Season’s first round in the heavy-wet – Both drivers finish the race with L. DUVAL at 7th, A. COUTO at 15th place

March 21 – 22, “OKAYAMA GT 300km RACE” was held as a season-opener for the 2009 AUTOBACS SUPER GT.
Given the harsh economic situations, in this season each round of the race must be held as a 2-Days event, with no practice sessions held on Fridays. This weekend, on Saturday before noon were 2 hours of Official Practice, then followed by Official Qualifying and the Super Lap (of top 8 positions) – both sessions taking place all in the afternoon. Now each event has to be operated under a much tougher schedule than before.
As announced previously, from GRM are ANDRE COUTO and LOIC DUVAL competing in the GT500 Class, and here was the very first race of the season held in rain but where our two drivers challenged giving their best in spite of all conditions.

March 21st (Saturday), over the track of Okayama International Circuit spread fair, blue skies with climates reaching 23 to 24 degrees centigrade, warm and pleasant for everyone throughout the day.
Following the Official Practice session that began at 10:00, the program proceeded right on schedule towards the Official Qualifying. In the Qualifying which started at 13:15, Loic Duval of NAKAJIMA RACING took the steering to drive EPSON NSX (No. 32) in the first trial of this session. However, trouble occurred with the suspension on the right-side rear portion, causing his time to move down to 11th (1’26.421) position, and for him this heat finished with a slight disappointment, “Without the trouble, for sure we would have placed within the top 8 …”
Meanwhile, LEXUS TEAM SARD started the session with Kohei Hirate driving the machine. After just three laps however, Hirate reported a problem with transmission, and pitted the machine back into the garage. Quickly, the staff made serious remedy actions, but unfortunately the work could not be finished within limits of the Qualifying heat, and Andre Couto had to miss the session without a touch on the steering. Couto commented, “Unfortunately… but also luckily we found some issues before the Race. Tomorrow, we’ll start from the back but push hard to catch up.” (Initially, the two drivers of SARD happened to fall behind that standard time required to qualify for GT500, that is, 107% of the average time marked by the top 3 positions, but with a letter of appeal submitted to the Stewards of the Meeting, consequently their entries in the Race were approved.)
Therefore, for both GRM drivers, Qualifying results in the season’s first event turned out to be somewhat difficult ones, suffering some machine troubles.

The day after, on the 22nd (Sunday) rain that was coming down early morning once stopped, and during the Free Practice that started at 9:20 lasting for 30 minutes, the track was in semi-wet condition. However, a bit passed 12:30, bigger drops of rain started falling again and now the Race was to take place under ‘heavy-wet’ condition.
At 14:00 (Temperature: 16 degrees C / Track temp.: 18 degrees C), the 1st Round of the 2009 GT series started at last, but behind the Safety Car (SC). As soon as the SC drove away and returned to pit after 2 laps, the 15 machines of the GT500 class and 21 machines of the GT300 all rolled on to battle towards the goal of 300 kilometers ahead, kicking off a huge splash of water!
In GT500, Loic Duval on No. 32 starting from 11th on the grid, positioned up to 9th in the 3rd lap despite poor visibility by water-screen! Then, from around the 12th lap he began pushing harder and as giving pressure on No. 38 Zent Cerumo SC430 running in front, moved up further to 7th position by a brilliant overtaking in the 16th lap. After making some more steady laps regardless of severe conditions, in the 53rd lap running at 6th position he entrusted the EPSON NSX steering over to Yuhki Nakayama. It was around then that the rain stopped falling, but which made no immediate difference as the track condition remained wet. Regardless, Nakayama took over successfully with very consistent driving all the way to chequer, – in fact, hard to believe this was only his debut race in the SUPER GT.

“Especially from start to midway in the race there was heavy rain, and fighting the aquaplaning was incredibly hard, but I did my best up to the end of my stint then handed the machine over to Yuhki who really did a great job. Though starting from 11th, we were able to finish at 7th position, which isn’t bad. From here and onwards in every round, we’ll work hard not to miss out on getting the points!”

On the other hand, Andre Couto on No. 39 who started the race from the very back row positioned up to 11th shortly after start but time never grew any better and up to around the 22nd lap just had to hold on with patience, running in 13th position. In the 30th lap, Andre came to pit in and handed LEXUS SC420 over to his teammate, Hirate. Hirate, making his debut in the GT500 Class with this event, pushed persistently until having to report a machine trouble in the 71st lap, then came to pit in and discontinued the race.

“We made our choice of tyres expecting some recovery in weather, but this worked negatively instead. In my past GT races, I could say that never did the driving seem so risky and severe because the machine was very difficult to control today. In my stint, Sector 1 was the hardest, as I almost coursed out many times. But although we saw some machine troubles this time in both Qualifying and in the Race, for the next round we will resolve everything and challenge again! Give us your kind support!”

SUPER GT Rd. 2 will be held on April 18 -19th, at Suzuka Circuit.
Photos by T.Moriyama