SUPER GT Rd.2 Fuji

The new SUPER GT season opens overcoming the East Japan Earthquake Andre Couto makes an amazing catch-up to 6th at one point starting from tail end, results with 11th place finish however

On March 11, 2011, The Great East Japan Earthquake of magnitude 9.0 – the biggest ever recorded in this country – brought an unprecedented extent of catastrophe on the northeast coastal regions of Japan, stretching from Tohoku and as far down to Kanto. Other than the directly stricken areas, this earthquake brought serious consequences on power supply, transportation systems, also over production activities by corporations and many businesses as well. Based on these facts, it has now come to be ranked as “The country’s largest-ever crisis since the War”.

Due to these situations, Round 1 of the 2011 SUPER GT season which was initially scheduled to take place at Okayama International Circuit on April 2 – 3, had to be postponed to the weekend of May 21 – 22 instead. Meanwhile, many members of the national motorsports organizations not only remained grieving over the many losses, praying for the lost ones and their souls, but was also quick to move on with various reconstruction support and actions, such as visiting the disaster victims at the shelters to offer whatever aid that can be provided. With the whole country now undergoing many hardships with sinking hearts and deep emotions, decisions have been made to position all 8 rounds of this year’s SUPER GT Series as “The Great East Japan Reconstruction Aid Event”, with the hope to deliver as many happy feelings to the victims, give courage and dreams to whoever in need.

Overcoming many obstacles, in the weekend of April 30 – May 1 the “2011 AUTOBACS SUPERGT Round 2 FUJI GT 400km RACE” unfolded at Fuji Speedway (in Shizuoka Prefecture), which according to the calendar is the 2nd Round of the SUPER GT season but actually turned out to be the season’s opening race . For GRM Driver Andre Couto too, this marked the real beginning and very first race since joining LEXUS TEAM KRAFT (Bridgestone), after coming off his 7 years racing with LEXUS TEAM SARD (Dunlop), so here Andre was at one very important round to exert his performance in a fresh and new environment. Again, due to the recent circumstances, the pre-season tests had to be cancelled. Hence, on April 29 (Nat’l holiday), free practice opportunities were especially provided and there finally, the GT machines all in new coloring lined up together. D’STATION KeePer SC4320 (No. 35), in its image color of green/blue, kicked off with Juichi Wakisaka in charge of the setting and Andre Couto doing the long runs, trying out various parts and specs the team innovated for the new season.

In the morning of April 30th (Sat.), the Practice Session (09:10 – 10;55) began in good weather with pleasant spring-breeze brushing by. The 15 cars of GT500 class and 21 of GT300 kept busy working on machine adjustments and preparations for the Qualifying Session to take place in the afternoon. In this free practice session, D’STATION KeePer SC430 positioned 12th (with the time of 1’34.913). Just when the time came for the 1st run of the Qualifying (13.15 – 14:00), suddenly the Mt. Fuji area was covered by an overcast of clouds, accompanied with gusty winds. Amid so, first the two classes together set out to the joint session where the two drivers of No. 35 cleared the norm – the time required, then moved on to the 10-minute session separately held for each class. However in this session, an electrical problem arose! Therefore, the team’s Japanese driver Wakisaka was to drive the qualifying runs, but had to stay in pit with the machine, with only the session time going by… With not much time left, No. 35 somehow made it out to the field finally, but still could not reach the point to making time-attacks, and thus the time marked in Lap 8 (1’36.213) became their only result recorded. With this, the team had to sink to 15th on the grid.

“It is truly heartbreaking when I think about the many victims of this time’s earthquake disaster, people who lost their loved ones. The nuclear plant failure in Fukushima is also a shock to us too who live outside of Japan, and everybody is wishing for things to settle down soon. At the same time, all of us were moved watching how the Japanese people, even during such times conducted themselves with calmness, caring for each other, and I want to send my sincere wishes to everybody, saying “Gambaro! Japan”. In tomorrow’s race, we will have to start from the very back row, but thinking about the people now living their everyday in the evacuation centers, I must be stronger too and do the best I can here in my place because we are all one to fight together!”

On May 1st (Sun.), rainclouds spread out wide over Fuji Speedway from early morning, with light drizzle coming down. In the Free Practice session held from 8.30am for 30 minutes, all cars worked on warm-up laps in wet condition, preparing for more rain possible in the afternoon during the Race. Andre Couto drove D’STATION KeePer SC430 for about 6 laps as checking into the feel of the car. Not as comfortable with the under-steer of the car particularly at high-speed corners, Andre informed the engineer of his insights.

As the time to start the Race of 66 laps approached, during the warm-up laps just preceding the race large droplets of rain began to fall. In a matter of seconds, track condition turned to heavy-wet with temperatures rather low at 13 degrees Celsius (Track temperature: 14 degrees C). Meanwhile, the 36,000 GT fans (audience figure was approximately 60,000 for all 3 days) sat waiting for the Start of the Race. Also 5 minutes before Start, 1 minute of Moment of Silence was held to honor the lives lost in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

At 14:00, 36 machines of both GT500/GT300 kicked off for their very first SUPER GT race of 2011 (66 laps x 4.563km) but behind the Safety Car (SC) for several laps. Eventually on the 6th lap when the SC determining the track conditions left, the Green Flag permitted all cars to storm out at full-throttle towards the 1st Corner! Andre Couto steering No. 35 from 15th position already worked up to 14th in the 7th lap, then farther up to 11th position in the next lap (8th). On top of being slippery, poor visibility by shower-screened conditions did stress the Portuguese driver, but with astounding performance Andre went rising up the notches as overtaking one car after another. In the 9th lap, D’STATION KeePer SC430 got up to 10th, then 9th on the 13th lap, 8th on the 15th lap, even up to 7th by the 18th lap!! During that time, while other cars started pitting in, Andre Couto stayed out in the field maintaining an incredible level of concentration! By the 23rd lap, Andre caught up to as high as 6th position and held on until getting passed by a car from behind in lap 25, but even then calmly kept up his constant, steady pace. As the rain began to ease off a bit, No. 35 continued to keep the position but on the 34h lap got overtaken by a faster-paced no. 39, DENSO SARD SC430 (Michelin), the pole-sitter. So with one position down to 7th, but after a satisfying 44 many laps, Andre Couto finished his stint, then handed the steer to his teammate Juichi Wakisaka. Back in field, Wakisaka managed to stay in 8th position chasing the top pack with his veteran driving and expertise, but unfortunately in the 57th lap the rain started pouring down ever heavier. Soon No. 35 had no way but to pit in on the 59th lap to change to deep groove tyres!
On returning quickly to the track at 11th position, just then the Red Flag was commanded by the Steward of the Meeting judging that any further racing would be too dangerous, and the competition was officially terminated at this point. Therefore, the position of D’STATION KeePer SC430 also had to stop at 11th, and as a result of this, the team finished this Race just bare inches away to earning points.

“Missing the chances to qualify, we had to start the race from the back today, but being it a wet race there were also possibilities to reverse the situations for us. In the beginning of my stint, visibility was so awful I could hardly see the front and driving became very difficult, but I did my best to catch up as much as I could. When switching over to Juichi, parts around the track were beginning to dry to semi-wet so intermediates (tyres) were chosen for his stint but in that kind of rain towards the end, it was just too risky. So we decided to change tyres one lap earlier, but this didn’t work. Well, it’s still the first and only one round done. We will definitely make up for this in the next round. Please continue to give your big support for D’STATION KeePer SC430!”

On April 28th (Thursday) a day before getting to the circuit, Andre Couto joined a courtesy visit to Shizuoka Children’s Hospital (in Shizuoka City), with Honda driver Hideki Mutoh (ARTA HSV-010) and Nissan driver, Masataka Yanagida (S Road MOLA GT-R), which is one of the efforts the GTA has been making since last year to raise public awareness for the Bone-marrow Donor Bank Registry.

Before a group of young patients and their parents fighting illnesses such as leukemia, the three GT drivers gave talks, introducing themselves and sharing their aspirations for the coming weekend’s race. Then, gifts such as SUPER GT machine models, radio-controlled cars, and mini-cars were handed to the children.

Children were all in smiles and laughter hearing talks from the drivers, receiving gifts with drivers’ autographs, also taking photos together. Andre himself, also joyed by these children expressing best wishes back to him and the drivers, “Good luck with the race!”, he too will continue to pray ever more for all children’s recovery, with all his heart.

Photos by T.Moriyama and M. Hirata