Going into Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session for the SMBC/BH Auction Suzuka 10 Hours, there was lots of uncertainty as to who would go on to fight for pole position in the 48th running of the Summer Endurance Classic at Suzuka Circuit.
After all, the thousands of kilometres run by the teams on Friday would amount to nothing with all of Friday’s practices being rained on. The sun finally came through on Saturday morning for the final free practice but interrupted by two red flags, there was still no certainty as to who would rise to the occasion.
Those questions were answered, as Audi Sport Team WRT drivers Dries Vanthoor, Kelvin van der Linde, and Frederic Vervisch led the way in the first round of Qualifying for the Suzuka 10 Hours – the Nogaro Blue #25 Audi R8 LMS powered to the top spot thanks to a new Suzuka 10 Hours lap record from Van der Linde.
Qualifying began under sunny skies and a perfectly dry and hot track at 1:00 PM local time. The early benchmarks were set, first by the #107 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 of Jordan Pepper, then by the #77 Craft-Bamboo Mercedes-AMG GT3 of IGTC Drivers’ Championship leader Maximillian Goetz, on a 2’02.232.
Time trials marked the first time for all the drivers to find the limit, and some went over it. The normally unbreakable Markus Winkelhock in the #125 Absolute Racing Audi R8 LMS went off through the gravel at Dunlop Corner. Alexander West in the #188 Garage59 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 suffered front end damage and limped around the track, as Dennis Olsen suffered a left-rear puncture in the #912 Absolute Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R!
With just 3 minutes left on the clock, gentleman racer Kazuho Takahashi spun the #2 Cars Tokai Dream28 Lotus Evora MC out of Degner Curve 1. Taking part in his 23rd Suzuka Summer Enduro, Takahashi’s spin brought out a red flag, leaving enough time for just one more flying lap.
It looked like Goetz’ time would stand on top to the chequered flag – but right at the buzzer, Nico Bastian hit a buzzer-beater of a hot lap. The German continued an impressive run of form going back to Friday, and the only IGTC Bronze Championship car in the field, the #75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, went to P1 in the first stage of qualifying, as Bastian put in a 2’02.104 – the fastest time of the afternoon to date. Bastian finished ahead of Goetz in 2nd, Pepper 3rd, Dries Vanthoor 4th, Alexandre Imperatori 5th, and Nick Cassidy 6th.
Less than a second covered the top 16 positions, down to the #912 Absolute Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R of Dennis Olsen – who completed a lap of 2’03.019, despite suffering a severe tyre rub on the same left-rear area that suffered the puncture earlier! Even Garage59 got to fix their stricken Aston quickly for West to complete a representative lap.
Mika Hakkinen, with his best lap, was 1.2 seconds off the high mark from Bastian, but the 1998 and 1999 F1 World Champion did enough to finish top 20 in this stage considering the circumstances with the red flag late in the session. Hakkinen did his part, as did Nobuteru Taniguchi, in the #00 Goodsmile Racing Mercedes-AMG in 20th.
Early on in Q2, Luca Stolz dropped the hammer in the #77 Craft-Bamboo Mercedes, with a 2’02.224, but it was last year’s pole winner, Nick Foster in the #27 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, who broke the sub-2’02 barrier with a 2’01.926. Then, with fastest sectors 2, 3, and 4, Van der Linde rocketed to the top on a 2’01.494, aboard the #25 WRT Audi!
That lap, a new record for the Suzuka 10 Hours under the current IGTC rule set, moved the #25 WRT Audi to the top of the provisional rankings after two phases of qualifying, ahead of the #27 HubAuto Ferrari and the #77 Craft-Bamboo Mercedes.
Marco Mapelli was wringing the #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracan GT3 around on his final flying lap to finish in the top 5 in Q2 and bring the #88 car further up the aggregate running order after two rounds. Lewis Williamson, on the other hand, found the limit after dropping two wheels off and nearly spun at 130R on his hot lap. The #44 Strakka Racing Mercedes sat 21st, right below the cut line, with just Q3 remaining. Just 0.022 behind the #18 Team UPGarage Honda NSX GT3 in 20th, with Kosuke Matsuura, the 2017 winner of the last 1000km Suzuka summer enduro, running wide at Degner Curve and driving through the gravel.
That set up Q3, and defending IGTC Drivers’ Champion (and Suzuka 10 Hours winner) Tristan Vautier saved the #44 Strakka Mercedes’ bid for the Pole Shootout with a lap good enough to get them 19th on aggregate.
SunEnergy1’s Kenny Habul held on just enough with his time to see the #75 Mercedes through, while the first car to miss the cut was the #18 UPGarage Honda, as Tadasuke Makino couldn’t find the pace he needed to get the yellow and black NSX through.
Hiroaki Ishiura pushed with all his effort, but not even the two-time Suzuka 1000km winner could find enough speed to get the #11 Planex McLaren through to the Pole Shootout on aggregate, and three-time Suzuka 1000km winner Ryo Michigami also saw his #034 Modulo Drago Corse Honda miss the Pole Shootout.
Dennis Lind in the #88 JLOC Lamborghini was fastest of all in Q3, ahead of the #42 Schnitzer BMW M6 GT3 of Augusto Farfus, and the #107 M-Sport Bentley of Jules Gounon.
Kelvin van der Linde’s lap record of 2’01.494 will see him win an additional 1 million yen for the fastest lap in the first phase of qualifying – and his co-driver Vanthoor could earn them another cool million if they go on to win pole position.
With that, positions 21 through 36 are set for the Suzuka 10 Hours, and these twenty cars and their nominated drivers will advance to the Pole Shootout at 5:30 PM local time:
#25 – Audi Sport Team WRT – Dries Vanthoor
#27 – HubAuto Corsa – Heikki Kovalainen
#77 – Mercedes-AMG Team Craft-Bamboo Racing – Maximillian Goetz
#777 – CarGuy Racing – Miguel Molina
#35 – KCMG – Tsugio Matsuda
#88 – JLOC – Marco Mapelli
#107 – Bentley Team M-Sport – Jules Gounon
#125 – Audi Sport Team Absolute Racing – Christopher Haase
#018 – KCMG – Oliver Jarvis
#34 – Walkenhorst Motorsport – Nicky Catsburg
#999 – Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing – Maro Engel
#42 – BMW Team Schnitzer – Augusto Farfus
#912 – Absolute Racing Porsche – Dirk Werner
#30 – Honda Team Motul – Bertrand Baguette
#108 – Bentley Team M-Sport – Andy Soucek
#21 – Audi Team Hitotsuyama – Richard Lyons
#87 – JLOC – Takashi Kogure
#00 – Mercedes-AMG Team Goodsmile – Kamui Kobayashi
#44 – Mercedes-AMG Team Strakka Racing – Gary Paffett
#75 – SunEnergy1 Racing – Nico Bastian