HARSH PENALTY ROBS OD RACING OF WIN IN FUJI
WITH the fastest car in the GT class which didn't win in Fuji and OD Racing Best Leader were left cursing their luck after falling foul of confusion in pitlane rules that enforced a two-minute stop-go penalty.
Hopes of a GT class win in tatters, the weekend was salvaged with an eighth place finish.
That was the story in Round Two of the Asian Le Mans Series 2016-2017 at the Fuji Speedway, but the team remained upbeat after quite evident and consistent improvements made right from the first practice session on Friday, which already gave Fairuz Fauzy a hint of the pace available to the McLaren GT650S with traffic deeming the car just 11th fastest.
But the setup issues, evident in Round One in Zhuhai last month, were long gone by the time the car was parked in ninth on the grid after a solid qualifying which gave the team insight into the need for plans to be built around a 15-minute window to clock in the tyres before the best followed. Unfortunately, qualifying was just 15 minutes long, thus the best was saved for the race.
The hints became a reality on race day as the McLaren proved the fastest in the class, before long OD Racing finding themselves not just challenging for podium positions, but in the GT class lead.
"To sum up the whole weekend, we started ninth and from the start I was already fighting and climbed up to P5, then P4 and then the safety car came out. Then we pitted. After we pitted, we gained the advantage of one lap," said Malaysia's Fairuz Fauzy, the driver out on the opening stint.
"I think there was a bit of confusion with the officials because the pitlane was not open, but nothing came up on the screen and we thought we did everything fine, because we found a loophole."
The race day story was literally written by the safety car, which played its role in either undoing good work of getting into the lead, or providing the opportunities to make up lost ground.
"We continued the race and then the second safety car came out and I had to give up my place until about almost the last position. Then we restarted after the safety car, I fought again and did some overtaking," said Fairuz.
"We were P2, then P1 for a while. So, after the first hour's pit stop we were still P1 and very pleased with the car. After I handed the car over to Philippe, we were still in the top 3, then because of the confusion, Philippe didn't realise there was a red light and we got penalised for two minutes."
Nevertheless, the positives were enough to put a smile on Fairuz's face, looking towards Round Three in Buriram with renewed confidence.
"To be honest, everyone did their best. Its just that Japan didn't want us to win! I'm happy because firstly we finished the race, and the car was very competitive. Everyone did their best. Jono drove really well. For me, I'm happy with everything but of course we have to improve all the small errors and understand the whole thing better."
New Zealander Jono Lester was the one left cursing his luck the most, having to bite his teeth and take the two-minute stop-go pitlane penalty after the confusion of Descombes exiting under a red light.
"To be honest, for everybody it was a very stressful race from the start. We obviously played a good roll of the dice with our strategy and caught the organisers napping, which caused them to look at passing a penalty to us for beating them at their own game," said Lester.
"The first two hours were very stressful. Before I got into the car, it was really hard to remain calm. But once I joined the race we had a big lead already, 15 to 20 seconds, and I was really surprised with the car.
"It was the first chance I really had all weekend to drive the car for more than two or three laps, as most of the running has been with the other two drivers, so I put my head down and we were the quickest car, with the quickest lap for most of the race."
The penalty was hard to take for Lester, having the team's hard work pay off with the car in the lead and then being forced to drop back, salvaging eighth spot in the end.
"But obviously with a two-minute stop-and-go penalty it was very difficult for us. Into the last portion of the race, we had really nothing more to gain than eighth place, so we decided to back off and just conserve the car and save the last of the brakes.
"Which was really disappointing because we really should have won by a big margin today. But I guess the advantage from this weekend is we know now that we can win. In Zhuhai we did not know this. There we knew we could maybe be top five, but now we know we can win."
Now, Buriram can't come sooner for the Kiwi.
"That was really encouraging. That means that everybody in the team - the drivers, the mechanics, the engineers - will be very encouraged before Buriram, which is really going to suit the car.
"This car is really going to thrive there. We just hope it is not too hot there. I am really looking forward to January 6 when we can to Buriram, where we can really try and convert our pace to a nice result. Thanks to the team, to OD Racing. We can really take the positives from this weekend and make it work," said Lester.
For Descombes, making his debut with the team in Fuji, it was a highly positive weekend too.
"It's been a very interesting race,our overall pace was perhaps the greatest out there, unfortunately we had to serve an heavy two-minute penalty for some running out of the pit under red light which is to me way too rough," said Descombes.
"It is what it is and we need to look forward, the car was the quickest out there and the team did a great job overall.
I would like to thank the whole OD racing team for this opportunity, it's been great to work with the boys during the whole weekend."
Race engineer Toby Phillips, saw the whole weekend come together nicely, then fall apart, but left Fuji with the confidence that the team was heading in the right direction.
He laid out how the strategy was played.
"From my side the car was quick. The strategy was to run Fairuz in the first stint, as he would be faster than most people out there. We were P4 when we came in. But the real trick was there was a safety car on the first lap, so we boxed straight away. So, you do a mandatory two-minute pitstop, one of three in the race," said Phillips.
"Which only loses you one lap because the safety car is slower than the pit time. We managed to get out of the pit in front of the safety car, so we've completed one of the three mandatory stops and we're still on the same lap as everybody else.
"So, when everybody else then has to pit during the green light, then they go a lap down. So we are effectively racing them on the track right next to them, but we are one pit stop in front, which means we are one lap up, when it all shapes up at the end of the day.
"We then pitted after another hour to put Philippe in the car and Philippe did his hour with good pace, faster than everybody and he put himself into the class lead, almost 15 seconds into the lead."
What could have been a comfortable victory by a healthy margin, turned into disaster as confusion reigned with the organisers saying one thing and the team believing something else.
"When Philippe came in for the third mandatory stop and changed to Jono, we had one pit stop left, but everybody else had to do another mandatory stop, and we could go as fast as we liked just to change the tyres and the fuel, normally about one minute," said Phillips.
"We were leading when we had an extra minute up our sleeves, that we would win at the next pitstop. We then got a pitlane penalty from the organisers for running through a red light at the end of the pitlane, which Jono had to take, so he had to box, sit in the pit for two minutes stationary and then carry on, which basically lost us two laps because it was done during green flag conditions.
"And we finished one and a half minutes behind the leader, but then the organisers had already robbed us of two minutes. We should have won by a good quarter of a minute.
We also set the fastest lap on the way. Jono was the fastest man on the circuit for the best part of two hours. We were a quick car, good strategy and we got robbed by a pitlane penalty."
The team will continue to build towards the next round in Buriram, Thailand on January 6th to 8th, with the knowledge that a battle for victory could be on the cards.
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