After an intense exam period in Manchester and an even a more so Audi Cup weekend in Japan, I finally had a chance to visit my home in Estonia. Just over a week, and it went quickly indeed. Training, catching up with friends and family, visiting my high-school, watching 24h of Le Mans.
I barely unpacked and off I was back to Japan – for the 3rd time in my life.
Arriving back at the legendary Suzuka Circuit, it was such a great relief to see my car in shape. It hadn’t been an easy few weeks for the #18 Audi: the big crash in Thailand that required a complete rebuild, then the struggles getting it fixed two weeks ago, and as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge- contact from the back in Race 3 of Audi Cup. But everything was well and ready to push in the free-practices the next day.
As usual, Friday was the free-practice day. The 28 car strong grid ran 2x50mins. My pace was mega, I felt quick and confident with the car and track. I clocked fastest lap times in both of the sessions. An unfortunate driving error by my team-mate Rick Yoon cost him his driving time in FP2, but fortunately there was no big damage. Thus, I didn’t drive in the Saturday morning’s Official-Practice to get him more time to work on the technique at this demanding race track. He did a great job to regain confidence after his Friday’s struggles.
Between the morning practice and qualifying, we did driver-change practice. That’s basically simulating the pit-stop, building muscle memory for all required actions, such as putting in your seat insert- a hard foam thermoset that is used to get the individual fit- buckling up, driver ID switch, radio check etc. Time is of essence during the actual pit-stop and everything has to flow perfectly.
Next up was Qualifying, and as regulated by the series, Rick qualified Q1 and I did Q2. These would decide starting grid for Races 1 and 2 consecutively. Quite appropriately for Suzuka, both qualifying sessions saw red flags. Rick qualified P23 due to a penalty. Then I jumped in for Q2. I knew I had it for pole. But the thing we couldn’t foresee happened- a red flag during my fast lap, back to pits! Now for the session restart, we made a mistake. I was released in the pack with all the traffic but it was also urgent to push for a lap, so I didn’t have much of a choice but to try and make it work. It was hectic.
Times like this you appreciate the need for a farther ahead pit garage. I found myself in a situation, where I had no fast lap recorded, fuel left for a single lap only and tyres were already giving up their peak. “It’s your final lap- push,” my engineer Malice said on the radio. That was my chance to save my frantic close-to-failure qualifying. Under pressure, I managed to put together a clean lap. My lap was 4th fastest but I wasn’t delighted as I knew I had been unlucky, but I had to be pleased with the overall outcome considering the circumstances.
Later in the day Rick started Race 1. After a few laps, seeing we were out of contention, we decided to gamble and leave him out for a longer stint. The gamble didn’t pay dividends, but it gave Rick the chance to get some quality mileage anyway. When I took over, I was P19. With plenty of gap to cars ahead, it was essentially a race-setup test for us. As ever, I pushed hard, rising 5 positions. I finished P14. More importantly, some initial traffic aside, I was the fastest car on the track until the end. Later a penalty for our pit stop put us P16. Yet our focus was on the Sunday’s Race 2.
Intriguingly it had been pouring rain until early morning. Then it dried out, but before pit lane was opened, it was already drizzling down again. Lightly at first, but the rain was increasing. Still it was not quite enough for wet tyres, so essentially everyone opted for slicks instead. Boy was it a struggle to get the tyres up to temperature.
My start was not amazing but it was decent and I traded positions. The safety car was deployed and the rain was getting worse and worse, so it was absolutely crucial to keep the tyres warm. As soon as a slick is cooled down enough in damp conditions, grip is gone instantly and pretty much entirely, but I managed to keep the temperature.
I was quick off the restart, but was held up by Alex Yoong in front of me. It’s not allowed to overtake until the control-line on main straight. I was looking for a way through, whilst having to defend against Shaun Thong. The pressure was on and I knew I had to get past soon to avoid giving away positions myself.
Into turn 7 I almost had Alex, but he expertly closed the door. Towards the swooping Spoon Bend, both Alex and I had a slippery moment on full throttle, but mine was less and I was closing in. I knew I had to try to overtake as Shaun was right behind me was ready to utilise any chances I left unused.
Approaching the corner, Alex caught me off guard with early brakes and relying on my instincts, I tried to dodge him left. It was a mistake, I lost deceleration due to having to steer. Then ran out of room and touched the grass. Wet grass and slick tyres- a Scandinavian idiom says “Like a cow on ice”. Out of control, I hit the barrier and drove the car back to pits after a bit of help from the track marshals. But we were forced to retire due to the damage on the back of the car. Such a shame.
I’m very disappointed that the weekend didn’t turn out the way we saw it. I consistently showed top pace and it’s a shame we couldn’t realise that potential. Sure, a little bit of bad luck in the qualifying can change the race outcome a lot, but still we were in a good position to fight until the crash.
Racing engineers have this joke about drivers always finding an excuse to blame someone or something. For my misjudged move I have only myself to blame. I acknowledge that, and take it to my memory bank- it’ll make me stronger to improve my quick-decision making, and perhaps wiser- knowing how to read drivers moves better.
However, in spite of all the misfortune that I’ve had throughout this season- especially in the last few race weeks- I feel as confident as ever in the car. My speed has been unharmed, and I know I can fight for the win. On that note I’d like to stop for now. Can’t wait to have a quick refresh back home. I think I’m even going to take the old shifter-kart out for a drive.
I’ll be back at the race track soon. And I’ll come prepared.