L. Duval 11th, A. Couto 15th after overcoming accidents and problems
The annual mid-summer event, Round 6 of the 2008 AUTOBACS SUPER GT was the 37th running of the "International Pokka 1000km" at Suzuka Circuit in Mie prefecture on August 23rd and 24th. This is the longest race out of the 9 round series, but rather than an endurance event, it is more like a sprint race, and definitely not an easy one in terms of speed and tactics. In addition, the temperature gets very high, so teams are permitted to have a three people driving, a 'third driver' alongside the two regular pilots. A total of over 54,000 fans came to Suzuka Circuit to watch the 6-hour event contested by 41 GT machines in all.
From GRM, Andre Couto was the winner of this event in 2005, while Loic Duval competed for the third time in this event.
On Saturday August 23rd, the official qualifying day began with cold rain and a strong southwesterly wind. The temperature stood at a relatively low 23 degrees, the chilliest day of the season. Fortunately, by the time the GT500 qualifying session closed in, from 10:10 to 10:30, the rain had started to lighten up, and by the latter half of the session, most of the water was gradually disappearing from the racing line.
The EPSON NSX of Loic Duval adjusted his machine settings and attacked, recording a best time of 2'10.241 He finished 12th.
Loic Duval:"I could have recorded the overall top time (1'55.470), like I did yesterday in dry conditions, but disappointingly I couldn't adapt completely to today's surface conditions. However, tomorrow is a long race, and I'm sure many things will happen. Our team just needs to stick together and do well, so we can finish on top."
Meanwhile, the DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 of Andre Couto (car #39) tried valiantly in his time attack, but finished in 13th with a best time of 2'10.359.
Andre Couto:"The tyres wouldn't get warm quickly. If I had had another lap in which to attack, I could have recorded a top 10 time. However, the race is tomorrow. I hear the weather will get better, so I just need to go for it."
(In the afternoon, the rain fell even harder, and since it did not appear to get better, the second qualifying session, Super Lap was cancelled. The results of the first official qualifying session were thus applied to the starting grid for the race.)
On Sunday August 24th, the rain that had fallen till dawn had finally cleared, and the free practice session from 8:30 was held under semi-wet conditions. The final race would start at 13:00. The weather was cloudy, the temperature at 28 degrees (track surface 32 Celsius). It was a cool start for the 1000-km event at Suzuka.
Two machines from the GT500 class had exchanged chassis and engines respectively, so according to the Regulations, had to either start from the pitlane or from 10 grid positions below where they had qualified. Additionally, two other cars had problems and were forced to make their start from the pitlane, so the #32 car started 9th and the #39 started 10th, to begin their long, 173-lap battle.
The beautiful white and blue EPSON NSX had a good start with Loic Duval at the wheel, holding onto its position of 9th as it executed the laps. On lap 18, on of the cars ahead fell behind due to problems, so Loic moved up to eighth. He then passed the #35 machine, rising to seventh.
At around the 28th lap, many cars made their first routine stops. Loic came back to the pit on lap 33, passing the wheel over to teammate Katsuyuki Hiranaka. When all machines had finished their first stops, on lap 37, the #32 machine was 8th. On lap 41, slight contact with a GT300 machine dropped the car one position to ninth, but Hiranaka continued to drive consistently. However, on lap 54, the #1 ARTA NSX hit the right rear of the EPSON NSX machine from behind, putting the car into a spin at the chicane! The car suffered some damage, but Hiranaka was able to bring it back to the pits. Repairs were undertaken, but the machine returned to the on-track battle two laps down on the leaders.
At 15:55, Loic Duval climbed back into the machine on lap 82 to begin his second stint. To shrink the gap, Loic continued his highspeed lap time pace of two minutes flat. Gradually he upped his position by one and finished lap 114 in 12th, before passing the #32 car back to Hiranaka. When Suzuka Circuit became dark at around 18:00 Duval drove from lap 131 to the end, taking the checkered flag in 11th.
Loic Duval:"I was doing pretty well in my first stint in terms of position, but we had some unlucky incidents. Considering our team potential, it wasn't impossible to come back after that. The fact that we couldn't do that is a goal we need to overcome. We're going to start analyzing our performance to do better next time."
The DENSO-liveried colored #39 car was started by Andre Couto who drove consistently in the early stages to keep 10~11th position. He pitted at the same time as Loic Duval, on lap 33, finishing his first stint. Takagi, who took the wheel, now hung onto 10th spot. However, the #39 experienced steering problems on lap 44. The team quickly did some repair work and put the machine back on track, and Koki Saga, the third driver drove a stint till lap 75. Takagi then received the baton, but on lap 94, transmission problems surfaced, and the machine went back to the garage. Saga brought the repaired car out on track once again, and Andre Couto took the night session where the headlights lit up the course, finishing this long race in 15th.
Andre Couto:"The car wasn't bad during my last stint, and I actually had a lot of fun driving. There were some mechanical problems this time, but we always finish the race so we can collect as much data as possible. From the accumulation of data, we can find a better set-up on the car. We will do better next time."
The next Super GT race, Round 7, takes place at Twin Ring Motegi (Tochigi prefecture) on 9/13-14