- Asia Road Racing Championship Round 6, Thailand
- Supersports 600cc / Asia Production 250cc
- Date: 3 December, 2017
- Circuit: Chang International Circuit (4.554 km)
Long-awaited Championship Victory for Azlan Shah!
The long-contested season finally came down to its decisive climax, this weekend’s round at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand. After five rounds and ten races completed, points leader and last year’s champion Md Zaqhwan Zaidi (Honda) had acquired 138 total points, and was followed by Yuki Ito (Yamaha) with 134, Taiga Hada (Honda) also with 134, and Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman with 128. All were vying to lift the championship crown in a hotly contested season the likes of which has not been seen in recent years.
The Chang International Circuit also played host to Round 2 of the Asia Road Racing Championship, and in addition to the regular riders being fast at their home track, wildcard riders were also quick. How that would affect the outcome of the championship was the focus of much attention. The Kawasaki Thailand Racing Team was also fielding their own wildcard entry in the form of Thai champion Thitipong Warokorn.
As this was the final round of the championship, the schedule for the weekend was a bit different than normal. It was set to take place over four days, with two free practices scheduled for day one, a third free practice and qualifying for day two, Race 1 on day three and Race 2 on day four.
In the qualifying session that took place on day two, December 1, the skies were clear and the air temperature was 30℃ with moderately strong wind. Taking the fastest time was Thai wildcard and last year’s AP250 champion Apiwat Wongthananon (Yamaha), who was in fine form from free practice until the end of the weekend. The other Thai riders also looked promisingly quick, with Chalermpol Polamai (Yamaha), Warokorn, Decha Kraisart (Yamaha), and Ratthapong Wilairot (Honda) all keeping their names near the top of the timing screens. The result of the 40-minute qualifying session was a 1’38.770 pole lap set by Wongthananon. Following him were Polamai, Anthony West (Yamaha), Azlan Shah and Warokorn, with Haji Amad Yudhistira 1.5 seconds off the pace in 12th.
This meant that the only rider inside the top six with a shot at the title was Azlan Shah. Not only would the races themselves be a point of focus, but watching how the championship battle would play out would make the final round doubly interesting.
On day three the skies were a bit cloudier than the day before, with grey skies prevailing, but the temperature was still 30℃, and it was windy just as the day before. The track temperature had not gone up by much. It was a comparatively cool 38℃ when the SS600 race started at 3:00pm before the match was struck to light off the 18-lap contest.
Azlan Shah made an excellent start from 4th position on the second row of the grid. Behind him were Wongthananon, Polamai, Warokorn and West. In the opening stages these five riders made up a lead group that swapped back and forth as they pulled away from the trailing riders. The second group was Ito, Kraisart, Noriyuki Haga (Yamaha), Hada, Yudhistira and Zaidi. Three title contenders were in that mix, and if things played out as they were, it was looking increasingly likely that Azlan Shah could take over first place in the championship standings.
In the middle stages with 10 laps completed, local rider Kraisart began to steadily break away from the second group and catch the lead group. Behind him, 2nd ranked Ito looked to follow his lead but crashed out on lap 14, taking himself not only out of the race but also essentially out of the title hunt.
At the front Wongthananon recovered the lead and slowly began to open a gap, although slight, to the riders behind. West, Azlan Shah, Polamai, Warokorn and Kraisart were in the midst of an intense dogfight behind him. The trailing group of Zaidi, Yudhistira, Hada and Wilairot also had a scrap of their own going on, making title predictions difficult.
The battle started to heat up with three laps left to go. At one point West took over the lead, but local star Wongthananon would not give up. He repassed West on the final lap to take his first victory in the class. West finished 2nd, Warokorn 3rd and Polamai 4th – all Thai riders except for West. Azlan Shah took 11 points with a 5th place finish (after Race 1 Azlan Shah was ranked 3rd overall), and as Zaidi had dropped back to finish 10th, the gap was then a mere 5 points to the lead, giving Azlan Shah hope for Race 2.
Yudhistira maintained control over the trailing group in 7th as he finished ahead of title contenders Hada and Zaidi, providing excellent backup for his teammate.
On December 3rd, sad as it may be, was the 2017 season’s final race. Both races at this round ended up being held under clear skies. The air and track temperatures were nearly identical to the previous day’s conditions. The only major difference to the day before was in the championship point standings.
Wongthananon got the holeshot as Azlan Shah also made a good start to take over 2nd at the exit of the first corner. As expected, the contingent of local Thai riders followed close behind, with Polamai, Warokorn and Kraisart bringing up Azlan Shah’s rear.
Polamai let the cheers of the local crowd carry him up into 2nd position as Wongthananon, Polamai, Azlan Shah, Warokorn, West and Kraisart made up the lead group in the opening laps. At that time, points leader Zaidi was in the trailing group as he battled to stay in front of Ito, Hada and Yudhistira.
Approaching the midpoint of the race, Wongthananon began to slowly pull away from the other riders and soon found himself running alone at the front. The gap back to Polamai and Azlan Shah at times widened, but the two quickly caught back up as their fight for the podium got into full swing. West and Warokorn also go involved as the battle turned into a free-for-all. Azlan Shah, who did not know what position championship rivals Zaidi and Hada were in could only do his best to take the championship himself. To that end, he needed to finish as high up in the order as possible, with even one position potentially changing the outcome. Meanwhile behind him in the trailing group his teammate Yudhistira provided support by taking the fight directly to Zaidi and Hada.
The final lap saw Azlan Shah cross the line in 4th, and he was stuck right to the rear of Polamai as they came through sector two. He passed Polamai for 3rd in sector three before taking the checkers and 16 precious championship points, bringing himself to a total of 155. Zaidi then only needed to finish in 6th to seal the championship. Behind Azlan Shah, Polamai followed in 4th and Warokorn 5th. Then, the next machine to appear coming around the corner was that of Kraisart! When he came across the line it was official, Manual-Tech Kawasaki KYT and Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman had done everything required to secure a long-awaited championship victory.
After overcoming injuries in Round 3 in Japan and at Round 5 in India, Azlan Shah’s come-from-behind championship win became his first since 2013, Manual-Tech’s first since Gupita Kresna’s 2015 UB150 victory, and Kawasaki’s first since Katsuaki Fujiwara’s 2011 win. It had been six years since Kawasaki had earned the laurels of a championship victory in the class.
|5||25||Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman||Kawasaki|
|10||21||Md Zaqhwan Zaidi||Honda|
|18||69||Shankar Sarath Kumar||Honda|
|3||25||Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman||Kawasaki|
|7||21||Md Zaqhwan Zaidi||Honda|
|18||69||Shankar Sarath Kumar||Honda|