Super GT Rd.6 Suzuka

Andre Couto with an 8th place finish from the long, midsummer race

Round 6 of the SUPER GT series now came down to Suzuka Circuit for the “39th INTERNATIONAL Pokka GT SUMMER SPECIAL” over the weekend of August 21st to 22nd. This long (700km) midsummer race is indeed the hottest and most severe one race of the season, with always various incidents occurring and is certainly a battle where both teams and drivers, though long, must stay on the alert the whole time!

LEXUS TEAM SARD and GRM driver Andre Couto, for whom many rounds of this season so far have not been as satisfying, have won this traditional event in the past however. And this weekend, the amount of handicap on their car is a rather light – 18kg, which is for sure an advantage for them. Hence the team came onto Suzuka with more or less, a strong and definite aim to win the podium place!

August 21st (Saturday), all of Japan was again found under powerful summer-heat exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. By the Official Practice on Saturday morning (10:05 to 11:55) temperatures were up to 34 degrees C (Track temp. 44 degrees C) already, and then in the afternoon the track read 49 degrees C, and for the drivers fighting the frontline wearing thick racing suits and helmets, surely there is a big struggle against the fear of heatstroke as well.
Placing 9th (with 1’58.316) in the morning, the two drivers of DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 cleared the standard time in the 1st heat of the Official Qualifying held from 13:25 to 14:20, and from 15:20, the next set of heats on the knock-out style began. This time, the rule for two drivers (or the 3 drivers allowed only in this event) of each team taking turns to make 3 attacks (10 min. each) was applied, and No. 39 built up the strategy to go with Hirate – Couto – Hirate order for Session 1-2-3. Which means, in Session 1 where the top 10 is decided, Hirate marked the 8th position time (1’56.913) on the last lap. Next, in Session 2 where the top 7 is decided, a favorable 6th position time resulted from Andre’s great driving. Then in Session 3, Hirate marked the 6th position time (1’58.293) again, proving through these qualifying heats the high potential of LEXUS TEAM SARD.
Following the qualifying, from 18:30 began the night practice session of 30 minutes, in preparation for particularly those last laps of the Race run after dark.

August 22nd (Sunday), the program of that day began with a Free Practice session of 45 minutes, which started at 9:55AM. By then the temperatures were already 33 degrees C (Track temp. 44 degrees C) and the two drivers of DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 set out to the qualifying heats of 13 cars of GT500, and 23 cars of GT300, where everyone checked up on the machine conditions fitted for Sunday. In this session, car No. 39 was striking out a 6th place time (1’58.979) the Portuguese driver running, but in the last half electrical issues were detected on the machine, and from thereafter the team got busy fixing the problem in time for the upcoming Race.

At 15:00 o’clock on Saturday, 33,000 fans who gathered at Suzuka Circuit watched the start of a long race of 121 laps. The temperature at the time was over 37 degrees C, with track temperature of 49 degrees and starting driver Andre Couto on DENSO DUNLOP SARD SC430 kicked off clean from the 6th grid. Keeping that position for a while in the first many laps of the race, on the 11th lap Andre overtook No. 17 (KEIHIN HSV-010) going in front over the straight end and climbed to 5th position. On the 19th lap, as there was another machine pitting in, No. 39 was up to 4th! However, on the 23rd lap No. 17 overtook back and No. 39 slid down to 5th again. On the 26th lap, LEXUS TEAM SARD made its first pit-in, and switched to the 2nd stint driver, Kohei Hirate.
Back on the course, and by the 33rd lap which was when all GT500s had finished each of their 1st pit stop, No. 39 was running at 7th position. Especially on lap 38, Hirate defended hard, trying to hold off No. 17 again but then on the 40th lap, no longer could help being passed on the Dunlop Corner, thus resulting with one position down. The Japanese teammate stayed calm however with a very constant driving for many laps more and on the 47th lap moved up to 7th again as there was another machine that pitted in. Then after 5 laps, Car 32 (EPSON HSV-010) wearing fresh tyres exceeded with the speed, and thus the team was now striving to try keeping the 8th position. Andre kept up a good pace even during those hours when afternoon sun coming from the west was the hardest. Nevertheless, in the latter half of his stint, tyres gradually started to wear down, and in the 86th lap, No. 1 (PETRONAS TOM’S SC 430) passed as coming from behind, and soon the team sent a sign asking Andre to pit in. From here, when it was about 18:10 and around the 90th lap, light-on was instructed and thus the race shifted to the night-session mode. No. 39 in DENSO color, driven by Hirate clung onto 8th position till the very end, and survived the terribly hot midsummer battle.

“In the Qualifying, Free Practice session of this morning, and also even in my first stint when the temperatures were at their highest – during those most critical hours for the car, the tyre condition stayed good so I was confident we could really push to the end, but not exactly! And that’s a bit of a pity!”

On August 20th, Andre Couto led a group of young and rising SUPER GT drivers to visit the children’s ward of the Mie University Hospital located in Tsu, and there he greeted little Japanese patients suffering the same disease as his son Afonso, also those fighting other serious illnesses. Presents such as SUPER GT mini cars and DVDs were presented as gifts to these children. Also on Sunday, Andre Couto voiced his call for bone-marrow bank registry from the official stage of Suzuka Circuit towards the spectators gathered to see the race, and also served the presenter in the charity auction aiming at drawing donations to The Bone-Marrow Transplant Promotion Foundation.
As for Afonso, it has now been 3 months since the transplant surgery, and his condition is stable as making steady recovery each day at home. Andre Couto continues to pray for as many donators to join the efforts, and increase chances for the leukemia patients to receive better treatment. Andre will stay committed, together with the GTA, to enhance overall public awareness for bone-marrow donation and bank registry.

Photos by T.Moriyama