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Super GT’s Superstars Fight Through Difficult DTM Finale Weekend At Hockenheim

Button finishes top-ten in Saturday round, NISMO and TOM’s hit trouble

The final round of the 2019 Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Championship from the storied Hockenheimring in Germany was a landmark moment for both the DTM and the Autobacs Super GT Series. For the first time ever, cars from DTM and Super GT’s premier GT500 class raced together in a competitive event, over a four-day weekend with two 50-minute sprint races.

With Audi Sport’s René Rast having clinched his second title at the penultimate round in the Nürburgring, the focus of the DTM finale at the Hockenheimring would be how the best and brightest from GT500 would fare against the full-time runners from the European series.

Honda were represented by defending GT500 Champions, Team Kunimitsu, and their mid-engined NSX-GT driven by Jenson Button – a veteran of the Hockenheimring from his 17 seasons in F1. Nissan and NISMO came over with the most successful driver combination in Super GT history, Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli. And Toyota Gazoo Racing had TOM’s Racing and their Lexus LC500, driven by 2017 GT500 Champions Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy.

The Super GT teams got their first laps in on the Hockenheimring during two special practice sessions on Thursday, and it was apparent that the race would bring new challenges – starting primarily with the adjustment to the control tyre provided by Hankook, opposite the open-formula tyres supplied by the likes of Bridgestone and Michelin that they’re used to.

“There are many different things people probably don’t realize,” said Button on Friday in a pre-event press conference. “We don’t have the Hankook tyres, which is different for us. We have a tyre war in Japan with 4 different manufacturers. So, for us getting used to another tyre is difficult. We’ve never done standing starts in a Super GT car, they’re all rolling starts. Also, the safety car rules are very different. We don’t have push-to-pass, we don’t have DRS.”

The teams’ mechanics were also undergoing their first drills for DTM pit stops, expected to be much quicker with no refuelling or driver changes – meaning the tyre changes had to be perfect and lightning-quick.

Said Button: “The pit stops are different. They are about 40 seconds long in Super GT because we change drivers and we refuel. So, there are so many different things. It’s fun learning new things. I think it’s probably tougher for the mechanics and the team personnel than for us. I think we’re pretty much there. There are still a few things we need to work on. One is pit stops, where we’re trying our best.”

The real test would come on Friday, and with it, the first of what would be many rainy sessions on the weekend, throwing the three Super GT teams straight into the deep end in unfamiliar territory.

GT500 title contender Cassidy was the first to be caught out in the rain as he slipped off at the Sachskurve and buried the nose of his #37 KeePer KDDI TOM’s LC500 into the tyre barriers, leaving TOM’s to repair the bonnet for the afternoon practice. Minutes later, Matsuda went off at the same part, the images of a red car sliding off at Sachskurve reminiscent of a similarly rainy summer day at this very track in 2017 which left some of the home fans gutted.

Button finished 16th in FP1, then followed it up with a 15th place result in a much drier FP2. Hirakawa took over the TOM’s LC500 and placed 17th in FP2, while Quintarelli could do no better than shotgun on the field in 21st in that same FP2 session.

NISMO and TOM’s elected to run their Japanese drivers on Saturday. Matsuda would climb aboard the #35 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R, at a track where, in his youth, he recalled vividly watching home hero Michael Schumacher race at the old Hockenheimring. Hirakawa had never raced at this circuit, and the 25-year-old Toyota prodigy knew that a great challenge would lie ahead of him.

“Since my childhood, it was always a dream to drive at Hockenheim,” said Matsuda. “I saw Hockenheim on TV, where they drove into the wood, seeing drivers like Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna race. I feel very honoured to run on this circuit. This year, I also ran on the Nurburgring, so I gathered a lot of experience outside of Japan. I feel very excited about this weekend.”

“I’m excited, but I think the atmosphere is different,” said Hirakawa. “There are more fans in Japan like 50,000 or 60,000 came to the Fuji round in August. So, I think it’s a bit busier. Also, it’s interesting to see the DTM cars and how we can fight (against them). Also, Fuji is a track where we often race, so we know more about it. I hope we can do some good stuff.”

The rain came again by the start of Saturday morning’s qualifying for Race 1. Rast showed no signs of backing off even after wrapping up his second DTM title. He’d put his #33 Audi Sport Team Rosberg RS5 on pole position for the seventh time this season.

But as the track dried out in the back half of Qualifying, it was Button who stole the show in his #1 ZF/Raybrig NSX-GT, putting in a lap time that put him sixth on the grid and just six-tenths back of Rast’s pole time! It was a reminder of the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion’s class, particularly in changeable conditions, the conditions where he excelled in his heyday on the F1 trail.

Hirakawa and Matsuda would have a much harder climb to the front, however, as they qualified 20th and 21st, taking up the back of the grid as they were nearly a second and a half adrift of the lowest-ranked full-time DTM runner in the session, rookie Pietro Fittipaldi.

Race time was here, marking the first time that a GT500 car would make a standing start anywhere since the inaugural 1994 All-Japan GT Championship season. But before the formation lap, disaster struck the #35 Motul GT-R of Matsuda, who was left stranded on the grid as the 20 other cars drove away.

A broken propeller shaft was the culprit that effectively ended the winningest GT500 driver’s race before it even began. NISMO’s mechanics did a fantastic job to bring the car out on track at all. But after losing 17 laps in the garage, Matsuda would not be classified in his DTM debut, joining non-finishers Daniel Juncadella in his #23 R-Motorsport Aston Martin Vantage, and Phillip Eng in his #25 ZF BMW M4.

Once the race began, Rast broke out to the lead of the race, while Button found himself mixing it up inside the top ten all race long.

The #1 ZF/Raybrig NSX-GT was keeping up as well as it could despite lacking DTM’s power-to-pass and DRS systems, Button genuinely keeping those around him honest despite these inherent advantages plus the unfamiliarity with the Hankook control tyre.

Button soon found himself with a mountain to climb when he sat through an 18-second pit stop, impossibly quick in Super GT, but nightmarishly slow in DTM, and no fault of the Team Kunimitsu mechanics who were still learning the ropes – and dropped down to 16th.

But after the Safety Car restart with 20 minutes left, Button quickly worked his way through the pack, where he locked horns with BMW rookie Sheldon van der Linde. The younger of the Van der Linde racing brothers raced Button much harder than the Brit appreciated in trying to hold his position, but with five minutes left, Button passed the #31 Shell Helix M4 for 11th, then picked off BMW stablemate Bruno Spengler for 10th and Aston Martin’s Jake Dennis for 9th!

An incredible fightback for Button to finish 9th would stand as the best finish for the GT500 runners all weekend, and despite the battle with Van der Linde giving Button more than a few grey hairs, overall, he had plenty of fun in his fight back through the field.

If Button were eligible for championship points, the 9th place result would have given him 2 points, just one fewer than the season total of Aston Martin rookie Ferdinand von Habsburg!

Talking with Tom Errington of Motorsport Network after the race, Button went into further detail the differences between the DTM and Super GT cars: “The way the cars work are very different. When they’re not using DRS we have a bit more speed, but it’s not as much as I thought. Braking with us is very strong, we’re very good at braking. But it’s the lateral loads, the traction which we really struggle with.”

“These guys look like they’re just planting their foot and it’s just really good grip when laterally loaded, whereas for us when we touch the throttle it immediately goes to snap-oversteer, and I think that was some of our problems in the wet as well. So that’s a big weakness for us, and it makes it very difficult to get on the power for that long straight down to Turn 6. And the high-speed corners as well. They’re able to put the car places we can’t really go because we can’t get there. The car feels a bit lazy, and also I think we’re running it a bit too low. So if we do get there we hit the kerb and we take off.”

Less appreciated, though equally impressive, was Hirakawa’s fight back from 20th on the grid to finish 13th, on a track he’d never raced on competitively. Very reminiscent of his recent charge to the final podium place at Autopolis in September, and a reminder of his talents as a GT500 Champion – which once pegged him as Toyota’s next LMP1 ace in waiting.

“Standing start was different from Super GT, so it was a good experience. I was able to move up from the starting position, but could not catch up to the top group of the DTM cars. This was frustrating, but there was much to gain,” Hirakawa said after his race.

Rast converted pole into his seventh victory of the 2019 season, the seventeenth of his career in just three seasons!

Sunday was a new day. After the NISMO team lost half their race on Saturday, dawn brought new optimism as Quintarelli took over the Motul GT-R, the only driver ever to win four GT500 Drivers’ Championships. Cassidy, who came so close to becoming Japan’s “Double Champion” in Super GT and Super Formula last year (and is in contention for it again this year), would drive the KeePer KDDI TOM’s LC500.

Cassidy said of the tyre situation: “These guys, the DTM teams, already have experience on the depth of the tyre to certain conditions, so that’s where we’re learning and develop our understanding. Being on the Hankook at Fuji will be the same situation. It won’t be easy and it’s a challenge. But it’s a great first step for the two categories coming together.”

As for Quintarelli, he was thrilled to be selected to race in the Hockenheimring: “When I came back to Hockenheim two years ago it was a really great thing. It was a great welcome by everyone. I enjoyed it a lot. A few months ago, when I got the call from NISMO that I will come here with Tsugio, I was really happy.”

The rain showed up again on the morning of the last race of the DTM season. Another qualifying session where the GT500 runners struggled for grip on the ultra-hard Hankook rain tyre.

Cassidy was the best of the GT500 runners, qualifying 16th, two-tenths up on Button in 19th, and Quintarelli 21st, another back-row start for the NISMO team. The Kiwi wasn’t a stranger to this circuit, having raced here most recently in the 2016 European Formula 3 Championship. Quintarelli, of course, did the first demonstration laps for a GT500 car at the Hockenheimring in the 2017 DTM Finale weekend.

2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller was fastest in Qualifying in his #99 Arakpoviç RS5, but he’d drop to 6th on the grid after a five-place grid penalty. That gave pole position to the #51 Castrol RS5 of Nico Müller.

A wet standing start for the last race of the weekend and the season, and unfortunately, a short afternoon for Cassidy. South African rookie Jonathan Aberdein was in the wars with his own Audi Sport Team WRT teammate Fittipaldi yesterday, and as Cassidy and Aberdein were racing side-by-side into the Mercedeskurve, the two banged wheels, Cassidy was sent for a spin, and hit the concrete barrier gently – but with just enough force to knock the Kiwi out of the running.

“Unfortunately, my race was over after the first lap due to contact,” said Cassidy, “but the various data gained with Ryo will definitely be useful in the exchange race at Japan, and we will take our revenge at Fuji.”

After a red flag for Juncadella’s engine catching fire, the race resumed. Team Kunimitsu’s mechanics atoned for their execution on the pit stop Saturday by giving Button a quick 8.8 second stop Sunday. But today, there would be no charge into the top ten, as the wet tyre simply didn’t give the ZF/Raybrig NSX the traction it needed. Button took the flag in 16th.

Quintarelli finished 17th, having to take an extra pit stop during the race as his first stop was deemed not to the regulations as he’d come in just after the Safety Car retreated following the red flag.

And as the fireworks went off to close out the season, Nico Müller won the last race of the season, his third of the year and the fourth of his career, to clinch second in the DTM Championship behind Rast.

“With the dry tyres, we can get them in a working window. But the wets, we can’t,” said Button after the second race. “Obviously, it’s very difficult for us as drivers, coming and using a tyre so much harder than we’re used to. You learn to adapt and, I think we did as drivers, but the cars didn’t.”

“We tried everything, but we couldn’t switch the tyres on, and we were running three seconds slower than these guys. A lot of learning – hopefully, for the Fuji race all the guys will learn from what we did today and how bad it was! Hopefully, we can give these guys a bit more of a challenge in Fuji.”

That challenge, of course, may come without Button due to a clash with the Baja 1000 off-road classic – in a weekend where it was revealed that he may bow out of Super GT to take on new challenges from 2020 and beyond.

The weekend left Super GT’s supporters feeling somewhat melancholy over the final results, but ultimately, they can still feel proud of the effort their teams put in on a weekend that saw several unfamiliar challenges thrown their way. Honda, Nissan, and TGR can now put what they’ve learned this weekend and put it to good use when the Super GT/DTM Dream Race at Fuji Speedway kicks off on November 23 & 24.

Images courtesy of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM)