The Round 5 Suzuka Pokka 1000 race was back on the schedule this year with the regular 1000km race distance. For the last few years it was reduced to 700 and then to 500km and although it was now back to normal, it was still started earlier during the day and therefore didn’t involve driving the last hour in darkness as would normally be the case.
Still, it’s the longer distance that makes this race truly special and we arrived at the track fresh from two very positive days of testing at Fuji Speedway.
This race we had the knock down qualifying format and Hiro managed to get through the first session after some confusion involving a red flag. I took over for the second session but that was as far as we could make it. Our strategy would be to try to finish the race with 5 stints instead of the regular 6 and in order to achieve this we’d have to save fuel and tyres and also choose a harder compound.
I drove the first stint which was interesting as we have to start on our qualifying tyres and these already had two attacks on them from the knock down sessions. So starting on a set of 10 lap used tyres I had to go at least another 34 laps whilst in maximum fuel saving mode. The start was ok and during the first lap I managed to pick up a position overtaking #18 into the final chicane. After that it was only a case of making it to lap 34 without loosing position. It was a tough final 15 laps as #18 was desperate to get back through and very quick on the straights. But we managed to keep him behind.
This worked out well and Hiro took over for the second stint on a brand new set of tyres and immediately was able to take advantage of the fresh rubber. At this point it was still hard to say whether anyone else were on the same strategy as us but we started working our way up the race order as it all progressed.
My second stint was very quick, Hiro’s second equally so but during the pitstop for the final stint our refuelling went wrong and we didn’t manage to get enough petrol inside the tank. At this point the strategy had worked out perfectly and we were looking at a safe 2nd position coming all the way from 11th thanks to some really good work from the team and us drivers being able to save fuel but stay quick at the same time. I was going to be able to drive the final stint in maximum power mode all the way to the chequered flag.
So I was really surprised when once on track, I immediately got the order to turn down the power again and really try to save as much fuel as I could. After a few laps I got called back into the pits for a splash and dash and returned for the final 20 laps in 5th with no chance of catching the leading group. I was furious.
However, with 15 laps left #17 had a massive accident as a result of a tyre blowout and this lead to a second safety car session. This allowed me to catch up with the leaders even though we had a few lapped cars in between us. When the track eventually went green I had 10 laps to make my way from 5th back up into the podium but as one of the lapped cars was half asleep during the restart I ended up with a 4 second gap I had to close first.
It became one of the most exciting races ever from my point of view, I closed the gap quickly and was able to take advantage and gain one position during the last 7 laps as we all fought for position. Then with only a few laps left we started hitting slower traffic again and I could use this to gain yet another position and we were back on the podium. The final 10 laps I even had to switch the air conditioning off in order to preserve power. It was the hardest final few laps I’ve ever done after such a long distance but the reward was great! A first podium for me, Hiro and Kondo Racing Team.
So despite our refuelling trouble we managed to fight our way back to the podium and overall we only ended up loosing one position, the #1 GT-R was completely outstanding this weekend and even with a perfect race I doubt we could have challenged them.
Also, finally we had a really good performance from the Yokohama tyres after struggling in the earlier rounds. The hot weather and track temperature over 50 degrees caused several cars to have tyre blowouts – I’ve never seen anything like it. The same thing that happened to me in two of the three previous rounds. Hopefully we have managed to understand the issue behind those troubles, it certainly seemed that way last weekend.
I’ve had a few days rest back home but now back in Japan again for testing at Autopolis. Then it’s on to Fuji Round 6 and as I mentioned we were very quick in testing there although the Lexus will be very hard to beat at their home track. September will be busy for me barely spending any time at home but this time of the year being in Japan is almost like being on a tropical holiday so I will be enjoying the weather and taking advantage of hard training in very hot and humid conditions.
Don’t forget to check out the photo gallery and especially the most exciting part 6 of 6 of Suzuka Round 5 on the video page!