest of the brave and razor sharp reflexes are needed to keep away from the unforgiving barriers.

Into that mix came the three Thais, driving for three different teams across two top categories. Pasin Lathouras, Vutthikorn Inthraphuvasak and Nattavude Charoensukhawatana. Three very successful racetrack ‘gladiators’ and amongst the best drivers to have ever carried Thai flags on the side of their cars.

Let’s start with Nattavude. He's arguably Thailand's most accomplished racing driver, the elder statesman of the paddock. To his many Thai fans – and that includes many here in Pattaya – Nattavude is known simply as ‘MadCow’.

What most Thai fans don't realise though is that it was actually the Macau fans that slapped the MadCow moniker on him and they also claim Nattavude as one of their own. To impress the Macau ‘faithful’ isn't an easy task, they've seen too many big and brash reputations arrive and depart humbled over the years. That he first turned up in the motorbike race and promptly delivered put him straight up there amongst the principality’s hallowed names.

This was Nattavude's fifteenth consecutive year on the Guia Circuit and this time he was back in the ‘Road Sport Challenge’, which is always one of the most vibrant, popular and hard fought races on the programme.

Lotus dealer and enthusiastic racer-team owner Eric Wong handed him a seat in one of his machines as he was entering a gaggle of the British sportscars. The connection between the two men, both veterans of Macau, was forged a couple of years ago when Eric found Nattavude a seat in his popular Lotus Elise One Make series, which was then on the programme, and in a neat twist he also found a seat for the Thai driver’s daughter, Tanchanok, herself a young and promising race driver. This really is a pukka ‘racing family’; motorsport runs deep in their blood.

So while Nattavude wasn’t really new to driving a Lotus racecar, the small and grunt-restricted ‘One Make’ Elise is a world apart from the three-litre ‘V6’ Evora.

Ever the professional who seeks out perfection, Nattavude simply wasn’t happy with where the Evora was following the opening free practice session and he had a list of changes for his engineers to enact overnight ahead of qualifying. “I have set up the car before it came to Macau after [testing] in Zhuhai,” he said. “Everything was correct for the settings but this morning I ran out and found it wasn’t correct for here, like the gear ratios and the suspension is too soft so I have to change the dampers and change the alignment.”

However he was quite pleased with the general feel of the Lotus and looking forward to the race. “This is the first time I’ve raced this car,” said Nattavude. “I think it’s quite reliable because the power isn’t so high, it’s around 420 [hp] and the car weighs around 1,200 [kg] without the driver, so the balance isn’t so bad.”

Rocking up in Road Sport with the Evora was something of a David versus Goliath situation. Nattavude would be taking on a lengthy entry list stuffed with much more powerful Mitsubishi and Nissan runners and he would need to fight extra hard if he wanted make his way into the top ten overall against these formidable machines.

“The competitors are all very strong, like the Evolutions [and] we are loosing advantage because on the main straight they pull away so far so I cant catch up with them in the first turn or the second turn, so that’s a big problem,” he admitted. “After the uphill I try to catch up but it’s not enough, it’s a big gap.”

In qualifying Nattavude hauled the car into sixth place but at the green lights for the race he was swamped in a sea of more powerful Evos and GTRs and with a clear power deficit there was very little he could do. However this driver never gives up and he dug in deep, held his ground and chipped away through the race to finish in seventh, an impressive achievement.

Then to Pasin and Vutthikorn. Both were contesting a brand new race as the ‘FIA GT World Cup’ replaced the ‘Macau GT Cup’ as a headline event on the programme for this year. The ‘World Cup’ concept is reserved for GT3 cars and aims to bring together leading manufacturer teams and professional drivers from around the world for a spectacular event as the best of the best head off with each other.

Both these drivers took their careers abroad with much success last year. Pasin, the youngest driver on the grid at just 21 years of age, raced in Europe and wound up vice champion in International GT Open last as well as winning the 24 Hours of Spa in Pro-Am. Appearing in the ‘World Cup’ at Macau capped off a stunning season.

From the ‘young gun’ to the seasoned star. Vutthikorn is one of the defining Thai drivers of the last decade, winning multiple domestic championship titles. Last year he raced in the highly competitive Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and was rarely off the podium.

Pasin and Vutthikorn weren’t fazed one bit by the roster of professional drivers in factory cars on the entry list and out on track they banged in strong times to qualify in the mid-teens, the former edging out the latter. Pasin as the youngest driver in the race still has a lot to learn here, so every lap was invaluable, while for Vutthikorn it was his first time here in more than a decade so he also had to shed the rust and get reacclimatised.

The pair, starting side by side on the grid, enjoyed a safe getaway in the first race of the weekend. However as this was the ‘Qualification Race’ ahead of the ‘World Cup’ final race the next day the strategy for all the drivers was to get to the finish line safely and there were few heroic attempts made. Pasin and Vutthikorn though moved up the order a couple of places to improve their overall grid positions for the main race. Job well done – and no scratches, well not any big o

nes at least.

The ‘final’ played out in searing heat and with all the factory-entered cars squabbling at the top end of the grid anticipation was huge. Pasin and Vutthikorn enjoyed some excellent opening laps to climb up to tenth and eleventh places. However by that point Pasin was reporting over the radio that he was suffering understeer and gear shifting problems.

It stayed that way until mid distance. Then Vutthikorn, after a very smooth and fast drive, slipped on a patch of oil. Without sufficient advance flag warning there was simply nothing he could do and he whacked the barriers, immediately ending his superb afternoon’s work. That swiftly brought out the Safety Car and his incident would settle the race.

It meant Pasin didn’t have the chance to try to push up any further, but, despite technical issues on his Ferrari, he had managed to lock into the top ten, an excellent result that more than beat the team’s objectives for the event. He was the only amateur driver to finish in the top ten of the ‘World Cup’ and he had held his own driving a privately entered car run in a field brimming with professionals and factory cars.

“It’s been a great way to end the year,” said a satisfied Pasin afterward. “To race here is really special, it’s just such an awesome track and such a tough challenge and this year with it being the new FIA World Cup race there has been even more added pressure. The team did a great job in setting up the car and I kept working to consistently improve my lap times with each session to get where I needed to be to be competitive in the race.”