SARD boss says "the usual Kovalainen" returned at Fuji
Heikki Kovalainen was back to his "usual" self in last weekend's Fuji SUPER GT round, according to SARD Toyota team boss Juichi Wakisaka.
Three-time GT500 champion Wakisaka, who oversaw Team LeMans' title triumph last year before moving across to head up a reorganised SARD team for 2020, made the comment in the wake of Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama's first win of the season on Sunday.
It was the duo's first win since last year's Autopolis race, and in only Kovalainen's third race back since sitting out the opening two Fuji races due to Japan's COVID-19 travel restrictions.
After a difficult start to the Fuji weekend for SARD, Wakisaka said that Kovalainen told him the team's GR Supra was "perfect" when he drove in morning warm-up on Sunday.
The 48-year-old went on to say that he was glad that the Finn found his mojo again, believing that being forced to miss the start of the season had dented Kovalainen's confidence.
"Speaking of coronavirus, Heikki couldn’t come [to Japan] initially," said Wakisaka. "His age also has an effect and I think the time he couldn’t race or be in the car made him anxious. He sometimes made comments to that effect.
"This time as well, in practice on Saturday the car was difficult to drive, and the car was not good, but at the same time as bringing this to our attention, he would come to me and humbly admit, ‘Of course I’m not driving well either’.
"I think he’s a great person but personally I wanted to see Heikki be more confident. It made me feel [negative] because it felt like the team wasn’t doing a good job. But this time, after the 20-minute warm-up [on Sunday morning], the usual Heikki returned.
"In that sense, I think it was an important race for Heikki, who found it tough that he couldn’t race because of coronavirus."
#39 DENSO KOBELCO SARD GR Supra
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
SARD was the only one of the five Bridgestone-shod Toyota runners at Fuji not carrying a fuel restrictor, but Kovalainen feels that even with a larger success handicap victory would have been possible, as Nakayama took the chequered flag with 10 seconds over the field.
"This time we had good pace, we had the legs on everyone," Kovalainen told Motorsport.com. "There was no funny weather like there was at Autopolis last year or a safety car.
"I don’t think we got the win just because we were light, and if we were heavier we had margin to go slower. We hit the sweet spot this time.
"With the Supra, there have been sessions when I’ve felt really strong and others where I’ve not felt so good. To find that sweet spot has not been easy.
"Hopefully we learned something and we can find it more often in future and have some more good races in the last part of the season."
Wakisaka also had praise for Nakayama, who is only in his second season of GT500 competition following four seasons representing Toyota in the GT300 ranks.
He and Kovalainen's only previous victory came in mixed conditions last year at Autopolis, making last weekend's Fuji race the first dry-weather win for the pairing.
"There are many excellent drivers in GT500, so I think up to now Nakayama hasn’t stood out," said Wakisaka. "Maybe it’s because of his gentle personality and various other things.
"But this time he showed himself properly with a strong race, so I think this race is a very big step in his career."
Yuichi Nakayama, Heikki Kovalainen, Juichi Wakisaka, team director（#39 DENSO KOBELCO SARD GR Supra）
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
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