It was at Suzuka Circuit, 56 years ago, that the racing legend of the Nissan Skyline GT-R was born. This Sunday, another chapter in that legend was written, as Nissan GT-Rs took victories in both GT500 and GT300 classes at the third round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series, the Fujimaki Group Suzuka GT 300km Race.
In GT500, the #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli claimed another milestone race victory to win their first race since May 2018, while in GT300, the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda won in a race that compressed 1,000 kilometres’ worth of action into just 52 laps.
Despite threats of rain going into Saturday night, it was another warm, sunny summer day at the 5.807 kilometre Suzuka Circuit, with track temperatures at just under 50°C and air temperatures at 34°C.
Polesitter Takuya Izawa led the field away in the #64 Modulo Honda NSX-GT, followed closely by Quintarelli in the #23 Motul GT-R. Only one lap was completed before the first of three Safety Car interventions, when the GT300 class #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Hideki Yamauchi and the #30 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT of Hiroaki Nagai made contact going into Dunlop Curve, sending Nagai off course and into the sponge barriers.
The race restarted on Lap 5, where the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Ukyo Sasahara), running sixth, lost its left-front wheel just out of the final corner. The early hits would keep coming when the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Kazuki Hiramine) went to the garage with a mechanical issue. They’d finish six laps down in 12th, a third straight non-scoring finish.
But at the front, Izawa was still leading, ahead of Yuji Tachikawa in the #38 ZENT Cerumo GR Supra, who’d overtaken Quintarelli at the Triangle Chicane. Izawa had the advantage of leading in clean air, but once GT300 traffic came into play, Tachikawa and Quintarelli began to close in rapidly. The #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra of Kazuya Oshima in 4th, and the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Tadasuke Makino in 5th, soon joined the chase for the lead.
Negotiating GT300 traffic was going to be crucial to gaining and maintaining position at Suzuka. Quintarelli made a brilliant opportunistic move into 2nd on Lap 13, passing Tachikawa around the outside of the Nissin Hairpin while Tachikawa was stuck in a queue of GT300 backmarkers. That train of five cars continued to run tail-to-nose. On Lap 15, Quintarelli closed right in on the diffuser of the Modulo NSX of Izawa, and found his way past at Dunlop Curve to take the lead. Tachikawa followed Quintarelli into 2nd, and an unsettled Izawa dropped from 3rd to 7th through the Degner Curves.
Not to be outdone, Makino in the #100 Raybrig NSX was making some brilliant moves of his own, passing Oshima for 4th on Lap 16 at the Hairpin, then diving up the inside of Tachikawa at Spoon just two corners later to slot into 3rd!
A second Safety Car intervention was brought out on Lap 17, when the entire front bonnet of the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough) fell off on the West straightaway. Mechanics started making their way out to pit lane, as the Safety Car withdrew on Lap 22, just in time for the pit window to open for teams to change drivers, refuel, and change tyres.
But it was as the pit window opened that the ZENT Supra’s race ended. Tachikawa told his Cerumo team that he was having problems shifting up, and just as Hiroaki Ishiura was ready to get in the car to close out the race, the ZENT Supra retired with a terminal gearbox failure.
All of the GT500 cars had made their stops by Lap 27. The #100 Raybrig NSX pitted on Lap 23 from 2nd, and the #23 Motul GT-R pitted on Lap 24. A brisk 36.5 second stop to refuel, change four Michelin tyres, and change drivers from Quintarelli to Matsuda got the Motul GT-R out of the pits with a net race lead of 2.5 seconds over the Raybrig NSX, now being piloted by Naoki Yamamoto.
A third Safety Car intervention was called on Lap 29, another incident between GT300 cars – this time, the #244 Takanoko-no-Yu Lexus RC F GT3 of Rintaro Kubo and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS of Shintaro Kawabata collided out of Turn 2, sending Kawabata into the gravel. Under this safety car, the Motul GT-R and Raybrig NSX were first and 2nd, with the Raybrig NSX gaining six places from the start.
Behind them, the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra was third, the #8 ARTA NSX-GT was fourth, and the #36 au TOM’s Supra was fifth. They had gained six, ten, and seven positions respectively since the start of the race. After the restart, Matsuda and Yamamoto broke clear of the pack, but the battle for third was just heating up.
Nirei Fukuzumi in the ARTA NSX was closing in on Yuichi Nakayama in the Denso Supra for third place. Fukuzumi tried to set up a move at the Nissin Hairpin on Lap 36, but the bright orange ARTA NSX came in way too hot, and struck the back of the Denso Supra, sending Nakayama spinning through the hairpin.
Nakayama was able to drive away, but dropped to fifth. A large piece of the Toyota’s diffuser burst the ARTA NSX’s radiator, and the incident forced the ARTA NSX to retire, classified 13th – another disappointing race for Fukuzumi and co-driver Tomoki Nojiri. That melee moved the #36 au Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi into third place, carrying 60 kilos of Success Ballast – 43kg of physical weight, and the “Stage 1” fuel flow restrictor.
Yamamoto tried to keep Matsuda within reach, but the Motul GT-R began to pull away rapidly. By Lap 40, Matsuda led by 2.2 seconds, and he’d extended the gap to over 7 seconds on Lap 50, pounding out fast laps in succession to pull away. He backed off in the final laps, but the win was secure. The Motul GT-R of the flagship NISMO team hadn’t won since 4 May 2018 at the Fuji 500km, but after 27 months, Matsuda and Quintarelli had taken another milestone victory. One to lift the spirits of beleaguered Nissan and NISMO supporters, who’d seen their cars struggle through pre-season testing and the first two races at Fuji.
For Matsuda, it is his 21st career GT500 victory, maintaining his standing as the premier class’ all-time wins leader. A native of Mie Prefecture, Matsuda hadn’t won at his home track since winning the 2008 Suzuka 1000km with Team Impul. But the tears Matsuda shed after climbing from the car indicated that this race meant more. On the week of the race, one of Matsuda’s close friends passed away, and he admitted in the post-race press conference that this was one of the hardest weekends of his racing life.
“This week a grievous misfortune befell one of my friends and I was uncertain whether I would be up to competing in this event,” Matsuda explained. “I decided to try my best to hold back my tears until the race was over, so I never imagined that I would be crying those tears at a victory ceremony. I guess my friend was cheering for me from heaven.”
“I think that I was able to contribute to this victory because I was more concentrated than ever before. I am just so grateful. Thankful to Ronnie for racing so hard to give us the lead, I was determined to defend that lead to the end in my stint no matter what.”
“There were a lot of things to worry about in this race, like being passed by the ZENT Supra and having the Safety Car come out repeatedly,” said co-driver Quintarelli. “When I got caught up in groups of GT300 cars, I was determined to gain ground by passing the #38 and #64, and when I got the lead, I was determined not to give it up to anyone. The timing of our pit stop also turned out to be perfect, so I firmly believed that Tsugio-san would keep that lead till the end. But, waiting out those last ten laps was really a long and tense time.”
“In these past two years when we were unable to win the title, our Nissan fans continued to encourage us with their support. I want to dedicate this victory to all those great Nissan fans.” For Quintarelli, the all-time winningest international driver in Super GT, it is career win #15, putting him one back of Nissan legend Satoshi Motoyama for 3rd on the all-time list.
While the Honda faithful watching the race from home couldn’t see one of their cars win on their “home track”, Honda still stood on the podium as the Raybrig NSX of Yamamoto and Makino finally scored their first podium finish after finishes of 6th and 5th at Fuji. It’s Yamamoto’s 7th career podium at Suzuka, and for Makino, he ties his career-best GT500 result.
“In Super GT, it is important not to miss out on any points even in difficult races,” said Yamamoto after the race. “It’s been a long time since we’ve scored big points, but even with our struggles this year, we’ve still been able to consistently score points this season. From the next round, we will be subject to the fuel flow restrictions, but we will try to improve our position in the championship until the very end. And I’m going to continue to fight to stay at the front of the field.”
Even with their Success Ballast handicap, the #36 au TOM’s Supra of Sekiguchi and Sacha Fenestraz drove a smart, savvy race and finished 3rd, completing the podium. It’s the third straight podium finish for Sekiguchi and Fenestraz, which extended their lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship.
Sekiguchi reached a milestone this weekend, taking part in his 100th Super GT race (including non-championship rounds), and his pace late in the race defied the expectations for them this weekend.
The #64 Modulo NSX of Izawa and Hiroki Otsu finished 4th, not the result they’d hoped for, but an encouraging result nonetheless as Dunlop’s hot-weather prowess shined true. Even after the contact with the ARTA NSX, the #39 Denso Supra of Kovalainen and Nakayama still managed to finish 5th, just holding off the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Katsumasa Chiyo) by two-tenths of a second. Hirate and Chiyo had another solid day in 6th.
The #37 KeePer TOM’s Supra (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy) was 7th in the end, in 8th was the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) – which broke the so-called “Keihin jinx” at Suzuka by finishing the race with no incidents or penalties, the #14 Wako’s Supra of Oshima and Sho Tsuboi was 9th, and the #19 WedsSport Advan GR Supra (Yuji Kunimoto/Ritomo Miyata) completed the points scorers in 10th, just three-tenths ahead of the #24 Realize GT-R of Takaboshi & Mardenborough, who’d recovered from the time lost in the pits for repairs.
With these results, Sekiguchi & Fenestraz now lead the GT500 standings by 8 points over their TOM’s stablemates Hirakawa & Cassidy. Yamamoto & Makino are up to 3rd in the standings, 15 points out of the lead. They’re two points ahead of Oshima & Tsuboi in 4th, then its 1-point gaps to Tsukakoshi & Baguette in 5th, and Matsuda & Quintarelli in 6th.
A lot happened in the GT500 class, but dear reader, the GT300 class was perhaps even more entertaining – and especially so in the final laps, behind race winners Hiranaka & Yasuda in the #11 Gainer GT-R!
Early in the race it was the #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT of Yuhki Nakayama that was leading by as much as 5 seconds after the first Safety Car intervention. Shinichi Takagi had settled into 2nd in the #55 ARTA NSX GT, Kiyoto Fujinami was 3rd in the #56 Realize/Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R, and even carrying a 75kg weight handicap, the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra of Kohta Kawaai had moved up into 4th.
But the second Safety Car wiped out the #31 Toyota Prius’ advantage. Most of the top ten pitted after the Safety Car withdrew on Lap 21, including the #31 Prius, the #56 Realize GT-R, and the #52 GreenBrave Supra. The Prius had trouble refuelling, and the GreenBrave mechanics had a problem changing the tyres. Those pitwork issues took them out of the lead fight. Starting from 7th, Yasuda did 24 laps in the Gainer GT-R before pitting to change drivers, as did Takagi in the ARTA NSX.
The third Safety Car knocked the #21 Hitotsuyama R8 out of a potential top-ten finish, and the drive-through penalty assessed to the #244 Takanoko-no-yu RC F for avoidable contact knocked them out of their first points finish after a great opening drive from rookie Atsushi Miyake.
When the Safety Car was called, the #5 Mach Syaken GTNET Toyota MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) was the net race leader, having pitted on Lap 21. Because the mandatory four-tyre change rule was eliminated, Team Mach elected to take fuel only on their stop. Behind Sakaguchi, the #11 Gainer GT-R of Yasuda, and the #56 Realize GT-R of João Paulo de Oliveira, had both taken four tyres.
The race restarted on Lap 32, and inevitably, the task of double-stinting was too much for the Mach MC86. Within the next lap, Hiranaka passed Sakaguchi at Spoon Curve to take the net race lead. The Mach MC86 began to tumble down the order, and eventually retired after 37 laps completed.
Once the last GT300 runners made their regulation pit stops, the running order was Hiranaka in the #11 Gainer GT-R, Oliveira in the #56 Realize GT-R, and rookie Toshiki Oyu in 3rd in the #55 ARTA NSX. Oliveira tried to keep up with Hiranaka, but the grey and red Gainer GT-R began pulling away, also riding on the Dunlop tyres that excelled in the high temperatures.
By a final margin of 4 seconds, Hiranaka and Yasuda scored the victory. Wins in both classes for Nissan, and a much-needed result for the #11 Gainer GT-R after being spun on the final lap during Round 2 at Fuji.
“Racing on a day with such a high air temperature was hard on the drivers, the team, and the tires. But it was a boost that we were able to take advantage of the Safety Car breaks and that the team was able to work so incredibly fast during the pit stop,” said Yasuda. “What’s more, Hiranaka-san was able to take the lead on the first lap after the final Safety Car restart. Although the conditions were tough for all the teams, I felt the pain seeing how hard Hiranaka-san was struggling to hang on. But in this third round, we two drivers were able to run perfectly, so I want to see us keep this momentum going and go for the season title.”
Hiranaka added, “The team did the best possible job for us and we were able to get ahead as a result of the pit stop. As a result, we were in the lead after the Safety Car break. I thought I would be letting the team down if I couldn’t keep that lead. And in fact, it had been because of a mistake by me, that we only qualified 7th, so I was determined to pay them back for that. That is why I was able to fight hard to the end.”
For Hiranaka, it is his 10th career GT300 victory, now just the 7th driver to reach double digits for their career – and it’s the 5th GT300 class win for Yasuda. This victory now gives them the lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship after three rounds, after a 3rd place finish in Round 1 at Fuji.
But now it’s time to talk about the explosive battles for the last two podium places, once Oliveira was dispatched by Hiranaka.
Oliveira was now having to withstand the pressure of Oyu in the ARTA NSX – a relentless veteran versus a fearless rookie in a battle for 2nd. And as Oliveira was having to fight Oyu off, Kosuke Matsuura in the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 had now caught the two cars ahead of him in 4th. With four laps to go, Oyu bumped into Oliveira into Degner Curve 1, and both cars speared off into the gravel – sending Matsuura into 2nd. Oyu’s bodywork damage proved terminal, though he tried to pull away with the front of the car missing, he pulled over at the S-Curves with 3 to go – just like the GT500 class ARTA NSX, the GT300 version had also suffered terminal radiator damage.
Oliveira had now fallen into the clutches of the #61 Subaru BRZ of Takuto Iguchi, the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Naoya Gamou, and the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC of Masataka Yanagida. Iguchi and Gamou had been battling for position for several laps, Yanagida had caught them both, and now they all were on Oliveira’s tail. With two laps remaining at Spoon Curve, it all completely kicked off.
Gamou fancied a lunge up the inside of Iguchi for fourth, but the two made contact through Dunlop Curve, sending Gamou spinning off to the left and into the sponge barriers! Now the #10 TanaX Itochu Enex with Impul GT-R of Keishi Ishikawa had caught this pack in 6th!
As Oliveira and Iguchi ran tail-to-nose into Spoon Curve, they pushed each other out wide, and that allowed Yanagida in the Lotus to slide through into 3rd with a lap and a half to go! Iguchi slotted into fourth, and on the final lap, Oliveira was hit again, this time by Ishikawa in the #10 TanaX GT-R as they battled for fifth at the Nissin Hairpin!
While one Honda lost out on a podium, another picked up the pieces as the UPGarage NSX GT3 of Matsuura and Takashi Kobayashi, two former overall winners of the 1000km, finished 2nd, after disappointing finishes of 22nd and 18th in their first two races. It’s Team UPGarage’s first podium since switching to Honda in 2019.
Hiroki Katoh and Yanagida finished 3rd in the #2 Syntium Lotus, giving them back-to-back podiums in what looked to be a challenging weekend – thanks to Success Ballast applications and BoP adjustments, they entered the race 90kg heavier than at the last round at Fuji.
The #61 Subaru of Iguchi and Yamauchi finished fourth, ahead of the #10 TanaX GT-R of Kazuki Hoshino and Ishikawa in 5th, their collision with the #56 Realize GT-R deemed a racing incident with no penalties assessed. Oliveira and Fujinami ended up 9th in the final classification.
Incredibly, the #65 LEON AMG of Gamou and Togo Suganami, despite the hit with the sponge barriers, not only drove away from the crash with minor damage, but finished 6th! The #31 Prius of Koki Saga and Yuhki Nakayama settled for 7th, still, it’s apr Racing’s first points-paying finish with the front-engined Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV GT. The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) was 8th, and the #9 Pacific NAC D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/Kei Cozzolino) held onto the final points-paying position by half a second in 10th.
Hiranaka & Yasuda now lead Katoh & Yanagida by 4 points. Hiroki Yoshida & Kohta Kawaai, who finished outside the points in 12th, drop to 3rd in the standings, 10 points out of first. Iguchi & Yamauchi are 4th, 12 points out of the lead.
The fourth round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series is three weeks away, 13 September, at Twin Ring Motegi, where the season reaches the halfway point.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)