After one survival race filled with troubles, A. Caldarelli achieves a 2nd place podium finish! A. Couto in 6th place also earns valuable points!

With the unfolding of Round 5, the 2012 AUTOBACS SUPER GT Series has now entered the last half of the season. Over the weekend of August 18 – 19, Suzuka Circuit (in Mie Prefecture) was the place to stage this important race, – also where after four years, the mid-summer traditional event revived the “1000km” distance battling, – the “INTERNATIONAL Pokka 1000km”. Saturday and Sunday together drew 60,500 GT fans and spectators in total, enjoying to their hearts’ content this incredibly hot and fierce battle of 6 long hours! GRM driver Andre Couto is the Year 2005 winner of this event, and for SUPER GT rookie Andrea Caldarelli, it was the first time ever challenging a race of such a length.

On August 18th (SAT), despite light clouds spreading above, temperatures already rose up high from the morning’s Official Practice session that took place during 09:20 – 11:20, and where 15 of GT500 cars, 25 of GT300s ran as tuning in for the sessions to be held in the afternoon. LEXUS TEAM KeePer Kraft driven by Yuji Kunimoto and Andrea Caldarelli placed 8th (with 1’53.442), and LEXUS TEAM WedsSport BANDOH in the control of Andre Couto and Seiji Ara positioned 12th (1’54.332) from this session.

From 14:15, Q1 of the Official Qualifying got under way with the GT500 cars. In this session which lasted for 15 minutes, Yuji Kunimoto was the first one up to start the pursuits on LEXUS KeePer SC430, and in position 2 (1’52.610) he brought the team to qualify for Q2, in quite a breeze! Then, from Q2 (from 14:55, for 10 minutes duration) Andrea Caldarelli took the steering of No. 35 and went on making time-attacks. Only however, as getting caught in traffic just when renewing his best time, settled to 9th (1’54.112) at the end of the day.

“After this morning, we made adjustments to the setting tuned to the Qualifying, but perhaps it was my driving still not fully adapted. I was slowed by cars in front, and before being able to improve much more, Q2 was over and we could not advance to Q3 (of top 7). Since the race tomorrow will be long, it might give us enough time to try working our way upward even starting from 9th on the grid. Please watch us battle hard with strong fighting spirit!”

On the other hand, Andre Couto in charge of the Q1 pursuits raised good times driving WedSport ADVAN SC430, but on this attacking lap coursed off on the Degner Curve and got stuck in gravel. With the session getting red-flagged, the lap time recorded by No. 19 lost effect, and thus the team had to start the race on Sunday from the farthest back on grid.

“Our machine was adjusted during the Free Practice and was greatly improved, becoming much easier to drive so we were comfortable as going onto our time-attacks. But with under-steer, – also running over the left curbs on the out-side, lost control and therefore finished the session with an unhappy result. Tomorrow’s race will be a long 1000km battle so we will push hard and catch up from the back!”

On August 19th (SUN), the downpour at dawn left some parts of the track (surface) wet, while there was still light rain-shower falling on the West Course of Suzuka International Racing Course. Under such subtle track conditions neither good nor bad, the 30 minutes of Free Practice began from 8:00am.
At 12:30, the long, long 173 laps of race started under strong sunbeams hitting the track (air temp. 32 degrees Centigrade).
LEXUS TEAM KeePer Kraft trusted the Italian rising-star driver Andrea Caldarelli to serve as the starting driver of this race. Andrea, calm and clever on car No. 35 showed a smooth rolling start from 9th position on the grid and on the 6th lap when a car in front took a spin and de-railed from the line of leading machines, moved up to P8, and shortly after two laps another notch up to P7. In that position, Andrea chalked up some more steady laps and on the 31st lap went to pit for the routine-stop and handed the machine over to his teammate Kunimoto. Then on their 45th lap, with the top machine pitting in, the team rose to P6 but only instantly, and soon back down to 7th but eventually with another car pitting due to trouble, No. 35 regained P6. As clinging onto this position for a while, it eventually moved up to 5th when some other car went to pit. Then on 62nd lap led by the Safety Car (SC), while a crashed machine was getting cleared, No. 35 took advantage of this time to bring the car to the pit. After the switch of drivers, Andrea was on the wheels of LEXUS TEAM KeePer Kraft again, back in 11th position on the course, and on the 72nd lap when GT500s were to do their second pit-in, the team was up running in P6. On the 78th lap, while moving another position up to 5th, in the meantime machines in the top pack were struck by troubles one after the other, and by the 84th lap No. 35 driven by Andrea was for a moment at the top of all LEXUS cars and 2nd of the overall, then finally on the 93rd lap LEXUS KeePer SC430 sprung out and up to the very top! And eventually after the next routine stop was made, machine was now turned to Kunimoto.
By then the severe 1000km battle in Suzuka had turned into almost a survival race – ever more than expected, and for a while in P6, No. 35 strove on with constant pushes, following close behind the race leaders. Then, on the 124th lap after its 4th pit stop, now Andrea headed back to the course energetically and fresh! Though at the time the monitor indicated No. 35 running in 6th, actually, the machine which had completed 4 pit-ins by then was going 4th and coming to the 149th lap, leaving no mistakes behind Andrea finished his stint. Upon the 5th and very last pit-in of the day, LEXUS KeePer SC430 was now under the belt of Kunimoto and on the 153rd lap, No. 35 running in P5 at the time gained P4, with one of the machine having to do an unscheduled pit in. In that position for several laps more, on the 158 lap, one of the GT500 machines (of 1 lap behind) got into a major crash on 130R causing the SC run. And here given the chance to reduce the gap, Yuji Kunimoto also meanwhile saw the conditions of tyres on machines in front, and (after race was resumed) showed some more aggressive driving and at about 8 laps remaining overtook one car, and around 6 laps to go, passed another – jumping up to P2, and then, to finish! LEXUS TEAM KeePer Kraft after 173 laps of this truly harsh race won the 2nd place on the podium, also 18 points!!

The pair of both-rookie drivers celebrated with their team, a fantastic podium-result achieved after one long race fought, and how happy they were!

“It was really a long and hard race but for myself, to make my first podium place in my second year competing in Japan, I am very happy! Together with team, we kept searching for good solutions through our tests, came to this race with various strategies too, then we challenged, – and got us to have this result! This 2nd place on podium is for sure an accomplishment by everyone in the team. Yuji also did a good job, and I myself too, seeing the troubles experienced by our rivals, learned to care better for the tyres so we were able to finish the race without mistakes, and feel very happy about that too.”

Starting driver of WedsSport ADVAN SC430, Seiji Ara climbed to P12 by the 10th lap in the race, and in good stride conducted his stint up to the 34th lap, then returned to the pit. After tyre change and refueling, No. 19 was entrusted to Andre Couto. In a constant and ‘sure’ pace, Couto pushed hard climbing the positions and on the 52nd lap up to P11, and further to 10th on the 60th lap. Running onward steadily, WedsSport ADVAN SC430 driven by Couto was in P9 by the 70th lap, and the machine was turned to the hands of his teammate Ara. After a while, with one of the race leaders out of the top pack, No. 19 was in P6 by the 83rd lap and on, and then to 5th on the 95th lap! As finishing the 104th lap and with drivers switching, the steer was back in the grip of the experienced Portuguese driver who on the 123rd lap, once allowed a car with fresh tyres to pass, but in P6 kept up the pace – stable and smart. During the 124th lap, with one of the machines off to make its 4th pit stop, Andre back running in P5 again drove on aggressively but always looking after the tyres. Then after 139 laps done, LEXUS TEAM WedsSport BANDOH on its 4th pit stop did the last driver change to Ara. And while running in P6, there was SC run in the last phase of the race but regardless, No. 19 thriving with steady pace and unswerving run all the way to chequer, secured a fine 6th place finish and 6 points!

“Today we had to start from the very back of the grid, but with a competitive pace we were able to finish in 6th place. Machine and tyres both ran in good pace and we were able to push constantly. We’re also glad to have finished the race with our 4 pit-stop strategy working out well. Let’s keep this up, and in good note, go on to the next round in Fuji (September 8 – 9) aiming at even higher standings!”

Photos by T.Moriyama