Formula NIPPON Rd.4 Okayama

Loic controls tough race for first victory of the season!

Round 4 of the Japanese championship Formula Nippon took place at Okayama Inernational Circuit. Visiting the track for the first time last year, the series is back again in 2008, this time over the June 7th-8th weekend. After taking a 3rd-place podium finish in the previous round two weeks ago at Twin Ring Motegi, GRM driver Loic Duval’s ranking has jumped to 5th overall in the Driver’s standings. At the halfway point of the season, Loic Duval wanted to get even more points from this round. Also at this meeting, for the Honda engine users there was a new-spec powerplant, bringing some of the momentum back Honda’s way against the power of the Toyotas. There was a good battle expected.

June 7th, Saturday: From 10:05 in the morning, there was a 30-minute Free Practice session. After conducting final set-up checks on the car, Loic recorded the 5th-quickest time (1’16.722). He could have been as high as 2nd had he not caught traffic. “There’s absolutely no problem with the car!” he said enthusiastically, ready to meet the challenge of the afternoon’s qualifying session.

And so at 14:35, with occassional sun shining through the rainy-season calm and an ambient temperature of 26 degrees, (track measured at 34 Celsius), the knockout-style qualifying session got underway. Only the top fifteen machines would advance from Q1 (20 minutes), and with the #31 PIAA NAKAJIMA setting the ninth-quickest time (1’16.971), Loic advanced smoothly to the next session. After a 10-minute interval, the 10-minute Q2 got underway. However, a best time of 1’16.860 was only just good enough to guarantee Loic a shot in the final qualifying, the 10-minute Q3 session. In this, he brought down the gap to the top runner, nettting 5th place (1’16.396) at the end of session. He would start Sunday’s race from the third row on the grid.

Loic Duval: “The balance on the car wasn’t 100%, however I gave it my best and pushed. The gap to pole-sitter Matsuda’s time (#1 LAWSON TEAM IMPUL, 1’15.831) is really regrettable. This is a difficult circuit to pass on, so I’ll have to work really hard. Anyway, all will be decided at the race start tomorrow. I want to really shake up the top group.”

Furthermore, after qualifying, the entire crew of the Nakajima team congratulated Loic on the occassion of his 26th birthday (12th June). The tension of race week was breifly lifted during the celebrations.

Sunday, June 8th Race day: Under faint sun and in slightly humid conditions, the temperature rose to 26 degrees (track surface 37 Celsius), perfect conditions for racing. The 68-lap race at Okayama International Circuit took place on what is a technical circuit, each lap covering 3.703kms in the 250km event. Because pit stops (for fuel and four new tyres) were mandatory, the race became a battle of team strategy and tyre wear. A driver with the ability to understand how things would play out, could control the result.

A tough race was about to get underway at 14:30.
The #31 PIAA machine of Loic Duval made a clean getaway from the third row on the grid. The 2nd-placed #32 car received a drive-through penalty and dropped down from top position. That, and the #1 car made a very early pitstop which meant that Loic was up to third position by lap 7.

From there, he made his pit stop on lap 26, a speedy turnaround from his crew getting him moving in just 14.2 seconds. Loic quickly returned to the fray. By the time all cars had made their stops (lap 39) Loic was in second place. On lap 43, after one other rival went in for his second routine stop, Duval was finally on top. This set the course for the remainder of the race.

From the mid-point of the race, cars started to run into trouble, with a number of entries going out. Loic steadily built up a gap over the chasing 2nd-placed car (#36 PETRONAS TOM’S) running a consistent pace with lap times in the 1’20-bracket. He maintained that progress right to the flag, at the end of 68 laps. It was Loic’s first victory of the season, and his third in the category.

Loic Duval: “It was a tough race. To tell you the truth, I made a bit of a mistake at the start, it wasn’t perfect. In the opening laps, the car in front (#8 Team LeMans) had a good pace so I wasn’t able to get past. In addition, on the back straight on lap 34, the car suddenly stopped. ‘Is there a problem with the car? Is it over?’ I pondered.
From the pits, I heard on the radio that I’d mistakenly hit the limiter. I got confused and shut it off – that’s the mistake I made. Fortunately, it worked itself out and I didn’t lose positions. After that, there was no more trouble. I maintained a good pace, kept the gap, and ran the 15 reminaing laps to the flag without difficulty. The car was wonderful today; the strategy, pit work and everything the team’s done – I’m extremely grateful to them all.
This is my first victory since the 2006 SUGO round, I’m really happy! To all of you who are supporting me, many, many thanks.”

Also, Loic Duval will compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours next weekend. Tomorrow he once again departs for France.

Photos by T.Moriyama