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World Championship’

motorsport action arrives in Thailand for the first time

By Edd Ellison

It’s barely a year since Chang International Circuit (CIC) opened for business in Buriram to great fanfare – and immediately changed the face of motorsport in Thailand. Designed to the FIA’s ‘Grade 1’ standard, basically the best you can get to, that effectively means F1 can just turn up and race. It’s ushered in a new chapter for race circuits in Thailand.

Our own beloved Bira Circuit feels a bit small and creaky now and many Pattaya race fans have knuckled down and started making the long trip up to the North East to see the top level motorsports that have come in the wake of CIC’s opening for business.

Many of them also made the trip recently as the FIA World Touring Car Championship enjoyed it’s first ever visit to Thailand. In fact it was the first ever FIA sanctioned ‘World Championship’ event here, a statistic that was long overdue to be corrected.

For the ambitious owners of the Buriram circuit attracting an FIA ‘World Championship’ event was always going to be a major target. But there are actually only five that hold that moniker, two, the World Rally Championship and World Rallycross Championship, certainly aren’t a ‘fit’ with an asphalt racetrack so that leaves three – Formula 1, World Endurance and World Touring Cars. The former two are currently out of financial reach so that leaves the close fought ‘touring cars’ as the only practical option and, rather handily, they were also looking for a new regional stopping off point after ending their longstanding relationship with Macau.

With the input of the Royal Automobile Association of Thailand, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Sport Authority of Thailand and other bodies the ambitious project became a reality and started to unfold.

The tangible reality finally hit when the 40-ft containers of the World Touring Car Championship teams’ arrived in Thailand, were transported up to Buriram, lined up and then unloaded on the vast paddock apron. There are four global brands racing in the series: Citroën, Honda, Lada and Chevrolet while the big stars include former Italian F1 driver Gabriele Tarquini and nine times FIA World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb who has in recent years swapped the rally stages for the clean smooth asphalt of the race tracks.

The weekend though was all about one driver, Argentinian star José María López. He arrived in Buriram as the reigning champion and with a firm grip on this year’s points’ classification. He banged in a win in the first race, his ninth victory of the season, and followed that up with another battling drive to the podium in the second race after the top end of the grid was reversed and the Citroën driver thus left Thailand with his second WTCC championship title.

“It’s been an amazing year for me but really hard,” he said in the post race press conference. “The competition has been harder, my team-mates have worked harder and never gave up. To win the championship three races before the end is a massive result looking at the competition and the level. We were really equal in some races and I am looking forward to it continuing like this.”

For Thailand the arrival of the first FIA sanctioned ‘World Championship’ was a win-win for everyone, as CIC Project Director Tanaisiri Chanvittayarom was quick to say. “This is the first FIA World Championship event for Chang International Circuit,” he noted. “It’s a big honour for us, we’ve been trusted and chose to be one of the championship rounds and it’s exciting because all the teams, the drivers and the organisers are a big group of professionals so we also learn a lot from this race in terms of setup and organization bodies.” It’s really an event that has taken CIC up to another level, and in their first year they have climbed quite a few notches already.

The crowds also arrived. Despite limited promotion the main grandstand filled right up on race day, that’s 10,000 bums on seats, and they all saw very close fought action over the two races, which eventually ran well on into the twilight. When the engines finally died away and darkness fully enveloped the track a big milestone had been broken – pukka FIA ‘world championship’ action had taken place on Thai soil. Things will never be the same.