The 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series kicked off with an eventful, bizarre, and thrilling 300 kilometer season opener at the Okayama International Circuit. With a daring pass for the lead by starting driver Nick Cassidy, and some incredible defensive driving by his running mate Ryo Hirakawa, the #37 KeePer TOM’s Lexus LC500 won the opening round of the season in historic fashion.
Saturday qualifying saw the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Takashi Kobayashi score an improbable pole position, the first for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, and for the GT500 returnee Kobayashi, since the 2010 Suzuka 1000km.
But come Sunday, Honda’s dreams of powering to a win at Okayama would turn into a nightmare. The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi), and the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) would all break down with electrical system failures in a bizarre sequence that saw the start delayed by several minutes.
Ultimately, one lap would be deducted from the race distance, and the first round of the season would begin, ironically, behind the new Honda NSX Safety Car. The ARTA NSX wouldn’t even take the start after taking their first pole position in seven years a day before, and the Keihin Real Racing and Epson Nakajima Racing cars would lose several laps in the garage.
Six laps later, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa) would also retire with the same electrical issues – putting four of the five Hondas out before the race ever really got going.
The race went green on lap three, with the #6 Wako’s LC500 of Kazuya Oshima now leading the field away with the ARTA NSX’s terminal issue.
But Cassidy in the KeePer TOM’s LC500 made a jaw-dropping pass at the Hairpin Corner to take the lead of the race, and would stay there at the head of an all-Lexus top six throughout his 37-lap opening stint.
Cassidy would yield the cockpit of the KeePer TOM’s LC500 to Ryo Hirakawa after 37 laps, and Oshima in the Wako’s LC500 would also switch out for Italian Andrea Caldarelli.
Even after a lengthy safety car intervention from laps 54 to 60 for a heavy crash involving the GT300 class Ferrari 488 GT3 of Morio Nitta – the last of three Safety Cars in total – Hirakawa would prove unflappable over the final twenty laps of the race.
Hirakawa and Caldarelli weaved a symphony through the dense GT300 traffic, the former co-drivers who won together in 2015 now dueling for the win in different teams. Caldarelli fought valiantly to try and pass Hirakawa, but the 23-year-old Hirakawa, in his first race as a Red Bull athlete, would put on a tenacious defensive drive, going right to – but never over the limit – to hold onto the lead.
Having resisted the pressure from Caldarelli, Hirakawa would drive on to take the win after 81 laps, giving Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s their third win at Okayama in the last four years, and Hirakawa his third career win and his second at Okayama.
“For us it was a perfect race,” Hirakawa said after the race. “The decisive point came when Cassidy was able to skillfully pass the leader soon after the start. After that, I was able to take over with us still in the lead.
“I feel that this was a victory for everyone, for Lexus who prepared this wonderful machine for us, for the team that set it up so well and for Bridgestone who gave us such good tires.”
His co-driver Cassidy made a piece of Super GT history with his first career win – he’s the first driver from New Zealand to win a race in the series.
“I still can’t believe that we won!” the Kiwi exclaimed. “But Lexus prepared a great car for us and it had been in good condition from the pre-race test, so I was hopeful that we could win. In my stint, I got a perfect start, so I was able to run with confidence.
“Our driver in the second half, Hirakawa, is very fast, and I knew that this is also a good circuit for him. But I still can’t believe how this race went just as I thought it would.”
The Wako’s LC500 of Oshima/Caldarelli finished second by just 1.5 seconds, with the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) climbing back from ninth on the grid, to finish third and complete the podium, kicking their championship defense off strongly.
The #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) was fourth, ahead of the other Lexus Team TOM’s car, – the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and James Rossithe. The #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) was sixth, despite Nakajima’s failed attempt to pass Caldarelli on lap 41.
It was a history-making performance for the Lexus LC500 in its Super GT debut, and for the entire Lexus/Toyota Gazoo Racing stable, as they become the first manufacturer to sweep the top six places of a single Super GT race, in either category.
In contrast to the ecstasy for Lexus, Nissan had a muted weekend to start their 2017 season. None of their four Nissan GT-Rs got into Q2 on Saturday, and the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) suffered a terminal suspension break after 33 laps.
But their three remaining GT-Rs did score points in a quiet, but productive afternoon, led by the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) in seventh, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) eighth in Mardenborough’s GT500 debut, and the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira) tenth.
Finishing ninth was the sole remaining Honda NSX-GT, the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) scoring points in Team Mugen’s long-awaited return to the GT500 category after thirteen years – and salvaging some dignity from a fever dream of a race for Honda.
Goodsmile Racing Takes First Win For Mercedes
The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka won the GT300 class in the opening round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series at Okayama International Circuit.
Their first win in nearly three years, it was the first win for Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO as a Mercedes-AMG customer team.
Kataoka started second, behind the pole-winning #65 LEON Cvstos AMG of Haruki Kurosawa on an all-Silver Arrows front row. Not long after, the second Safety Car of the race came out on lap six, when the debuting #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Mark X MC of Taku Bamba crashed exiting Mike Knight Corner (turn 10) – a tough weekend for the Super GT newcomers, who started from pit lane.
Following the safety car, Kurosawa tried to make a break for it in his black, Bridgestone-clad AMG, but as they got swept up in the GT500 traffic, Kataoka began to close the gap down, and passed Kurosawa on lap 18.
Soon afterwards, pit stops began for the top three cars. The #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC of returning All-Japan F3 champion Kenta Yamashita was running a solid third, and pitted for left-side tyres only on lap 27. The next lap, Kurosawa brought the LEON AMG in four four new Bridgestone tyres. And the next lap after that, Kataoka pitted the Hatsune Miku AMG, and they went with two left-side tyres.
They cycled out with the #4 Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi leading the group, ahead of the #25 VivaC 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui, who was just ahead of the #65 Leon AMG of Naoya Gamou.
Soon thereafter, Matsui and Gamou – just weeks removed from driving to a class victory together at VLN 1 in Germany for Toyota Gazoo Racing – engaged in a heated battle for what would become second place in the class.
Gamou had the advantage of fresh rubber and more horsepower, but defending GT300 champion Matsui and his Mother Chassis 86 was more agile, and gentler on its half-used tyres.
While they battled on, Taniguchi began to gap the rest of the field – before the third Safety Car came out for a violent crash involving the #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 of Morio Nitta.
The 50-year-old three-time GT300 champion accidently swiped the GT500 class #64 Epson NSX-GT of Kosuke Matsuura, sending his Ferrari head-on into the inside concrete barrier at the high-speed Williams Corner (turn 2).
A lengthy safety car was needed as medical crews rushed to the aid of Nitta. He was helped out of his car, and placed onto a stretcher before leaving via ambulance.
We are very pleased to report that both Arnage Racing, and Nitta himself, have confirmed via social media in the hours after the race that while he was feeling some pain in his back and foot, he was not seriously injured in the accident.
The race resumed with twenty laps to go. With all the cars having pitted Taniguchi continued to leave the field behind him, while Matsui and Gamou’s battle raged on behind him.
With ten laps to go, their battle came to an abrupt halt when Matsui lost control of his VivaC 86 MC out of Hobbs Corner (turn 9), giving Gamou second place, and the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R of Jono Lester and Kyosuke Mineo third place after starting fifteenth.
Taniguchi’s nickname, No One Better (“NOB”), was so stunningly appropriate in the final laps, as he and his Hatsune Miku AMG were unassailable en route to a season-opening victory, the first for Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO since the 2014 Fuji GT 500km Race, in a BMW Z4 GT3. It’s also an important win for Goodsmile Racing as they prepare for their international debut in the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps this July.
“We were ready to win before we even got to the circuit this time,” said an emotional Taniguchi after the race. “That is the kind of race this was. We weren’t able to get pole position, but that was because we chose hard tires for the qualifying in order to give us an advantage in the race. If we had only been concerned about winning pole position, we might have chosen a different strategy.”
“Anyway, the machine and the tires were both outstanding. That is all there is to say. This was truly a race that we won because of the machine and the tires.”
It’s Taniguchi’s seventeenth career GT300 class victory, putting him back at a tie for second all-time with Shinichi Takagi, one win each behind Nitta for the all-time lead.
“The flow really wasn’t going well for us coming into this race,” said his co-driver Kataoka, “but we were able to win because of the strengths of the machine and the tires. We have won a good number of races until now, but never have we had such a good machine as today.” This is Kataoka’s ninth career GT300 class race win.
The LEON AMG finished second, to complete the second straight Mercedes-AMG 1-2 finish at Okayama International Circuit. Last year it was LEON winning from Miku, this year, they reversed positions.
The #9 Gulf Porsche of Mineo and Lester held on to finish third. After scoring just two points all of last season, the joint partnership of Pacific Racing and Gulf Racing Japan scored their first-ever Super GT podium finish. It was also the first podium for the Kiwi Lester, in his first race with the team.
The VivaC 86 of Matsui and Yamashita would finish fourth, right ahead of the #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw), which came back from eighteenth on the grid to finish fifth.
Sixth was the #10 Gainer Tanax triple a Nissan GT-R (Ryuichiro Tomita/Hiroki Yoshida), ahead of Nissan stablemates NDDP Racing in the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi), which came back from sixteenth on the grid.
Finishing eighth was the new-for-2017 #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi), giving the car its best ever GT300 finish after two difficult seasons with the previous-generation RC F GT3.
Completing the points scorers were the #33 D’Station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) in ninth, and the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Rintaro Kubo) in tenth.
Among the notable non-scorers: The #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara) finished on the lead lap in 13th despite not running at all until the Sunday morning warm-up, the #117 EIcars Bentley Continental GT3 (Yuji Ide/Ryohei Sakaguchi) finished one lap down in twentieth in Bentley’s Super GT debut, and the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) retired after 36 laps with an electrical failure.
Image Credits: Toyota, GT Association