The sun finally burst through the clouds over Fuji Speedway, just in time for the running of the first round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series on Sunday. How appropriate, for the rays of sunshine cascading upon the empty grandstands, that would normally be jammed with spectators, will have felt like a relief after a seemingly eternal offseason.
But the afternoon sun would shine the brightest on Toyota, and on the fifth-generation GR Supra, debuting with wins in both the GT500 and GT300 classes. The #37 KeePer TOM’s Supra of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy won from pole position and led a stunning Toyota clean sweep of the top five in GT500, while the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida and Kohta Kawaai claimed a well-earned first win for their team in GT300.
Conditions were fine, dry and sunny on a July afternoon at Fuji, were there any spectators in attendance, they’d have been treated to a great day for racing with air temperatures at 26°C. But with the first four rounds of the 2020 Super GT season being held behind closed doors, they will have watched from home or work instead. Their enthusiasm was deeply missed, but the field of 44 cars raced as hard as they would have for a sell-out crowd.
The race began at just past 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and it was Cassidy who got a fine start, but within a half a lap, a collision at the 100R Corner took out the #12 Calsonic Impul Nissan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki / Kazuki Hiramine) and the #64 Modulo Honda NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa / Hiroki Otsu) and brought out the first of two Safety Car interventions before the completion of the first lap. Sasaki climbed from his badly damaged Calsonic GT-R, while Izawa drove to the pits for 4 laps’ worth of repairs.
The race restarted with Cassidy leading, ahead of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Nirei Fukuzumi in 2nd, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto 3rd, and the #36 au TOM’s Supra of Sacha Fenestraz in 4th. From there, Cassidy began to check out as if he was departing the race’s title sponsor Takanoko Hotel in the morning. Within 20 laps, he’d amassed a gap of over 10 seconds, building a gap with metronomic consistency and pace.
Behind them on Lap 12, Yamamoto passed Fukuzumi at TGR Corner (Turn 1), then just a few hundred metres later, Fenestraz made his overtake ‘round the outside of his fellow GT500 debutant at Coca-Cola Corner (Turn 3). Fukuzumi’s pace was falling away, a shock given his record-breaking qualifying pace in the morning where he’d reset the course record. On Lap 17, the #38 ZENT GR Supra of nine-time Fuji race winner Yuji Tachikawa had come through into 4th. On Lap 23, Fenestraz fancied making a move on Yamamoto, and the Franco-Argentine phenom nearly had two wheels on the grass as he muscled his way through at Coca-Cola Corner.
It was now TGR Team TOM’s 1st and 2nd, as the pit window began to open. Fenestraz came in on Lap 29 to hand the au Supra to his senior teammate Yuhi Sekiguchi, and Cassidy pitted after a brilliant 31-lap opening stanza, to give the KeePer Supra to Ryo Hirakawa. But there was drama unfolding in the middle as two Hondas were knocked out: The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi / Bertrand Baguette) suffered a terminal shutdown after 28 laps, just as Tsukakoshi was battling Tomoki Nojiri in the ARTA NSX. The #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX (Hideki Mutoh / Ukyo Sasahara) may have been attempting a two-stop strategy, but on Lap 33, a left-rear puncture at 100R Corner ruined their race, one of many issues for teams on Yokohama rubber.
A second safety car was deployed on Lap 37 after the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda collided with the GT300-class #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R of Takayuki Aoki, an awkward collision in Sector 3 that ruined what was already a difficult race for the lead car of Nissan. Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli would be classified a lap down in 11th, after having to pit for damage repair.
Under the safety car, it was still the two TOM’s Supras running 1st and 2nd, #37 ahead of #36. Tadasuke Makino was 3rd in the Raybrig NSX, Hiroaki Ishiura was 4th in the ZENT Supra, Nojiri was 5th in the ARTA NSX and Sho Tsuboi was running 6th in the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra, following a strong stint that saw reigning GT500 Co-Champion Kazuya Oshima claw his way from 11th on the grid, pitting from 4th on Lap 29.
The race restarted on Lap 42, with effectively a third of the race left. Hirakawa was on it from the moment the Safety Car came in, and quickly began pulling out a gap on Sekiguchi in 2nd. While Hirakawa was pulling away up front, Tsuboi in the Wako’s Supra was charging. He’d passed his de-facto teammate Ishiura for 4th, but the two Cerumo-run Supras were both locked in on Makino in 3rd. On Lap 51, Tsuboi got a great run out of Panasonic Corner (Turn 16) to take 3rd, and it was three-wide on the front stretch as Ishiura lined up a move of his own, before passing Makino for 4th at Coca-Cola Corner.
Suddenly, it was now a Toyota 1-2-3-4 on their home ground at Fuji Speedway. And, as the pace of the leading Hondas began to diminish, the other GT500 Champion from 2019, “super-sub” Kenta Yamashita, pounced on the opportunity to drive his #39 Denso Kobelco SARD Supra up to 5th place by passing Nojiri with 12 laps to go, then Makino with 4 laps to go.
Hirakawa drove the KeePer TOM’s Supra to the chequered flag, completing a flawless victory at Fuji for him and Cassidy. They won from pole, picking up the maximum 21 points for the day. Cassidy set the fastest lap in his stint, and in total, they led 64 out of 66 laps, only conceding the lead just after their pit stop. Cassidy put it best after the race in his post-race interview: “[The] Supra is Back!”
“It was really an amazing victory,” Cassidy continued. “During the off-season, the team and everyone at Toyota Gazoo Racing really worked hard for us, and that is why we were able to get a debut win just like the (Lexus) LC500 before this.”
“When I took over for the second stint, I had a lead of nearly 20 seconds and I thought that it was the perfect format for a win, but then Safety Car came out,” said Hirakawa. “But still, I was able to concentrate and keep the lead to the end. I am very glad that we were able to give the GR Supra a debut win.”
Hirakawa and Cassidy gave the Toyota Supra its first GT500 win in Super GT since Yuji Tachikawa and Toranosuke Takagi won for Cerumo in November 2005 at Suzuka Circuit in monsoon conditions. As alluded to by Cassidy, he and Hirakawa took the LC500’s first victory in April 2017 at Okayama International Circuit, going on to win the championship that season.
It’s the seventh career GT500 victory for Hirakawa, who’s surging up the all-time leaderboard at just 26 years old, and the fifth for Cassidy, who announced earlier this year that he would be changing gears to the FIA Formula E World Championship for 2021. If this season is Cassidy’s last in Super GT, this is the perfect way to start a prospective last tour of duty.
Sekiguchi had to fight hard to keep Tsuboi behind in the closing laps, but if Sekiguchi had any lingering fears of a blue and pink Wako’s Toyota behind him after his epic clash with Kenta Yamashita at Motegi last November, they didn’t show at all – and in the end, the #36 au TOM’s Supra was able to maintain the distance to the Wako’s Supra to finish 2nd, completing a TOM’s 1-2 finish.
A great start to the season for TOM’s flagship number 36 Supra – with 20-year-old Fenestraz, in particular, looking confident and commanding in his first race stint in the premier class, one of five GT300 graduates in the field being promoted to GT500 this season.
Oshima and Tsuboi came from 11th on the grid to finish 3rd, leading a Cerumo 3-4 finish in the very first race for the new TGR Team Wako’s Rookie that is joint-operated by Cerumo and past GT300 mainstay KTR. Oshima was cool and confident during the first stint of his title defence, and Tsuboi’s late-race heroics certainly impressed viewers.
The ZENT Supra of Tachikawa & Ishiura, who’ve finished 4th in points in four of the last five seasons, came home 4th again and picked up solid points. And completing the Toyota 1-2-3-4-5 finish, Yamashita and Yuichi Nakayama in the Denso Supra was 5th. Certainly an unexpected start to a season that Yamashita had no plans to even take part in, until the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic saw him return to Japan, and saw him drafted as the “super-sub” for the absent Heikki Kovalainen.
All six Supras picked up points, with the #19 WedsSport Advan GR Supra (Yuji Kunimoto / Ritomo Miyata) coming home a very quiet 9th, 37 seconds off the lead as their Yokohama tyres just didn’t have the pace to hang with the rest of the Bridgestone-clad fleet.
The new front-engined Honda NSX-GTs were the talk of pre-season testing, and while their pace was good in parts, they somehow fell away towards the end of the race. The Raybrig NSX of Yamamoto and Makino ended up finishing in 6th place, and the ARTA NSX of Nojiri and Fukuzumi came home 8th. Not the start many had expected, but the Supra fleet seemed unassailable, and after the misfortunes that befell the other three Hondas, Team Kunimitsu and ARTA will be glad to score some valuable championship points to start the season.
The #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate / Katsumasa Chiyo) finished 7th, and the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi / Jann Mardenborough) finished 10th, completing a subpar start to the 2020 season for Nissan with their heavily revised NR20B engine in their new GT-R. The two GT-Rs that finished in the points were never a factor for the victory, unfortunately, and that applied to the Motul GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli before their collision in the second half of the race.
The action in the GT300 class was endless, from the moment Hironobu Yasuda in the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 got around pole-sitter Togo Suganami in the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 on the opening lap.
After the first Safety Car was withdrawn, Yasuda and Suganami started a fantastic battle for the lead up front, but many cars started to hit trouble early on. Both of JLOC’s Lamborghini Huracán GT3s suffered punctures, the right-rear went on the #87 T-Dash Huracán (Tsubasa Takahashi / Shinnosuke Yamada), the left-rear went on the #88 JLOC Huracán (Yuya Motojima / Takashi Kogure). At the same time, a promising day for the #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga / Yuhki Nakayama) turned sour after a drivetrain problem forced them back to the garage for a half-hour, and by Lap 11, the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh / Masataka Yanagida) had to make an emergency stop from 4th due to a loose wheel nut.
2008 GT300 Champion Yasuda was doing well to keep Suganami, making just his 4th Super GT start at bay, but on Lap 16, Suganami was able to power past at TGR Corner. At this time, the #52 GreenBrave GR Supra was into the picture, with Kohta Kawaai, making his first GT300 start, looming behind them.
Yasuda pitted after 22 laps and changed drivers to Katsuyuki Hiranaka. Two laps later, the LEON AMG came into the pits for a change of drivers from Suganami to Naoya Gamou. They were also changing left-side tyres only, but problems getting the left-rear tyre on cost them valuable time in the pits. That cycled the GreenBrave Supra to the class lead. Kawaai pitted after 30 laps, and Hiroki Yoshida took over. Crucially, Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave took fuel only on their stop and did not change Bridgestone tyres!
Yoshida was now in the net lead in GT300 ahead of Hiranaka, when the second Safety Car intervention was called on their 34th lap for the cross-clash Nissan incident in Sector 3 that left Aoki’s RunUp GT-R stranded at the crest of unlucky Turn 13. By this point, there were more heartaches: Chronic mechanical woes struck the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi / Hideki Yamauchi) down after 30 laps, as Iguchi pulled off at 300R Corner and retired. The new #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui / Kimiya Sato) suffered a left-rear puncture, yet another tyre failure for Yokohama, after 32 laps.
After the restart, Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave’s ace driver Yoshida was doing well to withstand the early pressure from Hiranaka in the Gainer GT-R, and Yoshida eventually pulled out a comfortable lead as the laps wound down. But the hottest battle on track was for 3rd place. The #5 Mach Syaken GTNET Toyota MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi / Yuya Hiraki) undercut the field by pitting on Lap 21 and not exchanging tyres, giving them great track position. The #56 Realize/Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami / João Paulo Lima de Oliveira) was 4th, as Oliveira, in particular, was having to dig deep to keep Gamou in the LEON AMG at bay with robust and ruthless defence.
Soon, the second Gainer GT-R joined the fray, the #10 TanaX with Itochu Enex GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino / Keishi Ishikawa). With 10 laps to go, Ishikawa passed Gamou for 5th. And then there was the story of the defending GT300 car, the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 of Shinichi Takagi and Toshiki Oyu. Takagi started a woeful 22nd, had clawed all the way up to 10th, before being tagged with a Drive-Through Penalty for a restart infraction after the first Safety Car. Yet, Takagi and rookie Oyu never gave up, and Oyu was in that five-car battle for 3rd in the closing laps, trading 6th back and forth with Gamou!
After 62 laps, Yoshida took the GreenBrave GR Supra home to a debut win, the first for the Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave team in Super GT. A fantastic result from a likeable upstart team: They’d built the new GR Supra GT300 over the winter and received no official support from Toyota but the blessing to use the Supra as a base vehicle. The team is still backed by a squad of mechanics who work as service mechanics at Saitama Toyopet dealerships, as it has been since their inception, a team of seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Few were prouder than 36-year-old ace driver Yoshida. “Last year we came close to winning but never did, but since the change this year to the GR Supra, and with a new teammate, the team dealt with a number of new challenges. I thought it was difficult at first, but they really put together a good car for us and the Bridgestone tires were capable of hanging in there for us to the end, and also Kohta-san stayed cool and ran well in his first Super GT race. This was truly a fantastic result.”
In 55 previous starts from 2011 to 2019, Yoshida had only been credited with one victory as a third driver for Team a Speed in the 2012 Suzuka 1000km. However, Yoshida never drove a racing lap that weekend, and never received points for the victory. This time, though, he was consistent and cool over 32 laps and claimed what will go down as his 2nd career win, and the first to which he truly drove to victory.
And what a debut for young Kohta Kawaai, graduating to GT300 after four seasons in the FIA F4 Japanese Championship support series, he matches Sena Sakaguchi’s feat from last year at Okayama, by winning in his very first start. “Until now, it had taken me some time to get my first win in F4, so I never imagined I could get a win in my first Super GT race. I owe this win to everyone on the team. I want to express my gratitude to you all,” said Kawaai.
In total, Yoshida and Kawaai led 31 out of 62 laps, only giving up the lead during the pit cycle. This is, in fact, the first win for the Supra in GT300, as the fourth-gen model never raced in GT300 during its lifecycle!
While they couldn’t repeat their Fuji 500km race victory from 14 months ago, unable to sustain pace as track temperatures climbed during the day, Hiranaka and Yasuda came home a close 2nd in the Dunlop-clad Gainer GT-R, and picked up valuable points towards the championship.
But who took the final podium position? None other than the Mach Syaken MC86, with Natsu Sakaguchi holding J.P. Oliveira off at the line by literally half a second!
Team Mach only had to wait 14 months to take their third-ever GT300 podium, after a 15-year podium drought ended last May at Suzuka Circuit. It’s a fantastic result from the privateer squad that made the long trek from the western region of Japan to get to Fuji.
With Sakaguchi and Hiraki completing the podium, we had three different tyre manufacturers on the podium, Bridgestone 1st, Dunlop 2nd, and Yokohama 3rd, and three different subcategories of the car too, JAF-GT300 1st, FIA GT3 2nd, and JAF-GT Mother Chassis 3rd!
Just 2 seconds covered 3rd through 7th in GT300. The #56 Realize GT-R GT3 of Fujinami & Oliveira settled for 4th, ahead of the TanaX GT-R of Hoshino & Ishikawa in 5th, making it three Nissans in the top 5. The LEON AMG of Gamou & Suganami was able to hang on to 6th, and the ARTA NSX GT3 of Takagi & Oyu completed a fantastic recovery from 24th in class after the drive-through penalty to finish in 7th.
Completing the points scorers, the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami / Jake Parsons) charged from 17th to finish 8th, and the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi / Tatsuya Kataoka) also came up through the field, from 18th to finish 9th. And in 10th, a long-overdue first point for the Aston Martin Vantage GT3 – the #9 Pacific NAC D’station Vantage (Tomonobu Fujii / Kei Cozzolino) was the best of the two Michelin-clad teams, holding off the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta / Sena Sakaguchi) by 2.5 seconds in the end.
With a little more Success Ballast for the top ten finishers in each category, Super GT will be back in action at Fuji Speedway on 9 August.
Images courtesy of the GT Association