The most successful Super GT team of all time are back on top, as the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli won the annual running of Super GT’s “Golden Week classic”, the Fuji GT 500km Race, in a fast-paced strategic battle that saw them fend off the challenge of the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD Lexus LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Sho Tsuboi, who finished in second.
There would be no weather dramas on a sunny Friday afternoon, as 55,000 fans flocked to Fuji to witness a grueling and gripping race.
From pole position, Yuji Tachikawa led the field in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, ahead of Kazuya Oshima in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 – but from third position, Quintarelli got a superb start, just as he did at Okayama – and swooped past Oshima into the first corner. The four-time champion Quintarelli fancied a pass on the three-time champion Tachikawa through the fast 100R, and with an outside setup going into the Dunlop Corner, Quintarelli put the red Motul GT-R in the lead by the end of the very first lap. This time out, unlike Okayama, it was deemed a legal race start for Quintarelli, who sailed out into an early lead.
From 5th on the grid, 2016 champion Kovalainen was a man on a mission in the Denso LC500. He passed Tachikawa for second place on Lap 18, and quickly chopped away at Quintarelli’s lead. As they completed the 22nd lap, the Motul GT-R and Denso LC500 were side-by-side at the line, and Kovalainen powered past around the outside of Quintarelli to take the lead for Lexus Team SARD.
As the first round of full-service pit stops unfolded, both the Denso LC500 and the Motul GT-R pitted at the end of Lap 37. Sho Tsuboi, making his GT500 class debut in place of the absent Kamui Kobayashi, held onto the lead in the Denso LC500 ahead of Tsugio Matsuda in the Motul GT-R.
Even though Tsuboi had very little practice time on a disjointed Thursday of practice & qualifying, the 22-year-old showed the poise of a 15-year pro as he put in consistently quick lap times to hold the lead over Matsuda, GT500’s winningest driver. Matsuda, though, kept the margin close as both cars approached the end of the pit window. Tsuboi pitted on Lap 75, and gave the controls back to Kovalainen for the final stint of the race. Matsuda stayed out one lap longer, bringing the Motul GT-R in on Lap 76.
Thanks to the superb pit work of the NISMO mechanics, Quintarelli was able to come out ahead of Kovalainen. And the fiery Italian spent no time putting the race out of reach, belting out the fastest lap of the race, a 1’30.460, on Lap 79.
As the sun began to set over the base of Mount Fuji and the track temperatures began to drop, the Motul Autech GT-R on its Michelin tyres still held its pace and eventually began to distance itself from the field – before, ultimately, after 110 laps in 2 hours, 52 minutes, Quintarelli cruised to the victory for NISMO, their first win of the 2018 season.
This victory was certainly a joyous one for NISMO, their third win in the last four runnings of the Fuji 500km. And it was a special moment for Matsuda, who reached a career milestone by becoming the first GT500 driver to win 20 career races – extending his own all-time career record in the process.
“I am very happy that I have been able to extend my record for most wins in the GT500 class,” said Matsuda. “Before the start, I was afraid that Tachikawa-san would come up to tie me in this record. Nearly half of the 20 wins have been with Ronnie-san as my teammate, and that is one of the biggest reasons for this record, and I think that luck has been with me too. I don’t want to let up now, though, but press on to 25 wins and beyond.”
Quintarelli said after the race: “The car’s condition was very good, and it had the performance to win pole position in yesterday’s qualifying. But I pushed too hard and failed to win it, so I came into today’s race motivated by that regret.”
“At Okayama I had that mistake, so this time I was careful not to jump the start,” he said with a grimace. “But I was able to react well to the start signal and gain in position. A number of things happened along the way, but in the end with that margin, I was able to stay calm as I drove. I am glad we got this win.”
The victory puts NISMO, Matsuda and Quintarelli in the lead of the GT500 Championship by 5 points over the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure), who finished 2 laps down and out of the points in 11th following a spin after contact with a GT300 class Toyota Prius.
Kovalainen drove the Denso LC500 to a second-place finish, a great way to rebound after a disappointing race in Okayama for everyone at Lexus Team SARD. For Tsuboi, it was his first GT500 podium finish in just his first start in the category – and one that will signal the Saitama-born driver’s impending arrival on the scene in short order.
Behind them, the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Hiroaki Ishiura, and the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Yuhi Sekiguchi, fought for third position throughout the entire middle stint of the race.
But the quick pit work from Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo helped Tachikawa and Ishiura get the better of their arch-rivals in the Lexus fleet, giving them third place. Another solid result for two of Fuji Speedway’s most successful drivers, and for Lexus, they get two of their cars on the podium at their home circuit.
Sekiguchi and the returning James Rossiter (replacing Kazuki Nakajima) came home fourth in a close battle with the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Oshima and Felix Rosenqvist, who finished an emotional week in fifth place. The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Jann Mardenborough) made a late push at the end to finish in sixth place, as did the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) which finished seventh.
Honda’s run of futility at the Fuji Golden Week race continues, only able to finish as high as eighth as the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa) took top honours for the mid-engined NSXes. Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button endured a tougher race this time out, finishing 9th in the #100 Raybrig NSX, and the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) completed the top ten in 10th.
The three Yokohama-clad GT500 cars all had tough days, in particular, both the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) and the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) picked up left-rear punctures that knocked them both out of contention.
In GT300, the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 cruised from pole position to a dominant victory for Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw, and a landmark victory for Takagi, who with his 19th career GT300 class victory, takes sole possession of the all-time wins lead ahead of his long-time former co-driver Morio Nitta, who held the record for over a decade.
Takagi blitzed the field from the start in the bright orange, turbo-V8 ARTA BMW, and Walkinshaw put in a solid middle stint in his own right.
It looked as if there was a challenger for the win as the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi held onto a strong second place, hoping to potentially use clever pit strategy to get ahead of the ARTA BMW after its second stop.
But on lap 55, as Yamauchi was cruising through his middle stint, the EJ20 boxer engine of the Subaru BRZ started billowing smoke, and crawled to a halt at Turns 11 and 12, retiring due to an engine failure. A visibly frustrated Yamauchi could do nothing as the Subaru suffered yet another crippling mechanical failure.
That retirement left no doubt, with a comfortable margin, Walkinshaw then gave the car back to Takagi, and Takagi put in consistent laps throughout his last stint to drive on to his record-setting 19th career victory, and for the ARTA BMW M6 GT3, the third win in the last five races at Fuji since its introduction in 2016.
“I’m just happy to have won,” said an overjoyed Takagi. “The fact is we hadn’t done a long-distance test with the tires we used today. So, when the race started with the track surface temperature at 40℃ I was worried about the performance dropping in the long run. But in the early going I was able to pull away from the field and in the second half of the stint the performance didn’t drop much.”
“Today was a good day for us,” said Walkinshaw, who picked up his second career GT300 win. “Takagi-san ran so well in the first stint that all I had to concentrate on in my stint was to maintain the margin of lead he gave me. I had a bit of trouble in warming up the tires, but once they were warmed up they gave me the performance I hoped for, so in the end I was able to maintain the lead margin and pass it on to Takagi-san. I am very happy that we won.”
ARTA won the 300km races at Fuji in the summer of 2016 and 2017, and this win at the 500km gives Takagi and Walkinshaw the championship lead by six points over the #18 UPGarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Takashi Kobayashi), which struggled all day to a 13th place finish following their breakthrough win at Okayama.
From 7th on the grid, the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate) had a great race, finishing second, the car’s best result since the 2016 season after a frustrating 2017 campaign. It was Hirate’s first GT300 podium since May 2008, when he won at Suzuka Circuit – and another Toyota-backed entry on the podium in GT300.
Bridgestone locked out the top two places in the GT300 class, followed by the Dunlop-clad #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda in third.
This was the new 2018 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3’s first Super GT podium finish in just its second race.
The #65 LEON Cvstos Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) won an Silver Arrows civil war, finishing fourth, ahead of the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka). The Miku AMG ran very long on its two pit stops, doing 41 laps on Kataoka’s first stint, 43 in Taniguchi’s second stint, all while only changing left-side tyres on both times.
But the worn rubber wouldn’t give the Miku AMG enough speed to hold onto a podium finish – the reigning GT300 champions still come away with good points though.
The #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) finished 6th and moved into 3rd in the championship tables, ahead of the #60 Syntium LMcorsa Lexus RC F GT3 (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Ritomo Miyata) in seventh, the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) scoring the Honda NSX GT3’s first Super GT points in eighth, and completing the top ten, the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Kazuki Hiramine/Marco Mapelli) in 9th and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita/Takuro Shinohara*) 10th.
The #25 Hoppy 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Tsubasa Kondo/Takeshi Tsuchiya) was the other notable GT300 retirement, breaking down after just 40 laps due to a gearbox compressor failure – but Tsuchiya Engineering did get some joy for the afternoon as Tsuboi, on loan from the team this week, scored his first GT500 podium.
The Super GT series reconvenes in less than a fortnight’s time at another legendary Japanese venue, Suzuka Circuit, the home of the Suzuka GT 300km Fan Festival Race on 19-20 May – and the last race before an extended spring break for the series.
*NOTE: Shinohara did not complete a racing lap and was not classified for championship points.
Images Courtesy of Toyota, Nissan, and the GT Association