At the site of Team Kunimitsu’s very first All-Japan GT Championship victory in 1994, and the site of their most recent Super GT win in 2015, the #100 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button captured GT500 class pole position at Sportsland Sugo for Sunday’s sixth round of the Autobacs Super GT Series.
Yamamoto put the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT on top of the leaderboards in Saturday morning’s free practice session. But showers of rain curtailed the final hour of running, that saw a few red flags as even experienced drivers got caught out in the slippery conditions. By the time qualifying kicked off, the rain had stopped, but the grip was tough to come by in some places.
This caught out the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD Lexus LC500 of defending Sugo race winner Heikki Kovalainen in the final minutes of Q1. Kovalainen ran wide at the SP-In Corner and crashed into the sponge barriers, bringing out a red flag with less than two minutes to go in the session. There was no major damage, but Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi will start tomorrow’s race in last on the GT500 grid – a long way to go for Lexus Team SARD to defend their 2017 victory.
When the session resumed with two minutes on the clock, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi jumped to the top of the table in Q1 on his final lap. Four of the five Hondas advanced into Q2, along with two Lexus LC500s and two Nissan GT-Rs.
As the last car across the line in Q1, the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R of João Paulo de Oliveira bumped the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa out of the top 8 by just 0.017 seconds. Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, the GT500 Drivers’ Championship leaders, will start ninth on the grid on Saturday.
Other notable title contenders who missed the cut after Q1 were the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima/Yuhi Sekiguchi) in 10th, the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist) in 11th, and the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) in 12th.
By the time Q2 started, the track was now dry, and overcast conditions were perfect for teams to challenge the course record.
With less than three minutes to go, Tomoki Nojiri in the #8 ARTA NSX-GT set a time of 1’10.352, the first driver to break the record. But there was still more speed to be found, when the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R of Daiki Sasaki jumped ahead with a 1’10.286.
Then, as the next car across the line, Yamamoto in the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT found another four hundreths of a second on his final lap, including the fastest first sector, to eke out a 1’10.248 and take pole position by just 0.038 seconds, with a new GT500 course record! Considering that the Raybrig NSX-GT was on the “Level 2” fuel-flow restrictor this weekend (88.6 kg/h) and carrying 46 kilos of physical ballast, the speed from Team Kunimitsu throughout Saturday was mightily impressive.
Yamamoto, who scored his most recent Super GT victory with Team Kunimitsu in 2015 at Sugo, and who won the Super Formula race at Sugo this May, owed a lot to his teammate Button for helping the team along to pole position: “I thought I ran a good time attack and I am satisfied with the result. But, it was J.B. who contributed most to this pole win,” said Yamamoto.
“Because the morning practice was run in wet conditions, he was running for the first time on our new dry tires here at SUGO in Q1 and still managed to qualify in 3rd position to get us to Q2. I am very happy because this is a pole that was won by us two drivers and the whole team. In tomorrow’s race as well, I want to see us drivers and the whole team working together to get the win.”
This is Yamamoto’s second career GT500 pole position, his first since Autopolis in 2017. For Button, who never turned a competitive lap at Sugo before today, he’ll start from P1 for the first time in a race since the 2012 Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa!
Sasaki and Jann Mardenborough will start 2nd in the Calsonic GT-R, hoping to avenge their heartbreaking loss at the Fuji 500 Miles last month with an upgraded engine that Nissan brought to all four of their GT-Rs this weekend. This is their first front-row start of the year.
Despite concerns over the Hondas’ 10kg minimum weight increase, they got four of their five cars in the top five places on the grid for tomorrow’s race. The #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Nojiri and Takuya Izawa starts 3rd, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure will start 4th, and the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) starts 5th.
The rest of the GT500 grid is completed by the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Kenta Yamashita) in 6th, the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) in 7th, and the #24 Forum Engineering GT-R of Oliveira and Mitsunori Takaboshi in 8th.
In the GT300 class, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport, hampered by reliability woes all throughout the 2018 season, led every session on Saturday and took pole position for the race, courtesy of Takuto Iguchi and pole winner Hideki Yamauchi.
Sugo was the first test for the new GT300 qualifying format, that saw the 28-car field split into two groups for Q1. Iguchi was fastest in Group A, and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS of Richard Lyons was fastest in Group B.
Group B’s session was red-flagged momentarily when the #22 R’Qs Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Hisashi Wada, struggling for traction on a damp track, spun exiting the S Curves and crashed head-on into the armco barriers. The damage should be repairable to allow them to start tomorrow, albeit, at the back of the grid.
The other big story out of Q1 was the struggles of the championship-leading #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Sean Walkinshaw. Carrying the maximum 100 kilograms of Success Ballast, Walkinshaw could only qualify 12th-fastest in Group A, putting them 23rd on the grid for Sunday.
Yamauchi took the reigns of the Blue Boxer in Q2, and on his flying lap, he put in a fastest lap of 1’17.685 that would be good enough for pole position, as no other driver could get under the 1’18 range. This is Yamauchi’s second career GT300 pole position, his first since 2014, which also came at Sugo while driving for the Gainer team. This is also the Subaru BRZ’s first pole position since the 2014 season, at the Fuji GT 300km Race.
“This is my fourth season since coming to the Subaru team, and today I was finally able to get us a pole position,” said Yamauchi. “Sugo has always been a course that I liked since racing here in F3, and I’m really happy that together with the whole team we were able to get the pole.
“The important thing is tomorrow’s race. I want to do my best to get the best result in the race and end this weekend by putting a smile on the faces of all the Subaru fans.”
The #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Sho Tsuboi) finished second in qualifying, as the JAF-GT300 and Mother Chassis cars showed their strength around the technical Sugo circuit. This will be an important race for Tsuchiya Engineering, who are still in the championship fight with three races remaining.
Two big surprises are on Row 2: The #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R (Rintaro Kubo/Keishi Ishikawa) was 2nd in Q1 Group A, and then followed that up by qualifying a season-best third overall in Q2. The #5 Mach Syaken MC86 Y’s Distraction (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) also put in a season-best qualifying performance of their own, starting 4th.
Defending GT300 race winner Katsuyuki Hiranaka and teammate Hironobu Yasuda start 7th in the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R, alongside another of the title contenders, the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) in 8th. Last year’s GT500 race winner Kohei Hirate qualified 12th in the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (with Koki Saga), carrying 90 kilos of Success Ballast as they run 2nd in the championship standings.
Tomorrow’s forecasts call for showers of rain, just as we saw in practice, and just as we saw in the first half of last year’s thrilling Sugo GT 300km Race. If that holds true, fans will be in for a gripping, thrilling race that could see the championship pictures completely altered at the end of Sunday afternoon’s race.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)