The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli enjoyed a flawless Saturday at Fuji Speedway, recording the fastest time in practice, and leading both stages of knockout qualifying, to take pole position for Sunday’s Fuji GT 500 Mile Race, the fifth round of the 2018 Autobacs Super GT Series.
The last running of the Fuji 500 Mile Race in 1992 also saw a NISMO-entered car, the R92CP, take pole position before winning the race the following day. Fittingly, NISMO’s “Red Car” has taken the first pole position of the new era of the Fuji 500 Miles, with a chance to win from pole position tomorrow, and to become the first GT500 squad to sweep both races in a season at Fuji since Yuji Tachikawa and Toranosuke Takagi did it for Toyota Team Cerumo in 2005.
Unfortunately, Tachikawa – the record eight-time winner at Fuji Speedway – and his Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo squadmate Hiroaki Ishiura were unable to repair their shattered #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 in time to make a run in Q1, after a frightening crash in practice involving Tachikawa and the #34 Modulo Kenwood Honda NSX GT3 of Ryo Michigami.
There was more attrition to come even before the end of Q1 when the #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) suffered an engine issue which left them unable to take part in the session – Honda’s worries about engine cooling in hot conditions proving worryingly true for one of their top contenders. Both the ZENT LC500 and Keihin NSX will start Sunday’s race, but at the back of the GT500 grid.
All four Nissan GT-R NISMO GT500s made it into the top 8 in GT500 Q1, led by Matsuda in the Motul GT-R with a best time of 1’29.006, followed by Katsumasa Chiyo in the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R with a 1’29.076 in 2nd.
Championship leader Heikki Kovalainen was unable to get his #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 out of Q1, he and Kamui Kobayashi will start 11th for tomorrow’s race. Other championship front-runners missing the cut line in Q1 were the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Jenson Button) in 9th, and the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist) in 13th – all three of which were carrying fuel flow restrictions as part of their Success Ballast.
That left the four GT-Rs, three Lexus LC500s, and just one Honda NSX-GT to battle for pole position.
Satoshi Motoyama looked to have the edge in the #3 CraftSports GT-R – with low ballast, the ageless three-time GT500 champion laid down a 1’28.872.
But on his final flying lap, Ronnie Quintarelli gave it everything he had and then some in the #23 Motul GT-R, including a monstrously quick third sector, to gain four-tenths of a second through the technical complex and go to P1 with a 1’28.461.
That final sector proved crucial as Mitsunori Takaboshi, in the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R, was up in Sectors 1 and 2 – but couldn’t quite match the Italian in Sector 3, setting a time of 1’28.493 and missing pole position by 0.032 seconds.
Despite coming into the race with 45 kilos of weight ballast and the “Stage 1” Fuel Flow Restrictor (91.8 kg/h from the standard 95 kg/h), Matsuda, Quintarelli, and the famous “Red Car” were the class of the field, and put NISMO at the head of an all-GT-R front row, with the GT-Rs taking four of the top five positions on the grid for Sunday’s 177-lap, 807 kilometer race.
“Although it was by the slightest margin, I am glad that we got pole position,” said Quintarelli. “In Q1, Tsugio had run the fastest time, it was only slightly faster than the cars from 2nd place on down, and I knew I had to push hard from start to finish.”
“I lost a little time in Sector 1, but I was able to come back strong over the rest of the course. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to get pole position in Round 2 here at Fuji earlier in the season, so I am really happy that I got the pole here today!”
This is the tenth career GT500 pole position for Quintarelli, and his first since last November’s Motegi GT Grand Final, a race he and Matsuda won from pole position. With this pole position, Quintarelli becomes just the fourth driver to reach double-digit pole positions in the premier class of Super GT, joining Tachikawa (22), Kogure (12), and Juichi Wakisaka (10).
Joining Matsuda and Quintarelli on the front row for Sunday’s race is the Forum Engineering GT-R of Takaboshi and João Paulo de Oliveira, which picks up Kondo Racing’s best start of the season in 2nd after a stellar Q2 run from the GT500 newcomer Takaboshi.
Busting up a potential Nissan 1-2-3-4 in qualifying was the best of the Lexus, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi. Nakajima was third-quickest in Q1, and Sekiguchi matched that in Q2. They’ll share the fourth row with the #3 CraftSports GT-R of Motoyama and Chiyo.
The #12 Calsonic GT-R of Jann Mardenborough and Daiki Sasaki qualified fifth-fastest, ahead of the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) in a strong sixth. The fourth row has the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), the defending champions still able to get into the top half of the grid despite their own high ballast situation, and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa) qualified eighth, the winning car from last year’s Fuji GT 300km Race in August.
Lexus brought an updated version of their RI4AG to their six LC500s, but it’s clear that Nissan still have the power advantage, and that advantage was demonstrated mightily at Fuji Speedway.
In GT300, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri (ARTA) had dominated the summer race at Fuji for the last three years, but today their run of consecutive pole positions at this round came to an end thanks to a brilliant run from Sho Tsuboi in the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC, putting Tsuchiya Engineering’s pink and white Mother Chassis car on pole position at a track where the FIA GT3 cars were favoured for pole.
Takamitsu Matsui had the Hoppy 86 on top in GT300 Q1 for most of the session, but a last-gasp hot lap from the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC of Hiroki Katoh gave them top honours in the first phase of qualifying. It was clear that despite not having the outright power, the JAF-GT and Mother Chassis cars could make up the difference through the high-speed corners of Sector 2 and the technical Sector 3.
Just 1.3 seconds covered the top 23 cars in GT300 Q1, and the hard-luck stories out of that session were the two Lexus RC F GT3s, with the #96 K-Tunes RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama) only 17th fastest, and the #60 Syntium LMcorsa RC F GT3 (Ritomo Miyata) 23rd.
Jules Gounon, making his Super GT debut in the #117 EIcars Bentley Continental GT3, qualified a respectable 21st in the last-generation Bentley.
The battle for pole position came down to a straight fight between veteran Shinichi Takagi in the #55 ARTA BMW, and young star Tsuboi in the #25 Hoppy 86. Takagi had the advantage in Sector 1, but Tsuboi put in the fastest Sectors 2 and 3 on his final flying lap to record a 1’37.312.
Takagi fell just 0.014 seconds short with a 1’37.326, and so it is the Hoppy 86 that ends ARTA’s three-year pole streak in the summer race at Fuji, with Tsuboi, Matsui, and third driver Tsubasa Kondo on pole position for the first time in 2018.
“This was my first pole position, and also the first time I have driven in Q2, and that alone had me very nervous,” said Tsuboi. “What’s more, my teammate Matsui-san ran extremely well in Q1, so I was feeling tremendous pressure before the start of Q2.
“From the morning practice I knew that our car was fast, so I was just determined to do my best. I am very glad that I was able to make the best of the car’s potential and win this pole position.”
Fuji has been a good track to Tsuboi – the site of his first GT300 win in 2017, and of his first GT500 podium this May, in a one-off drive for Lexus Team SARD at the 500km.
Despite falling just short of GT300 class pole position, Takagi and co-driver Sean Walkinshaw have a quick car for Sunday’s race and look to be in contention to win their fourth straight Fuji summer race from 2nd on the grid – which would also give ARTA/BMW the season sweep at Fuji, having won in the 500km this May.
Third on the grid will be the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Hiroki Yoshida), with Yoshida being the star on Saturday, setting the fastest time in practice and third-quickest in his Q2 run – not bad at all for an FIA Bronze-rated driver! The #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) qualified in fourth, starting outside on row 2 tomorrow looking for their first win of 2018
The #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita/Takuro Shinohara) appeared to just miss the cut in Q1, but a track limits violation for the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 on their fastest lap took the Lambo out of Q2, and reinstated the Audi. Tomita did not waste his team’s second chance, and qualified fifth-fastest, ahead of the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), the best of the traditional JAF-GT300 cars.
The championship-leading #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) will start 10th, their outright pace hampered by 74kg of Success Ballast in qualifying. As mentioned prior, just 28 GT300 cars will start Sunday’s race, after the withdrawal of Michigami, Hiroki Otsu, and their #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)