Keihin Real Racing’s one and only victory in the Autobacs Super GT Series happened on 25 July 2010, when Koudai Tsukakoshi beat Takashi Kogure to the line by just 0.025 seconds on a dramatic final-corner pass that is still remembered today.
On Sunday, the metallic blue #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT finally returned to the top step of the podium, as Kogure and Tsukakoshi, now co-drivers at Real Racing, took the GT500 class victory in the opening round of the 2018 Super GT season at Okayama International Circuit, ending an agonizing winless drought of over seven years. They led a Honda 1-2 finish, ahead of the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto & Jenson Button.
At the start, both the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli and the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R of João Paulo de Oliveira jumped several positions before the first corner, moving into 2nd and 3rd behind Kogure, who started the Keihin NSX.
Both the Nissans put on a hefty charge for the lead, but by lap 25, both Quintarelli and Oliveira were slapped with drive-through penalties for jump starts. This would move the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Nick Cassidy into 2nd, after starting 9th place. Kogure pitted at the end of Lap 40 to give the Keihin NSX to Tsukakoshi, and four laps later, Cassidy pitted the KeePer LC500, with Ryo Hirakawa taking the final stint.
Behind them, Jenson Button was driving a fairly quiet first stint in his first drive for Team Kunimitsu. But it was all according to strategy: The 2009 F1 World Champion was driving conservatively and protecting his Bridgestone tyres to allow the team to pit on Lap 37, and switch drivers to Naoki Yamamoto, without changing tyres.
When the round of pit stops had ended, the Raybrig NSX of Yamamoto came out ahead of the Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi. Tsukakoshi then passed Yamamoto on track once his tyres were up to temperature, but Yamamoto never truly left the fight.
Yamamoto chipped away at a 5-second deficit, and within 10 laps was back to within 1-2 seconds of Tsukakoshi. With 10 laps to go, it was Keihin Real Racing versus Raybrig Team Kunimitsu for the victory at Okayama, just like it was five years ago when the Raybrig Honda of Kogure beat the Keihin Honda of Tsukakoshi to victory in a close fight.
A large chunk of bodywork got lodged in the front fascia of the Keihin NSX, but it didn’t affect Tsukakoshi’s driving much. Yamamoto was still able to close down the deficit to less than a second, and with two laps to go, he had an opportunity to close in and take the lead – only to be caught up in traffic before the start of the last lap.
With that, Tsukakoshi was able to pull away, and after a span of over seven years that included numerous near-misses with victory, Keihin Real Racing were back on the top step of the podium in GT500.
After the race, Tsukakoshi revealed: “I didn’t get any information from the team about the fact that I had a broken part from another machine stuck in my front or that the No. 100 was racing the second stint without changing tyres on their pit stop, so I didn’t learn about either until the race was over.”
“I think this was because in the pit they all wanted to help me concentrate on my driving. And, indeed, since the No. 100 was chasing me hard, I had to keep focused the whole time. So, I’m really happy to get this win.” It’s Tsukakoshi’s second career GT500 victory, his first coming in that dramatic Sugo race in 2010 when he defeated his now-teammate Kogure.
“In the second half of the race, I was really nervous as I watched the race on the TV monitor,” Kogure said. “It made me realize anew what tremendous tension goes into winning a race, and what a wonderful thing it is and what great joy it brings. It is my first win since coming to this team, so I am very, very happy.”
This is Kogure’s ninth career Super GT victory, his first since five years ago when, ironically, he had to hold off Tsukakoshi to win at Okayama. This makes him Honda’s winningest GT500 driver, passing Ryo Michigami on the all-time wins list. And for Keihin Real Racing, the heartbreak of their Suzuka 1000km defeat is healed, and they take a maximum 21 points away from the weekend with their victory from pole.
Yamamoto closed out Team Kunimitsu’s day by securing second place, bringing up the second half of Honda’s 1-2 finish at Okayama, and for Button, his first career Super GT podium in just his second start.
Hirakawa found himself in a battle for the final podium place with the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kazuya Oshima, who was trying to get he and Felix Rosenqvist on the podium in the Swede’s Super GT debut. But it was the defending GT500 champions, Hirakawa and Cassidy, who took third place to open the defense of their titles in 2018, and Oshima & Rosenqvist finished fourth.
After their drive-through penalty, NISMO put Tsugio Matsuda in the #23 Motul GT-R to close out the race, and Matsuda made a hard charge through the field to finish fifth. Mitsunori Takaboshi finished 6th in the #24 Forum Engineering GT-R, and the #3 Craft Sports Motul GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) finished 7th. Completing the top 10 were the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) in 8th, the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) in 9th, and the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) in tenth.
In GT300, Team Upgarage finally claimed their first victory in the series with Yuhki Nakayama and Takashi Kobayashi driving their #18 Upgrage Toyota 86 MC to the win.
Nakayama and Kobayashi came back from 9th on the grid to take the victory by also going the full race without changing tyres, giving them track position after making their pit stop. Kobayashi, in his first race with the team, put on a charge to pass the #25 Hoppy 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui with 20 laps to go, and then pulled away to secure the victory after 77 laps, the first for Team Upgarage in their fourth year of operations, in their very first race since splitting off from Racing Project Bandoh.
“I am really glad that we have been able to give (Team Manager, Makoto) Ishida-san this victory,” said Nakayama. “I have always wanted to please Ishida-san, and with the stronger team organization this year, we were finally able to get a win for him in the opening round. It really makes me proud.”
Nakayama, the GT300 champion in 2013 for Team Mugen, also claims his very first career Super GT race victory (excluding an Asian Le Mans Series round at Fuji in 2013 that counted for GT300 Championship points) in his tenth season.
“I am so glad we won,” exclaimed Kobayashi. “I came to this team this season and I knew that they brought me to the team because they wanted to win. The results in yesterday’s qualifying were really poor, but today we got the best result we ever could have hoped for.”
“I am relieved that we have won today, but I know that I can’t ride on this one success but have to keep working until we win our next goal, the championship.” This is Kobayashi’s sixth GT300 victory, and his first since departing Autobacs Racing Team Aguri at the end of 2017.
Behind them in second, the #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R of Tomonobu Fujii and Sven Müller capped off a remarkable fight through the field from 20th on the grid, and as low as 22nd place in the opening parts of Fujii’s starting stint, to finish 2nd, their best finish since taking over the team in 2017. The team decided only to change rear tyres on their stop to gain track position, and the Porsche works driver Müller clawed his way through the field, taking 2nd with just 7 laps to go.
Despite falling away from the lead battle in the final laps Matsui and Sho Tsuboi took 3rd place for the #25 Hoppy 86 MC, by just three-tenths of a second over the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG of Haruki Kurosawa & Naoya Gamou.
The #11 Gainer Tanax GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) led the race briefly in a frantic opening stanza of the race, and finished 5th in the end, a solid debut for the 2018 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 in Super GT. The #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw) finished 6th, and after taking pole position in the rain on Saturday, the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Kazuki Hiramine & Marco Mapelli struggled mightily in a dry race on Sunday, but still held on to finish 7th and score championship points.
Defending GT300 champions Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO finished 8th in the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka). Two underdog teams rounded off the top 10 places: The #26 Taisan Audi R8 (Shinnosuke Yamada/Shintaro Kawabata) in 9th, and the #50 EXE Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Masaki Kano/Hideto Yasuoka) finished 10th, in their first race together in nearly two years.
It was not a great return to Super GT for Ryo Michigami, whose #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (with Hiroki Otsu) collided with the #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R of Yusaku Shibata, sending Shibata’s car into the concrete barrier head-on at the entrance to the Hairpin Curve with heavy damage. Both cars retired from the race after the incident, but the race ran without the intervention of a safety car.
Two other contenders for the victory also retired: The #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita) lost drive just after its pit stop, and the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate) also retired after suffering terminal damage – in an awkward collision while battling for the lead involving the Hitotsuyama R8 and the #30 Toyota Prius (Hiroaki Nagai/Kota Sasaki).
The Super GT teams will be right back to work this next week, at a two-day in-season test at Suzuka Circuit on 16-17 April. But afterwards, Super GT’s most popular event – the Fuji GT 500km Race, on the Golden Week holiday of 3-4 May – awaits the teams and drivers as they look to capture victory.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)