A very different weekend!
Celebrated as a hero by the small Japanese contingent that travelled to Malaysia, the recent winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours encountered a very different sporting weekend in Sepang, but still kept hold of the Super GT championship lead.
Benoît and his friend Andre Lotterer, team-mates at Audi but opponents in Super GT, were both eagerly welcomed by the series’ entire paddock as it visited Malaysia for round 3 of the 2011 championship.
“I only had time to drop my suitcase on the evening I arrived before my team took me out to dinner to celebrate,” said an emotional Benoît. “The following day, in the pits, there were banners and signs of congratulations everywhere. I also had photo sessions and press conferences one after another. It was crazy and incredible. I think our victory was very pleasing for everyone as it highlights the competitiveness of Super GT. The entire championship has received a boost thanks to the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours. In addition, Andre and I were carrying the colours of Japan and this struck a chord with people. Especially after what happened...”
With all the celebrations, getting back into a racing mood wasn’t easy, but the Frenchman soon returned to the cockpit of his Nissan GT-R, which had been fitted with brand new dampers.
“We have been testing them for a long time,” said Benoît. “We have had some small reliability issues, but we thought those problems were solved. Obviously that wasn’t the case. As soon as we started work on the set-up, one of them broke on the rear. We had to change it for qualifying, which forced a compromise with different shock absorbers. In addition, we had a small engine problem which meant we couldn’t accelerate to maximum power. As a result we missed out on the ‘Super Lap’ by a small margin and had to settle for the 12th fastest time, just behind Andre!”
For the Malaysian round, Bridgestone introduced some new tyres which were better in terms of degradation, but with less performance. The Motul-Autech team tested this rubber for the first time during practice.
“We continue to pay for the lack of winter testing and we’re still learning about the Bridgestones,” confirmed Benoît. “After free practice we decided that it might be possible to gamble during the race by keeping the same set of tyres. It was an option that we were holding back as a Plan B. For the race, I started on the hard compound and managed to maintain a good pace, just behind Andre, although with 52 kilos of ballast on board I didn’t get through the traffic as well as him because Sepang is a track layout that really penalises extra weight.”
Despite this, the race went quite well for Benoît who managed to stay with the first chase group behind the leaders.
“While the two leading cars had managed to create a gap, it was quite tight behind. After 26 laps, I came back into the pits to hand over to my team-mate Satoshi Motoyama and the team sent him back out without changing tyres! That seemed a strange decision because, at the end of my stint, my pace was still good but had started to drop off a bit. Afterwards, our rivals, who all left the pits on new tyres, were a minimum of one-second per lap quicker. While this strategy meant we gained time during our pit stop, jumping us ahead of Andre, Satoshi found himself on track with the double handicap of a car that was heavy, due to the refuelling, and on tyres that were past their peak performance. Logically, he started to get passed by everyone and dropped to 14th place. It was a real shame because if he had benefitted from new tyres then a top five finish was possible. All of us are very disappointed.”
Unlike the previous weekend at Le Mans, this one is to be forgotten, but Benoît, his team-mate Motoyama and the Motul-Autech team still lead the championship.
“We remain confident for the rest of the season,” insists the Le Mans winner. “We think we have had a small problem with the car this weekend which we need to investigate because our lack of rear grip is penalising us. Maybe it’s a damper problem as we had strong oversteer in right hand bends? If we isolate this issue then we should be competitive for Sugo at the end of July. We will have a test day just before which should allow us to do some work. The only positive from this weekend is that we didn’t pick up any more ballast, while all our main rivals did, which means the size of their handicap is getting closer. That’s good news for us!”
As soon as the event ended, Benoît jumped back on a plane ahead of another busy week that will see a brief period of relaxation with his family before a visit with Audi in Germany and then a return to Paris for media and marketing events. The last few weeks have indeed been very different for a busy, in-demand Benoît.
by: Benoit Treluyer Newsletter