After a tough and long race, L. Duval finishes 8th, A. Couto 10th

The race distance of 500km which used to be customary for the SUPER GT Rd. 3 till last year has been shortened to 400km this season, also changing the name of this May 3rd – 4th event to be titled the “Fuji GT400km Race”.

Of the two GRM drivers present in this round staged at Fuji Speedway was Andre Couto, one of the drivers in the LEXUS SC430 force whose home-track is this course of Fuji. Another driver from GRM was Loic Duval, the HONDA NSX pilot who has captured before two victories from this track.
This weekend, to join the big excitement that was unfolded right during the Golden Week holidays of Japan, the total audience figure of 78,500 spectators was drawn to this event, so quite a few motor sports fans gathered from around the country to be enthralled with some great race spectacles, indeed.

Morning of May 3rd (Sunday), the day started under fine weather that felt like early-summer. From 9:15 began the 90 minutes of Official Practice session for the GT500 and GT300 classes together, where each team checked into machines and tyres to spot any points of adjustments tuned to the next day’s Race.

At 13:40, the Official Qualifying session got under way with the 2 classes running mixed. The temperature was 21 degrees centigrade (Track temperature: 31 degrees C), with weather brisk and fair, except for the slight overcast. No. 32 EPSON NSX set out to the field driven by Loic’s teammate Yuhki Nakayama, then about 15 minutes later Loic took over to make some final checks into the machine as driving, and the team rose to 6th position with a fairly good time (1’36.169) marked.
Soon it was time for the 10 minutes-session, exclusively run by 15 cars of the GT500 class and this was where each of the drivers pushed their utmost, trying to output good time results. Here however, Duval’s time (1’35.886) reached no higher than 11th position and missed the Super Lap (which is by the top 8 qualifiers). “I’m feeling somewhat a stress for not being able to make it to the SL. The speed, the grip … everything seems inadequate. But tomorrow’s race is going to be long, so we’ll take the time and close in gradually!” commented the French driver.

As for No. 39 DUNLOP SARD SC430, after the first 8 laps of the mixed session driven by Andre Couto, Kohei Hirate took over the machine and finished the qualifying heat placing 12th (1’35.974). Said the Portuguese driver, “Machine was suggesting some over-steer, which has to be improved for tomorrow because it will be a long race and a strong (stable) rear will become necessary.”

May 4th (Monday – National Holiday), in the 30 minutes of Free Practice which began at 8:45am under cloudy skies, all the teams made final adjustments on their machines before the Race to start in the afternoon. During the lengthy run of 88 laps, this time 2 pit stops were mandated, which means it was a sort of race where various wisdom and tactics initiated by each team would become another factor determining the outcome of the competition.
As the clock ticked 14:00, a strong ray of sun glared down upon and around Fuji Speedway and with temperatures up to 24 degrees C (Track temperature: 38 degrees C), now the marathon battle of 88 laps began with a Rolling Start by 15 machines of the GT500 class and 21 of the GT300 class.
Loic Duval and Andres Couto commenced the Race from the 6th row on the grid, each of them as their respective team’s starting driver. Shortly after start was a contact of two cars causing a bit of disturbance already in the opening lap, but during which time Loic kept his constant pace running 9th and Andre at 11th. Then, for the next 17 laps, the two GRM drivers came to battle hard between each other as switching their notches back and forth within positions of 9th to 11th.
Eventually, around Lap 18 to 19, Loic Duval on EPSON NSX passed No. 3(HASEMI TOMICA EBBRO GT-R) and No. 38(ZENT CERUMO SC430), moving up to 8th position and upon finishing the 30th lap, went in for the first pit stop and handed the machine over to teammate, Nakayama. Taking over, Nakayama stuck to driving at 9th for some laps more, until overtaking No. 100 (RAYBRIG NSX) in Lap 48 and improving the position up to 8th. From there and onwards up to the 61st lap Loic’s Japanese teammate fulfilled his stint without mistakes, then went in for the team’s second pit stop. The steering was back in command of the French driver who continued the strong push, and while doing so also marked his personal best time (1’37.360) in Lap 66. Though the position once fell to 9th in Lap 73, after passing one of the cars experiencing trouble in the last lap, No. 32 EPSON NSX was able to take the chequered flag at 8th position and finished the race.
“Though the race was hard, some improvement could be seen with the speed and grip, as compared to the last round in Suzuka, so we ran a constant race today. In the first stint, from right after start, rear tyres didn’t warm up as easily and therefore suffered a bit with over-steer. But gradually, the machine balance started to settle, and though the battle with Andre was tough it was also fun! In my second stint, I often happened to be caught in traffic of the GT300s, but I tried not to make mistakes and keep up my concentration till the end. Unfortunately, we still haven’t won over the Nissans, the Toyotas, … or the Bridgestone users, but we are always doing whatever we can and will keep making the best efforts to achieve greater results in the coming rounds.”

LEXUS TEAM SARD driver Andre Couto, after having fought a battle with No. 32 in the early stages of the Race, showed an exceptional performance particularly in Lap 23 as overtaking No. 17, No. 38 one after the other. Then, as finishing off the 27th lap came in for the team’s first pit stop where some very smooth pit actions were seen, with the machine handed over successfully to Kohei Hirate. Taking the 10th position, Hirate drove at steady pace ticking consistent times from one lap to the next. Then, as coming off Lap 63, Hirate pitted in for the team’s second stop and the steering was trusted to Andre again. At that point, No. 39 at 12th gradually moved up to 11th position in Lap 82, and farther up in the final lap to cross the finish line at 10th.
“It’s nice to have earned some points. The race was tough, and neither of my two stints was easy. Both times, in the last 10 laps of the stint, tyres suffered especially driving in Sector 3. But in the end, I held on strong not to be passed by cars coming from behind, anyway hoping to finish in the Top 10!”

In the next round, SUPER GT Rd.4 – the only round of the Series to be fought overseas, will be held in Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit on June 20th – 21st.
Photos by T.Moriyama