Formula NIPPON Rd.7 Autopolis

Loic Duval finishes 3rd on the podium and conquers the glorious 2009 championship!

The All-Japan Formula NIPPON of 2009 has now only 2 rounds remaining in the season. Over August 29 to 30th, Round 7 of this series came to Autopolis (in Oita Prefecture), three years since the last Formula NIPPON event was held at this circuit and for the first race ever that the new SWIFT, FN09 chassis competes over this track.
GRM’s French driver, Loic Duval challenged this one race currently ranking at the Series Top position, determined to exert all the best of his power to come as close as possible to here win the championship title!

August 29th (Saturday), with the late-summer, strong sun lighting upon the Gairinzan-mountain ranges of Aso from the skies above, the day began with a Free Practice session held from 09:45 to10:45.

Powered by Honda HR09E engine, the No. 31 machine of NAKAJIMA RACING driven by Loic Duval appealed its strength from the start of the day, rewriting the course records from lap to lap, also striking out the best time of 1’32.649. Loic was completely set and ready to go onto the qualifying heats of that afternoon placing 1st.

The Qualifying session of Knock-out style started, still under warm temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius (Track temperature: 40 degrees C).
First, the 20 minutes of Q1 heat commenced where Loic marked the 3rd position time (1’33.023) on the 7th lap, and qualified for the Q2. Then, during the 10 minutes of this next heat, time was further improved and Loic placed 2nd behind his Japanese teammate Takashi Kogure (1’32.724). With this, NAKAJIMA RACING drivers were in 1-2 positions for the Q3, the last heat of Qualifying run by the fastest 8 machines. On the 3rd Lap of the Q3, NAKAJIMA’s French pilot marked his own best time from Sector 1 to 2, and further on to Sector 3, then after 30R (known as, the “jet-coaster straight”), a part of this track with a drastic slope-down and out to the 60R Corner bending to the right, Loic coursed-out, hitting the tyre-barrier and causing the machine to suffer damage on its front section! In spite of it, Loic somehow managed to get back on the track, but due to this unbelievable incident he could only finish 8th in the Qualifying.

“It was my mistake… I pushed too hard on the 60R, so the left-rear tyres landed the turf and spun. I wanted to finish the qualifying in the upper rows, and gain some advantage for the race tomorrow, but I blew away the chances by myself. This is a course where passing is very difficult, but tomorrow, even in the worst case I’ll try winning at least 3 – 4 points, and finish the race in front of Benoit (Treluyer, LAWSON TEAM IMPUL, no.2 and 10th after the Qualifying) who’s currently the 2nd contender of the series title,” with still some regrets showing off his face, Loic Duval worked to shift his gear towards the next day’s race that must be battled extra-hard!

Then came something worse for NAKAJIMA RACING and the team’s French pilot, Loic Duval after all the sessions were over on Saturday and questions were posed against them. “With the Yellow-flag during the Q2 session (14:52’15 – 14:52’21), No. 31 driven by Loic Duval who was running through the subject section of the track at that very timing will not be accepted for the time it marked, and whereas he (Loic) should have finished his heats after the Q2, due to a judging error by the stewards of the meeting mistakenly allowing No. 31 to advance to Q3, the time which was to be his Q3 result must be disregarded and that result from the Q2 (which was 1’48.195) is to be counted instead. Therefore, this driver’s classification after qualifying must be amended with two positions down from 8th, and start the Race from 10th.” Finding this decision to be unjust, the team petitioned, on the reasons that 1) Loic Duval running right behind that very machine causing the yellow flag, could not catch sight of the flag and the situation 2), his position after Q3 could only be 8th (not lower); all was denied by the stewards, and thus Loic Duval had to start his race from the very back row. The officials who misjudged were charged with penalty fines.

The morning after, on the 30th (Sunday), in the brisk breeze of Aso Region, Free Practice session began from 09:45 where Loic Duval checked carefully into his machine which his team mechanics worked over night to fix – back to almost a perfect state. After all the final setting was completed commented the NAKAJIMA RACING’s French driver, “Machine is in a great condition. I thank the crew for it. Starting from the 10th on the grid, plus this track has very few overtaking points so I know it’s going to be a tough race, but I’ll just go out there and give it a shot!”

At 14:30, in beautiful weather of 30 degrees C, and the track warmed up to as high as 50 degrees, the Race was now ready to begin! After the formation lap and with the red lights blacking out the 12 cars jumped out, roaring off for the 54 laps of fierce battling!
Loic Duval on No. 31 of NAKAJIMA RACING starting from the 10th went storming towards the 1st turn from the Out. However No. 31 makes an inevitable course-off and fell to the tail of the field. From there, not much could be done other than patiently running in the back for some laps. As there was another machine that pitted in on the 12th lap, the 27-year old driver gained one position to 11th but still not reaching any aggressive, fast-enough speed to overtake the cars in front. After not too long, Loic took the strategy to pit-stop early in the 17th lap where his crew did a fantastic job to re-fuel, tyre-change, and the French pilot got quickly back on the track (with a 15.2 seconds stop)! From there, Loic Duval regained speed of the 1 minute 37 seconds’ pace, and in the 26th lap which by then all the machines had finished their 1st pit-stops (some machines stopped too long), No. 31 found itself up to 5th position. And further, with another two machines having to make second pit-stops, Loic rose to third in the 36th lap! Then, in the last part of the race, No. 31 managed to keep its position with a good control of the gap holding off the chasers and all the way to chequer. By finishing 3rd in this round, added with Benoit Treluyer finishing 8th (1 point gained and now the two drivers with 11 points apart, even if their points come even in the next round, Loic has more number of Wins), thus Loic Duval confirmed his 2009 series-champion glory at this very moment! Congratulations!

“A very troubled qualifying for me yesterday, and a tough race today, but I’m glad to have finished 3rd. Start was not so bad, but with one machine closing in towards me, I had to avoid contact and thus it was like getting pushed off track. Also with heavy fuel, it was hard to keep up with the machines in front but the early pit-stop proved to be effective, with good effects also lasting through the laps that followed, and I picked up a good pace from there on. But afterwards, the steering condition turned bad – machine kept moving to the right while there were other troubles like the fuel pump not working too well – and with things like this to worry about, it was never an easy race!”

“Today, my great teammate as well as my great rival, Kogure won the race, the Team winning the title as well, and also with mine (series-champion), this is really the best day for all of us, — what more can we ask for!
Especially given the unfortunate development of events yesterday, having to start the race from the very back and catch up, the points-battle with Benoit … all these things did put some stress and pressure on me, but when I heard over the radio that my title was confirmed, I felt very grateful to my family, the team, the sponsors, media and all the fans who have always trusted and supported me … I am just so glad that many people’s favor could be returned with this in some way or the other I really thank everybody!”

Round 8, the very last round of Formula NIPPON, will be staged at Sportsland SUGO (Miyagi Prefecture) over September 29 – 30th to close the season.

Photos by T.Moriyama