SUPER GT Rd. 5 Sugo

Andre Couto finishes 6th, Loic Duval retires…..

Marking the mid-point of the season, Round 5 of the AUTOBACS SUPER GT was held at Sportsland SUGO from July 26th to 27th. The high-speed circuit is surrounded by a deep forest, with a substantial elevation change over the course of a lap. Every year, the cars battle intensely, and often times, the unexpected happens.
From GRM, drivers Loic Duval of TEAM NAKAJIMA, who finished 3rd here last year, and Andre Couto from TOYOTA TEAM SARD, who was 6th last year, were on hand.

On Saturday July 26th, thick rain clouds hovered over SUGO as they had done on the previous day, scene of the official practice sessions. The temperature was low at 24 degrees (25 track surface), so drivers were releived of the battle against the heat. The track was still wet in some spots from the rain that had continued until the morning, and the race supervisor declared the conditions as wet, but by the time the first GT500 class qualifying session began at 11:37, the track was dry, so all 16 machines went out on slick tyres.
Half the machines attacked right from the beginning of the session. However, it wasn’t until all 16 cars started that the positions on the timing monitor began to change rapidly.

The #39 DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430, piloted by Andre Couto, had good balance since the official practice session, run under wet conditions. Using his second set of tyres, he marked the 10th-quickest time (1’17.445), allowing him to move on to the afternoon’s Super Lap session. This was a very close qualifying, the time difference from the top finisher to 10th place being a mere 0.5 seconds.

On the other hand, the #32 EPSON NSX of Loic Duval, who despite the rough surface conditions of the previous day, finished the official practice with the top time (1’24.719), and was expected to do well in qualifying as well. However, he remained in 13th (1’17.941) and he was unable to move on to SL.

Loic Duval:“The rain tyres felt really good yesterday, and I pushed this time too, but we couldn’t get the machine close enough to today’s surface conditions. Tomorrow will be a tough race, but I’m going to give it my all.”

After 4pm, blue skies started to peek between the clouds. The surface was completely dry, and under these conditions, the individual time attacks of the top 10 GT500 machines from the first qualifying session began. The car that had been 5th in the first qualifying session had its qualifying time deleted due to a violation of the regulations, so the #39 car moved up to 9th, which meant it was the second machine to go out in the SL. Andre calmly warmed the tyres before starting his attack. He made no mistakes and rigorously drove the 3.7km/lap circuit, finishing the session 9th.

Andre Couto:“The car set-up is getting better, and I’m glad I made it into SL. But my attack in SL was on used tyres, so I couldn’t quite keep up with my rivals. Tomorrow may rain, so the race could get very interesting.”

On Sunday July 27th, unfortunately the weather in the Tohoku region did not recover. The 30-minute free practice session from 9am was conducted in heavy mist, and under wet conditions with lots of rain splashing around, the 16 GT500 machines and 23 GT300 cars made final adjustments to their set-ups.

At 14:10, the race started. There was light mist, but the track surface was almost completely dry when the 81-lap race began.

Andre Couto, who had a good start from 9th position, showed his sharp driving skills to move up 1 place on the opening lap, and then advance one more position on lap three. He was already in 7th in the early stages and followed the top 6 cars closely. On the 18th lap, a machine in front was held back due to a penalty so the #39 car advanced to 6th. Andre constantly marked lap times in the 1 minute 20-bracket and at the first corner on lap 30, passed the #36 machine (PETRONAS TOM’S SC430) to move up to fifth.
However, 3 laps later, the #38 car (ZENT CERUMO SC430) passed him from behind and he went back to 6th. Lap 43 saw Andre make his routine pit stop, handing the car over to partner Toranosuke Takagi who continued running in 6th position. On lap 64, the car was passed from behind, falling to 7th; but in the end, another car was penalized and went down the order. As a result, the #39 car took the checkered flag in 6th place, gaining 5 Driver’s championship points in the process.

Andre Couto:“It was a good race for us today. In my stint, I pushed hard from the start to move up the order.
Around the 7th or 8th lap, the tyres’ grip started to go off a little so I was worried that it would drop off even more, but from then on they performed well. The car was easy to drive, so I was able to keep a consistent pace. I’m glad we’re headed in a good direction at the mid-point of the season. Thank you for your support.”

The start driver of the #32 EPSON NSX Loic Duval took the rolling start from 12th position, moving up two places to 10th on the opening lap. On lap 18, he moved up to ninth, and held on to the position. However, on lap 38, the #12 car (CALSONIC IMPUL GT-R) pushed from behind, forcing the #32 machine off track!
The car became stuck at the Horseback corner and sadly retired.

Loic Duval:“I lost control when the car hit me from behind. The machine performance wasn’t perfect, but I wanted to hold onto 9th and pass it on to Hiranaka (Katsuyuki Hiranaka) in that position. It was very unfortunate.”

The next round of SUPER GT, Round 6, the “Pokka 1,000kms”, takes place at Suzuka Circuit (Mie prefecture) on August 23rd and 24th.

Photos by T.Moriyama