SUPER GT round 8 Twin ring Motegi
The final round of the 2014 SUPER GT series was a visit to the Honda owned Twin ring Motegi. The facility first built to host a Japanese round of the Indycar series but the road course has become a regular in the Super GT calendar.
Coming into Motegi there was all to play for, all four championships were still very much up for grabs.
In GT500 the drivers and teams championships were both a 5 way battle. Two Nissans, two Lexus and a Honda. Lexus led the way with #36 car, the car in the hands of full season driver James Rossiter and Kazuki Nakajima who joined him from the 4th round onwards. With 20 points up for grabs and all 5 potential champions within 14 points it promised to be a tense weekend.
GT500 drivers (pre-race)
#36 Lexus Rossiter 67
#37 Lexus Ito/Caldarelli 64
#23 Nissan Matsuda/Quintarelli 61
#12 Nissan Yasuda/De Oliveira 60
#18 Honda Yamamoto 53
Lexus had the slim points advantage but Nissan were on top in qualifying. Pole position went to the #23 MOTUL GT-R with Ronnie Quintarelli taking pole by 3 tenths. The other title challengers all found themselves in the top ten in qualifying apart from the #37 Lexus crew who had a very disappointing Saturday and languished down in 13th.
The race was all set for a final showdown. In the opening corners Quintarelli established a clear lead with the #46 Nissan slotting into 2nd and the #18 Honda back in 3rd. With so many cars still in the title race there was bound to be drama at some point and unsurprisingly it came early. Before the first lap was even complete two of the title contenders had come together. De Oliveira tried to take Rossiter a little ambitiously going into the S bend for the first time the following contact sent De Oliveira scattering across the gravel and put Rossiter into a half spin. The position and time loss was compounded by the damage to their tyres meaning neither could really stick with the ultimate pace and would spend much of the first stint defending. De Oliveira also received a drive though for the incident all but ending his title hopes.
The man on the move was Caldarelli. Things had looked bleak when he found himself last after the first corner but a combination of others misfortune and blistering pace meant he was rising fast. Before he pitted he managed to pass Rossiter for 4th but Rossiter’s laboured pace since his lap one incident had meant the chasing pack found themselves some way behind the top 3.
Luck though was on the side of the rising Lexus. First the 2nd placed #46 Nissan was handed a 10 second penalty for a yellow flag infringement dropping them down the field. Then the previously 3rd placed Honda of Yamamoto struggled to get back underway, the car now in the hands of Takuya Izawa finally fired up but not before the Lexus got past and in to 2nd. As it stood though 2nd wouldn’t be enough. Ito and Caldarelli needed to get by the leading Nissan. Any neutral would have been hoping for Ito to chase down Matsuda in the Nissan and do battle for the race and effectively the title but it wasn’t to be. Matsuda had the legs on the field and what was a large gap at the stops only got larger as the race went on. As the chequered flag flew Matsuda crossed the line for his and Nismo team MOTUL’s 2nd win of the year and more importantly the drivers title for himself and Ronnie Quintarelli. The win had also secured the team’s championship too. Pure ecstasy for Nissan and bitter disappointment for Lexus.
The GT300 class, much like the top class, had also been a treat to watch all season. Multiple winners and a real dogfight for the championship. The quick Japanese hybrids had had their share of success but ultimately their fragility had left them too far behind over the full season. Coming into the final race at Motegi three GT3 spec cars held any hope of championship success. Still in the running were a pair of BMW Z4s and a Mercedes SLS.
GT300 drivers standings (pre-race)
#4 BMW Taniguchi/Kataoka 67
#11 Mercedes Hiranaka/Wirdheim 58
#7 BMW Muller/Ara 58
The story of the top three teams had been one of consistency but Motegi had to be all about winning. Ultimately #11 and #7 had to win and hope that #4 dropped points. The weekend started well for the Mercedes team, a solid pole position and more importantly both drivers had shown real pace throughout qualifying which gave a good indication their race pace would be difficult to stick with. Taniguchi and Kataoka qualified 3rd and 3rd was all that would be needed to take the title if they could stay there come Sunday. The disappointment of qualifying was the pace of the other title challenger. Jorg Muller struggled and only managed 14th on the grid.
From the start it was evident that the Mercedes had the set up and therefore the pace to pull away. Wirdheim pulled out a 1.5 second lead after just one lap and continued his furious pace for much of his stint. Behind there was a real ding dong battle between the championship leading BMW and the #31 Prius in the hands of Morio Nitta. The two traded places a number of times in the opening laps, difficult viewing indeed for the BMW team, one touch and their whole season could disappear before their eyes. The risk did seem a little needless with the BMW only needing 3rd to take the title. As the pit stop window opened and the Prius came in the chasing pack began to converge on the 2nd placed BMW first he was challenged by the sister car to the leading Mercedes and then Richard Lyons joined in piloting the #21 Audi R8. Lyons took advantage of the duelling pair ahead and took them both before the stops. Suddenly the title was back up in the air. The Mercedes had a commanding lead but there were at least 4 cars in with a shout of the final two podium positions.
As the dust settled after the stops the Mercedes emerged with a commanding lead and the Prius had managed to escape the attentions of the battle for 3rd and was now in a very secure 2nd. A win for the Mercedes with the BMW back in 3rd would be enough for Team Gainer Mercedes to take the teams title.
However it would leave both driver pairings on equal points in the drivers standings handing the title to the BMW pair based on the amount of wins throughout the season. Cue an extremely tense but wildly entertaining final 15 laps. A nose to tail battle between the #4 BMW and the #21 Audi. Taniguchi was using the faster GT500 cars lapping him to keep the Audi at arm’s length but just couldn’t shake him all together. Taniguchi did manage to hold off though and in doing so claimed the drivers title along with Kataoka.
So a season of ups and downs had come to an end and as often seems to be the case in GT and Sportscar racing the ultimate winners and losers weren’t known until the last lap of the last race. GT500 saw 6 different winners over 8 races and at least one win for each manufacturer. The winning margin in the teams championship a single point and indeed the champions Matsuda and Quintarelli only overcoming Ito and Caldarelli by 2 points in the drivers standings.
In GT300 an extremely impressive array of Japanese GT300 spec cars and GT3 spec cars produced an equally unpredictable set of results. 7 winners from 8 races and in fact going in to the final round two of the three title contenders had not won a race. The #11 Mercedes changed that by taking home the race trophy from Motegi. The title was even closer than GT500, the teams championship taken by just one point and the drivers title was only decided by number of race wins after the lead two pairings ended on the same points.
Overall the series is in rude health with grids always around the 40 mark and regular crowds exceeding 20-30 thousand. The accord with SRO certainly won’t harm either. One final point of note though, with Toyota and Nissan contesting the WEC next year how many of these drivers will we see on the world stage next year?