SUPER GT Rd.1 Okayama

A. Couto perseveres finishing in 12th position. A. Caldarelli with a regretful retire.

After the long winter off-season months, the SUPER GT series entered a new season at Okayama International Circuit known for its highly technical course features. 15 machines of the GT500 class and 25 of the GT300 class including the FIA GT3 machines joining the series from this season, gathered at this circuit for the very first round of 2012, “OKAYAMA GT 300km Race”. Two drivers from Global Racing Management (GRM) who came on to this stage over the weekend of March 31st to April 1st were the veteran racing driver Andre Couto, and also Andrea Caldarelli making his debut in the SUPER GT race from this year – each one arriving in Japan from Macau (Andre) and Italy (Andrea), respectively – to show exciting battles before many GT fans (totaling to 24,100 spectators over Sat. and Sun.) who so anxiously awaited the opening of this new season.

March 31 (Saturday)
Qualifying day had to start under rain and chilly weather from early morning. From 9:00am, Official Practice began and lasted for 2 hours under tricky course conditions but nonetheless each team and driver kept up their momentum throughout the session, as also checking into the machines. And though rain eased off a bit in the last half of the practice heats, track itself stayed in a full-wet condition all session long..
Driver Seiji Ara was the first to climb into machine No. 19 LEXUS TEAM WedsSport BANDOH that morning, then afterwards Andre Couto took over and marked a 3rd position time of 1’34’.436 in the latter half of the session where GT500 and GT300 classes ran mixed. With this, Andre aroused great expectations for the Qualifying Session to come in the afternoon.
As for LEXUS TEAM KeePer Kraft, the team sent Yuji Kunimoto out to the field from midway through the session, which was when the rain turned light to sprinkles. Then eventually, Andrea Caldarelli took the steer, first off recording a 1’36.710 (Position 14) and as trying to push more and improve the marks a bit more, ran out of time by ‘Time Over’ called upon the session.

The day’s program proceeded according to schedule and during the interval, the annual Group Photo with all the SUPER GT drivers lined up, also the popular Pit Walk event got under way where the two GRM drivers also attended. Eventually, it was time for Official Qualifying to begin. The sporting regulations of this season mandate that in the knock-out qualification method, one driver is not allowed to run two consecutive time trials. In other words, as going from Q1 to Q3, the two drivers (for instance, A and B) must switch and drive in alternate shifts, such as in the order of A – B – A, or B – A – B. Also in Q1 and Q2, the same exact tyres must be used, which are to be those tyres used to start the race on Sunday as well. Only, if the team advances to Q3, then new tyres will be permitted at Start. This means that in any case, therefore, the choice of tyres becomes more than crucial as it is the key to bring out good performances from both drivers of the team, and most importantly, be what is most “fightable” nowhere but in the Race!

The Qualifying on Saturday afternoon suffered from a very changeable weather throughout the session. In the Q1 (14:45-15:00) by GT500 machines, by a sudden shower, switching from slick to rain tyres became urgent just seconds away to beginning the session. Machine No. 19 where Andre Couto was already on a standby, also had to change tyres with speedy work done by the crew. Andre drove out to the field, pacing up already from the early laps, and in the meantime the skies cleared so now the machine had to put back on slick tyres in the pit, then returned to the course. In his last few laps of pursuits, Andre made further pushes and took a 2nd position time (1’28.343) from Q1. Powerful winds blew and even some hailstones suddenly fell towards the end of Q1, but then in Q2 (15:30-15:40) weather recovered while Andre’s teammate Ara drove, so dry tyres were put on. However, such better conditions in the Q2 were fair to all the rivals just as well, and everyone renewed their times. Thus, LEXUS TEAM WedsSport BANDOH had to settle at 8th position (with 1’27.150), and though getting close, advancement to Q3 could not be achieved.

As for LEXUS TEAM KeePer Kraft, Yuji Kunimoto was in charge of driving the Q1 but due to machine trouble, the car had to stall in the middle of the course. This causing the Red Flag, the time marked by No. 35 disqualified, and Andrea lost his chance to run in the qualifying though he was already on standby for the Q2. (Afterwards, with decisions by the Stewards of the Meeting No. 35 was permitted to start from the rearmost grid.)

April 1st (SUN)
Sunday opened with a Free Practice Session (8:20-9:05) in the morning under dry condition where No. 19 marked a 1’24.654 (P6), and No. 35 with 1’25.213 (P11), and final checkups made on their machines tuned to the race in the afternoon.

Soon, the clock ticked 14:00 to finally kick off the 2012 SUPER GT series, the very first race of the 8 rounds to be held this season.
Starting from the fourth row on the grid, WedsSport ADVAN SC430 driven by Seiji Ara, contacted another machine at Start and drew back to 10th in the opening lap. Running for some laps more in that position, on the 9th lap passed one car that left for urgent pit stop and therefore rose to 9th position. Then, coming on to the 13th lap with an impressive overtaking of a machine going in front, positioned up to 8th! However, on the 31st lap by collision with no. 6 (ENEOS SUSTINA SC430) at Turn 10, a drive-through penalty was instructed on No. 19.
This costing some regretful positions-down for the team, Andre Couto took over the steering from lap 42. Running at 12th, trying to raise as many positions he can, the Portuguese SUPER GT driver pushed hard throughout his stint at high pace. Then on the 67th lap, passed one car to take the 11th position but right after, 10 seconds of penalty stop (due to overtaking during the Yellow Flag) was addressed on No. 19 and therefore the team was back down to 12th position again. Without a room to improve so much more, thus WedsSport ADVAN SC430 finished the 82 laps of race at 12th position with no points gained.

“Due to various factors, we could not achieve the best results from this race. However, the machine was running well, leaving some good feelings behind for us, so we are quite a bit motivated towards the next round. Things are going very well for me in this new team, and I’m also very satisfied working with Seiji. Please expect to see ‘more’ from us in the next round, Fuji (May 3-4)!”

SUPER GT rookie, Andre Caldarelli was appointed to be the starting driver in his very first race of this series, and managed his also “very-first” rolling start without any problem at all. Starting from the very back of the grid, the young Italian driver on No. 35 drove steady through many laps of the race, aiming to raise positions and gradually move up the notches. Coming to the 8th lap, with a car going into the pit No. 35 rose to 14th position, and furthermore on the 10th lap overtook car no. 32, then in the 15th lap passed no. 18 and took P12 showing a definite climb towards upper positions! Andrea kept up his constant driving, with skillful passing of the GT300 cars as well, and coming onto the 38th lap went in for pit stop – right on schedule! After tyre change and fueling, LEXUS KeePer SC430 was entrusted to the hands of teammate Yuji Kunimoto. But having to go back on the track with tyres still cold, Kunimoto could not gain full control of the machine and collided with a GT300 machine at Turn 1! Though the machine was quickly brought back to the pit, due to a definite damage the team had no choice but withdraw from the race at this point in the race.

“Starting went smooth, and I was able to manage my stint without mistakes. Especially with the overtaking of GT300 cars, which was one of the big challenges for me this time, I did struggle a bit in the early laps but I grew used to that too, gradually. It was unfortunate that we could not finish the race today, but I could really see that SUPER GT is a tough and a challengeable race, just like I had always imagined – and this makes me excited towards more to come in the season.”

Photos by T.Moriyama, M.Hirata