L. Duval finishes 7th, A. Couto 13th
Round 3 of the 2008 AUTOBACS SUPER GT was held at Fuji Speedway, famous for having the longest straight in the world at 1.5km and the technical section towards the final corner. As usual, the race is a marathon at 500km in length, so tactics must take into consideration the cars, tyre conditions, and the driver's focus. It's a real challenge for the teams as a whole.
NAKAJIMA RACING driver Loic Duval, has won the final round of the series two years consecutively at this track which also hosts F1, and he and Andre Couto of TOYOTA TEAM SARD, currently in his 5th year in the series, went into this race at their best.
Saturday May 3rd: the rain from the previous day, when the practice sessions were held, continued to fall. The first official qualifying session began in wet conditions, although the rain had stopped. Towards the end of the 20-minute GT500 qualifying session starting at 10:20, the light rain which had started to fall again nearly stopped, and spots on track began to dry. The No.39 DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 observed the subtle changes in surface conditions and switched from rain tyres to slicks. All around him, rivals were slipping and spinning; but with his timely tyre change, Andre Couto skillfully controlled the car, recording a top time of 1'40.985.
Following this, Loic Duval in the #32 EPSON NSX attacked hard with rain tyres, posting the second-quickest time, a 1'41.115. Both GRM drivers were able to advance to the afternoon's Super Lap session.
The second official qualifying session, the SL, began at 15:10. The rain had stopped completely by then, and both GT300 and GT500 held time attacks under dry conditions.
Loic Duval, starting 9th among the GT500 machines, drove aggressively but finished 7th with a time of 1'35.650. "The car balance wasn't exactly perfect. I struggled with both under- and oversteer so it wasn't easy, and I'm not satisfied. However, tomorrow race is long; we've selected hard-compound tyres so as long as there are no mistakes, things should go well."
Andre Couto, starting last in the SL, showed his sublime attacking skills, but finished 8th with a time of 1'35.797. "The first qualifying session was perfect -- the timing spot on. The car had oversteer in the second qualifying session so I couldn't attack the way I wanted to. But tomorrow is what's important. The team and I will fight hard to get the best result we can."
Sunday May 4th, mid-point of the Golden Week holidays. The weather was almost summer-like at Fuji Speedway in the morning. Nearly 57,000 GT fans were on hand to witness the big FUI GT 500km RACE with their own eyes. At 14:00, the sky was getting cloudy but with no worries for rain, the final race began in temperatures of 24 degrees Celsius, the track surface measured at 32 degrees. The 16 cars from the GT500 class and 26 GT300 machines headed out towards the goal 500km (4.563km x 110 laps) ahead.
Loic Duval was the starting driver of the blue and white EPSON-liveried No. 32 car and maintained his position of 7th at the start. Immediately behind, the white and red DENSO-liveried No. 39 machine driven by Andre Couto was held up. By the 3rd lap, their positions had reversed, and both GRM drivers overtook the car in front, so the No. 39 was now 6th and the No. 32 car 7th. On lap 19, the No. 32 car reclaimed the spot over Andre in the No. 39 machine, to great excitement from the crowd.
Though the tyres on the DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 were worn out, Andre Couto soldiered on. He pitted on lap 40 for new rubber and fuel, and then headed back out again. For some reason, it was deemed there had been a rules infringement during the tyre change, so he had to come back once more for a drive-through penalty. The car made another visit to the pits on lap 59 as grip on the rear tyres had gone.
In this stop too, Andre stayed at the wheel. With the unplanned pit stops, the No. 39 car lost a lot of time, though an even more unfortunate event was to occur. Andre overtook under yellow flags, and the team was penalized with a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. Despite all these difficulties, Couto handed the car over to teammate Toransuke Takagi on lap 73 in 13th. Takagi drove stably to finish in the same position.
Andre Couto: "I pushed in the beginning and was running in a good position, but the grip in the rear tyres gradually faded away. Getting penalized by the yellow flag was unfortunate because I just couldn't see it with all the other cars around me at the time. However, we were able to complete a long race distance which gives us lots of valuable data. I hope I can show you all what we mean by racing at the next round in Sepang!"
After passing Andre Couto in the No. 39 car, Loic Duval in machine No. 32 was in sixth place. Driving aggressively, he maintained the position, coming back to the pits on lap 37 for tyres and fuel before heading back out on track once more. Loic was following the No. 18 car, looking for a chance to overtake and claim 4th place. The opportunity came on lap 47 in a side-by-side move. Unfortunately, after making the move and getting 4th, he had a massive spin at Turn 1, dropping a position.
Following this, a consistent drive saw Duval make his return to the pits for the driver switch on lap 70. His teammate Katsuyuki Hiranaka took charge for the final stint, maintaining a steady pace to the flag. The No. 32 car finished the race in 7th position.
Loic Duval: "With oversteer and understeer on the car, the driving wasn't easy. However, I focused on keeping my pace and drove consistently. I'm disappointed that my mistake led to the spin. I had control over the car and was maintaining a good pace, but I rode the curbs a little bit, which was a mistake."
Round 4 of SUPER GT takes place on June 21-22 in Malaysia at Sepang Circuit.