The biggest underdogs in the GT500 field have taken what is sure to be a classic victory in the 46th and final International Suzuka 1000km, as the #64 Epson Modulo Honda NSX-GT of Nakajima Racing, driven by Bertrand Baguette and Kosuke Matsuura, ended a winless drought for the team that lasted nearly ten whole years.
And they did it in the final running of the biggest race of the season, at a venue that has meant so much to their founder and director, the legendary Satoru Nakajima.
“It is still hard to realize that we have actually won,” exclaimed Matsuura. “So many things are welling up inside me. With the ARTA team that I drove for until last year, I was never able to pay back our manager Aguri Suzuki properly for all his support. And I was not able to pay back with any real results the people at Honda who gave me the chance to compete in the IndyCar Series as well.
“But now this win has given me confidence and made me feel that I can still go on racing. I am truly grateful to so many people for this moment.”
They pulled off a brilliant fourth pit stop to get out ahead of the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) that had led most of the race. The gap between Baguette and Tsukakoshi remained no more than 2 seconds between the two drivers, and it was shaping up to be a brilliant duel between the two Hondas.
But on Lap 147, the cruel hand of fate came down upon the Keihin NSX-GT yet again at the Suzuka 1000km – which suffered a catastrophic right-rear puncture and a crash at the Spoon Curves.
That allowed the Epson Modulo NSX-GT to cruise to the finish uncontested, with Matsuura driving to the chequered flag under the Safety Car in an emotional triumph.
It is the first win for Nakajima Racing at the Suzuka 1000km, and their first in the Autobacs Super GT Series since November 4, 2007, at the Fuji GT 300km Race. For Honda, it’s their eighth Suzuka 1000km win, the sixth for the Honda NSX, and for Dunlop Tyre, it’s their fourteenth overall victory – and first since 1986.
Baguette finally takes his first Super GT victory, and Matsuura takes his first since the 2013 Sugo GT 300km Race.
The #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda & Ronnie Quintarelli overcame a drive-through penalty assessed shortly after the start of the second half of the race, to come back – with 82 kilograms of ballast on board – and finish second, taking the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship as the rest of their rivals had middling races.
Completing the podium in GT500, after a spirited final sprint to third place, was the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto & Takuya Izawa – who took the spot in the final ten minutes of the race, away from the #1 Denso Kobelco Sard LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen & Kohei Hirate, which crashed with less than 5 minutes left in a race shortened to 171 laps.
The #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 expertly executed a brilliant alternate strategy, going off-sequence to pit on the first lap of the race, before getting back on sequence during a second Safety Car intervention – and in the final stint, ace driver Naoya Gamou caught and passed the #25 VivaC 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui with 16 minutes left in the race – giving Gamou and Haruki Kurosawa a dramatic victory in GT300.
In the final ten minutes, Matsui rolled his VivaC 86 in the S-Curves while running second – a frustrating end for he, Kenta Yamashita, and everyone at VivaC Team Tsuchiya after a win from Pole seemed all but certain in the final stages.
That promoted the two JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3s onto the second and third places on the podium, with the #88 ManePa Huracán of Manabu Orido and Kazuki Hiramine (Koji Yamanishi did not drive) finishing second, ahead of the #87 Shop Channel Huracán of Shinya Hosokawa, Kimiya Sato, and Yuya Motojima.
The second safety car came as a result of a high-speed crash from the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT of Koki Saga at the 130R corner, and during that safety car, the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 (Yuhki Nakayama/Shintaro Kawabata) went to the garage for several laps while leading, turning the race on its head and opening the door for the K2 R&D LEON Racing team.
It’s the first GT300 class win for Mercedes-AMG, who won overall in 1997 and 1998, and just the second-ever victory for the team and for their young driver Gamou – it’s the fifth for veteran driver Kurosawa, and his first Suzuka 1000km win in his 15th start.
“Today we raced with an unusual strategy, but recently the package of the AMG and Bridgestone tires has been very good, so I was confident going into the race that we could run at a good pace,” Naoya Gamou said. “Rather than feeling happy about this win, my real feeling is more one of relief that it is over.
“Because of the unusual strategy, I was always running alone with a feeling of competing against unseen rivals, but when we got to the final stages of the race and could finally see car No. 25 ahead of me, I was able to concentrate fully.”
Images courtesy of Suzuka Circuit.