Audi R8 LMS Cup. Rounds 3 & 4. Suzuka, Japan.
An incredibly tough weekend that showed resilience of the whole team as well as our ability to bounce back from the most difficult situations.
As you may know, my car suffered in a serious crash in Thailand. Therefore, it was sent to Japan to be completely rebuilt before the Audi cup weekend. And by complete, I mean the whole deal – the engine, the chassis, the gearbox. Usually such process takes over 48 hours. The KCMG mechanics arrived there on Monday evening. Quite worringly, the cars didn’t arrive until Thursday morning – the day before Free Practices on Friday morning.
The team, together with Audi engineers and experts faced a virtually impossible task. They had under 24h until FP1 and under 28h until FP2. But everybody worked as hard as possible to get it ready. We realised that there was no chance to make it to FP1 but a slim chance of having the car out in FP2. Amazingly, as Audi and competitor team WRT saw my misfortune, I was offered a chance to do some essential laps in FP1 in Stephane Richelmi’s car – what a great act of sportsmanship!
When FP2 started, my car was almost complete. Not properly aligned and set up, but ready enough to test if the car is actually running – something that was crucial to determine before having to drive out in qualifying onto the narrow and unforgiving Suzuka. The car drove, there were some issues with calibration of throttle and gear-shifting, but we got enough information so that it was fixed by Qualifying sessions on Saturday morning.
I had a lot of catching up to do – learn the track and make a fast lap, while carefully monitoring if the car was running well – all within just a few laps. Adapting quickly, I was 9th in Q1 and got some idea for all these things as well as how the new tyres work in Suzuka. In Q2, I improved almost a whole second and was 4th, missing pole by just +0.3s. I was happy with how my racing engineer Bertrand had expertly managed to find a good quali-setup without sufficient data (due to missing the chance to test the car in free practices).
Next up was Race 1, a few hours after Qualifying had finished. Starting in the ‘wolf-pack’, where everything is rather frantic, I successfully managed to avoid any collision through the start and the action-packed 1st lap, retaining P9. Knowing I had the pace to contest for higher positions, I started to make my way up. Here I have to note that Suzuka is a particularly difficult track to overtake at, but it’s not impossible. On lap 2, I had a good drive onto the back straight and passed Chinese driver David Chen for P8. It was a clean move into the legendary corner 130R and I checked my mirrors on the exit to see that I was clear to push forward – check. The next moment, when I was midway into the next chicane, I received a hit. As it turns out, Korean driver K.O. You, running P10 at the time, made a late and uncontrolled move against David Chen. Unable to stop his car, he hit me, two cars in front of him, straight into the right door. I kept going but the impact was sufficient to cause misalignment in the balance of the car as well as damage on the right front tyre. It even damaged the brand new chassis that had just been fitted, though not structurally – thank god. These damages slowed me down, I was unable to charge further, I was merely nursing the broken car home, trying to get any points possible. I finished P9, lucky to not have a blown tyre as a similar issue had resulted for me in Penbay last year.
Onto Race 2, I was happy to start from the second row. Unfortunately, Race 1 hadn’t given us decent data to work with, so we had to start on the same predictions as before, unknowing how the race balance of the car would be. Thus, finishing with decent points seemed the realistic outcome. But secretly inside, I hoped for a podium.
Start was eventful, I briefly dropped down to P6 but was back up to P5 after turn1, behind Alex Yoong, who had seemingly suffered right-rear damage from a contact with another car. Close behind him into turn2, I had a close moment, when I just missed Alex, who was slower due to grip loss caused by the damage. Back to P4, I proceeded to catch the guys in front. I was quite a lot quicker initially, catching Mitch Gilbert in 3rd with ease. Looking for a way through, I needed a clear opening – I was only going to do a ‘smart move’. Disturbingly, I started having problems with drop-off of the tyres. Clearly, the setup was not ideal. I had the particular problem of missing traction from the corners, due to which I was unable to get close on the straights to go for an overtake. I was always close but not close enough, and I have to give credit to Team Absolute for having a very efficient setup for the car – all three cars in front of me were theirs. I finished P4.
Having spoken to the live broadcast operator, he was always looking out for me about to overtake Mitch, shame it was not possible, but surely I got quite a bit of TV-time for the fight.
Next week I’ll be back in Suzuka for Blancpain GT Asia when I’ll share the car with my team mate Rick Yoon. The next Audi R8 LMS Cup race will be in Korea in 15-16th July, where I’m confident to have a strong result.