Japan’s premier GT championship returned for an 8 race season covering 3,250Km over 7 different circuits all over Japan and including a now yearly trip to Thailand.
GT500 has long been a three way factory supported dog fight between Lexus, Nissan and Honda. With Nissan as defending champions they returned with a largely unchanged package in terms of teams. Lexus and Honda though were determined to grab the title back and returned with bumper numbers to give themselves as much chance as possible. In all there were to be 15 season entrants for the full season, Nissan entering four GT-Rs, Lexus fielding six of their RCFs and Honda with five of their NSXs.
Last season the Lexus’ had shown blistering pace at times but were often found to be lacking a little in full race pace in comparison to the Nissans. Honda had a dreadful start to last season but progressed steadily throughout the year.
All signs pointed towards a great season ahead.
Round 1 Okayama 300Km
Qualifying at Okayama provided the first opportunity to see the likely pace of each of the year’s entrants. There were broad smiles in the Lexus camp after the first part of qualifying with five of their six cars making it into the top 8 pole showdown. The other three were made up of 2 Nissans and 1 Honda. Those smiles remained after the pole showdown too with Lexus taking the top three positions. Pole went to the #37 car of Andrea Caldarelli and Ryo Hirakawa.
When it came to the race though, a large amount of overnight rain had complicated matters for the teams slightly. The wet track coupled with the fact it wasn’t raining anymore but that a grey overcast sky remained gave the teams a real headache leading up to the start.
From the start though the pole-sitter managed to hold the lead in wet conditions, the Lexus’ seemed to suit the wetter conditions. However as the track dried gradually the Hondas came into their own.
The Hondas seemingly much quicker in the greasy conditions as opposed to the all out wet conditions. This led to the #100 Honda of Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa leading for a large part of the race. It looked very much like being the perfect start to the season for Honda until the heavens opened again.
Once again the Lexus’ coming to the fore in the wetter conditions. The #37 pole sitting car managed to chase down the Honda in well enough time to take a comfortable victory. The #100 Honda held on to 2nd with the #38 Lexus of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura taking the final podium place.
A good close first race seemed to point towards an exciting season ahead, the only question mark being the potential of defending champions Nissan who had a bad day at the office in Okayama with their highest finisher only managing 7th.
Round 2 Fuji 500Km
If Nissan were looking for a pick me up at round two it came very early in the weekend with them initially getting three of their four cars into the pole showdown and then locking out the front row. Defending champions Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli took pole in their #1 car and fellow Nissan drivers Hironobu Yasuda and Joao Paulo de Oliveira ended up just behind in their #12 machine.
Come the race and the two Nissans led off from the front row for what would turn out to be a very dominant performance for the pair. #1 led much of the race but briefly found themselves behind the #12 CALSONIC car which had got ahead during the stops. Matsuda in the #1 car kept up the pressure and forced the mistake from Yasuda on cold tires.
Once back in the lead the #1 stayed there to take a first win of the season for Nissan.
#12 followed home 2nd giving Nissan a 1-2. The final spot on the podium was taken up by Daisuke Ito and James Rossiter in the #36 Lexus. Round 1 winners the #37 Lexus crew managed 6th which kept them top of the points table.
Round 3 Thailand 300Km
Qualifying saw Lexus wrestle back control and with the front row taken up by #36 and #38 RCFs. Further highlighting the closeness of the championship was the starting position of the two race winners so far. The Race 1-winning RCF starting back in 6th and even further back the Fuji winning Nissan back in 13th on the grid.
In the early stages of the race the grid largely held firm in position. That was until the 3rd lap when Satoshi Motoyama made his way past James Rossiter in 2nd and set off after the leading #38 Lexus. Having seen the Nissan get by Rossiter, Bertrand Baguette tried to get by too in the #64 Honda. After remaining side by side for a couple of corners the pair collided and both spun. This dropped them way down the order and essentially out of contention. Rossiter’s team had other plans though. The previous year in Thailand they had won the race with a daring strategy of not changing tires at their stop, saving time in the pitlane and giving them the buffer they needed to hold the lead until the end of the race.
With Rossiter way down the order after his collision with Baguette they decided to employ the same strategy. As the order straightened out after everyone’s stops the decision appeared to have worked, promoting the delayed Lexus up into 3rd and giving them a real shot of a podium from nothing.
Up front the #38 Lexus and the #46 Nissan were swapping positions back and forth. Neither seemed to be able to hold on to the lead for long enough to pull away. What had been a scintillating battle for the lead though was unfortunately ruined by the Lexus of Tachikawa and Ishiura having to pull off with brake troubles. This left the the Nissan, now in the hands of Masataka Yanagida, a distant leader with a 15 second gap back to the #36 Lexus now promoted up to 2nd.
The win from then on was never in doubt and sure enough Yanagida crossed the line with a 10 second margin back to the rest of the field.
The #36 car didn’t fare so well in the closing stages. The tyres didn’t hold out as well as the previous year and Ito was powerless to stop cars passing him one after the other. The Lexus dropping from 2nd to 8th in the closing laps. It was a different Lexus that took the 2nd spot on the podium the #6 car of Oshima and Kunimoto.
Rounding out the top three was the Honda of Tsukakoshi and Mutoh meaning each of the manufacturers were represented on the podium. Nissan were very happy with the win and getting three cars in the top six as qualifying had suggested the Lexus was the car to have in Thailand. With three winners in three races though the #37 Lexus of Caldarelli and Hirasawa held the lead in the championship after finishing 6th.
Round 4 Fuji 300Km
Race 4 saw a return to Fuji where Nissan had got their season up and running in style in Round 2. However if they were hoping for a repeat the were soon disappointed.
Only two Nissans made the top 8 showdown and the quicker of the two only managed 6th. Honda enjoyed a better qualifying. They, like Nissan, managed only two cars in the top eight showdown but did manage to get on the front row with the #8 Matsuura and Nojiri car. It was Lexus though that took another pole position with Tachikawa and Ishiura making it back to back poles in the #38 car.
From the start the pole sitter Tachikawa set about disappearing down the road so as to make use of the early lap squabbles for position amongst the rest of the field and it was a tactic that appeared to work with him pulling out a 5 second gap in the opening 3 laps. This was largely down to Rossiter getting his #36 Lexus past the #8 Honda that had graced the front row.
There were multiple squabbles going on throughout the field in the early stages but the most significant was the less than tidy battle between the #6 and #37 championship leading Lexus’. A collision between the two led to them both dropping way down the field and anding any hopes of a solid points finish.
With the stops out the way the running order saw the two Lexus’ still up front #38 from #36 with the #1 Nissan, #100 Honda and #24 Nissan still within touching distance behind. The 2nd half of the race was to be all about the blistering pace of the Nissans. #1 first took the #36 Lexus and set off after the leader. Meanwhile the #24 car in the hands of 23 year old Daiki Sasaki had got past the Honda and then also took the #36. At the same time, the #1 had caught the leading #38 Lexus but Ishiura was bullishly holding on to the lead.
By the time the #24 car had caught the leading pair Ishiura looked like his attack had taken it’s toll on the car’s tyres and he was easy prey for Sasaki. Sask used the confusion of the lead being challenged by two cars to slip past Ishiura too and in to the lead. With the laps ticking down it looked like the top three would finish in that order. However the #12 Nissan in the hands of De Oliveira was flying up the timing screens.
On the last lap he managed to take the #1 car and get his team on to the podium, if only there had been couple more laps the win could have been theirs. But instead Sasaki held on and in doing so helped Michael Krumm his teammate achieve his first GT500 win since 2004.
Nissan certainly turned the tables from qualifying and took their third win from four races, better still for the title race the series had seen four winners in four races.
Round 5 Suzuka 1000Km
The 1000Km at Suzuka, the jewel in the crown of the Super GT season, saw a particularly competitive qualifying with the top three covered by a tenth of a second. Better still for the neutral was the fact those three cars were representing the three different manufacturers.
Pole went to Nissan though and the #1 machine looking to trying be the first car to win two races this season after taking the 2nd round at Fuji. 2nd on the grid was the ever present but often unlucky #38 Lexus of Tachikawa and Ishiura. Finally for the top 3 came the #64 Honda of Daisuke Nakajima and Bertrand Baguette their time just 3 one thousandths of a second behind the Lexus.
The race start was very wet after a large amount of overnight and early morning rain. But with the track wet but drying the Hondas once again showed these were the conditions that their chassis shines. First of all, Baguette took the lead in the #64 car, promoting himself from 3rd on the grid. Before he had even managed to get comfortable in the lead Baguette was caught and passed by the #15 Honda of Takashi Kogure who then set off into the distance. By lap 10 he had a 10 second lead, a remarkable situation since he had started 7th on the grid.
Behind the hard charging Kogure were a gaggle of Lexus’ and Hondas fighting in the challenging conditions.
By the time the pit stops had come and gone it was a stellar performance from the #36 Petronas Lexus crew that really shook the order. They had managed to slot their car up into 2nd now behind a different Honda, the #100 car in the hands of Takuya Izawa. The previous leading car had not fared so well in the stops and the #15 now in the hands of Oliver Turvey now found itself down in 3rd on the tail of the Lexus.
The track continued to dry and as the second stops ticked round all teams changed to slicks. Again the #36 crew doing a great job and this time getting their cars back out in the lead, the two Hondas still chasing. Unfortunately for #15 crew though the car was given a penalty for an infringement at their 2nd stop which dropped them out of the chase for the win. As the track fully dried and the track temperature soared the Hondas began to struggle in general and it wasn’t long before the #100 car began to drop down the order too.
The #36 car’s pace was relentless in the hands of Ito and Rossiter and for the 2nd year in a row the car took the win at the Suzuka 1000Km. After a solid 2nd half of the race the #38 Lexus managed to finish where they started and cross the line 2nd and they were joined on the podium by the #12 Nissan of Yasuda and De Oliveira who subsequently took the lead in the standings.
This again showing the closeness of the championship as we had now had five different winners but #12 led the standings not being one of them.
Round 6 Sugo 300Km
Qualifying saw the #46 Nissan take pole and Honda continued their progress taking another front row start with the #100.
The pole-sitting Nissan got the best of starts and was off in the distance before long, leaving the rest of the field to squabble over the rest of the positions. Back in 2nd there was a real ding dong battle between the #100 Honda and the #64 Honda. Baguette in the #64 made a decisive move and got bye only to be left frustrated 3 laps later when he had to retire with transmission problems.
There were close battles throughout the field leading up to the pit stop window but one battle in particular got a little too close. The #38 and #39 RCFs both driven by former championship winning teammates Tachikawa and Hirate came together pitching #39 hard into the barriers leaving the car stranded in the middle of the track and bringing out the safety car.
With the safety car deployed just before the pit window and the pitlane closed it really ate into the amount of time teams had to pit once the safety car came in. This led to pretty much every car coming in at the same time when the safety car was withdrawn. The front runners weren’t dramatically effected but as more and more cars attempted to exit the pits it became a bit of a bottle neck bringing a number of cars to a stand still and losing them a lot of time.
For much of the rest of the race the #46 Nissan and the #100 Honda battled back and forth trying to take the lead and pull away. It was to be the #100 Honda in the hands of Izawa that would win the
battle though and took Honda’s first win of the year.
Motoyama and Yanagida took their #46 Nissan to 2nd and the #24 Nissan of Sasaki and Krumm made a late run to 3rd leaving no Lexus’ on the podium.
With yet another new winner this season it left the #12 Nissan still top of the standings even without scoring a point in Sugo.
Round 7 Autopolis 300Km
With the title being there for the taking for practically anyone who could be consistent over the last two races qualifying was becoming more and more important. That being the case the championship leading #12 Nissan took first blood in taking pole. Joining them on the front row was the consistent #38 Lexus boys Tachikawa and Ishiura.
From the off the top three were certainly the class of the field. They had created an immediate gap over the rest of the field early on. All three were serious title contenders and as the first stint came to an end the two Nissans #12 and #1 had left the #38 Lexus behind a little.
Both Nissan pit crews provided lightening stops but the leading #12 car came in a couple of laps after the #1 car. The #12 squad turned the car around and got it out a few seconds quicker than the #1 Nismo squad but with the #1 car up to speed and having already got a flying lap under it’s belt Yasuda was powerless to stop Matsuda getting bye in the and so the #1 car took the lead.
The two Nissans remained nose to tail for the remainder of the race but Yasuda could not find a way back past and so Matsuda and Quintarelli became the first squad to win two races this year.
The saving grace for the #12 squad in 2nd was that they remained championship leaders but they knew it was likely only a win at the last round would win them the title.
3rd home was one of very few cars not in the title race the #17 Honda, a remarkable drive from Koudai Tsukakoshi in greasy conditions at the end of the race meant he pipped the #38 and #36 Lexus’ as well as the #46 Nissan, all cars that desperately needed the points to stay in the hunt for the title at the final race.
Round 8 Twin Ring Motegi 250Km
The final race of the season and 6 squads were still in the hunt for the title. In Nissan’s corner there were the #1, #12 and #46 all previous race winners, for Honda just the #100 crew had a shot at the title and for Lexus the #38 and #36 machines still had a shot.
Qualifying was more an opportunity to make the situation more difficult than easier. Being on pole would certainly not mean job done, but a poor qualifying could make the job much more difficult. Those not involved in the title fight clearly didn’t get the memo about staying out the way because the front row was taken up by two of them. Pole went to the winners from the 1st race of the season the #37 Caldarelli and Hirakawa Lexus. Alongside was the often fast but more often unlucky #64 Honda of Baguette and Nakajima. Behind these two came four of the six going for the title. The two missing out were the #1 Nissan that would start back in 12th and the #46 Nissan starting back in 13th.
Changeable conditions before the start had seen most cars line up on slicks but a quick and heavy shower before the race meant all teams changed to wets on the grid. From the off the two cars from the front row pulled out a bit of a gap and left the title challengers to scrap over the remaining points. The big mover at the start and in the early laps were the defending champions in the #1 Nissan. They came from 12th on the grid up to 7th to sit at the tail of the group of championship challengers.
Before long six possible title winners became four. First on lap 10 the Rossiter and Ito car came to a holt on the pit straight and never got going again. Then once most of the cars had stopped as the track was drying the #46 car hit a GT300 and scattered bodywork all over the circuit. Out came the safety car and out of the title race went the Nissan.
The safety car had itself caused the end to someones hopes of winning the race, the consistently unlucky #64 Honda had stayed out longer than anyone else and was holding a minute lead when the safety car came out. By the time they were able to pit most of the field had caught up and they tumbled down the field.
So with a handful of laps to go there were seven cars on the lead lap, four of them still in a shout for the title and less than 2 seconds between all seven of them. The #37 Lexus still held the lead but after a slight mistake on cold tires after the restart the #1 Nissan got by. Then followed some heart in mouth battling between the two through the GT300 traffic all the while four other cars waiting only a second back to pounce on a mistake. #37 did manage to get back by the #1 car but all they needed to do to win the title was hang on to 2nd and hang on they did.
Matsuda and Quintarelli were champions and Nismo had taken the teams championship. Great clean racing had once again given the crowd and those watching on TV and online an entertaining end to the season. The top six finished within 4 seconds of each other, put in other words four cars came within 4 seconds of winning the title. How many top end championships can boast that level of competitiveness?
So another season over and another exemplary advert for the championship it was. Six different race winners in eight races and 10 different teams stood on the podium. Nissan and specifically the Nismo team and Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli walk away with their 2nd championship win in a row, one thing is for sure making it three in a row will not be easy.