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WRT Audi Dominates Suzuka 10 Hours

RJ O'Connell wraps up the 2019 race, storylines galore from Suzuka

Audi Sport’s GT3 programme set the standard for all others to soon follow. Winners at Bathurst, Spa, the Nurburgring, Dubai, Daytona. There weren’t many significant races for the Audi R8 GT3s left to win. The Suzuka Summer Endurance Race was always a tough one for Audi to crack, whether it was the Suzuka 1000km, or last year, in the newly rebooted Suzuka 10 Hours.

But tonight, in the 48th running of the Suzuka Summer Endurance, it was finally theirs. The time they brought the proverbial flame thrower to the knife fight with Team Goh’s R8 LMP900 in 2002, only to break down short of half-distance, the years of misses in GT300 in Super GT, and only 3rd and 4th last year, it was all in the past. Audi had won Japan’s great race, and they won it in dominant fashion. Only fitting, on the 25th anniversary of the Audi RennSport badge, with their two entries backed by their top international works drivers boasting special Nogaro Blue and Glacier White colours and special numbers for the occasion.

And it was led by the number 25 Audi of the team that set the benchmark for every GT3 team to follow, Audi Sport Team WRT, and the “Flying V’s” Dries Vanthoor, Kelvin van der Linde, Frederic Vervisch. First victories for manufacturer, team, and drivers. They made it look very easy from the moment Vanthoor wrestled the lead away from the pole-winning #42 BMW Team Schnitzer M6 GT3, a flawless race executed by the team led this weekend by Pierre Dieudonne, himself an endurance racing legend as a driver and three of the best young drivers in all of sports car racing: Vanthoor just 21, Van der Linde just 23 and truth be told, Vervisch, at 33, isn’t terribly old himself!

275 laps and 1,597 kilometres completed for the #25 WRT Audi, just two shy of the 10 Hour format record for distance set last year in what was, save for two Safety Car/Full Course Yellow interventions, a relatively clean and well-driven race by the entire field, who completed a total of 51,281 cumulative kilometers. Of those 275 laps, WRT led 201 of them. They did have Dragon Ball character Son Goku on their pit bollard this weekend, maybe that’s where they drew their ultimate power level. Maybe it was just classic Audi execution, perfect from lights to flag.

The rewards as follows, a cheque for 30 million Japanese Yen (a quarter-million Euro), a magnificent trophy, and most importantly, the honour of winning Japan’s great endurance race for Audi and finally checking off one of the last boxes on their sports car racing CV.

The prospects of back-to-back Suzuka 10 Hours victories eluded Mercedes-AMG Team GruppeM Racing in the end, WRT’s advantage the whole day was just too great to overcome, but credit where it’s due, IGTC Drivers’ Championship leader Maximillian Buhk, and outgoing Suzuka 10 Hours winners Maro Engel and Raffaele Marciello were in top form with a second place finish.

2nd at Suzuka, and previously 10th at Spa, also saw the GruppeM Mercedes win the Spa-Suzuka Award for the longest cumulative distance between the two oldest events on the IGTC calendar.

In the bigger picture of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, that 2nd place for GruppeM tightens up Mercedes’ grip on the IGTC Manufacturers’ Championship. Porsche only got one car in the IGTC top ten, and Audi lost many crucial extra points after a refuelling error on the #125 Absolute Racing R8’s final stop cost them second place. Unlucky for Christophers Haase and Mies, and Markus Winkelhock, after they drove brilliantly up front all day and night. The seventh place just wasn’t the result their talents deserved, but they salvaged some valour in the end, more on that shortly…

Speaking of that Porsche, the two Porsche youngsters, Dennis Olsen and Matt Campbell, with veteran Dirk Werner, finally had the result to back up their sensational Bathurst 12 Hour victory, third in the awesome black and red #912 Absolute Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R, Type 991.2.

Fourth, was the #77 Craft-Bamboo Mercedes of Maxi Goetz, Yelmer Buurman, and Luca Stolz, who avoided many of the same penalty dramas that befell the Schnitzer BMW of Augusto Farfus, Martin Tomczyk, and Nick Yelloly in 5th – unlucky to be pinged for the polarizing minimum pit stop time rule.

The search still goes on for an IGTC race victory for Bentley Team M-Sport, but not before Bentley found themselves in the wars with yet another popular squad fronted by multiple Japanese racing superstars in the final hour of the race!

The last hour came down to the #107 Bentley of Jordan Pepper, just under a year and a half removed from his appointment to replace the great Guy Smith, and Tsugio Matsuda, the winningest driver in the premier class of Super GT, a back-to-back champion of GT500 and Super Formula, and a former winner of the race. It looked as if Pepper might have had the kick to resist Matsuda, but a brave pass at the tricky Triangle chicane decided 6th place in favour of Matsuda, Katsumasa Chiyo, and Josh Burdon in the #35 KCMG Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3.

That pass set the #107 Bentley of Pepper, Steven Kane, and Jules Gounon on a slide down. Haase passed Pepper for 7th, and then, just as 6th looked secure for KCMG, Haase found himself chasing down Matsuda in the final minutes! It came right down to the wire, but the legend Matsuda held Haase off all the way off to the final corners of the final lap! The crowd erupted as Matsuda finished 6th by just 0.278 seconds, for KCMG. Haase 7th for Absolute-Audi, Pepper and the #107 Bentley in 8th in the end, and the last car on the lead lap, the #44 Strakka Racing Mercedes-AMG of Gary Paffett, Lewis Williamson, and Tristan Vautier.

The culmination of a race where KCMG went off-sequence on the first Safety Car intervention for the number 35 car, caught back up with the leaders’ strategy with the second Safety Car intervention, and plugged away to a result after three straight rounds of non-scoring frustration for Chiyo and Burdon, and two of three for Matsuda. They also banked 3 million Yen for winning the Asia Award, the top team with two or more drivers from Asia, Matsuda, and 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour winner Chiyo.

And it just wouldn’t feel like a GT3 race in Japan, under any sanctioning body, without Goodsmile Racing. Ukyo Katayama and Takanori Aki have built a top-class racing team underneath their colourful anime-inspired itasha liveries. Spa bit them hard again, Suzuka made it heal, the all-Japanese trio of Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka, and Kamui Kobayashi finished the race. Three legends of their sport, still with so much to give in their careers. Maybe they didn’t have the pace to win in 10th overall, but they were loved and supported all the same the whole way through.

So much was the love and support they have, from all the fans in Japan and all over the world, that it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that they were voted Team of the Day, and the 1 million Yen prize bringing their total of bonuses to 6 million in total, after winning the 5 million Yen Super GT Award for the top team from Japan’s premier sports car racing series.

And as for one other notable entry, the #11 Planex SmaCam Racing McLaren 720S GT3 of Katsuaki Kubota, Hiroaki Ishiura, and the returning two-time Formula 1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen, they checked off the main goal of finishing the race for their many, many supporters in attendance, most of whom came to see Hakkinen return to Suzuka for the first time since his F1 swansong 18 years ago. 22nd place and seeing the chequered flag was, truth be told, a good day, considering their race wasn’t 100% perfect, and there were concerns about McLaren’s BoP settings.

Mercedes-AMG Customer Racing teams made it a clean sweep of all three Cup classes during the race, Pro-Am, Silver, and Am!

Just as they did in Pro-Am Cup last year, SunEnergy1 Racing was in a class of their own, almost, in Silver Cup. Kenny Habul and Mikael Grenier winners of a Cup class for the second time in as many years, and for Nico Bastian, his first visit to the Suzuka 10 Hours rewards him, and the rest of the team behind the blue and flame #75 Mercedes, with a 2 million Yen cash prize.

Bastian picked up right where Luca Stolz left off last year in the same slot, Habul did his part as the gentleman driver, Grenier was solid as well. So solid, they finished 12th overall, in the top third of the entire field ahead of several all-pro entries!

The Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R of Callaway Competition with Bingo Racing had to be one of the favourite cars on the grid, and they saw the chequered flag 19th overall, 2nd in Silver Cup. Shinji Takei would be wise to take this car to more events, it is a hit with the fans from the west and the east. His faith in young drivers Ryo Ogawa, whose late father won this event in ‘87, and Markus Pommer, was rewarded with a strong result.

3rd in Silver Cup was Wall Racing’s BASF-inspired #6 Lamborghini. The first time at Suzuka for Adrian Deitz, and Supercars veterans Cameron McConnville and Tony D’Alberto, wasn’t so bad.
Christina Nielsen continues her blaze through sports car racing history as she, alongside Dominik Baumann and Adrian Henry D’Silva, finished 20th overall and won the Pro-Am Cup in the #43 Team Strakka Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, collecting the team another 2 Million Yen.

By winning the Pro-Am Cup, Nielsen, already the first woman to win a major full-season professional sports car title, becomes the first woman to have taken a sub-class victory, in any era, of the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race’s 53-year history. She did so after overcoming a puncture and a spin that could have ended their race.

And months after the doping ban and subsequent retirement of Strakka founder Nick Leventis, in the midst of a trying year for the team, it’s a small, but meaningful victory for the entire squad in Northamptonshire. D’Silva, in particular, had to shake off several spins and incidents during the weekend, but still kept his composure behind the more experienced Nielsen, and Baumann who showed his class all weekend.

Second, was the #188 Garage 59 Aston Martin Vantage GT3, a much happier venture to Suzuka in the summer endurance classic for Chris Goodwin this time out, and a podium for him and Alex West and Come Ledogar. Racing brothers Juichi and Shigekazu Wakisaka were able to share one more podium finish together in the race, overall winners together in 2002, they finished third in Pro-Am Cup in the #60 LM Corsa Porsche 911 GT3-R, with the relatively unknown Kei Nakanishi more than hanging tough in his first big endurance race.

Sato-SS Sports took their second consecutive Am Cup victory in the Suzuka 10 Hours, but this one will mean more as Atsushi Sato, Ryosei Yamashita, and Norio Kubo did have to go through multiple teams to repeat as champions this time. They finished 25th overall in the race, and collected an extra 3 million yen, 1 for the Am Cup win, 2 for being the top team from the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series, a championship in which they’ve never won an official points-scoring round until tonight!

A first-lap drive-through penalty for a jump start was all the drama they suffered along the way. A serviceable race, true young amateur driver Yamashita was the anchor, alongside team owner Sato, and sportsman single-seater driver Kubo.

The #9 MP Racing Nissan GT-R GT3 found itself in a bit more drama with a few spins and incidents, but Joe Shindo, Yusaku Shibata, and Takumi Takata still came home 2nd in class.

Crucially, by finishing 26th overall, and with the #5 GTNET Motor Sports Nissan GT-R finishing 27th overall behind them, it means that GTNET will need to wait until the next official round of the Pirelli Super Taikyu Series, at Twin Ring Motegi in three weeks’ time, to clinch the ST-X Championship for a second straight year.

While those teams and others saw the chequered flag, others were not so fortunate.

In the first hour of the race, Walkenhorst Motorsport felt they had a shot at winning. Instead, they were swept up in a wreck which ended their chances of winning after less than 90 minutes and ultimately ended their whole day before half-past noon. That same wreck ended the day for the #88 Team JLOC entry, their trio of all-Lamborghini Squadra Corse ended up in multiple incidents so soon, their race became a fever dream.

Jacky Yeung and Nick Cassidy’s Hairpin Curve crash ended the day for Malaysia’s Arrows Racing, snuffing out their hopes of an Am Cup victory. An unhappy end for a talented team. A second Ferrari went to the wayside, apr with ARN Racing’s car breaking down while running 3rd in the Silver Cup class.

HubAuto Racing, however, did see their car through to the chequered flag in the end after hours of repairs following Nick Cassidy’s scary wipeout at the 130R corner.

And with that, another chapter in the Suzuka Summer Endurance Race is finished. New winners crowned, new history made. The teams and drivers, mechanics and engineers, gave everything in pursuit of victory and lasting 10 gruelling summer hours of racing. No matter the format or promoter, these values remain the same and long may it continue.