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Back-to-Back Poles For Real Racing At Sugo

Tsukakoshi sets first-ever sub-1’10 lap in a GT500 car; Subaru on GT300 class pole

The number 17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette took pole position for the second time in a row in the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series, with Tsukakoshi setting a new GT500 course record to take the top spot during Saturday’s qualifying for the Sugo GT 300km Race at Sportsland Sugo.

Despite a heavy cloud cover and the threat of rain, conditions were dry all Saturday afternoon as the first stage of qualifying commenced. This was a critical qualifying session for the many teams who entered the weekend several points adrift of the top two teams in the championship – Lexus Team LeMans Wako’s, and Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s. Especially with a bonus point on the line for the pole winner.

Both the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kenta Yamashita and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa advanced from Q1 to Q2, as reigning FIA World Endurance Drivers’ Champion Kazuki Nakajima led the first stage of qualifying in the #36 au TOM’s LC500, ahead of sophomore Tadasuke Makino in the #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT. Less than a second covered positions 1 through 13 in GT500 Q1, and several championship hopefuls missed the top 8.

First to miss the cut was the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takuya Izawa) in ninth, Izawa needing just two-tenths to advance. The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) was tenth, ahead of the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) in eleventh. Autopolis winners Heikki Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama will start plum last in fifteenth in their #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500.

Conditions remained excellent for Q2, and after Jenson Button did his part to put the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT through, his co-driver Naoki Yamamoto, the lap record holder around Sugo, was determined to give Team Kunimitsu pole position and keep their dreams of defending the GT500 Championship alive. With his first flying lap, Yamamoto reset his own lap record, taking provisional pole on a 1’10.151.

But with less than two minutes to go, the #17 Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi was on an absolute flyer, picking up two-tenths through the first sector alone. He finished his lap with the fastest third and fourth sectors, and the blue and silver Keihin NSX jumped to P1 with a stunning lap time of a 1’09.676 – taking pole position by nearly half a second!

The best efforts of the field couldn’t come close, as Tsukakoshi took his third career GT500 pole position, and his second in a row after the Autopolis GT 300km Race. But Tsukakoshi credits the input from his co-driver Baguette after the Belgian was third-quickest in Q1 for his pole run in Q2.

“The condition of the machine was really good,” said Tsukakoshi, “but another big factor was the advice that Baguette-san gave me about the car’s condition after his run in Q1 before I would run in Q2. Based on that advice, the team and we talked and it was decided to trust Baguette’s opinion going into Q2. The result was this pole position. We probably wouldn’t have won the pole if it weren’t for his advice.”

No one had ever broken the seventy second barrier in a GT500 car around Sportsland Sugo before, in an official session, until Saturday afternoon when the 33-year-old Tsukakoshi eclipsed that mark. And to put Tsukakoshi’s record lap into context, his time of 1’09.676 would have been just two seconds slower than the fastest race lap set by his former GT500 co-driver Takashi Kogure…in his Lola FN06/Honda during the 2007 Formula Nippon Championship round at Sugo!

In the end, Yamamoto couldn’t improve on his final flying lap, and his first time held up for P2 for he and Jenson Button, giving Honda a front-row lockout at Sugo in the penultimate race for the midship NSX-GTs. Yamamoto and Button won last year’s Sugo 300km, and Team Kunimitsu have won this race twice in the last four years, with Yamamoto also winning in 2015.

Row 2 will be made up of the two TOM’s Racing LC500s, with the #36 au LC500 of Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi third, and the #37 KeePer LC500 of Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy fourth. But for the orange and white number 36, they’re going into Sunday knowing that they’ll have a massive hole to climb out of. After changing to their third engine for this round, it is confirmed that the #36 au TOM’s LC500 will serve a ten second stop-go penalty for the technical infraction early in the race. Which could put them a lap down on the shortest lap of the Super GT calendar.

No such worries for the number 37 of Hirakawa and Cassidy, who’ve qualified ahead of the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuji Kunimoto/Sho Tsuboi) in fifth, the #64 Modulo NSX of Makino and Narain Karthikeyan in sixth, the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Frédéric Makowiecki) – the only Nissan to crack the top eight – in seventh, and the championship-leading #6 Wako’s LC500 of Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita starting eighth.

If the #6 Wako’s LC500 finishes 3rd or better and the #37 KeePer LC500 finishes 11th or worse, that result could clinch the GT500 Championship for Oshima and Yamashita, depending on where the rest of the championship hopefuls finish on Sunday.

In the GT300 class, another record was reset, and the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi advanced through the split Q1 groupings into Q2, and took pole position for the second year in a row at Sportsland Sugo.

This was the second race where the 28-car GT300 grid was split into two groups of 14 in Q1, giving us a couple of surprises. Group A was led by the #720 McLaren Customer Racing Japan 720S GT3 of Álex Palou, and Group B was led by the #34 Modulo Kenwood Honda NSX GT3 of Hiroki Otsu.

Only the top eight cars from each group advanced to Q2. This lead to a few cruel cuts, including some championship contenders. Group B in particular was brutal with 1st to 13th covered by 0.999 seconds. The big hitters missing out in Group B were the second and third-placed cars in the GT300 championship: The #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) will start 26th, and the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Sena Sakaguchi) will start 18th. The fifth and sixth-placed championship teams missed out in Group A: The #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) in 17th, and the #87 T-Dash Huracán GT3 (Tsubasa Takahashi/André Couto) in 19th.

There were just under four minutes left in Q2 when Yamauchi set off on his fastest lap, and went fastest in all four sectors to reset the course record with a 1’16.834, which stood as the fastest time and gave Subaru R&D Sport their second straight pole position at Sugo – the fifth straight pole position for a JAF-GT300 or Mother Chassis vehicle.

“I was able to run in Q2 thanks to [Takuto] Iguchi’s time attack in Q1, and after that we changed the set-up of the car, and that had a great affect on the time attacks in Q2,” said Yamauchi. “So, I really owe everything to Iguchi-san and the team.” This is Yamauchi’s third career GT300 pole position, all of which have come at Sugo, where he also won pole in 2014 and in 2018.

And to put that laptime into greater perspective: It would have put Yamauchi third on the grid in GT500 for the 2009 Sugo 300km, while the slowest lap in the GT300 field would have beat 2009’s GT300 pole lap by three seconds!

The #55 ARTA NSX GT3 of championship leaders Shinichi Takagi and Nirei Fukuzumi starts second, with Fukuzumi trying but coming just three-tenths shy of Yamauchi’s best lap. The #25 Hoppy Toyota 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) snatched third on the grid at the line from the #56 Realize/Nissan Mechanic Challenge GT-R (Kazuki Hiramine/Sacha Fenestraz), fourth on the grid, and fourth in the standings.

The #7 D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/João Paulo de Oliveira) qualified fifth-fastest, with D’station Racing getting a boost from the return of two-time GT300 Drivers’ Champion Keiichi Suzuki to the team as deputy team principal. They’ll start on the inside of the third row with the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) on the outside in sixth.

Completing the top ten qualifiers are the #33 EVA Racing X Works GT-R (Shaun Thong/Shinya Sean Michimi) in seventh, the #10 Gainer TanaX triple a GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) eighth, and then the two Q1 pacesetters, the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 of Ryo Michigami and Otsu in ninth, ahead of the #720 McLaren of Seiji Ara and Palou in tenth.

As well, both of the front-engined Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GTs made it to Q2 for the first time, the #31 (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama) starting 12th and the #30 (Hiroaki Nagai/Manabu Orido) 16th. Autopolis winners Hiroki Yoshimoto and Ritomo Miyata will start 14th in their #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F GT3.

Now it’s time to take everything learned from qualifying and prepare to dispose of it in the bin – as weather forecasts in the area are calling for rain Sunday, all afternoon into the evening. The rain may awaken the legendary “demon” inside Sportsland Sugo, and it could turn the championship battles completely upside down when the chequered flag flies.

Sunday’s 81-lap race starts at 14:00 JST (local time), 6:00 BST!

Images courtesy of the GT Association