Formula NIPPON Rd.2 Suzuka

L. Duval finishes 10th after starting last

After a month-long interval, Round 2 of the Formula Nippon championship was held at Suzuka Circuit. Many changes have been made to Formula Nippon this season, including to the qualifying format, the running of two heats in one event, and finally the adoption of a reverse grid, which means more focus is required in each and every one of these events.

French driver Loic Duval (#31 PIAA NAKAJIMA), now competing in his third year in the series, finished 5th out of 20 machines in the official tests on Friday (top time 1’42.611), and was well-prepared for the event ahead.

Saturday May 10th: the sunny weather experienced on the previous day’s test changed dramatically for Saturday’s qualifying session, rain falling right from the morning. The ambient temperature stood at 14 degrees Celsius (track surface 15 C), both qualifying sessions run in the wet conditions that persisted throughout the day.

Starting this season, knockout rules have been adopted for qualifying, so there’s only a single 30-minute free run session in the morning. At 10:10, all competing machines, each fitted with rain tyres, went out on track to make final tweaks and adjustments on the cars.
In this session, Loic Duval gradually upped his pace on surface conditions that were completely different from the previous day. However, while running on the backstretch on his 5th lap on track, the rear cowl suddenly flew off the #31 machine. The car was brought back to the pit, but because of the time loss incurred, Loic was unable to sufficiently finalize the car’s set-up ahead of the qualifying session. “Yesterday there was a little oversteer on the car, and today I experienced understeer. Therefore, it was disappointing that we weren’t able to resolve the situation during this session. Because of this, we’re behind our rivals at this point,” commented Duval.

Then at 14:30, the three-part official qualifying session began. First was the 20-minute Q1 session used to determine positions 16 through 20. At this point, the rain was getting harder, and with the water spray, it was impossible for drivers to see what was ahead. Nevertheless, each driver attacked rigorously. Loic warmed up his tires slowly, steadily increasing his pace. However, on his 2nd timed lap, he spun off at the entrance to the Spoon Curve! The #31 car became stuck in the gravel trap, unable to return to the pits on its own, and so its time at that point (2’04.000) became his determined time – designating him to start the following day’s race in last position.

Loic Duval:“It was my mistake. I feel I’ve let the team down, and I’m angry at myself. I didn’t push unreasonably or anything, but with the hydroplaning, I just couldn’t control the car at all. Tomorrow will be rough, but I’m just going to aim to do as well as possible.”

Sunday May 11th: The Free Practice session on the morning of race day was still wet, though the rain itself had stopped falling. On the west course, all 20 machines started their final 30-minute run amidst lots of splashing. At 14:30, when the race was due to begin, sunlight had returned. Although the northerly winds were slightly strong, the temperature had risen to 20 deg Celsius (track surface measured at 31C). The track was completely dry, and the moment the red signal went out, all cars roared towards the goal, 43 laps and 250kms ahead.

As if to cut off the bad streak from the previous day, Loic had a good start from 20th position, immediately jumping to 17th on the opening lap. On lap 4, he moved up to 16th, snatching 13th by lap 8. At the mid-point of the race, lap 20, one car collided with another, ending up on the outside of a corner. Because of this, the Safety Car (SC) was called out, and all machines which had originally planned on a one-stop pit strategy dove into the pits for new tyres and fuel, immediately coming back out on track. On the other hand, the PIAA-liveried #31 car had planned for no stops, so moved up to tenth position.
The SC came in on lap 25 and the race was once again underway. In the #31 machine Loic endured, all the while thinking about fuel and tyre wear.
However, with only 3 laps remaining before the flag, another car came to a halt on the outside of a corner. For the second time the Safety Car was employed. After the danger was removed, it was quickly brought back in, and racing resumed – allowing the final two laps to be run as a super-sprint. The assembled fans couldn’t take their eyes off the enthralling action. There were no major incidents in this last-gasp spurt, and Loic maintained his position to finish 10th.

Loic Duval:“We did all we could, so I’m not going to complain about this result. The start was good, but since we had a no-pit strategy, we didn’t have enough traction – and it was difficult to overtake the cars in front. If it weren’t for the SC (Safety Car), it might have been a different result; but “might have” and “could have” are not in the racing vocabulary. The whole mistake about this race occurred in qualifying.”

The next round of the Formula Nippon championship takes place in two weeks’ time (May 24-25) at Twin Ring Motegi.

Photos by T.Moriyama