All off-season, the sweeping changes made at Nissan and NISMO were one of the major storylines to develop in anticipation of the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series.
With improvements made to the 2019 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, a familiar car and driver took pole position for Sunday’s Okayama GT 300km Race at Okayama International Circuit. The #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli will line up at the front of the grid tomorrow, as Quintarelli shattered the previous official track record that stood through this morning by a second and a half, en route to his 12th career pole position in the premier class of Super GT. That ties him for second all-time in Super GT, with Takashi Kogure.
The previous lap record of 1’18.126 set in 2016 by Ryo Hirakawa already fell in Saturday morning’s official practice session at the 3.703 kilometer circuit. Jenson Button, the reigning GT500 co-champion in the #1 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT, held it after practice with a 1’17.793.
But as track conditions warmed up to 16°C air, 25°C surface, by the start of Q1, conditions were perfect for even quicker lap times to come.
The Nissan GT-Rs looked mighty as they further reset the Okayama lap record in Q1. The #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R of Jann Mardenborough first turned in a 1’17.333. Then came the #23 Motul GT-R of Matsuda, with a 1’17.165.
Just behind Matsuda, though, was the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R of James Rossiter – one of several drivers taking part in the session who were making their first time trial runs with a new team – who took provisional pole with a 1’17.103, 0.062 seconds the better of Matsuda. All four Nissan GT-Rs, including the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Nissan newcomer Kohei Hirate, advanced on to Q2.
While Nissan were elated, most of the Lexus camp were devastated. Five of their six LC500s were knocked out after Q1, including among them the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of reigning Le Mans 24 Hours winner Kazuki Nakajima (with Yuhi Sekiguchi) who only qualified 14th-fastest in the session. Only the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy advanced onto Q2, alongside the Nissans and the three Bridgestone-clad Hondas.
Would the lap record then fall into the 1 minute 16 seconds range? That was one of the questions answered resoundingly in Q2.
Defending GT500 and Super Formula Drivers’ Champion Naoki Yamamoto had his turn to make magic in the #1 Raybrig NSX after his co-driver Button advanced him through Q1. He put in a lap time of 1’16.950, the first official GT500 lap around Okayama in the sub-1’17s.
But four-time GT500 Champion Quintarelli lit up Sectors 2 and 3 on his final flying lap, and with a minute to go, he vaulted the #23 Motul GT-R straight to pole position with a best time of 1’16.602, with the #12 Calsonic GT-R of Daiki Sasaki crossing the timing line behind him and securing P2 on the grid with a 1’16.876.
Thus, months after completing their massive overhaul of hardware and software, Nissan GT-Rs locked out the front row at Okayama in record-breaking fashion.
“Last year was tough for us because of a lack of speed, but the NISMO staff worked hard for us on the car’s speed during the off-season. But I didn’t think it had gotten this fast!” exclaimed Quintarelli.
“I thought we were suffering from a lack of traction on the slower corners, but we would be able to get in the top three with a 1’16 time, so when I heard from engineer [Takeshi] Nakajima over the radio that we had gotten pole position, I was really happy.”
This was Quintarelli’s 11th career pole position, moving him into third-place on the all-time career pole winners list, just one short of Takashi Kogure at 12. It’s his second pole position at Okayama, his first coming in 2014, and the seventh Okayama pole for the flagship NISMO team.
How fast was Quintarelli’s magic lap around the Okayama International Circuit? The time of 1’16.602 would have sufficiently qualified him 15th in the 1995 Formula 1 Pacific Grand Prix at the same venue – just edging out the Sauber-Ford of Jean-Christophe Boullion, and two-tenths up on the Minardi of Quintarelli’s countryman Luca Badoer!
As the “Red and Blue Oni” locked out the front row for Nissan, Yamamoto’s time in Q2 still was sufficient for 3rd on the grid, and the defending champions Naoki & JB will start their title defence from the inside of an all-Honda second row, ahead of the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette. The #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri & Takuya Izawa wasn’t far behind in fifth place.
Mitsunori Takaboshi put the #24 Realize GT-R (with Mardenborough) sixth on the grid, ahead of the #37 KeePer LC500 of Nick Cassidy (with Hirakawa) in seventh, and the returning Frédéric Makowiecki in eighth aboard the #3 CraftSports GT-R (with Hirate). All eight cars that made it to Q2 broke the previous official track record.
GT300 Qualifying kicked things off with plenty of intrigue. For the first time ever, sixteen cars would ultimately advance to the battle for pole position in Q2. But first the 29-car field would be split into two group sessions in Q1, and the top eight from each session would advance to Q2.
One of the stories of the day was the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC, which was the fastest GT300 car in practice on their new Bridgestone Potenza tyres. New acquisition Hiroki Yoshida backed up their practice pace by leading Group A in qualifying.
Group A saw some other surprising results: A gearbox issue kept the #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) from advancing. Neither the new Vantage, nor the new #720 McLaren Customer Racing Japan 720S GT3 (Seiji Ara/Álex Palou) made it through to Q2. After spending most of Practice in the garage, the McLaren was actually slowest in the group – joining the Vantage and the two new front-engined Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GTs as those missing out on the pole run.
Group B was led by Autobacs Racing Team Aguri and their new #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 EVO. Shinichi Takagi ran in Q1 and advanced the new ARTA NSX GT3 to Q2. Meanwhile, last year’s winning team, Team UPGarage, failed to get into Q2 with their new #18 Honda NSX GT3 EVO for Takashi Kobayashi & Kosuke Matsuura.
With 16 teams battling for pole, a first-time pole winner emerged. 22-year-old rookie Nirei Fukuzumi, making his return to Japan after a difficult split campaign in Formula 2 and Super Formula last year, climbed aboard the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 and beat the GT300 course record with two-tenths in hand, setting a best lap of 1’24.889 and eclipsing Naoya Gamou’s record from 2017.
19-year-old rookie Sena Sakaguchi, in his first GT300 qualifying session, looked a threat to take pole at the last minute for the locally-owned K-Tunes Racing team. But he and the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 missed out by just 0.016 on the final flying lap.
So it was Fukuzumi – whose only previous appearance in Super GT was as an 18-year-old spot entry in the 2015 Suzuka 1000km, never being able to qualify or drive a race stint during that weekend – who took the Honda NSX GT3’s first-ever GT300 pole position, and looked a young man refreshed after the hardships of 2018.
“I was able to work together with Takagi-san on the car’s set-up and by the time of the qualifying it was performing well,” said Fukuzumi. “When Takagi-san got the top time in Q1 (B group), it put some pressure on me to do well, but I was somehow able to get a good lap time, and it turned out to be the best possible result.”
“This will in fact be my first time driving in qualifying and the race, so I’m very happy to have gotten this pole position.” This is ARTA’s first GT300 class pole position since 2008, with their cult favourite ASL Garaiya car.
It’s an all-Bridgestone front row in GT300 with the K-Tunes RC F GT3 of three-time GT300 Champion Morio Nitta and his new young teammate Sakaguchi finishing 2nd in Q2. A result that will surely make the brass at Okayama Toyopet happy!
The #52 GreenBrave Mark X ended up qualifying third overall in the hands of 44-year-old veteran Shigekazu Wakisaka, ahead of the defending series champions, the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Haruki Kurosawa and Okayama native Naoya Gamou in fourth.
An all-Mother Chassis Row 3 comprises of the #25 Hoppy 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) in fifth and the #5 Advics Mach Syaken MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) in sixth. The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) finished seventh, ahead of the #56 Realize Nissan Mechanic Challenge GT-R GT3 (Kazuki Hiramine/Sacha Fenestraz) in eighth, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) ninth, and the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) completing the top ten in Q2.
Sunday’s 82-lap race will start at 2:30 PM JST (local time), and will be broadcast in Japan on J Sports 4 and J Sports On Demand. Sadly, for the international audience, there is seemingly no resolution in sight for being able to provide a live broadcast for Sunday.
Those of you eager to follow the race live, you can stay tuned to Super GT World on Twitter (@supergtworld) for live race updates as they happen.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)