After a hard race fought in the dry & wet, A. Couto takes the podium 2nd place! L. Duval finishes 11th

July 25th – 26th, SUPER GT Round 5 “SUGO GT 300km RACE” was held at Sportsland SUGO, located on the outskirts of Sendai (of Miyagi Prefecture, Japan), drawing the audience of over 38,000 SUPER GT fans.

On July 25th (Saturday), rain that was coming down the night before had cleared, and from the Official Practice which started Saturday morning (09:45 – 11:30am), all the sessions took place in the dry. By the time the Official Qualifying was about to start that afternoon, the sun was gleaming stronger with the temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius (Track temp.: 40 degrees C). The Official Qualifying sessions began from 13:35 starting with first the mixed heat of both classes – GT500 and GT300, then the time trial by just the 14 GT500 cars followed for 10 minutes.

In this session, Andre Couto driving the DUNLOP SARD SC430 (No. 39) marked a 6th place time (1’17.731), and moved on successfully to the “SUPER LAP” (SL) which is competed amongst the top 8 machines. From 16:15 began the SL where each machine does the time trial, “solo”, and here Andre was the 3rd one up, appearing in his red and black colored LEXUS SC430. Already from his first, warm-up lap the Portuguese driver exhibited an overwhelming time attack over the near-3.7km course marking 1’18.053 and finishing the SL at 6th position. “In the first qualifying heat, front tyres were rather hard to warm and that was my concern for the SL, but since the machine was good, I was able to do my attack without any mistake. I’m glad I could keep the 6th position,” commented Andre of course looking very happy compared to some of his recent GT rounds.

Meanwhile, Loic Duval driving EPSON NSX (No. 32) finished the 1st Qualifying session at 12th (1’18.365). “Machines, the tyres – seems that multiple factors did not come together as well, and too bad the time got no better…” commented Loic revealing some disappointment for not making the SL.

Next day, on the 26th (Sunday), venue in the deep-lush green of the mountains was found under clear skies and the Free Practice (9:45 – 10:15) commenced under warm, high-summer temperatures of 31 degrees C (Track temp.: 42 degrees C). 35 machines of GT500/G300 tuned their settings for the race to be held in the afternoon, and here Andre Couto of LEXUS TEAM SARD marked the 4th position time (1’19.178), as proving again the great condition of their machine. Loic Duval on EPSON NSX completed this session at 10th (1’19. 987) and finalized the machine set for the race and further towards the chequered flag of 81 laps ahead.
(* After the Free Practice, car no. 1 which finished the qualifying at 4th was given penalty and moved 2 grids down, thus No. 39 found itself starting the race from the 5th grid.)

As the clock ticked 14:00, with temperatures reading 31 degrees C (Track temp. hiked up to 46 degrees by then) a cluster of dark clouds could be seen building up over towards the west at some distance but not too far away. Over on the track, all the machines rolled off from the formation lap, accelerating at full-throttle!

Andre Couto off with an excellent start from the 3rd row soon put car no. 18 (ROCKSTAR DOUMU NSX) behind him, and went storming into the 1st Corner in 4th position. In the 3rd lap, he improved 1 position up but still for some laps more continued running in the top pack. Then in the 10th lap, he started to press with aggressive charges in the battle for 4th position against car no. 1 (MOTUL AUTECH GT-R, Satoshi Motoyama) which did not result right away with any quick move-up of notches and the battle went on for a while. Soon the rain started to fall from around 14:30, and seeing another car go in for a pit-stop due to this rain, Andre not willing to miss out on any chances was swift to take this advantage and slipped into the 3rd position. The skillful Portuguese driver went on pushing ever harder even on the wet and tricky surface, tail-to-nose with the car in front (HASEMI TOMICA EBBRO GT-R, Ronnie Quintarelli). But soon, from the 35th lap or so the rain got much heavier which also forced No. 39 to go in for a pit stop. As the switch was made to rain tyres, so was the steer handed over to teammate Kohei Hirate. On the 38th lap, No. 39 with Hirate on steer overtook one fore-going car struggling to pace up, moved up another position to 3rd and continued on with constant pace, as keeping the same place in the field. A bit passed 15:30, though the rain seemed to have lifted a bit by then, yet the track was quite moist. This did not affect the pace of No. 39 however, till finally on the 71st lap it successfully overtook no. 6 (ENEOS SC430 Daisuke Ito) and captured the 2nd position! LEXUS TEAM SARD went all the way to chequer in this same remarkable position and gained 15 points.

“Happy! is the one word I want to say! This weekend, each of the sessions went in good direction, and speed-wise too we had quite a competitive machine. With this great machine, during the race and even in my stint (tyre) the grip did not come down, and I was able to go pushing hard in the top group. I want to thank the team and the fans for their support. Thank you so much!”

Meanwhile, Loic Duval starting from 12th position could not raise his pace as much and in the early phase just ran patiently behind many cars. However, in the 22nd lap Loic overtook one car and made gradual move-ups to 13th, then gradually to 12th in the 24th lap. Eventually, by a heavier rain, No. 32 pitted in to switch to rain tyres, then returned to the course. Then, in the 43rd lap the second pit-stop had to be made by this EPSON-colored machine which was to be handed to teammate Yuki Nakayama. No. 32 pushed ever more persistently for a while more, even ran 8th at one time, but towards the end when the track started to dry somehow the pace grew no better, and thus No. 32 finished the race at 11th.

“It was a lack of performance by us. We tried to fill this lack with strategies, but the 1st pit-in was maybe too soon, and the second one was too late – it seems like all the tactics we tried gave reverse effects instead.”

The next SUPER GT event, Round 6 will be held at Suzuka Circuit over August 22 – 23rd.

Photos by T.Moriyama