Friday, July 25, 2008

Best finish yet in FCJ and Tokachi 24 hr endurance race

Igor Sushko at Suzuka

A few weeks ago was the FCJ race in Suzuka. On Thursday practice, my engine failed with nearly no load when a red flag came out due to a crash and I was cruising back to the pits. The time to change the engine limited my track time to less than an hour for that day, although we had three 1-hour sessions. Friday practice passed without any further issues. For qualifying on Saturday, the temperature was already around 35 Celsius at 9:30 AM, which posed a lot of challenges for tire pressure setups. The extreme track heat mandated that we run a lower-than-usual pressure, but needed to ensure that we could get the temps up in time during the 15 minute qualifying. I gradually worked the tires for 3 laps as the cold pressures were so low there was risk of damaging the actual construction of the tires. As I got on for my first flying lap, a yellow came out in one of the turns, forcing me to abandon the attack. Then the following lap, again, the same thing happened with another car off of the track in a dangerous area. Finally on the third flying lap I got a clear lap but encountered debris and lost time. My position for Q1 was 20th. Then for the 2nd qualifying, I easily beat my Q1 time despite the tires already having gone off and secured a 10th position start for the Sunday race. My best qualifying yet in FCJ. Gap from the top was 0.6 seconds.

The Saturday race was a throwaway anyway due to my qualifying position, but the engine ignition failed on the first lap and I became a spectator for the next 11 laps.
Igor Sushko in Japanese Formula Renault

Sunday was incredible however. I got a great start off of the line into turn 1 and passed 2 cars, but then was pushed nearly off of the track out of turn 2 and had to lift off. This brought me back to 9th. Over the next 17 laps, I managed a very fast pace and passed the car for 8th position, a 3rd-year FCJ veteran from Honda who has even been testing for F3. I was catching up to the 7th place car by nearly a second per lap but ran out of laps, finishing in 8th place. My top time was around 2nd best in the race and looking at the pace, the qualifying position was the largest determinant of the finishing position. If I can qualify somewhere around the top in the next race I am confident I will have a chance to finally get on the podium.

Igor Sushko at Suzuka

Up next was the Tokachi 24-hour endurance race in the #15 Okabe Jidosha Dixcel Nissan Fairlady Z. Our team flew in on Friday morning. For this race, the team added a 4th driver, who we gave lots of practice time to get used to the car and the track. I coached him throughout and he was able to make the necessary changes pretty quickly.
Since I had raced at Tokachi in a Z last year, I only made a few laps before the race just to setup the car - a little tweaking of shocks and a small wing adjustment and the car was perfect. It was an incredibly easy car to drive with no understeer at any of the corners. Most corners at Tokachi are mid-speed (3rd gear) 90 degree turns and the track is rather bumpy. Having watched in-car videos of other cars in other classes, our car was definitely hooked up.

Igor Sushko at Tokachi

The strategy for the 24-hour race is all about speed and fuel efficiency. I tested a variety of driving styles, including driving a gear up and short-shifting at several different RPMs. By short-shifting several hundred RPM sooner than usual, we were able to extent a single stint from 42 laps to 47 laps, thus eliminating one pitstop at the end of the race.

The race started on Sunday at 3PM to finish at 3PM on Monday. Komatsu-san and I split the night-time racing with Nagashima-san and Furuta-san driving during daylight. When I got into the car at the 2nd pitstop (3rd stint), we were right there with the #333 Z driving in 1st/2nd positions. I drove a double stint as the sun went down, with a full course yellow in the middle, which extended my drive to over 4 hours. By the time I was done, I opened up a gap of over 1.5 laps to the 2nd place car. At 2:18 per lap, this was a great cushion to have.

Then Komatsu-san maintained the lead with a double stint and I got back in around 2 AM. Another 1:50 later we were comfortably ahead by over 2 laps.
Nissan 350Z Z33 pitstop at Tokachi 24

Then Nagashima-san got back in when the it began to get slightly lighter and began his stint. Shortly after we got into the 13th hour, with 5 points already under our belt for leading the class at the 12-hour mark and with a huge lead to the 2nd place car, left-front wheel bolts failed between turns 1 and 2, forcing a pitstop for repair. The cause is not yet known, but over-torquing is suspected, since no other Zs experienced this problem over the course of the race.

Essentially, this ended our race for 1st place, since by the time that car got out of the pits we were down by 6 laps. Then during the next stint, the same thing happened to our left-rear wheel bolts, and we got further down in laps.

At this point I decided getting some sleep was the best remedy to such an unfortunate event.

I finished the race off in the final stint, with a huge margin to 4th place, so I cruised more than anything to ensure nothing else failed.

We took the checkered flag in 3rd place, another podium finish, but having been so close to running away with the win, we were all quite distraught.

I was able to demonstrate my extraordinarily fast pace for over 4 hours in a row, and without any errors, so I am extremely content with my personal performance, and will aim to win the next race in Super Taikyu at Okayama next month.

Sakai Mizuho-san and myself before the 24-hour race.

Another podium - three podiums out of four races so far this year in Super Taikyu.