The first round of the 2016 Asia Road Racing Championship (ARRC) kicked off at the Johor Circuit in Malaysia on April 1st and 2nd. Having played host to Superbike World Championship races in the past, the circuit has a solid history. But in recent years the degradation of its facilities has led to it being excluded from most international motorsport competition. However, with the Sepang Circuit unavailable due to being under renovation, and with the Johor Circuit’s own major renovations almost almost completed, the decision was made to have the event there.
The Johor Circuit is 3.860 kilometers in length and offers a layout with twelve corners and two long straights. The gap between its lowest point and its highest is one of the largest in the ARRC calendar, which means that very specific suspension and weight balance settings are required for the machines to deal with the ups and downs of the course – settings that differ greatly from those of most other circuits. With surface repaving still not completed, the asphalt was not in the best condition and would prove to be very hard on tyres. This season also saw a change to slick tyres, so the teams were all forced to start from zero in their quest for the perfect machine setup.
This season’s lineup of Kawasaki contenders features three in the SS600 class. The much-talked about Ahmad Yudhistira (Indonesia) will make his return, having competed last season in both the SS600 class and as a member of Kawasaki’s Team Green in the Suzuka 8 Hours race. He is joined by rising star Andy Muhammad Fadly (Indonesia), the 16 year-old having made the step up from the AP250 class. Completing the Kawasaki lineup is Azlan Shah Kamaruzaman (Malaysia) who has returned to the ARRC after contesting the Moto2 World Championship last season. The AP250 class will see last season’s UB130 champion, Gupita Kresna (Indonesisa), step up to the larger machines alongside returning Kawasaki rider Md Muzakkir Muhammad (Malaysia).
Though the first signs of spring were showing in Japan as comfortable weather prevailed and cherry blossoms began to bloom, the conditions in Johor were not quite as idyllic. The air temperature regularly soared past 35℃, while track temperatures had no problem surpassing 40℃, sometimes climbing as high as 60℃. In the three free practice sessions that took place on March 31st, all the riders were mainly focused on machine setup and tyre selection for the race rather than trying to set fast laps, so the names at the top of the rankings changed with each session. It was nearly impossible to figure out which riders had already nailed down their setup and who would be in good shape for the race.
Qualifying and Race 1 were held on April 1st. In Qualifying many riders could be seen trying out various tyre configurations, still trying to find the best setup for the race. The fastest time set amid this flurry of activity was the 1’31.016 of Md Zaqhwan Zaidi (Honda). Behind him was Yuki Takahashi (Honda), followed by Azlan Shah, while Yudhistira was unable to get a clear lap and forced to settle for a 1’32.127 and 14th spot on the grid. Fadly would line up beside him in 15th with a time of 1’32.178. In the end it was a free-for-all that saw the top 15 riders covered by just one second.
The race schedule for last season saw two races held on Sunday, but that has been changed for 2016. Now there will be one race on Saturday, followed by another on Sunday. This change means that both Qualifying and Race 1 will now take place on the same day.
When the lights went out at 3:45pm local time for Race 1, the quickest off the line was the Kawasaki of Azlan Shah, rocketing to the holeshot and the lead, which he would hold on to until the mid-point of the race. It was a repeat of Qualifying as a long line of riders formed up behind the leader, with Zaidi, Taiga Hada (Honda), Tomoyoshi Koyama (Honda), Decha Kraisart (Yamaha), Dimas Ekky Pratama (Honda), Anthony West (Yamaha), Gerry Salim (Honda), Anucha Nakcharoensri (Yamaha), Wilairot (Honda) and Yudhistira making up the huge group. A shakeup began at the mid-point of the race as Salim and Kraisart crashed out and Koyama closed in on Azlan Shah at the front. At one point Yudhistira had moved up into 9th, but his tyre began to wear more quickly than expected, leaving him unable to push any further. Koyama made his move on lap 12, diving up the inside of Azlan Shah at the end of the back straight coming into the high-speed Turn 2. In doing so he snatched away the lead and set about trying to break clear of Azlan Shah. But on the very next lap and in the exact same spot, Azlan Shah returned the favour to retake the lead, then proceeded to up his pace and stay in front until the chequered flag, handing Kawasaki its first victory of 2016 in the process. He was followed across the line by Koyama and Zaidi, while Yudhistira finished in 11th, already plotting how to recover for Race 2. Class rookie Fadly finished his first ever SS600 race just shy of the points in 16th.
Race 2 on the following day got under way at the same time as Race 1 had the day before. Azlan Shah made another fantastic start, but this time Zaidi beat him to the holeshot. Azlan Shah was closely followed by Takahashi, Kraisart, Koyama and West in the opening stages. Whereas the leading group were lapping in the 1’33s in the early stages of Race 1, in Race 2 they were setting a quicker 1’32 per lap pace that saw Zaidi, Azlan Shah and Takahashi begin to slowly pull away from West and the 7-8 bikes behind him. By the mid-point of the race that gap had opened up to three seconds before there was major movement in the second group. Salim made a pass on West and Koyama followed him through. The two then started to claw back time on the leading group. In the closing stages with just three laps remaining, Azlan Shah made a pass stick on Zaidi at Turn 2. What followed was an all-out dogfight between the leading pair that lasted until the final lap. Azlan Shah, who had given up the lead to Zaidi, made yet another pass at Turn 2 to take the top spot. Zaidi made every attempt possible in the next three corners, but it wasn’t enough as Azlan Shah was able to outrun him to the flag and secure an amazing double victory.
Yudhistira headed out for Race 2 with revised settings and came across the line after the first lap in 10th position. He slowly improved on that until he was able to close in on the fading West. He made the pass on West on the final lap to finish in 6th place.
Rookie Fadly came across the line in 14th, taking his first point in only his second race in the class and setting up big expectations for his future growth.
Round 2 of the Championship is scheduled to be held at the Chang International Circuit in Thailand from May 6th through 8th.