Loic Duval rises from last to finish fifth, Andre Couto ends up 13th
The nine-race championship SUPER GT was this weekend at Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi prefecture for round 7 of the series, the first of the final trio of events. At Honda's home race, the EPSON NSX of Loic Duval was aiming at its first victory, with Honda power confronting their Toyota rivals in the form of the DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 of Andre Couto. Both GRM drivers were in the hunt for as many points as possible, even if it were only a few, in this battle.
This time, instead of the customary Super Lap qualifying format, a 'knockdown' system was used. This consisted of three knockdown sections, the first two of which could be contested by one driver, but the third had to be run by the other pilot, so that both drivers qualified each competing car. In addition, no tyre changes throughout the three sections were allowed.
September 13th, Saturday: The weather was bright and sunny, with temperatures at 28 degrees (track surface measured at 46 Celsius) when the first one-hour qualifying session got started at 10:20. Among the 16 cars in GT500, 32 drivers went out in the session. All teams had both of their drivers set times within the required limits (within 107% of the top time), clarity being the principal objective, adjustments for the afternoon's knockdown qualifying session also being carried out. In this qualifying session, Andre Couto in the #39 DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 set the fifth-quickest time (1'45.938), while the #32 EPSON NSX of Loic Duval was 13th in the hands of his teammate Katsuyuki Hiranaka (1'46.949). Loic cleared the standard time requirement by driving three laps.
Later on, at 15:05 the final qualifying contest, incorporating a knockdown format, was about to get underway. First of all, session 1 (15 minutes) started, used to determine positions 13 and below in GT500. The #39 DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 of Andre Couto took charge as he entered the track with 9 minutes remaining, warming up his tyres prior to making the attack. On the 4th lap, he set a 1'45.540, good enough for 4th position. Advancement to 'session 2' was accomplished without difficulty. After a 17-minute interval, the top 12 from session 1 went out in 'session 2' (10 minutes). Continuing with driving duties, Andre Couto attacked resolutely with no mistakes, setting a 1'45,839. This time earned the #39 car 8th position in the session. After another 17-minute interval, the third and final 'session 3' (10 minutes) was held, partner driver Toranosuke Takagi setting the time attack. His 1'47.230 put the car 8th on the grid.
Andre Couto:"The car has been improved since the last race. He competitive edge has risen since yesterday's practice session as well. I want to continue this evolution by showing everyone a strong showing in the race tomorrow."
Meanwhile, the #32 EPSON NSX went into the first 'session 1' immediately after the start with Hiranaka at the wheel. Though the car appeared to be running well, Hiranaka reported problems, and didn't complete even one lap before returning to the pits. The culprit was a broken radiator. The #32 machine thus set no time in the qualifying session, and was destined to start the race in 16th place.
Loic Duval:"With this unlucky result, we'll be starting the race tomorrow from last place in GT500, but we won't give up, we'll persevere and aim to move up. We ask for your continued support!"
September 14th, Sunday: In the middle of a three-day weekend, Twin Ring Motegi was bathed in glorious clear autumnal weather, with over 53,000 race fans coming to the circuit over the course of the two days.
At 2:00pm, the mercury stood at 28 Celsius as the cars took the rolling start ahead of the 63-lap event. Hiranaka took the wheel of the #32 EPSON NSX at the start, and after one lap had moved up to 14th, running well with the cars around him. Due to other cars running into trouble and receiving penalties, the #32 machine had risen to 11th by lap 22. Then on lap 28, the car returned to the pits. The white and blue EPSON-liveried car was then entrusted to the hands of Loic Duval. Loic set out in his stint with an aggressive drive, and by lap 37, had moved up to 8th place. On lap 41, he was seventh. Then on the 51st tour, he moved into sixth position, with his sights clearly set on the machine in front. Lap 57 saw him catch the 5th-placed #35 car (Houzan KRAFT SC430) where a tail-to-nose battle ensued. At the first corner, he made a daring pass, taking over 5th place with just three laps to go! The EPSON NSX took the checkered flag in that position, earning six valuable championship points in the process.
Loic Duval:"On Friday and Saturday, the car wasn't exceptionally good, so I'm very satisfied to finish the race in this position. During the race, the car balance wasn't bad, and in my stint, I was able to run smoothly. Simply, in the latter half I drove the tyres hard, yet was able to overtake the #35 car. However, it didn't take long, don't you think? We've got two races remaining, both of which we'll be fighting hard in, and we welcome your continued support."
On the other hand, Andre Couto started the DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430, driving the first half of the race. In the start dash, he made up one position on the opening lap, and remained in 7th position thereafter, maintaining a solid pace. From the 27th lap, cars started to make their pit stops, though Andre stayed out until lap 32, where he handed the #39 DENSO-coloured car over to Takagi. However, a regulation violation during the pit stop meant a subsequent drive-through penalty on lap 42, dropping the car two positions from 12th to 14th place. Takagi continued a gritty drive to the end, but could only manage 13th place at the finish.
Andre Couto:"I drove my absolute best in my stint, it was pleasant and I'm pleased with what was possible. There was just a little rear tyre wear in the first 10 laps, though by running consistently I was able to maintain my pace and finish the stint. Though we still have some problems, we really want to mount a challenge in the next race. We appreciate your continued support.