The two Lexus LC500s of TOM’s Racing have locked out the front row for Sunday’s Suzuka GT 300km Race, with the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi edging out their stablemates, the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, by just 0.013 seconds in a thrilling qualifying session in the heat of late spring at Suzuka.
Temperatures of 31°C air, 48°C track were the hottest of the season, feeling more like the mid-summer Suzuka 1000km of recent years. Not conducive to challenging the GT500 and GT300 lap records set last year, but still perfect conditions for time trials to set the field for Sunday’s race.
GT500 Qualifying 1 began later than scheduled thanks to a red flag in the GT300 Q1 session that immediately preceded it. Last year’s polesitters and race winners, the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT, made a statement after all the Hondas seemed to struggle for outright pace in the morning practice session. Tomoki Nojiri topped Q1 with a best time of 1’45.916.
It was a different story for the first and second place cars in the championship, the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura), carrying 49 kilograms and 43 kilograms of Success Ballast respectively. Neither car advanced out of Q1, with Matsuda qualifying 10th in the Motul GT-R after being bumped out of the Top 8 in the closing seconds. Ishiura qualified 13th in the Fuji 500km-winning ZENT LC500.
Four of the five Hondas, and three of the six Lexus, made it into Q2 and the run for pole position. Only the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/James Rossiter) made it over the cut line for Nissan, by just 0.021 seconds over the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama).
It took a while for Q2 to kick off, as so often is the case in Super GT qualifying – the fastest times of the session wouldn’t arrive until the final minutes.
With less than two minutes remaining, Daiki Sasaki in the #12 Calsonic GT-R set the early benchmark on a 1’46.216. Then, with just a minute to go, the #37 KeePer LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa improved by half a second, to a 1’45.788, putting Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy on provisional pole, and the #8 ARTA NSX of Takuya Izawa in P2 behind them.
But as the chequered flag waved, Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #36 au TOM’s LC500 was on his flying lap, and at the last minute, he jumped to the top of the time tables with a best lap of 1’45.775, securing an all-TOM’s front row at Suzuka.
Just a week after Sekiguchi took a dominant victory in the second round of the Super Formula Championship at Autopolis, he continues his great run of form with his second career GT500 pole position – his first since the 2016 Buriram Super GT Race in Thailand, and his first since joining Lexus Team au TOM’s, who break a long drought of pole positions going back to the 2014 Suzuka 1000km. For Nakajima, returning to Super GT after missing the Fuji 500km, his championship challenge continues on Sunday from the best possible starting position.
Both TOM’s cars were light on Success Ballast after struggling through the first two races of 2019, and they maximized that with a front-row lockout – the first time since the 1999 Japan Special GT Cup at Fuji Speedway that two TOM’s Racing-entered cars have locked out the front row in GT500!
Hirakawa and Cassidy, the latter of whom won at Suzuka in the opening round of Super Formula, will start on the outside of the front row, ahead of the defending Suzuka race winners, the ARTA NSX of Nojiri and Izawa, who will start third, ahead of the Calsonic GT-R of Sasaki and Rossiter in fourth.
The #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Kenta Yamashita) makes it three Lexus in the top five, starting fifth, next to the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) in sixth place.
And the reigning GT500 Champions, the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Jenson Button, qualified seventh, on an all-Honda row 4 next to the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) – two cars that are poised to move up quickly from the middle of the grid.
After weeks of uncertainty regarding the short-term and long-term future of top GT300 privateers Tsuchiya Engineering, the 2016 GT300 Champion team showed that they’ve never lost their fighting spirit, as Takamitsu Matsui put the #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (with Kimiya Sato) on pole position.
GT300 Q1 was marred slightly when the #9 Pacific Mirai Akari NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R of Kyosuke Mineo suffered a braking issue, spun, and crashed into the sponge barriers at the Hairpin Curve, bringing out a red flag. Mineo was uninjured, and Pacific Racing was able to repair the stricken Porsche, but he and Naoki Yokomizo will start 29th.
The red flag caught out a number of drivers, including the #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) that was ticking off fastest sectors in Oliveira’s Q1 run, until the red flag annulled a time that would have surely locked them into the Top 16 and advanced into Q2. Oliveira could only manage 19th, but they weren’t the only drivers left out to dry in Q1.
The #60 Syntium Lexus RC F GT3 (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Ritomo Miyata) was eliminated in 20th, the #56 Realize Corporation Nissan Gakuen GT-R (Kazuki Hiramine/Sacha Fenestraz) went from pole at Fuji to 21st at Suzuka, and even the reigning GT300 Champions, the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou), were cut early in 22nd. The #18 UPGarage Honda NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Kosuke Matsuura) was another favourite that will start deep in the field in 23rd.
Out of that chaos, three of the Mother Chassis cars locked out the top three in Q1, led by the #5 Advics Mach Syaken MC86 of Natsu Sakaguchi in first, ahead of Kimiya Sato in the #25 Hoppy 86 MC, and Hiroki Katoh in the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC.
That left us with the Top 16 finishers in Q1 battling for pole in Q2. For Takamitsu Matsui, the last two seasons after winning his first GT300 title in 2016 haven’t been as prolific, but he set the fastest time of Q2 early on with a lap of 1’57.008.
Rookie Sena Sakaguchi, driving the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 that won this race last year, was able to jump up to 2nd just before the chequered flag, and split up an all-Mother Chassis, all-Yokohama front row in his Bridgestone-clad GT3 car. A great run from the 19-year-old, but just a tenth of a second short of displacing Matsui from the top spot.
For Matsui, who works full-time with Tsuchiya Engineering in their civilian car care centre and racing shop in Fujisawa in addition to his full-time driving duties, it’s his fifth career pole position and his first since the 2017 Autopolis round. And a popular success at that, with Team Director Takeshi Tsuchiya confirming that title sponsors Hoppy Beverage Company will provide additional funding to allow the team to finish out the 2019 season.
With Matsui and Sato on the pole, and the #96 K-Tunes RC F of Morio Nitta and Sena Sakaguchi on the outside, we have a front row with two different design philosophies and tyre manufacturers.
Yuya Hiraki was able to maintain Team Mach’s impressive qualifying form by placing 3rd in Q2 in the #5 Advics MC86. The Dunlop-clad #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), a car that always goes well here, qualified 4th.
Then it’s the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) in 5th, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) in 6th, and the best of the Hondas, the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Hiroki Otsu) in 7th.
The #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R (Takayuki Aoki/Yusaku Shibata) put in another mightily impressive qualifying performance in 8th, with the championship-leading #55 ARTA NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Nirei Fukuzumi) starting 9th, next to the new-look #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Yuya Motojima/Takashi Kogure) in 10th.
Especially in GT300, with temperatures expected to be above 30°C, the heat could play into the hands of the Yokohama-clad teams on Sunday. As for GT500, Bridgestone still to have the advantage – at least over a single lap, and in numbers.
The Suzuka GT 300km Race starts Sunday at 2:30 PM JST (local time) / 6:30 AM BST / 7:30 AM CEST / 1:30 AM EDT.
Images courtesy of Mobilityland Corporation and the GT Association (GTA)