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Suzuka 10 Hours: Hours 6-8, Drama For HubAuto Ferrari

Audi still in control

According to legend, the reason why the Suzuka 10 Hours’ new length and start time were determined based around the train schedule from Tokyo to Suzuka through Nagoya, and back. We reached the halfway point with the Nogaro Blue #25 Audi Sport Team WRT R8 LMS GT3 still leading in the hands of Dries Vanthoor.

Their closest pursuers had been the #42 BMW Team Schnitzer M6 GT3, but just after the halfway mark, Nick Yelloly was summoned back to the pits to serve a drive-through penalty – the team had violated the minimum pit time and thus, dropped off the tail end of the lead battle.

With that battle prematurely settled, the focus now switched to a battle for net 2nd place between the #999 GruppeM Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Maro Engel, and the #125 Absolute Racing Audi of Markus Winkelhock, that battle started in the middle of a KCMG Nissan sandwich, backed up by the #35 GT-R of Josh Burdon who was still off sequence, as was the #912 Absolute Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R of Dirk Werner, with the afflicted #018 GT-R behind them.

Eventually as they freed themselves from the KCMG sandwich, the two German drivers continued their battle and after 45 minutes of non-stop, tail-to-nose running, Winkelhock finally broke Engel’s defense and moved his way into net 2nd place! Audi were now 1-2 in one of if not the last major endurance races that their GT3 customer programme had yet to win, but they weren’t out of the woods just yet.

At 5 hours, 55 minutes, Nick Cassidy escaped a potentially perilous crash as his #27 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 spun 360 degrees and head-on into the sponge barriers at the 130R corner – even with the reprofiling and added asphalt runoff, still an awful place to have an accident at Suzuka Circuit. The car hit with such force that the front of the car launched up in the air.

Not only was Cassidy unhurt, but upon surveying the damaged Ferrari, he found he could drive it back to the pits! The 2017 GT500 Drivers’ Champion’s dreams of winning the Suzuka summer endurance race may have ended, but give credit where it’s due: The Ferrari was sturdy enough to take an impact like that, protect its driver, and come back to the garage for extensive repairs.

Said Nick, Foster that is, of the incident befalling Cassidy: “Nick is absolutely fine, we’re very grateful for the airbags on the outside of the corner. He believes he made a mistake, lost the rear. The team are pushing hard now to fix it, the plan is to go out for a few laps and see how the car feels, but of course, the race is gone.”

That accident triggered a Full Course Yellow, and eventually, a Safety Car intervention, all totalling 17 minutes. It was just the cure for the ails at Absolute Racing-Porsche and KCMG: They could finally pit for full service and get their cars back in sequence with the leaders, with Campbell in the #912 Porsche restarting 3rd on merit, and Tsugio Matsuda, the 2008 Suzuka 1000km winner, restarting 6th in the #35 KCMG Nissan.

Kelvin van der Linde used the FCY to top off for fuel, and effectively came out with a 20+ second lead over the rest of his pursuers behind him, once the green flag finally came back out with 3 hours, 45 minutes left!

The laps after the restart gave us great action. Engel got past Campbell for 3rd, then Matsuda passed the #77 Craft-Bamboo Mercedes of Maximillian Goetz for 5th. Goetz then fell into the clutches of Martin Tomczyk, he was now back on sequence in the #42 Schnitzer BMW and the two banged wheels into the S-Curves, with Goetz holding on to top spot!

Another pit cycle passed. A podium was now well within reach for the #35 KCMG Nissan, which did lead with Matsuda at the wheel before they took their seventh of a projected nine full-service stops of the race. Little else changed at the top of the order.

Less fortunate was the #108 M-Sport Bentley Continental GT3, seen limping around with left-front body panels missing after a broken toe link knocked them several laps down and out of contention, so if Bentley is to finally win an IGTC round, they have just the 107 Bentley to do it. Andy Soucek wasn’t giving up though, as the Spaniard continued to reset the fastest lap of the race in his time in the car, first on Lap 144 on a 2’02.435, a 2’02.408 two laps later than a 2’02.221 on Lap 176, not that it will ease the frustration of a race lost.

A collision with the Am Cup #9 MP Racing Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3, then an off at Degner Curve for Alex Buncombe, only punctuated that frustration.

The instruction was given for teams to switch the lights on at 6:00 PM local time, just after the seventh round of pit stops started. The #999 GruppeM Mercedes managed to undercut the #912 Absolute Porsche, and in doing so, it emboldened defending race winner Raffaele Marciello to make the pass on Werner for net 3rd position.

Chiyo brought the #35 KCMG Nissan in from 2nd on Lap 218, to undercut the leading WRT Audi – only for Burdon to fall behind the #42 Schnitzer BMW, now driven by Farfus and now back in podium contention after their minimum pit time penalty, on track. It’d only take a few laps for the young Australian to re-pass the Brazilian veteran at the Hairpin Curve.

With the #44 Strakka Mercedes last to pit amongst the top ten, here’s how the front of the field looks with just under 2 hours left: Vanthoor from Winkelhock, Audi 1-2. Marciello 3rd, Werner 4th, Buurman 5th in the #77 Mercedes, Burdon 6th, Farfus 7th.

As they ran with two hours remaining in the race, the Intercontinental GT Challenge Drivers’ Championship would have Maxi Buhk ahead on 55 points, three points up on Vervisch, if the Belgian can indeed close out the victory for Audi Sport Team WRT. That one pass from Marciello on Werner has implications across both the IGTC Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships.

Mercedes and Porsche would still be first and 2nd in the Manufacturer’s Championship, 110 to 89, but Audi will have closed to within 27 points of the lead with one race left, keeping their chances of the four-peat alive into Kyalami!

SunEnergy1 Racing’s grip on the Silver Cup is loosening, but not enough to put them firmly back in the clutches of Callaway Competition with Bingo Racing. The #75 Mercedes still leads the category by a full lap over the #37 Corvette, with both cars now solidly in the Top 20 overall.

Full marks not only to the quality of Nico Bastian and Mikael Grenier, Ryo Ogawa and Markus Pommer but to gentleman racers Kenny Habul and Shinji Takei on either side of the battle.

At the start of the seventh hour, the #8 apr with ARN Racing Ferrari stopped at Gyaku Bank Curve. The candy red Ferrari went back to the garage for extensive repairs, and that put the #6 Wall Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 up into third in the class.

A Pro-Am Cup contender fell by the wayside when the #2 Cars Tokai Dream28 Lotus Evora MC stopped on track 5 hours, 18 minutes into the race as 66-year-old team owner and gentleman racer Kazuho Takahashi climbed aboard for his 2nd stint in the car. Mechanical troubles have been a bit of a pain point for the Evora in its time in Super GT, and in this race, and this effectively took them out of podium contention in the class.

A drive-through for the #188 Garage59 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 also knocked them back to where the #43 Strakka Racing Mercedes took the lead. The entry headlined by Christina Nielsen was running three seconds up on the Aston, when a tyre rub became a full-on right rear puncture and caused her to spin at the Hairpin Curve! Despite that, the 43 still leads the 188, with the #60 LM Corsa Porsche 3rd.

The sit rep in Am Cup is still the same, the #112 Sato-SS Sports Mercedes still leading by two laps over the #9 MP Racing Nissan, proving that the Sato-SS squad can indeed remain, contenders, even when the class isn’t just one car as it was last year. With those two cars running ahead of the #5 GTNET Nissan in the overall ranking, the championship in the premier class of Super Taikyu is not decided.

It’s 6 PM and the lights are now on. All that remains is the last two hours and the run to the chequers in the dark of night.

Lead picture copyright Audi Sport