On a wet and wild Sunday afternoon at Sportsland Sugo in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, it was the white number 3 CraftSports Motul Nissan GT-R of Kohei Hirate and Frederic Makowiecki that took the victory in the seventh round of the 2019 Autobacs Super GT Series, the 26th running of the Sugo GT 300km Race, which proved as eventful as anticipated in a penultimate round with huge championship implications!
The forecasts for Sunday called for rain, and indeed, with less than an hour until the scheduled start of 2:00 PM local time, the heavens opened and the rain began to fall. The rain was light enough at first that there was a dilemma for several teams, whether or not to stay on slick tyres, or whether to switch to wet-weather tyres. On the front row, the car on pole position, the #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi elected to stay out on slick tyres, hoping that the rain would quickly disperse.
Race control called for a Safety Car start for the third time in 2019, and in doing so, Keihin Real Racing were caught out on the wrong tyre once the race went green on Lap 4 in this 81-lap race. As Tsukakoshi couldn’t put the power down out of the infamous 110R corner, the #1 Raybrig NSX-GT of Jenson Button overtook him for first before the two Hondas made it to Turn 1, and by the time they exited Turn 2, both the number 36 and 37 Lexus Team TOM’s LC500s were through.
The Keihin NSX fell all the way to as low as 12th before pitting after just 8 laps, while others who started the race on slicks lost control and spun – such as the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R of Jann Mardenborough, and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa, who really needed a strong finish to keep his and Hiroaki Ishiura’s title hopes alive into Motegi. The rain was just too strong to justify staying on the slicks, and as it turned out, the rain would only intensify from there!
Button controlled the race up front in the Raybrig NSX, still showing his wet-weather prowess from his Formula 1 prime, as he extended his lead to over 10 seconds at one point. Button and Naoki Yamamoto desperately needed another victory at Sugo to keep their dimming hopes of a GT500 title defence alive, and JB was proving up to the task. Nick Cassidy in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 brought the gap down to around 5 seconds, while the two Michelin-clad Nissans, the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Kohei Hirate and the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli ran third and fourth in the wet conditions.
The race took a major turn when the pit window opened up on Lap 28, and it was Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s who called their car in first. Ryo Hirakawa relieved Cassidy, and the team took fuel on, but they did not change their set of Bridgestone Potenza tyres. Nor did their championship rivals, the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500, who pitted the following lap, with Kazuya Oshima getting out and Kenta Yamashita getting in. The #23 Motul GT-R pitted on Lap 32 with a change to Tsugio Matsuda, and the #3 CraftSports GT-R pitted on Lap 35 with Makowiecki climbing aboard.
Team Kunimitsu now had another choice to make, stay out on their set of wet-weather tyres that were already up to temperature, or take on a set of fresh rain tyres and potentially lose time on the outlaps? On Lap 37, the Raybrig NSX pitted, and changed drivers, tyres, and refuelled in just 35 seconds, and Naoki Yamamoto was seated to the end of the race. Yamamoto had more difficulty switching his fresh set of Bridgestones on, Hirakawa needed no such extra labour, and on Lap 38, Hirakawa passed Yamamoto for the race lead into Hi-Point Corner (Turn 7) to take the lead.
The Safety Car was called the following lap, when Daiki Sasaki spun off at Horseback Corner in the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R, and ended up being stuck in the muddy gravel. Sasaki was able to drive away, and the race would quickly resume on Lap 44, with Hirakawa leading, Yamamoto 2nd, Yamashita 3rd, Matsuda 4th, Makowiecki 5th. And from here, the Raybrig NSX began to slump down the order, the new tyres just unable to get going as they slumped down the order, being overtaken by three cars in the space of a lap.
Yamamoto was called into the pits on Lap 52 to change to a second set of tyres, and with that, they fell out of podium contention – and out of championship contention, as the Raybrig NSX went on to finish 8th.
The man on the charge was Makowiecki, a noted wet-weather specialist and a Michelin tyre specialist as well. He’d dispatched of Yamamoto on Lap 46, and with Hirakawa soon starting to struggle for grip on his set of tyres, the Mako shark was hunting down the KeePer LC500 – and took the lead in Turn 1 on Lap 54, putting the white #3 GT-R up front!
Once he was clear of Hirakawa, only one car seemed to have the pace to catch Makowiecki: The #64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT, on its Dunlop tyres which were thriving in the wet conditions. Narain Karthikeyan was up into 5th before a half-spin dropped him to seventh, but sophomore teammate Tadasuke Makino, who’d been fast all Saturday, picked up right where he left off. He executed a beautiful over-under pass on Matsuda to jump to 3rd on Lap 52, then two laps later, he was past Hirakawa who was struggling for pace.
But the French veteran was just in his element in the wet, and he gradually opened a gap to Makino of over 10 seconds. It was a controlling finishing stint from Makowiecki, who went on to take the chequered flag for NDDP Racing with B-Max and Nissan by a final margin of 19.8 seconds!
It was Nissan’s first GT500 victory of the season, their first in over 16 months, since the 2018 Fuji 500km. This is also Michelin’s 20th victory as a GT500 tyre manufacturer, also their first since the 2018 Fuji 500km. And an NDDP Racing team that exemplified the massive overhaul at Nissan in the 2018-19 off-season was victorious in GT500 for the first time, after moving up to the top flight last year.
“Until now, as a team, we had been competitive, and this time with that teamwork we were able to reap the fruit of all our efforts and there was no bad luck or trouble to keep us from winning. I am very happy with this,” said Makowiecki after the race.
“I am really happy to have helped give the GT-R its first win of the season in front of everyone,” said Hirate. “Before the start, we had to decide whether to go with slick or wet tires, and since I know a lot about Sugo, I was able to suggest that we go with the wet tires, and that is what the team decided to do. Including this decision with the tires to use, Michelin and the team really did a great job for us. I want to say thanks to NISMO, to Michelin and to all the fans who supported us.”
Hirate spent his entire racing career with Toyota until joining Nissan this season after being dropped from the Toyota GT500 roster after 2017. Makowiecki made an unexpected full-time GT500 return after five seasons building his CV with signature victories for Porsche. Two very different roads for these two drivers converged into victory for Nissan, to keep them from enduring their first winless season since 2002.
And it was a special victory for first-year team director Toshikazu Tanaka, who took over the role from the retiring Nissan racing legend Masahiro Hasemi, who had either driven, owned, or managed the number 3 Nissan throughout Super GT’s entire history until he stepped down as NDDP Racing’s team director this winter. Tanaka’s appointment was another one of the key changes Nissan made this off-season, and it was rewarded with his first victory.
This was Hirate’s eighth career victory, his first since the thrilling 2017 Sugo race, which now brings the two-time GT500 Drivers’ Champion level with Ryo Michigami and Richard Lyons. For Makowiecki, it’s his third career victory, and his first since a similarly rain-soaked Fuji 300km race in August 2014, when he was driving with Honda.
Makino brought the number 64 Modulo Epson NSX-GT home to a second place finish, matching his best career GT500 finish from his premier class debut at Buriram in 2016. But for Nakajima Racing, who’d struggled all season long and hadn’t finished better than 7th all season, this result marks by far their best finish of 2019 – their first podium finish since they won the Suzuka 1000km in 2017! And for Karthikeyan, he becomes the first driver from India to stand on a Super GT podium.
And the second of the Michelin-clad GT-Rs, the “Red Car” of Matsuda and Quintarelli, completed the podium in 3rd after they got around Hirakawa for the third and final podium place – a position they desperately needed to gain for NISMO to keep the slimmest chance of a championship bid alive going into November’s Motegi GT 250km Race. For the first time in 2019, neither Lexus or Bridgestone had a car on the GT500 podium.
The five-race winning streak for Lexus now comes to an end, with the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Hirakawa and Cassidy holding on to a fourth-place finish. It’s the fifth straight top-five finish for the KeePer LC500 though, continuing the young lions’ incredible run of consistency in 2019! The #17 Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette had to take the long way back to take a fifth place finish.
Championship leaders Oshima and Yamashita brought the #6 Wako’s LC500 home in sixth place, with Yamashita making a clutch overtake with 7 laps to go around the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) to maximise their points haul even after pitting a second time! This now gives them a seven-point advantage over the #37 KeePer LC500 of Hirakawa & Cassidy, going into Motegi.
Kovalainen & Nakayama finished 7th, Yamamoto & Button finished 8th, and completing the top ten were the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) in 9th, and the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of Nakajima and Yuhi Sekiguchi, which came back from a 10-second penalty stop for taking a third engine this season, up into 5th, before losing tons of time late in the race to finish 10th.
In GT300, the Honda NSX GT3 EVO took its first victory in the series as the number 55 ARTA NSX GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Nirei Fukuzumi took a major step towards finally securing the GT300 Championships with a commanding victory!
As was the case in GT500, in GT300, the pole position car, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), started the race on slicks and was quickly dispatched into turn 1 by Takagi, who took the start in the ARTA NSX GT3. The veteran team leader had little trouble extending his advantage over the rest of the field in the opening stint of the race. They were also fortunate to come in for their routine stop before the Safety Car was deployed.
Rookie Fuzukumi, in just his 8th career race, had to fight off a wave of pressure from Nobuteru Taniguchi in the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3, but the 22-year-old held his nerve against the three-time GT300 Champion and secured his first career GT300 victory.
“I am really glad that we were able to win this race here. I think we owe this victory to Manage [Aguri] Suzuki and the team, and I am very happy,” said Fukuzumi after the race.
For Shinichi Takagi, it’s his 21st career GT300 victory, which now moves him back to within one win of his long-time former co-driver, Morio Nitta, and his 22 career wins.
“I never thought we would win at SUGO. With this, I have gotten one race closer to Nitta-san in the race for most wins,” said Takagi. “In the championship race, Nitta has moved up to 2nd place in the standings, so I really want us to go all out for the win in the final round of the season.”
And of all the days for Fukuzumi to take his first GT300 victory, it was perhaps written in the stars that it would come on the day that his former GP3 Series teammate, the late Anthoine Hubert, would have turned 23 years old. For Honda, it was their first GT300 victory since the ARTA won the 2015 Fuji summer race, the final victory for the CR-Z GT.
Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka came home to take Goodsmile Racing’s first podium finish at Sugo, and their first podium of the 2019 season as a whole. A fantastic drive that saw Kataoka scrap with rookie Togo Suganami in the #65 LEON Pyramid AMG in the first half, and Taniguchi sweep around the LEON AMG for 2nd, now driven by Naoya Gamou, on the outside of 110R in the heavy, heavy rain.
Then in third, the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 of Morio Nitta and Sena Sakaguchi came back from 5th to 3rd in the final laps in a critical charge led by the 20-year-old rookie Sakaguchi.
With 10 laps remaining, Sakaguchi made a forceful “rugby style” pass around fellow rookie Sacha Fenestraz in the #56 Realize/Nissan Mechanic Challenge GT-R GT3 into Hairpin Corner (Turn 4), taking 4th position and two critical points. And on the following lap, Sakaguchi powered past the LEON AMG of Gamou for third position, gaining another three points for himself and Morio Nitta.
Without that charge from 5th to 3rd, the ARTA NSX GT3 would have come into Motegi with a nearly unassailable lead of 18.5 points over the Realize GT-R GT3 of Fenestraz and Kazuki Hiramine, instead, Takagi and Fukuzumi now have a 14.5 point lead over Nitta and Sakaguchi, still a massive, massive gap, but one that gives K-Tunes Racing some hope to overturn the deficit with a win in Motegi.
Gamou and Suganami came home in fourth, ahead of Hiramine and Fenestraz in fifth, who still remain championship eligible going into the last race of the season.
The #33 EVA Racing X Works GT-R (Shaun Thong/Shinya Sean Michimi) was sixth, matching X Works Racing’s high mark for a Hong Kong-based GT300 team that they set in Buriram this year. Coming back from deep in the field, the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS GT3 (Richard Lyons/Ryuichiro Tomita) went from 22nd to 7th, and the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC (Shigekazu Wakisaka/Hiroki Yoshida) went from 24th to finish 8th.
Then in 9th position, coming back from 21st to score their first points of the year, was the #9 Pacific NAC Mirai Akari Porsche 911 GT3-R (Naoki Yokomizo/Kyosuke Mineo) which flexed its muscle in the wet conditions to come from 21st on the grid to their first points. The last points finisher was the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 EVO (Takashi Kobayashi/Kosuke Matsuura), in 10th, after starting 20th.
The Subaru of Iguchi and Yamauchi lost 16 laps in the garage with a mechanical issue and finished 28th and last, a frustrating end to a day that carried such promise after starting on pole position. And with the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracan GT3 (Yuya Motojima/Takashi Kogure) and the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) finishing 3 laps down, their championship bids are now over, as is that of the #87 T-Dash Huracan GT3 (Tsubasa Takahashi/Andre Couto), seven laps down.
In total, 37,500 spectators attended over two days, and were treated to yet another entertaining Super GT race at Sportsland Sugo!
Only one race remains, at Twin Ring Motegi, the Motegi 250km “Grand Final” on November 3!
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)