Having taken the lead after the first round of pit stops at the start of the second hour, the #888 Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing GT3 of Raffaele Marciello, Maro Engel, and Tristan Vautier continues to command the Suzuka 10 Hours as the action heats up, literally and figuratively, under record-high temperatures peaking at 35°C!
Vautier took over for the 2nd stint in the car and assumed the lead of the race after the first round of stops, shortly after the #28 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 (Nick Foster/David Perel/Hiroki Yoshida) was given a drive-through penalty for a start procedure violation.
After Vautier drove his first 30-lap stint, Engel got back in the car on Lap 53, and drove a further 28 laps before being relieved during pit stops under the race’s first Full Course Yellow and Safety Car intervention.
On Lap 79, the #58 Garage 59 McLaren 650S GT3 – already a lap down and involved in one incident with another car in the first hour of the race, was not so lucky when Côme Ledogar clashed with the #07 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 of Jules Gounon, pitching the McLaren into a spin, and into the inside armco going into the 130R corner, the car finally coming to rest in the gravel runoff.
Ledogar was uninjured in the crash, but that ended the day for the sole McLaren 650S in the field. Race Control found the McLaren to be at fault for ignoring blue flags and causing an avoidable collision, but it’s uncertain how they were meant to serve a drive-through penalty 50 laps after the car was written off for the day.
Just before the FCY & Safety Car, the #7 D’station Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R broke down on Lap 73 at the Hairpin Curve during Sven Müller’s 2nd stint in the car, taking himself, Tomonobu Fujii, and two-time Le Mans winner Earl Bamber out of the running.
Another contender that hit trouble during the middle leg of the race was the #23 KCMG Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Edoardo Liberati/Richard Bradley/Oliver Jarvis). Liberati was running 5th when he too came to a stop at the Hairpin Curve on Lap 96, with a terminal electrical failure.
Vautier did another 25 laps in the #888 Mercedes before Marciello finally climbed aboard for his first stint of the race.
Until the fourth round of pit stops, the #27 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 (Davide Rigon/Matt Griffin/Miguel Molina) had held onto second place. But after the ensuing pit cycle, solid work from the mechanics of the #43 Strakka Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Lewis Williamson/Alvaro Parente/Maximillian Götz), as well as the #07 Bentley of Gounon, Jordan Pepper & Steven Kane helped them all jump ahead of the Ferrari.
The #21 Audi Team Hitotsuyama R8 (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita/Alessio Picariello) was also able to jump ahead after the pit stops, but a spin for Tomita in the Triangle chicane dropped them down the order into 12th.
One more round of pit stops kicked off before the race reached the halfway point at five hours elapsed. Marciello pitted the #888 GruppeM Mercedes on Lap 134, and stayed in for a double stint. At halfway, the “GruppeM Gundam” has completed 138 laps.
The #43 Strakka Mercedes remains 2nd, with Williamson in the car for his 2nd stint. The big gainer in the last pit cycle was the #66 Audi Sport Team WRT R8 LMS (Christopher Mies/Frédéric Vervisch/Dries Vanthoor) which is now 3rd in the hands of Vanthoor. The #6 Audi Sport Team Absolute Racing R8 (Markus Winkelhock/Christopher Haase/Kelvin van der Linde) has recovered from an early drive-through penalty to jump into 4th on the last pit stop cycle, ahead of the #07 M-Sport Bentley in 5th and the #27 HubAuto Ferrari in 6th.
Best of the Pro-Am Cup cars is the #75 SunEnergy 1 Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Kenny Habul/Mikaël Grenier/Luca Stolz) in seventh overall, with gentleman racer Habul now driving after some strong stints from Grenier and Stolz, who’ve been keeping the team around the hunt for the overall podium.
Two teams on a hard charge are the #00 Mercedes-AMG Team Goodsmile GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka/Kamui Kobayashi), up to 8th from starting 21st and best of the Super GT teams in the field. The #018 KCMG Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Tsugio Matsuda/Alexandre Imperatori/Katsumasa Chiyo) is up to 10th from 30th on the grid, with Chiyo on a double stint and chasing down the #08 M-Sport Bentley (Maxime Soulet/Andy Soucek/Vincent Abril).
Stay tuned to DSC for our post-race recap!