When the first race of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Vios Challenge took place last year in Batu Kawan, Penang, it wasn't quite the door-to-door street racing we expected. Drivers were a little apprehensive across all the classes, with a circuit that was just a little too tight to offer opportunities for overtaking, and drivers were a little hesitant to go for gaps when there was a big risk of heavily penalized contact.
But the Vios Challenge has evolved a great deal since, with tweaks to regulations and circuit layouts to offer a lot more room for racing, so to speak. The round at MAEPS in particular was exciting with vast open spaces and elevation changes for a unique and highly challenging circuit. This month sees the beginning of the second season of the Vios Challenge, taking place all the way out in Terrenganu. Looking at the circuit layout we weren't particularly convinced that it would be exciting given its long straights, but we were happily proven wrong.
The weekend (Friday and Saturday in Terengganu) started with some rather interesting qualifying positions. With the absence of Shawn Lee and Shukri Yahaya in the Promotional Class, Diana Danielle took pole position on the grid, with newcomer Nabil Ahmad in second place. Janna Nick had an incident during qualifying and as such had to start at the back of the grid. Khai Bahar and Aiman Tino, both new to the field, qualified fifth and fourth respectively.
In the Sporting Class, Shawn Lee took pole position, with Shukri Yahaya following just 60 milliseconds behind him in second - both in their debut for the category. Following them was Brendon Lim and Kenneth Koh, the latter being a seasoned rally driver and a veteran of the Vios Challenge. Up in the Super Sporting Class, the vacuum left by Tengku Djan has allowed for closer fighting in the field. Kenny Lee took pole, with William Ho taking second on the grid, and Keifli Othman qualifying third.
There is something to remember with these grid positions. While both Race 1 and Race 2 carry points, the first six positions at the end of the Race 1 are reversed for Race 2. That is to say that even if you take top spot in Race 1, you'll be starting from sixth position in Race 2. With that in mind, a lot of teams are playing more for points than for outright podium finishes, as it would be more consistent to stay in third or fourth position for both races than to have to fight back from sixth position to score points for Race 2.
As the afternoon rolled around on Day 1, the first 22-lap race got underway. The Promotional Class, despite having the least seasoned drivers relative to the field, also has some of the tightest racing during the series as drivers are more willing to go for gaps. Diana Danielle had a strong start and maintained her position through the race, keeping around a one second gap from Nabil Ahmad. Early race incidents saw newcomer Nabila Razali retiring early, while Khai Bahar had a poor start and had to fight to make up positions.
11 laps in and Khai also had to retire - although neither Nabila nor Khai had an incident that triggered a safety car. Mid way through the race, Aiman Tino had an incident at Turn 3, which resulted in the safety car coming out. This bunched up the field again and the gap between Diana and Nabil was once again non-existent. However, just as the safety car cleared the track and the race was restarted, Nabil met with the wall at the same turn - ending his race just 5 laps short of the finish. Diana continued on with a convincing lead of 3 seconds, with Akim Ahmad and Janna Nick sharing spots on the podium in second and third respectively.
Next up was the Sporting Class, which proved to be a race that was unusually eventful – although not quite for the first four drivers. Shukri Yahaya had an early race incident that forced him to the back of the field after blowing his tyres, and despite his best efforts he could not make up the position. Shawn Lee, Brendon Lim, and Kenneth Koh maintained their positions through to the end of the race, with a 20 second gap between Shawn and Kenneth – although again, perhaps there may be some strategy at play here.
As for the second half of the field, there was much closer and more aggressive racing, especially at Turn 10, the hairpin before the start/finish straight. Many instances of overtaking and contact took place, with a late race spin that blocked the last four drivers for a few seconds. Nonetheless, no race-ending incidents took place and all drivers managed to see the chequered flag.
The final race for the day saw the most seasoned racing drivers out on track in the form of the Super Sporting Class. For reference, the fastest time in the Promotional Class was a 1:18.584 by Diana Danielle, while the fastest time in the Super Sporting Class was 1:15.620 – a massive difference that is quite nearly the entire length of the start/finish straight.
From the moment the lights turned green, the field stayed incredibly tight and held together through the majority of the race. Early race incidents saw A. Kaathir, Ser Meng Hui, and Firhat Mokhzani retiring early, although they were towards the back of the grid so such incidences didn’t hamper the majority of the other drivers.
Mild position trades occurred, with a few drivers moving up one position over the course of 22 laps. Boy Wong moved from fourth to second, while William Ho managed to get past Kenny Lee to take the chequered flag. Keifli Othman crossed the line in fourth, Mark Darwin in fifth, and Syafiq bin Ali in sixth – with the grid reversing for Race 2 today.
With the point leaders now having to fight their way back from sixth position, it will be interesting to see how the race unfolds today. Stay tuned for results and check the live stream on the Toyota Malaysia Facebook page, as well as @carlistmy on Instagram for updates.