Having had a good pre-season test at Sepang in January we were hopeful of achieving a result at this particular track. We were confident in our tyre choice even though temperatures turned out to be extremely high for Round 3. Traffic was a major issue in the free practice but despite not being able to get many clear laps both Hiro and I were reasonably pleased with car and tyres going into the qualifying sessions.
This time it was Hiro’s turn to do the QF1 session, aiming to be top-10 in order to qualify for the Super Lap session later on. The first two sectors of his attack lap were very good, enough for a top-3, but then, disaster. One of the Lexus cars blew an engine in spectacular fashion and the session was red flagged.
Like most of the GT500 field, we had waited to go out until right at the end of the session for better track conditions and that meant once the session got underway again there would only be time for one final attack. On the same set of now used tyres. Hiro’s next attack was not as quick as his first one as it seemed our selected compound didn’t recover as well as the other teams. I was biting my nails as everyone started to cross the finish line. Hiro’s lap put him in 6th but there were still plenty of cars in the final sector. By the time everyone had finished we had dropped back to 10th but still good enough to get into the next session! I’d say thanks to Team Le Mans blowing their engine…
And that meant it was my turn. The Super Lap session in the afternoon would determine the final starting positions for the race. As we were the last team to qualify for this session, we also had to start the Super Lap session. It was my first time on a set of new tyres during the weekend, I had run a set of fresh 3 lap used tyres in the morning free practice, but a different compound so I wasn’t feeling as super confident as I would normally. My lap was pretty much on the limit but fortunately without any mistakes and good enough for 6th position. We were very pleased with this as we had a good idea we were most likely on harder tyres than a few of the cars qualifying in front of us, meaning that our tyres would most likely last better in the race.
Race day was even warmer, 36° air temperature and 55° track temperature on the grid before the start. In the Super GT series the Sepang round is always the first really hot and humid race of the year and we even had an extra drivers briefing after qualifying to discuss dehydration issues from previous years were a couple of drivers passed out. I always used to run with a cool suit pumping ice water around your body which is a system that works well as long as you get the dry ice mixture right. Get it wrong and it will eventually pump around warm water or freeze up completely. Fortunately for us Nissan drivers we have a clever air conditioning system, so no need to worry.
I had a good start and kept my position, during the first two laps I dropped back slightly from the cars in front but this was to be expected, with our harder tyres we would most likely start to catch them again within a few laps. On lap 3 I had just dropped a position and was following one of the Honda’s down the back straight when I had a massive tyre blow-out just before the braking zone. It happened without warning and I was fortunate not to loose control. I was just in front of the pit-entry, so I dived in as quick as I could but as soon as I went for the brakes for the pit lane speed limit I lost it. At this point I wasn’t sure if it was the front left or rear left tyre that had blown, it felt like the rear but I was confused as it had ripped off my side mirror. As I tried to spin the car around again I soon realised it was the rear and once I reached my pits it was immediately clear we had to retire the car. The tyre had ripped the right rear bodywork clear off, just like at the previous round at Fuji.
I’d say this sort of thing is the most frustrating thing that can happen during a race weekend, bar a mechanical failure. The whole Kondo Team had put a massive effort into qualifying and getting the car ready and lined up for a good result and then something like this happens before the race really even is underway. And to have the same thing happen twice in two consecutive races means that we need to take a step back and figure out what the problem is before we move forward again. We have a two day test at Suzuka before the next round at Sugo, so we’ll have an opportunity to iron things out then.
Sugo is the next race, my favourite Japanese circuit and where we had a very good test a few weeks ago. Last year we eventually finished fourth at this track but would have finished second had we not lost power in the second stint through an issue with the air filter so the aim is to better that. Also, as we haven’t scored any points yet we won’t be carrying any handicap weight which always makes a difference at this point in the Championship.
Have a look at the photo’s from the weekend and in the video section there is a clip from Malaysia that captured the blow out.