By: Sérgio Fonseca
On that afternoon in July 2017, on the Zhuhai International Circuit, Macau racing ace André Couto saw his life going backwards. Round 3 of the 2017 China GT Championship was going well for the Portuguese-born driver until the rain suddenly arrived when he was driving a 550 bhp car on slick tyres. Couto lost control of the #23 Spirit Z Racing Nissan NISMO GT-R GT3, which resulted in the car skating across the gravel trap and making a heavy head-on impact with the tyre barrier at Turn 6.
“This is something that may happen once in every driver’s lifetime,” says Couto. “The whole thing didn’t look good. It was a heavy impact at 170 kmh (106 mph). The chassis buckled, the steering wheel crumpled, and the pedals moved two feet forward.”
The local driver did, encouragingly, walk away from the car, although very shaken and obviously in need of medical attention. Couto suffered a compression fracture of the first vertebra of the lumbar spine (L1) and was ‘medevaced’ to Hong Kong the day after the accident.
With a full season contract in China GT Championship and a part-time deal in place with a Super GT Porsche team, he was forced to suspend his driving, embarking, instead, upon a long period of recovery. The 41-year old driver was on the highway to hell.
To hell and back
Back in Hong Kong, Couto, always an active person with a special inclination for sport, saw himself stuck in bed for two long months by his own volition; an option that he does not regret today.
“In the end, I was lucky because they really took good care of me at St Teresa’s Hospital. They told me I had the chance to avoid surgery if I could stay in bed for two months without moving. That was the worst part of all,” he confesses.
He had to seek strength from deep inside to overcome the adversity.
“I’d watched what Afonso endured (Andre Couto’s son Afonso passed away after battling leukaemia) and I said to myself ‘If he could handle it so bravely why can’t I now?!’” Couto recalls.
For someone who has raced overseas at the top level and for the last twenty-five years the dramatic scenario of having to hang his helmet up for good was always in the back of his mind. Family and friends’ support was really critical at this time because a weak state of mind could lead to a dangerous downward spiral.
“It was tough because it was a great unknown. Time was passing and I couldn’t see any improvement. You start thinking about life and a lot of related stuff. I was very fortunate I had a great team of doctors and amazing family and friends who supported me, helping me move forward. My wife Graça was the most important. She was very supportive throughout the whole progression, staying by my side the whole time,” he recollects.
After two months lying in a bed in Hong Kong, Andre finally returned home to convalesce.
“Things got better when I returned to Macau but I still had three months in slow motion. Every movement was excruciatingly painful but slowly I started taking small steps towards full recovery,” he says. “I had to go through a lot of physiotherapy and gym. It helped a lot, physically and mentally. Today, I can say all this work has been well worth it.”
Six months after the accident the former Macau Grand Prix F3 winner was back on the Zhuhai circuit and ready to drive the touted ‘fastest electric car in the world’ – the 1,340 bhp Nio EP9. Another major step forward was taken with Couto feeling comfortable at the wheel again despite the considerable power of the Chinese EV supercar.
Following this positive test, he visited the doctors in Hong Kong where he underwent a new series of examinations that cleared him for the season ahead. He just had one problem: by mid-January all the good seats in motor racing are already spoken for.
On the road again
As soon as Couto understood he could be back behind the steering wheel he put himself in the market for a drive, with teams interested in his familiarity with GT cars, Japan and the Asia racing scene.
“I really wanted to go back racing but I could only commit to a season programme with a green light from the doctor. I had been in touch with a lot of people searching for a seat but the good seats in Japan’s Super GT are already filled in January.”
But he could not just throw in the towel.
“When the accident happened, a lot of people from the Hong Kong motorsport circle were very helpful, and then a door opened. Hong Kong-based outfit Phoenix Racing Asia and Jeffrey Lee gave me a hand and now I’m competing in the Super Taikyu Series, a Japanese endurance championship that visits six different circuits, with the 24-Hours of Fuji undoubtedly the highlight of the season. It is not Super GT but the level of the teams and drivers is high with plenty of former well known Super GT faces.”
Sharing J-Fly Racing by Phoenix Racing Asia’s Audi R8 LMS GT3 with Taiwan’s Jeffrey Lee and Japan’s Shintaro Kawabata, Couto delivered a flawless comeback complemented by a fifth place finish at Suzuka circuit in March.
“I was looking forward to this first race. I didn’t know what to expect but in the end everything went smoothly and the speed was still there,” says Couto with relief and a smile.
He was second quickest in qualifying for the second round at Sugo, where a teammate’s early contact with an opponent did not allow the team to finish better than ninth. The championship continued with the 24-Hours of Fuji, where Couto revisited the podium in style.
“Honestly, I thought it’d be more difficult. It is a long race but physically I was really well. I just struggled with food poisoning over the weekend, which didn’t make life easy. Anyway, I did the night stints and I was the fastest out there. It was a great feeling to be back on the podium.”
A fourth place finish in the Autopolis 5 Hours put the Macau driver and his teammates third in the standings as best of the Audi runners just behind season favourite Nissan.
“All in all, the season is going very well. The level of the championship is high and the results have been mostly positive. The team atmosphere on and off the track is really good, too. It was the perfect place to return after what I went through”, concludes the 2015 Super GT GT300 category champion.
We had all become so used to Couto’s presence at the annual Macau Grand Prix that a weekend without him racing seems a bit empty. Since 1995, when he raced in the Grand Prix for the first time, Couto has only missed his home turf race three times. But if he had race commitments in Japan in 2001 and 2004, last year he really had to sit it out due to force majeure. He badly wants to return to his beloved race.
“I’m working on it. I’ve been in talks with Phoenix Racing Asia but it’s too early to confirm anything. It makes sense to me to return to the Macau FIA GT World Cup in November,” he confesses. “The competition is getting tougher and tougher as the factory teams have arrived. I need to find a good car and a good team.”
The event represents the pinnacle of GT racing, and is open only to manufacturers and drivers with FIA Gold or Platinum categorisation. These requirements proved very popular in 2017 when 13 teams from three continents entered 20 cars for seven manufacturers. The budget for a single entry in the race is rumoured to be well over MOP1 million.
“The Guia Circuit is hosting the most important GT3 sprint race in the world therefore I think it would be good for Macau to have a driver there,” says Couto, the only driver from Macau to meet the race requirements. “It’s extremely difficult to generate sponsorship individually. There must be the political will. I’m not begging for government money but the local main bodies’ support to make it happen.”
A successful career
At the age of 13 Couto’s racing driver career began with go-karting in Macau, and we could take up the rest of this piece detailing his wins and successes, but essentially the key moment came eleven years after.
Right after his 2000 Macau Grand Prix F3 victory he received a proposal to join the exclusive world of Formula One; the ultimate goal for any driver. Prost Grand Prix offered Couto a drive but he had to bring US$5 million in sponsorship to the Formula One legend Alain Prost run team. This was the first, and perhaps will be for a long time, the only chance the Macau SAR had to have a driver in the highest class of motor racing. Unfortunately, the Macau economy was not firing on all cylinders as it is today and Couto could not find the necessary funds in the city.
“We tried but at the time the Macau Government didn’t have the vision or the interest,” he wistfully recalls. “I suppose it’s no use going over old grievances. I still did well elsewhere.”
“There are three episodes that I can’t forget,” he says. “First was my Macau Grand Prix F3 race debut in 1995. When I overtook Ralf Schumacher for the lead I knew I could be good at this sport. It was a fantastic feeling. The year before I was strolling around the paddock, taking photos and asking for drivers’ autographs . . . and suddenly there I was, battling for the Grand Prix win with them.”
In 2000, he finally made the dream came true. Since Eddie Carvalho’s win in the first edition of the Grand Prix, that local racer did not take the event’s main trophy.
“Winning the Grand Prix was extraordinary. It was my sixth attempt and I put a big effort into that. I’ve been very unlucky in the previous attempts and finally I could achieve my career’s number one target. I’d been watching the Grand Prix since a young age, and winning it had a special meaning.”
Japan welcomed Couto for the first time in 2001 and he would make the most of his career in the Land of the Rising Sun. From formula to GT cars, he amassed a legion of fans and support, and maybe because of that “winning the GT300 was also very special. I’ve been racing in Japan for many years and I had been vice-champion in the GT500 class with Toyota. Winning the GT300 title and the way we did it, with such a strong dominance, was something amazing,” he recalls.
After twenty-eight years of driving fast cars Couto has no intention of stepping away from fulltime racing. He still feels he has a lot to give to Macau and to the city’s passionate crowds.
“Definitely,” he shouts. “We believe!”
-1997 Italian F3 Championship – Vice Champion
– 2000 47th Macau Grand Prix (F3) – Race Winner
– 2004 All-Japan GT Championship – Vice Champion
– 2007 Tokachi 24-Hours – Race Winner
– 2014 Audi R8 LMS Cup – Vice Champion
– 2015 Super GT (GT300 Class) – Champion
Other pieces of the puzzle
After the accident, Couto started to practice Qigong. Similar but different to Tai Chi, this is an ancient practice that focuses on life’s energy – qi – which flows through the body’s energy meridians (pathways). According to him, this technique increases back flexibility and strength and helps make the most of physical, emotional and spiritual power. For a racing driver, mental concentration exercises are a great aid before clambering into the car.
Eight years ago it took Couto and his family a lot of strength to handle his son Afonso’s heart-wrenching situation. After his son’s passing, Couto kept on promoting bone marrow donation awareness, partnering with the international fan-based organisation dedicated to the Star Wars universe – 501st Legion – through charity activities. Afonso’s courage and never-give-up attitude are an inspiration for his father.
Favourite racing car
Couto never really had the opportunity to drive a proper Formula One car. In 2000, however, fresh from his Macau Grand Prix victory and the Formula Nippon tests in Motegi, Japan, he got the chance to test what he considers today to be the best racing car he has ever driven. Couto tested Champ Cars’ Lola-Ford at the Sebring track in Florida, USA. Those were the times when the American open-wheel cars were powered by 950/1000 bhp engines.