Last year we were disqualified from qualifying here having been outside of the 107% limit after failing to get back on track in the dying minutes of a wet but quickly drying qualifying session. As a result we had to start from 15th and final position but we had a strong race performance and ended up finishing 5th.
On our arrival Friday afternoon we were met by a clear blue sky and 25 degrees but the forecast told us a typhoon was approaching from the south and likely to hit in the early hours of Saturday morning. Saturday’s qualifying format was knock-down and the rain had already started falling by the time we arrived at the circuit in the morning.
Our wet tyres seemed to work really well in the free practice and after a few minor balance changes we could set a time good enough for 3rd overall. With such a good pace we knew that with a good performance throughout the three knock-down sessions, we’d be able to fight for pole.
Hiro started the first 15 minute qualifying session and made it safely through to the second in P5. After that it was my turn, and with a red flag 3 minutes into the session we opted to reuse Hiro’s tyres again for a better warm-up performance. The plan worked out well and we went through to the third and final knock-down in P2. For the last run it was Hiro’s turn again and with a brand new set of wet tyres he secured P3 by the end of qualifying. The two cars in front of us on the grid had gambled on intermediate tyres on a drying track and that turned out to be the right decision. Still, it was a satisfying result after a good effort by the whole team.
As usual I drove the first stint and after a uneventful start behind the safety car I focused on looking after my tyres for the first few laps. Around 15 laps into the stint there was a three lap safety car period and once the race was restarted I managed to get a run on #19 into the back hairpin and advanced into P2. After that I started to chase down the leader, the #23 NISMO and within a few laps I had closed the gap enough to attack in turn 1. The attack was succesful and I was able to move into the lead. After that it was a case of maintaining the lead without stressing the tyres too much as we wanted to leave all options open for the first pit stop. The track was still wet but drying slowly and we wanted to be able to go straight from wet to slick tyres during our pit stop and driver change.
I did loose the lead at one point, negotiating traffic is always tricky around Autopolis with some very tight corner sections and there was a misunderstanding in between me and a slower GT300 car where he nearly put me on the grass in one of the high-speed corners but a few laps later the same thing happened to the driver that benefited from the earlier incident and I could regain the lead.
We waited as late as possible before my pitstop, at that point the track was at it’s driest and I had just set my quickest lap of the race so far but on my in-lap it started to rain heavily at the back of the circuit. The tyres were still in good condition and with only around 25 laps to go there was a good chance they would last to the finish.
Hiro took over, the pitstop was good and regained the lead. But with 15 laps left he started to struggle massively with the rear tyres and before the race was over we had dropped to fourth. Hard to watch those final laps knowing that we had the win within our grasp…
The typhoon didn’t cause us as much trouble as expected during the weekend, but as it moved up north it ended up impossible to get back to Tokyo on Sunday evening as all incoming flights to the capital were cancelled. Everyone were trying to find other ways of getting back home but most of the racing people ended up stranded i Kumamoto. As for myself I managed to get a flight to Nagoya instead, getting a bullet train from there to Tokyo the following day. I’ll miss out on my return to the UK on Monday morning but it felt like a nicer alternative than a 10 hour drive which another Nissan driver was contemplating.
Next up is Motegi and the final round of the Championship. We tested there only a few weeks ago and now that summer is over in Japan there is a significant drop in temperature that seems to suit our tyres. Hopefully we’ll get one more chance to fight for that elusive win.