Round 3 of the Super GT series saw the grid visit another intriguing Japanese venue. Autopolis was once one of very few motorsport venues to boast a truly world class art gallery in its grounds. The circuit’s finest hour to date was the World Sportscar Championship event back in 1991, a race won by none other than Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger in their Sauber Mercedes C291. However, as May Rolled into June in 2014, Lexus, Nissan and Honda arrived to do battle.
Traditionally, Autopolis has been kind to mid-engined entries in Super GT. This was welcome news indeed for Honda who had struggled in the first two rounds. The first two races had seemed to suggest that the Lexus RC F had the raw pace and the Nissan GT-R was most reliable and consistently quick over a full race distance.
Qualifying seemed to suggest that Nissan had bridged the gap over Lexus on single lap pace, with the #23 and #46 Nissans locking out the front row; Ronnie Quintarelli taking pole by three-tenths.
Although not right at the sharp end, Honda did have a better start to the weekend, four of their NSX Concept-GTs making the top 10 on the grid.
As the cars set off for the start, one of the championship favourites, the #6 ENEOS Lexus, had a recurrence of a fuel-pump issue that had hindered it in qualifying, meaning that the clearly struggling machine had to start from the pits. As the rest of the field got going in the traditional rolling start, the top four took off in qualifying order – Quintarelli leading in the # 23 Nissan, closely followed by Satoshi Motoyama in the #46 Nissan and Kohei Hirate in his # 1 Lexus. Fourth on the road was the championship-leading Calsonic Nissan of Joao Paulo Lima De Oliveira.
The top three ran nose to tail until they hit the GT300 traffic. Then, as they battled through the back markers, it appeared that the Nissan had better pace in the traffic. The top two began to pull away from Hirate in his RC F and all the while Oliveira was closing in. With the leaders swapping positions through the traffic on multiple occasions, they were still able to pull away from the struggling RC F in third. Before long there was a train of cars battling for third, Hirate and Oliveira being joined by the RC F of Andrea Caldarelli, and James Rossiter also pedalling a Lexus.
Oliveira clearly had the pace to chase down the leaders but was getting increasingly impatient behind Hirate. As the frustration grew he made a mistake and Caldarelli took his chance, popping his Lexus up into fourth. Oliveira, though, wasn’t finished and in one fell swoop took both of the Lexus in front of him in the space of two corners.
The possibility of anyone other than the top two winning at this stage seemed unlikely. Oliveira, Caldarelli and Rossiter had all now got by Hirate, but found themselves a full 15 seconds back. So, with the race coming down to the two Nissans, it seemed that the pit window would be crucial. With Motoyama bringing the #46 car in early on, Quintarelli saw his chance and put in some blistering laps.
Remarkably, despite his turn of pace, Quintarelli was able to go a full seven laps longer and, as he handed over to Matsuda, it became evident that his plan had worked; #23 exiting the pits more than ten seconds ahead of the #46 Nissan which had been stuck to its bumper for much of the first half of the race.
Then, as the race threatened to quieten down, a freak accident for a GT300 car – closely followed by an unrelated fire for the #24 GT500 Nissan – brought out the Safety Car. With just seven laps left the Safety Car pulled in and Matsuda went off like a hare, pulling out an instant lead and keeping it to take the win over Masataka Yanagida in the #46 GT-R. The big battle to the flag was once again the #12 CALSONIC Nissan trying to hold off an army of Lexus RC Fs. Yasuda in the Nissan did manage to hold his own and keep third position to the flag, though; a very impressive result and he and Oliveira’s third podium in a row, proving that consistency is key as they remained championship leaders.
The opening two rounds in GT300 had been dominated by the BMW Z4. However, after qualifying it appeared that Autopolis would not be the #4 Z4’s third win in a row; a disappointing qualifying resulting in the championship leaders starting back in 15th. Pole went to the #61 Subaru, just a tenth ahead of the #55 Honda CR-Z.
From the start the Subaru, with Kota Sasaki at the wheel, pushed hard and quite quickly he had built up a 4 second lead. But his early pace meant he started to struggle with his tires and Shinichi Takagi in the #55 CR-Z was closing in.
Back in third, Lucas Ordóñez was working hard to hold off the attentions of Bjorn Wirdheim in his SLS. Their battle lasted for a full 20 laps and by the time Wirdheim got by, the top two were a full 20 seconds up the road.
With the Subaru and the Honda nose-to-tail as the pit window approached, it appeared that the pitstops could be make or break. With the Honda able to go longer, it needed less fuel in the stop saving it a full two seconds; that was enough to give the #55 car, now in the hands of Takashi Kobayashi, the lead.
As the race settled down, there was a threat of late drama as the Safety Car was deployed after a shocking incident for the then sixth-in-class Nissan; the GT-R appearing to have a mechanical failure going into the first corner and ploughing clean through the tire barrier and the Armco at almost unabated speed. The driver fortunately escaped serious injury, which truly is testament to the strength of the car. This incident, coupled with a fire occurring for a GT500 car, necessitated the Safety Car.
Much like the GT500 battle, things remained close for the top four for the final blast to the finish once the Safety Car came in; but as the chequered flag flew, the order was unchanged – the #55 Honda just pipping the #61 Subaru, which was closely followed by the #11 Mercedes SLS and the #3 Nissan GT-R.
The #4 BMW’s 100% winning record this season came to an end after they had a weekend to forget. After their issues in qualifying, an incident in the race with a GT500 car left the Z4 with a puncture a long way out from the pits; the ensuing slow lap and extra pitstop meaning they came home outside the points. Despite the disappointment, though, they remained championship leaders.
So next on to Sugo, where in GT500 Nissan take a huge amount of momentum after filling the podium in Autopolis. Honda also appeared to be on the up, with three cars in the top 10 in GT500 and the win in GT300. One thing is for sure – it will be tight.
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