The #888 Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing GT3 of Raffaele Marciello, Maro Engel, and Tristan Vautier won Sunday’s inaugural running of the Suzuka 10 Hours at Suzuka Circuit, capping off a dominant team performance, leading since the start of the second hour all the way to the chequered flag, and scoring Mercedes’ third overall victory in the Suzuka summer endurance sports car race – their first in twenty years.
The man of the second half of the race was Marciello, who completed his first blistering double stint on Lap 162 before Engel got in for a 56-lap double stint of his own. On Lap 218, Engel pitted the #888 Mercedes, and Marciello was installed, the last driver change of the evening for the team.
Marciello double-stinted the car home to a commanding victory for the “GruppeM Gundam,” completing 276 laps over 10 Hours in the longest-ever Summer Endurance Race at Suzuka, and finishing 31.635 seconds ahead of the #43 Strakka Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Lewis Williamson, Alvaro Parente, and Maximillian Götz.
The win moves Marciello and Vautier, who’ve scored podiums in all three Intercontinental GT Championship events, to the lead of the IGTC Drivers’ Championship, ahead of Robin Frijns, who missed this event due to his priority commitments with Audi in the DTM series in Misano.
“I think we led something like nine of the 10 hours,” Vautier said. “It was flawless and actually felt like it was going too well at one point, something had to happen! It was perfect execution from the team, the car was strong all weekend and we knew we’d have a good chance if we just kept cool heads and managed everything well.
“Overall I’m very happy and thankful to GruppeM. And of course what a day for Mercedes-AMG with class wins everywhere and a one-two overall. The car was so strong in all conditions. Plus, leading both the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ championship is perfect.”
It was a victory that carried a great deal of emotion for Marciello – whose late friend Jules Bianchi drove his final race at Suzuka in the 2014 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix.
The #43 Strakka Mercedes jumped into 2nd place thanks to great pit work just before the end of the first half of the race, but in the final minutes had to hold off a dual Audi threat of the #6 Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS of Markus Winkelhock, Christopher Haase & Kelvin van der Linde, and the #66 WRT Audi R8 LMS of Christopher Mies, Frédéric Vervisch & Dries Vanthoor.
Williamson held off Haase and Vanthoor to complete a Mercedes 1-2 finish at Suzuka. Mercedes score their first overall victory in this event since they won the last SRO-sanctioned runnings of the Suzuka 1000km in 1997 and 1998, with the latter being another 1-2 finish led by the CLK-LM of Bernd Schneider and Mark Webber. The Mercedes-AMG GT GT3 won the GT300 class in last year’s final running of the Suzuka 1000km under Super GT sanctioning.
For Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing, who came into this event as the reigning Blancpain GT Asia Series champions, they make history as the first team based out of Hong Kong to win the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race, and the first non-Japanese team since the Mercedes-AMG factory squad won it in ‘98.
And Mercedes-AMG now provisionally take the lead in the IGTC Manufacturers’ Championship, ahead of Audi.
Despite missing out on 2nd place and almost giving away 3rd in the end, Absolute Racing make history as the first Chinese team to score an overall podium in the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race with their 3rd place finish, coming back from a drive-through penalty to take the final podium position.
The #66 WRT Audi with its special Japanese flag livery caught up to almost take 3rd position, but did well to finish 4th, having started down in 18th place.
Audi made it three German manufacturers on the overall podium, just as it was in ‘98 when it was a Porsche that completed the top three behind the two Silver Arrows that year.
Of the teams from the Autobacs Super GT Series that came to compete at Suzuka, it was the #00 Mercedes-AMG Team Goodsmile GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka, and Kamui Kobayashi that led the way, coming back from starting 21st to finish in 5th overall.
Kataoka had his hands full trying to hold off the #08 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 of Maxime Soulet (with Andy Soucek & Vincent Abril). But with thousands of Goodsmile Racing fans cheering them on from the illuminated grandstands at Suzuka, and watching around the world, Kataoka was able to take home a great 5th place finish for the standard bearers of Super GT’s GT300 class. The #08 Bentley of Soulet, Soucek & Abril finished sixth overall.
In seventh was the #44 Strakka Mercedes (Adrien Tambay/Oliver Rowland/Maximillian Buhk), in eighth was the #21 Audi Team Hitotsuyama R8 (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita/Alessio Picariello), and in ninth place was the #17 WRT Audi R8 (Sheldon van der Linde/Stuart Leonard/Jake Dennis).
Unfortunately, a few hopeful podium finishers failed to see the chequered flag. Having clawed all the way back from 30th on the grid into the top 10, the #018 KCMG Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Tsugio Matsuda/Alexandre Imperatori/Katsumasa Chiyo) started suffering engine problems in the sixth hour of the race – which would prove terminal, resulting in a retirement.
In hour seven, the #27 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 (Davide Rigon/Matt Griffin/Miguel Molina) was battling the #07 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 (Jordan Pepper/Steven Kane/Jules Gounon) for seventh, when the two cars collided at the tricky Hitachi Triangle. The Ferrari went to the garage for extensive repairs, and the Bentley was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Adding insult to injury, the #07 Bentley picked up a puncture and spun through the Degner Curves in hour eight, and subsequently retired.
Mercedes-AMG also took victory in the Pro-Am Cup subcategory, courtesy of the #75 Sun Energy 1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Kenny Habul, Mikaël Grenier, and Luca Stolz.
“You know, I think we had the pace to be on the overall podium today,” said Habul. “It was just a silly mistake in the pits where we got a drive-through penalty for confusion on the timing that put us back a bit. But Luca drove amazingly, he was as fast as anyone out there, and Mik, too. I also felt like I drove well given my grading by staying out of trouble and turning good lap times.
“We could have definitely finished in the top-five but I’m happy with 10th and the Pro/Am win. We’re going to do a lot of celebrating!”
They took home a 10th place overall finish, as Grenier and Stolz took the fight to the All-Pro teams all day long, and Habul did his part with a clean race, taking top honours between himself, Tim Pappas, and Nick Leventis in the IGTC Bronze Drivers’ Championship.
Second in the Pro-Am Cup and 13th overall was the pole-winning #28 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 (Nick Foster/David Perel/Hiroki Yoshida), which couldn’t quite make it back to the front of the class after their devastating drive-through penalty after the first hour of the race. Third in class was the #87 EVA-02 Team JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Yuya Motojima/Tsubasa Takahashi/Taiyou Iida), finishing 17th overall.
By virtue of being the only Am Cup car in the field, the #112 Sato, Yamashita-SS/Rn-sports Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Atsushi Sato/Ryosei Yamashita/Norio Kubo) won its class just by finishing the race, which in itself was a huge accomplishment for the underdog team from Osaka.
28 of the 35 teams that started saw the chequered flag at the end, with only 7 retirements.
Images courtesy of SRO Motorsports Group / Dirk Bogaerts Photography