Sepang, Malaysia - Following its visit to Sepang International Circuit for yet another pair of spectacular races – the eight-ninth and ninetieth since the series kicked off in 2012 – the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup has now driven off into the sunset following eight spectacular seasons as a firm fixture on the Asian racing scene. It’s certainly been a popular addition to the landscape, it’s made its mark and it’s earned a deserved place in the region’s motorsport history.
When it first arrived on the scene – bold, brash and youthful – the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup was a real trailblazer. Not only was it the only racing series in the world reserved exclusively for the ‘R8’, but it was also the only ‘single make’ championship anywhere to use FIA GT3 level cars. It’s manufacturer-sponsored rivals in Asia – Ferrari’s Challenge, Porsche’s Carrera Cup Asia and Lamborghini’s Super Trofeo – are all underpinned by much less technically advanced road car derived machinery.
Chiming with the emergence of higher level sportscar racing in Asia it offered prospective drivers aiming for major series, such as Blancpain GT World Challenge Asia, the opportunity to go racing and learn their craft behind the wheel of a pukka GT3 car at a reasonable cost. However, that ‘reasonable’ cost was still expensive and positioned it well above the price of its three peers on the Asian one make scene. So, it always had a battle on its hand to establish a footprint.
Audi Sport set about creating a balanced ‘eco system’ for those signing up to the series to really develop their talents and extract the max from their weekend’s racing action with each driver taking part enjoying a dedicated and highly experienced race engineer to guide them. And that came in tandem with pro drivers to provide coaching. There were other novelties along the way too such as a ‘push to pass’ button with the number of bites of boost remaining being displayed on the windows. The bases were covered.
The final weekend in Sepang in late November perfectly summed up that calling card of getting lots of experience under the belt. Two races, one held in the daytime the other at night. Ditto for practice and qualifying. And although it was an unplanned gift from the heavens, the night race was held on a wet and treacherous track. Meanwhile the daytime encounter enjoyed hot, sunny and dry conditions.
The two races were as spectacular as ever with the battle for the podium positions going down to the chequered flag in both. There was also a fraught five-way fight for the title – in fact throughout most years the title has gone right down to the wire with multiple drivers being involved in the shoot out for absolute glory.
In Saturday’s Race 1 the win went to Yasser Shahin who had just 1.057 seconds in hand over Alex Au as the pair battled to the finishline in a mad dash following a late race Safety Car while Daniel Bilski worked his way up to nab third place and claim his just his second overall podium.
Andrew Haryanto, the outgoing champion, had swept to pole during the Friday evening qualifying session and he eventually finished fourth, just a few tenths ahead of Vincent Floirendo of the Philippines who wrapped up the top five finishers.
Meanwhile, a bit further back Anderson Tanoto won the GT4 class, which has been added into the series since the R8 LMS GT4 arrived as part of Audi’s customer racecar roster in 2018.
In Sunday’s Race 2, Haryanto more than made up for his slip up in the opener to sign out as the last ever winner of an Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup race. The highly accomplished Indonesian amateur driver wasn’t going to be denied and he ruthlessly stamped his mark on the race, helped in part by a race long titanic squabble for second place that unfolded between Au, Bilski and Thai driver Bhurit Bhirombhakdi, the trio eventually finishing in that order. Shahin closed out the top five after a careful race to collect the final few points he needed to be crowned the last ever champion. GT4 victory this time went to China’s Sheng Yanwen.
Those are the raw statistics that go into the history books, but they really gloss over what was another truly spectacular weekend and the ‘Cup’ is certainly going to leave a gap in the Asian racing scene.
To retrace the history up to the last round at Sepang in November. The ‘Cup’ in fact started back in 2012 as an all-China affair with six rounds on the calendar, three at Shanghai, two at Zhuhai and the final one at Ordos, so it was fitting that Hong Kong’s Marchy Lee was crowned the inaugural champion after a title fight that went to the last race.
For the second year, 2013, the series went international as the six rounder was spilt between down the middle with three in China and one each in Korea, Malaysia and Macau, the latter putting the Audi runners into the spotlights of global attention by taking their place on the programme of the prestigious Macau Grand Prix event. Another Hong Kong national, this time Adderly Fong, won the championship that year.
For its third season, 2014, Macau and Zhuhai vanished as the series spread its wings much further geographically, welcoming new rounds and heading eastwards to Japan’s Fuji Speedway and westwards to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit. And this time it would be former F1 driver Alex Yoong who would clinch the first of three titles on the trot as he made his name synonymous with the series.
For ‘Season 4’, 2015, an inaugural trip to Taiwan beckoned while Korea’s round swapped from Inje Speedium to the new F1-hosting Korea International Circuit. Meanwhile, for the core China leg, Shanghai was trimmed to one round for the first time as Zhuhai returned to the calendar. Yoong made it two straight titles.
A year later Fuji and Zhuhai were scratched from the calendar and Shanghai went back up to two rounds – one alongside the FIA World Endurance Championship – while there was a first ever trip to Thailand to the then two-year-old Chang International Circuit. That year would see Yoong make it three on the trot.
For 2017 the series slimmed down to five rounds and the calendar received another shuffle, with the rounds at Shanghai, Sepang and Korea all being retained along with a return to Japan, but this time the Cup would make its debut at Suzuki, and finally a trip to China’s brand-new Ningbo Circuit.
That year saw Pirelli replace Michelin as the series’ control tyre while there was a first European title winner, Belgium’s Alessio Picariello claiming his first crown in the series after another nail-biting season that saw the championship again being decided at the last race. Meanwhile, the popular Amateur Cup was split into two skill levels with David Chen winning AM+ while Bhirombhakdi came out on top in AM.
Last year there was a real upheaval as out went Korea and Suzuka and in came a first ever trip to Adelaide where the series supported the high profile Australian V8 Supercars championship on the famous former Formula 1 street circuit as well as a first ever round in Europe at the Nürburgring.
Not only all that but the ‘Pro’ drivers got the boot as the Cup became a strictly all AM affair. A truly exciting year was in store and super-fast bronze driver Haryanto nabbed his first crown while it turned into an Indonesian title lockout as Anderson Tanoto swept up the GT4 Cup.
There was also a glittering prize drive in the Spa 24 Hours up for grabs for four drivers that reached the qualifying requirements. The winners eventually were Haryanto, Bhirombhakdi, Shahin and Jeffrey Lee.
Adding some nice diversity to the grid, the new Audi R8 LMS GT4 became eligible for a new second tier championship.
For its eighth and final season this year, the ‘Cup’ remained at five rounds. Again, it started with what had proved the year before to be a very popular trip to the streets of Adelaide before taking in Zhuhai, Shanghai and Suzuka, wrapping up with a trip to Sepang for the final ever race after eight years and forty-five events.
Again, there was a very tasty prize drive but with a new twist as three drivers from the series would win a ride in next year’s 10 Hours of Suzuka while the winner of the GT4 classification would contest the SIC endurance race in Shanghai behind the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS GT4, alongside two pro drivers. After the nail-biting closer in Sepang, Shahin was crowed the last ever champion as the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup headed for the history books.
In terms of its racecars, the series has broken ground by utilising GT3 machinery throughout its lifespan and that’s meant it’s been a great platform for budding drivers aiming at high level series – such as Blancpain GT World Challenge Asia or the now defunct GT Asia Series – to get used to this sophisticated level of machinery. Nowhere else in the world could you ‘arrive and drive’ a pukka GT3 car.
The series started out using the first generation R8 LMS GT3 as the platform before swapping to the current generation R8 LMS GT3 after the first four seasons while for this year it moved onto using that model’s comprehensive ‘Model Year 2019’ upgrade, dubbed widely as the ‘Evo’.
There have been some prizes really worth chasing too! Last year to coincide with the swap to an all-amateur format the series upped the stakes for winning outright by offering a brand-new Audi R8 road car to the champion.
And not just any R8 – this was an exclusive one-off produced by the factory to a unique specification. Audi Sport sourced parts included carbon Aerokit road wheels, brake pads, adjustable suspension and steering wheel.
Throw in Nappa leather, decorated inlays, racing bucket seats, stainless steel brake pedals and footrest as well as personalised kick plates amongst the other unique details inside the cabin and this was to be something on the special side. It was a unique metallic gold too!
“This bespoke Audi R8 Coupé V10 RWS is a one-of-a-kind model which can only be owned by winning the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup’s GT3 category, it’s truly a prize that money can’t buy,” said Martin Kuehl, Director of Audi Sport Customer Racing Asia.
Haryanto won that one and Shahin has just claimed a second example as the spectacular prize was carried over into this year.
The Driver: Andrew Haryanto
Fast and synonymous with the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup, Haryanto has enjoyed a lot of success behind the wheel of the R8 GT3 and that continued to the end as he put his name into the history books as the last ever winner of a race!
Last year when the ‘Cup’ turned all Amateur the Indonesian needed no second invitation, immediately elbowing his way to the top to claim the overall title. A driver who – at least outwardly – has a relaxed persona and laughs an awful lot, Haryanto more than disproves an old racing adage, namely ‘nice guys don’t come first’.
This year he was back in the middle of the title hunt as the series arrived for the final showdown in Sepang. In the dark and rain of Race 1 however it all went south for Haryanto and his hopes of back to back titles were dashed on the treacherous track. “So, I didn’t win the series, I’m pretty okay with it actually,” he reflected afterwards. “But I feel that I learned from the mistake I did and I really think that I am now mentally much stronger.”
However, the previous night’s dramas in the dark were soon forgotten as Sepang Circuit woke up to a hot, dry and sunny Sunday morning and the countdown to Race 2 – the final race ever. When the lights turned green Haryanto proved to be a force that no one could live with, imperiously racing into the distance and leaving his rivals trailing. He was further helped as a huge squabble broke out over second place that saw a trio of drivers focusing on each other rather than trying to reel in the leader while behind them Shahin stayed out of trouble and stroked his car home to collect the points he needed to seal the title.
“The win was really meant for everyone who has supported so far,” said Haryanto. “I saw their disappointment on Saturday, and I really feel that I have to make good on it on Sunday.” A modest driver for sure, but one behind that humble exterior is a born winner. Indeed, someone recently remarked to me that he’s the fastest amateur driver racing an Audi anywhere in the world and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
“The Sunday race was pretty straight forward, having no ballast and no fights I had quite an easy race,” he added.
The Driver: Daniel Bilski
The Australian is an amateur level driver who just gets quicker year-by-year, someone who looks hard in the mirror every day, lays his soul bare and never misses an opportunity to improve his skills. From a somewhat relaxed ‘AM’ he’s embraced the ruthless desire to win of a ‘PRO’ level driver – and a hard edge too!
Bilski’s rise as a driver has really gone hand in hand with the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup – he’s the poster boy for what this series was all about, its objectives and aims. “The ‘Cup’ has been a cornerstone of my GT racing development,” he admits.
As a driver it was exactly what he was looking for. “From its inception, using GT3 cars in a one-make series was a very bold move, and ultimately, I believe it has had a massive positive impact on the development of GT3 racing, and Audi Sport, in the region,” he says.
“For me, my experiences in the Cup, have not only developed my driving skills, but my appreciation for what it takes to run GT3 cars and teams successfully, the professionalism and importance of media and marketing, and how to build motorsport relationships,” Bilski continues.
“GT3 cars were intimidating to me before I joined the Cup, but the coaching and development I received really built my confidence, and belief in myself to be able to compete at a higher level,” he notes.
“The mentoring programs from Pro Drivers, the data and engineering support, the management and technical support and guidance have been exceptionally important in my development as a driver, and for my understanding of GT3 cars technically and performance-wise. And it was fun. A lot of fun. With awesome people.” The ‘eco system’ provided by Audi Sport has empowered him.
“Whilst the series was run by Audi Sport Customer Racing Asia, it really was more than that. The relationships formed and friendships made were genuinely a major part of the enjoyment of the series,” he continues. “The team from Audi China, Audi Sport Germany, media partners, technical partners, Absolute Racing and everyone else involved made it very special.
The learning curve brought cold, hard gains as Daniel has enjoyed a lot of success in the series too and his first title was a turning point as he jettisoned the – outwardly at least – relaxed gentleman image. “In 2015 I won the AM Driver Championship with the Cup,” he recalls. “That season was a major driving force behind my development as a driver, which continues to this day, and continues with Audi Sport. In fact, B-Quik Racing would not have evolved into an Audi team had it not been for the Cup.”
Forward to the last ever race weekend – and Bilski would really sign off in style with his first trips to the overall podium, a fitting way to close this chapter of his career.
“The final Cup race in Sepang recently was quite an emotional event,” he says. “I genuinely feel a part of the Audi family, and have a great fondness and affection for the talented and committed team of people who made the Cup so enjoyable and important. I was actually more emotional coming into the final event than I expected, and I guess it just showed how important the Cup, and the people behind it, are to me personally. I’ve made long-term close friendships from the Cup, and they mean a heck-of- a-lot to me.”
A perfect ending. “To secure two podium finishes in the final two races was very special,” he continues. And they were no easy wins, in both races he had to fight up the running order and was battling for position right to the chequered flag. “For me it was a way of proving to myself that I could now regularly compete on par with the best AM drivers in the region, and to sign off from the Cup with the magnificent B-Quik Racing team, in confident style.
“I competed in the very first Cup race in 2012, and let’s say it didn’t go so well, so to finish the series on the overall podium, twice, was a meaningful way to book-end my evolution as a driver with the series.
“The team at Audi Sport Customer Racing, through the Cup, have nurtured my desire to be a better driver, to push my limits further, and to reach for higher and higher performance levels.
“But the simple point is this – Why do I race? I race because I want to be the best driver I can possibly be, to compete against the best, and to win.” The ultra-competitive racing spirit that anyone who puts on a helmet and gets strapped into the cockpit needs to chase glory certainly courses through this driver.
The Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup gave me the opportunity to chase that goal, to reach for what I thought was an impossible dream, and to dare to reach it. I will be forever be thankful to everyone involved in making the Audi Sport R8 LMS Cup such a truly special part of my life.” Over and out, ready for the next career chapter.
The Driver: Paul Kanjanapas
The driver who walked away with the record of being the last to ever join this series was Paul Kanjanapas, who rocked up for his ‘Cup’ debut in races number 89 and 90. He simply couldn’t have left it any later to experience the ‘Cup’ in all its pomp. So, his thoughts are well worth tapping – and it seems he came away impressed.
It was Kanjanapas’ first time behind the wheel of a GT3 category Audi too, so the weekend was always going to present a steep learning curve as he unlocked the car’s potential session by session.
However, he has plenty of GT3 level experience – and this circuit has proved to be a happy past hunting ground as his highlights here include being part of the crew that won the Touring Car class in the Sepang 12 Hour endurance race back in 2013.
Kanjanapas was quick to give the Audi the thumbs up. “It was an easy car to drive for a gentleman driver,” he said. “The brakes are really good and it gives a lot of confidence to improve our driving with such a fast car. It’s genuinely a nice car to drive, everything felt solid, everything felt safe.”
With that sort of platform under him he was able to explore more of what the car could offer. “It gives you the confidence to push,” says Kanjanapas. “The faster I went the more stable it was, it’s a suitable car for a gentleman driver to go faster, to get faster.”
He also enjoyed the overall package that the series provided, which includes dedicated engineers and pro drivers that mentor the amateur drivers one-on-one. “They were very gentle with the words they used,” Kanjanapas says with a laugh. “They genuinely care about how to make you go faster.”
“The event was very well organised, they looked after the drivers’ well,” adds Kanjanapas. “It was a very good experience.” A productive weekend behind the wheel that finished well too as Kanjanapas headed for the ‘Challenger’ class podium at the end of Race 2 to add the series’ stylish and cleanly designed – and weighty – trophy to his cabinet.
So, the final curtain has fallen and there are many good memories for everyone who came into contact with the series. A trailblazer on this continent for sure. It won a lot of fans over its eight years ploughing a new furrow across Asia and created a lot of positive PR for the company – so could it possibly return in the future?
At the same time as the ‘Cup’ was heading on a high into a typical Sepang Sunday sunset and its last ever champions were collecting their trophies, back in Germany Audi’s parent company VW had pulled a shocker, announcing an all-electric motorsport future for the mass market brand as it abruptly pulled the plug on its TCR programme. The plates are shifting rapidly as the global car manufacturers scramble to keep up with the accelerating shift to EV and it’s no secret that the hierarchy at Audi have been eyeing up electric power for its next-generation R8 production car. Arch-rival Porsche’s high performance Taycan sportscar is now a cold hard reality – and that means the ‘electric sportscar’ game is well and truly on. So maybe sometime in the future the series could be reborn with electric-powered cars? Wild thinking of course, there are no joined up dots to reach for here, but if that scenario was to happen it would certainly make the ‘Cup’ a trailblazer in Asia all over again. And that after all was its mission, that’s was its DNA.