Thai riders line up against their Asian rivals at Japan’s iconic Suzuka Circuit for Round 3 of the Asia Road Racing Championship (ARRC) this weekend with strong potential to score podium finishes in all three classes. Close links with Japan mean that most of Thailand’s 10 contenders have extensive experience of Suzuka, a track which presents complex challenges that few riders ever truly master.
Japan’s first purpose built racing circuit was completed in 1962 by Honda, which owns it to this day through its Mobilityland subsidiary. Designed by John Hugenholtz, who was also responsible for Zandvoort in the Netherlands the full motorcycle layout is 5.8153 kilometres in length, has a unique ‘figure of eight’ style overpass, 17 turns and elevation changes of 40.4 metres from the low point, between turns 1 and 3, to the high point at Turn 14, at the beginning of the overpass. In the ensuing 56 years there have been only four changes made to the circuit, none of which changed its essential character.
Peerapong Luiboonpeng, Thailand’s sole representative in the Underbone 150 class, will be mentored this weekend by Youichi Ui, for whom Suzuka holds special memories. Ui-san scored the first of his 11 career GP125 wins at the circuit in 2000 and knows it better than most.
“Suzuka is the most difficult circuit in Japan and there are many stories from the MotoGP times,” he reflected. Really it is a two-part race track, with the East Course and the West Course both together making the longer circuit. The west side is technical with having good rhythm and getting the mid-corner right being the most important things. The east part is high speed with only two places where you need hard braking, but for the rest of it speed and control are most important. After each part you have to change riding style again.
“This year I will try to give best coaching to our riders,” he grinned, “And I will give them special lines for some parts of the circuit!”
Peerapong, who scored multiple Asia Production 250cc podium finishes during three seasons riding for Yamaha Thailand, partners regular rider Affendi Rosli, currently third in the UB150 standings, in Ui-san’s All for One Team. As well as his team mate, Peerapong faces tough competition from up to ten other riders, including current leader Izzat Zaidi, an in-form Helmi Azman and the three UMA Racing Yamaha rider’s who pulled off a sensational podium lockout in Race 2 at The Bend Motorsport Park in Round 2. Indonesia’s 2016 Champion, Wahyu Aji Trilaksana will be looking to make up for a poor start to the season, so the Underbone battles in the hills of Mie Prefecture will be as fierce as ever.
Further interest is created by Miu Nakahara, whom Thai fans will remember from Round 1 of the 2017 Asia Cup of Road Racing at Thailand Circuit, where she set a pace throughout the event that neither local nor visiting riders were able to get close to. Now aged 16, Nakahara will welcome the chance to show ARRC regulars around her home circuit.
HONOURS IN ASIA PRODUCTION 250 are being contested between Thailand and Indonesia in 2018. Outstanding performances in Round 2 by Astra Honda’s trio of Rheza Danica Ahrens, Mario Suryo Aji and Awhin Sanjaya, mean that Indonesia carries an advantage to Japan that their Thai rivals are aiming to turn around.
Yamaha Thailand and AP Honda are fielding five riders between them, all of whom have race winning or podium finishing potential.
Anuparb Sarmoon, who began the season as title favourite for Yamaha Thailand, currently sits third on the ladder with 62 points, 11 behind leader Rheza, four behind Mario and 11 ahead of AP Honda’s Muklada Sarapuech, who is fourth, despite setbacks from sanctions against her in Thailand and losing several places when Race 2 was red-flagged in Australia. With one race win already in her pocket, the 2015 Asia Dream Cup champion’s confidence is high and she knows Suzuka well from the season she spent in the All Japan’s 250 championship. Over in the blue corner the indomitable Anuparb will be looking to re-establish his authority on the class and could
benefit from strong support from Peerapong Boonlert, with whom he won last year’s Suzuka 4 Hours, and star rookie, Kanatat Jaiman, who has already achieved one podium finish. Muklada’s new team mate, Kritchaporn Kaewsonthi has quickly got to grips with the CBR 250RR and has already shown himself worthy of podium finishes.
However, there is one wildcard in the mix who is likely to disturb up the Thai-Indonesian axis, as 2015 champion, Takehiro Yamamoto returns to the fold. In his previous six AP250 starts at Suzuka he scored two wins and four second places and comes to the battlefield reunited with his title winning Trickstar Kawasaki team and unconstrained by the pressures of being in a chase for the championship. There are five other local wildcards contesting the round, including two being run by 2013 Asia Dream champion, Hiroki Ono, who now has his own team and Karen Ogura, who will be aboard a Yamaha YZF R25 for the somewhat incongruously and loudly named PRO POWER ASIA DOG FIGHT Racing Team.
A different Thai rider has appeared in each of the three podium ceremonies this year. Of them, Thitipong Warakorn, who won the first race in Buriram as a wildcard, will not re-join the grid until ARRC returns to Chang International for the sixth and final round at the end of November. Yamaha Thailand’s Decha Kraisart and Ratthapong Wilairot have a second place each and different imperatives driving them at Suzuka.
Decha’s second place is his only finish so far and he needs to show the consistency that previously took him to two championships as well as his unerring speed and determination. Ratthapong, by contrast, is new to the team and very much in form. After a solid sixth place first time out at Chang International, he was skittled out of second place at the final corner of Race 2 by Zaqwan Zaidi and then came back to claim a convincing second place in the only race for which points were awarded in Australia. He therefore goes to Round 3 under less pressure than Decha.
Yamaha Racing Asean’s Keminth Kubo leads a closely packed new generation of riders in the championship and is also on a good run of form, which should take him into podium finishing positions during the course of the current season.
AP Honda’s Passawit Thitiwararak is an improving class rookie in 2018. Paired with Japan’s Keisuke Kurihara and under the guidance of GP stars, Ratthapark Wilairot and Makoto Tamada, he is gaining in speed and confidence and is capable of breaking into the top 10 at Suzuka.
There are extreme tests for all four Thai Supersport riders, led by championship leader and Suzuka 2017 double race winner, Anthony West, then Yuki Ito, Tomoyoshi Koyama, Zaqwan Zaidi, Taiga Hada and defending SS600 champion, Azlan Shah. In the next tier are emerging stars, Ramdan Rosli, Kasma Daniel, Andi Farid Izdihar and Azroy Hakeem Anuar and British newcomer, Joe Francis, whose blistering turn of speed as West’s stand-in for Round 2 has earned him a place in the Webike IKAZUCHI team for the rest of the season.
As usual, the action starts with Free Practice on Friday, with Qualifying and races on Saturday and Sunday. You can watch live streaming on the Asia Road Racing facebook Page from 06:30 Thai time on Friday through to the final race on Sunday afternoon. Races will also be shown live on Fox Sports.