Once again, the 3.7 kilometer Sportsland Sugo circuit delivered a Super GT race for the ages. It was a race of rapidly changing conditions, substantial attrition and a lead battle that came down to a frantic sequence in the final corners of the final lap in the GT500 class.
Defending GT500 champions Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate won the 2017 Sugo GT 300km Race aboard the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD Lexus LC500, edging out the #46 S Road Craftsports Nissan GT-R of Satoshi Motoyama and Katsumasa Chiyo by just 1.022 seconds at the end of another classic Super GT race at Sugo.
The race began with a damp track, and a handful of teams took a gamble to start the race on slicks. However, rain began to fall again, and their gambles backfired, putting cars like the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) and the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) several laps down.
Within two laps, the chaos began as the engine cover exploded off the back of the #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) on the front stretch, while Kogure was battling for the lead. Five laps later, Nattavude Charoensukhawatana in the #35 Arto Toyota 86 MC 101 suffered a hard head-on hit exiting the tricky 110R corner, bringing out the first of three safety cars.
For much of the first half of the race, Naoki Yamamoto led the way after taking the lead on lap 5 in the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT. The chaos continued as polesitter Tomoki Nojiri spun the #8 ARTA NSX-GT off at Horseback Corner on lap 16 – and at the same corner, Manabu Orido crashed his #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán on his 27th lap.
But the race would pivot dramatically after two more safety car periods at a critical junction of the race: The first, when João Paulo de Oliveira slid off and crashed at 110R on lap 40, then just two laps after it was withdrawn, the #48 Shokumou.jp GT-R of Masaki Tanaka crashed at the same spot.
Under Super GT regulations, pit lane remains closed under a Safety Car status, and Yamamoto was left hung out to dry after the third and final safety car. By the time he dived into the pits on the restart at lap 53 to yield controls to Takuya Izawa, their hopes of winning were dashed.
But the two winners were the Denso LC500 and the S Road GT-R, whose pit stops at the end of lap 47 were timed perfectly in between the second and third Safety Cars. When the race resumed, they were leading by nearly a lap over the rest of the field.
As the track began to dry, Hirate in the Denso LC500 carved his way through the traffic and started to put a gap on Motoyama in the S Road GT-R. But with ten laps to go, the Michelin tyres on the S Road GT-R began to come into their own, and soon the three-time GT500 champion Motoyama was catching up to the two-time and defending champion Hirate. With five laps to go, the gap was down to less than a second, and the battle was well and truly on!
Having negotiated the last of the lapped traffic, Hirate and Motoyama took the final lap – when a sudden shower at the west end of the circuit caused Hirate to slide off at the SP corners. That gave Motoyama a chance to go through, but he too slid, and the two were side-by-side, rubbing fenders with just one corner to go. As bits of bodywork flew off the silver and black GT-R, Hirate drove away from the clash, and on to take the chequered flag for Lexus Team SARD.
“After leaving the pit, it was a one-on-one battle with car #46,” Hirate commented after the race. “While paying attention to tire management, I was able to keep the lead at the end. I’m glad that I was able to win here at Sugo, because this is a place that I consider my second home.”
It’s Hirate’s second premier class victory at Sugo – and in total, his seventh career GT500 victory, drawing level with former GT500 champion Masami Kageyama. For his fellow champion co-driver Kovalainen, it’s his second GT500 victory.
For Lexus and Toyota Motor Company, it’s their fourth straight victory to open the 2017 season, tying the record set last year by Nissan – and their fifth straight GT500 win dating back to the 2016 finale at Twin Ring Motegi.
Motoyama and Chiyo, who nearly came back from 15th and last on the GT500 grid to win, took a second-place finish and Nissan’s first podium of the season.
The battle for the final podium place came down to just 0.306 seconds, as the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) took third place ahead of the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) in fourth, Oshima just managing to edge out Matsuda at the line.
With their third podium in four races, Oshima & Caldarelli move to the top of the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, four points ahead of the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) who finished tenth.
Takashi Kobayashi set the fastest lap of the race aboard the ARTA NSX-GT, and came home to finish fifth, with the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) sixth, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima/James Rossiter) seventh, the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) scoring its first points in eighth, and the Raybrig NSX-GT finishing a disappointing ninth to complete the points-scorers in GT500.
Similarly, in GT300, the Safety Car chaos produced a surprise come-from-behind winner – and an even bigger surprise runner-up!
Using the wet-weather strength of their Dunlop tyres to their advantage, and also benefitting from a perfectly-timed pitstop, the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka & Björn Wirdheim climbed from 17th on the grid to win at Sugo. It was Gainer’s first win since the 2015 Suzuka 1000km and the first for the #11 crew since the 2014 season finale at Motegi.
They came into the pits on lap 44, and were second in line during the safety car by an improbable challenger – the #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 of Morio Nitta & Akihiro Tsuzuki!
Tsuzuki would yield the lead, but he’d still drive on to score an improbable second place finish for an independent team that, just three months ago, was caught up in a heavy crash at Okayama and forced to miss the Fuji 500km. It’s also Ferrari’s best Super GT result since 2011.
The #25 VivaC 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kenta Yamashita) recovered from getting caught out by the Safety Car sequences to finish in third, by just 0.199 seconds over the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) in fourth, in their last race before their Spa 24 Hours debut next week.
Matsui and Yamashita are now six points ahead of both Taniguchi & Kataoka, and Hiranaka & Wirdheim, in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship.
The weekend attendance was 35,800 spectators, with 26,200 on hand for Sunday’s race, one that will surely go down as one of the most eventful races in series history.
The next round will be in two weeks’ time, the Fuji 300km GT Race at Fuji Speedway – where, on their home circuit, Lexus will attempt to set the record for longest-ever win streak to open the season, and match the longest-ever manufacturer winning streak set by Honda in 1998-99.
Images courtesy of Toyota and the GT Association.