The Autopolis 300km GT Race had it all: Incredible battles for position, great strategy, some unexpected results, and even a fair amount of controversy at the end.
For the second time in three races, Lexus Team TOM’s scored a 1-2 finish, this time led by the defending GT500 champions, the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, who took the lead with six laps to go from the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi, though it’s the manner in which the lead changed hands that had people talking, about the likely use of team orders to decide the finishing order.
The #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Takuya Izawa started the race from pole position, ahead of the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Takashi Kogure. Enter the Le Mans champion Nakajima, who passed the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of co-championship leader Jenson Button into the very first corner.
The au TOM’s LC500 had the pace early on, and once the two leading Hondas hit the pack of slower GT300 traffic, it gave Nakajima the opportunity to pounce. On Lap 11, Nakajima passed Kogure down the hill on the run out of the hairpin Turn 11, and when race leader Izawa got held up in traffic through the final sector, Nakajima got a big run coming out of the final corner and snatched the lead of the race.
Once he got to the lead, Nakajima pulled out a massive advantage over the field, pulling out a gap of over eight seconds in eight laps, while the Hondas now struggled to keep pace due to tyre degradation.
That lead disappeared, however, when the Safety Car was brought out on Lap 20 to retrieve the #30 Toyota Prius apr GT of Hiroaki Nagai from the gravel trap on the final corner. It was at this time that the pit window was set to open for full-service pit stops, and when the safety car was withdrawn, starting with Button in the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT, the Hondas wasted little time getting off their first set of tyres. Button came in just as the Safety Car was withdrawn on Lap 24, followed by Kogure in the Keihin NSX the next lap, and Izawa in the ARTA NSX the lap after.
On lap 29, the two TOM’s Lexus LC500s pitted together, Sekiguchi climbing aboard the #36 au TOM’s LC500, and Hirakawa getting into the #1 KeePer TOM’s LC500 respectively. They came out in this order, and now had a substantial lead over the trio of Hondas that once led the race.
The lead battle remained steady for several laps, though Hirakawa, still looking for his and Cassidy’s first victory of the Super GT season, kept the race leader Sekiguchi honest. With ten laps to go, and the 36 car leading the 1 car on track, Hirakawa and Cassidy would have moved to within 5 points of the championship lead, and Sekiguchi would move to 7 points of the lead.
Then, with six laps to go, Sekiguchi started to drop his pace through the middle sector on the run up the hill to Turn 11. Hirakawa closed in rapidly, and lunged through to the inside, while Sekiguchi offered little resistance to his teammate’s challenge.
Sekiguchi made one last push to the tail of Hirakawa, but after 65 laps, the KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Hirakawa and Cassidy held on to take its first win of the 2018 season, 0.438 seconds ahead of the au TOM’s LC500 of Nakajima and Sekiguchi in second place. Just as they did at the Fuji 500 Mile Race in August, TOM’s took a 1-2 finish, last time it was the 36 ahead of the 1, this time, the positions were changed.
“As a team we had some points where we needed improvement, but repeated efforts to improve have brought us all to what I feel is a good position,” said Cassidy. “Today, we had a goal of being able to pass car the Raybrig NSX in the race, but I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risk. So, I ran safely, and our race strategy was successful. I am grateful that we are now in this position.”
“When the NSX-GT cars took the top three places in the official qualifying yesterday, I thought it would be a tough race,” said Hirakawa. “Not only was our car fast, but our race strategy also went well, it was an important factor that we got out of the pit stop in front of the NSX-GTs. With this result, I am happy that we will be in the competition for the title, but we have seen the speed of the NSX-GT cars in qualifying, so we can’t be over-confident [going into the last race].”
This was Hirakawa’s fifth career Super GT victory, and the third for Cassidy. For TOM’s, they’ve now scored back-to-back victories at Autopolis with their two cars.
Most importantly for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s, this win now puts them even at 67 points all with the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Button and Naoki Yamamoto, which finished in fifth place – setting up an incredible showdown at the Motegi GT 250km Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi on 11 November.
As for the deciding pass for the win? Team director Masanori Sekiya was quoted after the race as saying that the au LC500 developed a problem late in the race that caused its pace to drop. Others weren’t convinced of the explanation, including Button, who was quoted on social media after the race: “The important thing is be man enough to say it’s team orders. Tell the truth, this is not the truth!”
As for the au LC500, second place for Nakajima and Sekiguchi puts Sekiguchi 12 points back of the two leading cars in the championship (Nakajima is not mathematically eligible for the title after missing the Fuji 500km due to WEC commitments at Spa-Francorchamps), needing at least a second-place finish at Motegi to take the championship.
The #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 of Yuji Kunimoto and Kenta Yamashita finished 3rd, completing the second all-Lexus podium of the 2018 season – thanks to a brilliant gamble on a two-stop strategy. The Safety Car helped negate the loss of time after pitting on lap 15 for fuel and tyres only, and after 41 laps from Yamashita and leading while off-sequence, Kunimoto climbed aboard to finish the race, and emerged from the pits on the final podium place – taking their second podium finish of 2018.
Lexus made it a Top 4 sweep, even, with the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) finishing fourth, holding off a hard-charging Yamamoto in the Raybrig NSX by just 0.297 seconds at the line. The #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Kogure and Koudai Tsukakoshi finished sixth, which just was not enough to keep their championship challenge alive going into Motegi.
The best of the Nissan GT-Rs was the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (João Paulo de Oliveira/Mitsunori Takaboshi) in seventh, thanks to a great charge from the young Japanese driver. The #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kamui Kobayashi) recovered from going off in the gravel to finish eighth, ahead of the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Felix Rosenqvist) in ninth, and the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) rounding out the top ten.
With 18 laps to go, Tsugio Matsuda in the #23 Motul Autech GT-R tried a desperation pass on Oshima, that ended up sending him right into the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri, spinning the Honda out and dropping them to twelfth place. The Motul GT-R was forced to pit for damage, then a drive-through penalty for Matsuda ultimately ended his and Ronnie Quintarelli’s title hopes, as they finished 15th.
Nojiri and Izawa are still mathematically eligible for the championship, but now trail by 17 points and must win at Motegi to be a factor.
In the GT300 class, a wild and unpredictable race saw the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 of Morio Nitta and Yuichi Nakayama go from 10th on the grid to taking its second win of the season, with Nitta taking his record-tying 20th career GT300 class victory.
The #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC of Sho Tsuboi dominated the first third of the race, as Tsuboi, the young man in form after capping off his record-breaking All-Japan Formula 3 Championship campaign, broke out to an early advantage. Behind them, the underdog #5 Mach Syaken MC86 Y’s Distraction of Natsu Sakaguchi – driver and team both from the nearby city of Fukuoka – charged up into second place and right behind the #25 Hoppy 86 MC before the Safety Car intervention for the #30 Toyota Prius.
The Hoppy 86 pitted after 26 laps for a driver change to Takamitsu Matsui – and crucially, took on just front tyres during their stop. The Mach Syaken 86 pitted five laps later from the lead, and came out behind on track with Yuya Hiraki on board. But the aggressive strategy backfired big time for Tsuchiya Engineering, as the pink and white Hoppy 86 MC quickly started to fall down the order and lose all the track position they’d gained in the pits.
On Lap 41, while still struggling for grip, Matsui came into contact with the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw), which was charging through the field after starting 22nd. The Hoppy 86 spun around, and pitted at the end of the lap for a fresh set of tyres, conceding the race and the championship where a win could have put Matsui and Tsuboi into the championship lead.
The lap before, the #96 K-Tunes RC F came in for its stop, having taken advantage of the Safety Car intervention to try and extend Nakayama’s time in the car by setting multiple fastest laps. By the time Nakayama pitted and Nitta climbed aboard for the closing stint, they had a comfortable lead and clear track ahead of them, and it was more than enough to take their second win of the season, the first since Suzuka, and one that keeps their once-fading championship hopes alive, if only just, going into the Grand Final at Motegi.
“I knew that Autopolis is a track where we have to be concerned about tire wear,” said Nakayama. “In qualifying, the teams on Yokohama tires were fast, but their race pace was not as good, we on Bridgestone tire were able to catch up, and that felt great in the race.”
“When they told me on the radio to push for another five laps [before the pit stop], I was able to pick up the pace, and the car felt alright. Eventually I was able to run eight more laps and build our margin of lead.” This is Nakayama’s seventh career GT300 victory.
Nitta added, “We were having a problem with pickup, but it seemed that the other teams were having even more trouble and Yuichi succeeded in running at a high pace before the pit stop. It was especially important that we had the best pit work and together with the in-lap and out-lap before and after the stop, we were able to gain 15 seconds on the competition. The teamwork was fantastic and I want to thank everyone for that.”
With the victory, Nitta once again ties his long-time former co-driver Shinichi Takagi for the most GT300 class wins in history with his 20th win. Over the span of the season, Takagi has pulled ahead of Nitta after his victories at Fuji Speedway, only for Nitta to move level afterwards.
Finishing a fantastic 2nd was the #87 Legal Frontier Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Kimiya Sato/Yuya Motojima), scoring Team JLOC’s first podium finish of 2018. This was a career-best result for both Sato, and for Fukuoka-born Motojima, the best of the local drivers in today’s race.
And in third position, the #34 Modulo Kenwood Honda NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) picked up the first-ever Super GT podium for the new Honda GT3 car, as well as the first GT300 podiums for the Modulo Drago Corse team, and for rookie driver Otsu, who took the position with five laps to go. Michigami returned to a Super GT podium for the first time since his racing sabbatical from 2014-2017, and for their efforts, the team picked up the ¥500,000 cheque for the J Sports’ Best Performance Award.
The #55 ARTA M6, from a dire situation in qualifying, gained eighteen places to complete a brilliant comeback from 22nd on the grid to finish 4th, which Takagi described after the race as a miracle. Takagi & Walkinshaw’s championship lead swells to twelve points, as several contenders hit trouble, like the #0 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka), which finished 19th after being forced to serve an emergency stop after just 3 laps.
Fifth was the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) which spun on the Parade Lap but ended the day with a top-5 finish and moving into 2nd in the championship, in sixth place was the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda), and in seventh, the local favourite #5 Mach Syaken MC86 of Sakaguchi and Hiraki recorded Team Mach’s first top-ten finish, their best finish in Super GT since 2010, as well as career-bests for both drivers.
Completing the points-scorers in GT300 was the #7 D’station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) in eighth, the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Hiroki Yoshida) in ninth, and in tenth, having started from the pit lane, was the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Kohei Hirate) which completed a great fightback of their own.
Six cars remain eligible for the GT300 championship at Motegi: Takagi/Walkinshaw are on 60 points, with Kurosawa/Gamou on 48 points, Saga/Hirate on 46, Taniguchi/Kataoka on 45, Nitta/Nakayama moving all the way up to 44 points with their win, and Hiranaka/Yasuda on 42.
This was a race that had everything: Lots of on-track battles, plenty of unpredictability, and even some controversy that is rarely seen in Super GT. It was entertaining nonetheless, and now the stage is set for what may be a fantastic finish in three weeks’ time in Twin Ring Motegi.
Images courtesy of Toyota and the GT Association (GTA)