A stormy long race brings A. Couto to 7th, L. Duval to an unlucky retire
Over August 22-23, SUPER GT Round 6, "The 38th International Pokka GT Summer Special" took place at Suzuka Circuit, the second GT event to be held at this circuit this season. Up to last year, this race which used to be competed over 1000 kilometers has been shortened to 700km this time, which means 'speediness' becomes the other challenge that is added to toughness of the endurance-racing. From GRM, Andre Couto who has the experience winning this event before, and the 2nd place podium-winner in the previous GT round, and Loic Duval showing excellent performances and achievements this season in also the Formula NIPPON series, came to tackle this long-hours marathon battling in Suzuka.
On August 22nd (Saturday) under cloudy skies, the day proceeded according to the scheduled program, starting with the Official Practice session in the morning, followed by Official Qualifying heats done on the knock-out style. Then, to prepare for the last hours in the Race on Sunday which will be after-dark, "Miracle Night Session" (with lights-on) was also run, so all the teams and drivers stayed busy throughout the day indeed.
With the temperatures reading 32 degrees Celsius (Track temp.: 38 degrees C), the Qualifying sessions began, with first the GT500/GT300 running mixed, then from 15:30, Session 1 by just the GT500 class with 14 cars (for 10 minutes, to pick out the fastest 12) followed.
No. 32 EPSON NSX set out to the course with first Loic Duval on the steering, marked the 6th position time (1'56.792) and qualified to move onto Session 2 (where next, the top 8 gets chosen). In the S2 held from 16:00 for 10 minutes, the GRM French driver continued to take the steer, improving the time to 1'56.508 and advanced to the last session placing 8th. Finally, from 16:30 began Session 3 where the driving was handed to Loic's Japanese teammate Yuhki Nakayama due to this race's regulations, and the pair finished the session at 8th with the time of 1'56.954.
After the qualifying heats commented Loic Duval, "It is nice to make the S3, but even better if we could have placed in a higher position because we were carrying less weight - but tomorrow's race is going to be a long one. If we can do a sure race as looking out for the life of our tyres and the machine, then good results should follow! I'll do my best!"
Meanwhile, No. 39 DUNLOP SARD SC430 was struck with a happening in the Official Practice session which began at 10:40. As the session began with Couto's teammate Kohei Hirate driving, on Lap 14 a spin-off occurred at exit of the Degner Curve, and the front section of the machine got damaged. Therefore, as the team's efforts now had to be directed more towards fixing the problem, the machine setting fell behind for other sessions to follow, and the team had to go onto the afternoon without the best solution. Hirate went to challenge again in the S1 time trial, but their time only stuck to 13th position (1'57.320) with no farther improvement. Given these circumstances, the Portuguese driver drove 2 laps in the first heat of the mixed session in order to fulfill the standard time (S1 - 107%), then in the lights-on "Miracle Night Session" from 18:30, another 10 laps were tried. "We couldn't get so much done today, but in the long race tomorrow we'll go persistently and catch up!" said Andre, with a highly motivated tone!
Then came the 23rd (Sunday), the Race Day, and though it was under somewhat cloudy skies again from early morning, near 58,000 SUPER GT fans turned up to enjoy the famous, hot-summer event staged each year at Suzuka Circuit.
30 minutes of the Free Practice session took place from 10:10AM Sunday, and the 14 machines of GT500 and 20 of GT300 classes started the day as giving final checks into the machines. With the approach of the Race, gradually the rain clouds started to spread over the circuit and 15 minutes before Start, some droplets of rain did come falling. No specific decision for the Wet was announced however, and therefore the 121 laps of the Pokka GT 700km race got underway on schedule, from 15:00 (Temperature: 30 degrees C / Track temp.: 38 degrees C) with everybody still on slick tyres.
Andre Couto was the first driver for No. 39 and from the beginning ran at 13th position for some while. In the 10th Lap, No. 39 gained one position up to 12th and continued to run consistently in this placing, going rather easy on the tyres. After 29 laps, upon the first pit stop the switch of drivers was made to Kohei Hirate. With Hirate taking over the steady and careful driving, the team kept the 13th position until the second pit stop which was made on the 64th Lap. The team's Portuguese driver then took the steering again when the race was yet halfway through. The time was 17:13PM and with the weather all recovered by then, sun was still shining strong from the west.
Couto clocked better and better records over his own best-times, going at quite a high pace in the 1 minute and 59 seconds' but a bit passed the 75th Lap, the time stopped improving. On the 86th Lap, car no. 8 (ARTA NSX) running 2nd had troubles and went in flames by the 130R of the track so the Safety Car came in. Other cars started pitting in one after the other, using the time during the SC run, and the pit area became jammed! No. 39 also made its 3rd pit stop on the 90th Lap, which was when DUNLOP SARD SC430 was handed over to Andre's teammate Hirate again. The race was soon resumed in the 91st Lap, and No. 39 found itself up in 8th position.
At 18:30, with 1 more hour to go, "lights-on" was mandated, and the battle now entered the Night Session segment. Machine No. 39 driven by Kohei Hirate positioned up to 7th place when another competitor was given a penalty on the 110th lap. Hirate stayed concentrated till the very end, and took the chequer safeguarding this position.
"We started from the 13th position. It was a tough and long race but to finish 7th and score some points is not bad. The next round will be held on a home-course for the TOYOTA teams, so we'll aim at getting on the podium again. Please give us your warm support!!"
On the other hand, Loic Duval on No. 32, HONDA NSX starting from 8th position was passed by a car from behind in the opening lap around the Final Corner, and dropped one position to 9th. The challenge-full French GT driver held on for several laps more running in this position but in the 10th Lap on the S-Curve got contacted by a GT300 machine, and could not help but course off! This cost No. 32 'big', to lose several positions down to 14th, but even then tried staying on. In the 13th Lap however, Loic had to pit for an emergency stop. With an engine trouble due to overheat, unfortunately early depart from the race was the only choice left for he and the team.
"Getting pushed out by a GT300 machine, there was not much I could do otherwise. To retire and leave the race so soon ... how frustrating -- that is all I can say ..."
The next one to come, the SUPER GT Round 7 will be held at Fuji Speedway on September 12th -- 13th.