The #17 Keihin Honda NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette took the lead in the GT500 Championship standings by winning their second race of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series at the Fujimaki Group Motegi GT 300km Race at Twin Ring Motegi.
There were threats of rain throughout the weekend extending into Sunday. But by the time Sunday morning arrived, the threat of a wet race had largely dissipated, even while some large, dark clouds kept hovering over the circuit during the race. Air temperatures were 27°C before the start, with track temperatures at 32°C.
This race at Motegi brought new challenges. It was the first 300 kilometre Super GT race at this circuit, and the first race at this circuit where Success Ballast would be a significant presence, since 2008. Yuji Tachikawa, driving the #38 ZENT Cerumo Toyota GR Supra, started from pole position, the 24th of his incredible career, alongside Baguette in the Keihin NSX on the front row.
Tachikawa made a fine start, but a tenacious press from Baguette did not allow the red and silver Toyota to build a significant lead. Tachikawa and Baguette ran tail-to-nose in the opening laps, and then, Takuya Izawa in the #64 Modulo NSX-GT would join what was now a three-car fight for the lead. Once GT300 traffic came into play, Baguette sized up his move for the lead. On Lap 8, Baguette swung around the outside of Tachikawa at the Hairpin Corner. They had to go nearly four-wide down the east straightaway to clear GT300 backmarkers – but by the time they approached the 90-Degree Corner (Turn 11), the Belgian in the blue and silver Honda had made the move for the lead.
Baguette was 1.5 seconds clear of Tachikawa by Lap 10. Izawa, in 3rd, had fallen back into the clutches of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri and the #19 WedsSport Advan GR Supra of Yuji Kunimoto. As Nojiri and Kunimoto were running fourth and fifth, they headed into V Corner (Turn 9) while trying to clear the GT300 class #87 T-Dash Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Tsubasa Takahashi. Takahashi and Nojiri made contact, which sent Takahashi spinning to the left and over the apex of V Corner, and right into the path of Kunimoto, who couldn’t avoid a heavy front-end impact. Kunimoto and Takahashi were able to climb from their cars uninjured.
This accident brought out the Safety Car for the first time. In the midst of that Safety Car, came another clumsy incident, when some of the GT300 cars had to check up due to traffic, and Tomohide Yamaguchi in the #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 ran into the back of Hisashi Wada in the #22 R’Qs Mercedes-AMG GT3. Both cars would retire due to terminal damage.
The race restarted on Lap 15, and Baguette made a great restart at the front. The Belgian had put quite a bit of stress on his front tyres to get past Tachikawa, but the Safety Car intervention alleviated those issues. He could build a lead of up to 4 seconds before coming into the pits at the end of Lap 24, for fuel, four tyres, and a change of drivers to Tsukakoshi. Three laps later, the ZENT Supra pitted from the lead, with Ishiura taking over for the closing stint. When all was settled, Tsukakoshi had a 4-second lead over Ishiura up front.
Further back, the #8 ARTA NSX, now driven by Nirei Fukuzumi, was tagged at the Hairpin Corner by the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R of Jann Mardenborough. The ARTA NSX retired due to damage, a third-straight non-scoring finish for Nojiri and Fukuzumi, while the Realize GT-R of Mardenborough and Takaboshi lost 16 laps with repairs.
As Tsukakoshi built his lead over Ishiura, the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Ukyo Sasahara was running 3rd. Starting driver Hideki Mutoh had gone from 7th on the grid up to 3rd by the time he pitted, clearing the #64 Modulo NSX of Izawa and Hiroki Otsu, which was dropping off rapidly just a few laps into each restart, right into a train of faster GT500 cars. That train had at one point included the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Kazuki Hiramine), with Hiramine making a mad scramble from 12th on the grid up to as high as 4th. But Sasaki dropped from 5th to 9th on Lap 39, and began a freefall out of the points back into 12th place by the end.
On Lap 44, the two TOM’s Racing Toyotas were battling for 6th, having started down on the 7th row of the grid. Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra was in front, but Nick Cassidy in the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra saw an opportunity to get past at Turn 5. The window slammed shut, Sekiguchi and Cassidy – who already had a run-in last June at Buriram International Circuit in Thailand – made contact. It sent Cassidy spinning down the order, and a huge chunk of debris came off the au TOM’s Supra right onto the racing line. On Lap 46, the Safety Car was deployed a second time. This erased a nearly 8-second lead for Tsukakoshi.
The race restarted on Lap 51, and once again, Tsukakoshi was able to break away from the pack – already two seconds clear of Ishiura by the end of the first lap, and would continue to build that margin, lap after lap, en route to a commanding victory, at Honda’s second home circuit, just 45 kilometres south of the HRD Sakura facility where the front-engined 2020 NSX-GT was built. The second win of the year for Keihin Real Racing, the first time that the team established by former driver Katsutomo Kaneishi in 2007 has ever won multiple races in a season.
There were tears in Tsukakoshi’s eyes when he climbed from his Keihin NSX. The 34-year-old, born in the town of Imaichi in the city of Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, hadn’t even stood on the podium of his home circuit since 2013. In the post-race press conference, Tsukakoshi explained: “This [victory] is thanks to Baguette’s strong run. I didn’t cry during our last win, but I couldn’t hold back the tears this time because it is a win in my native Tochigi. I am really so happy.”
“Though I will be basking in the afterglow of this win today, from tomorrow I will be preparing for the next round so that we can win our first season championship.” It is Tsukakoshi’s fourth career victory, all of which have come with Real Racing. With the victory, he surpasses his team principal Kaneishi, who was a three-time race winner in GT500.
“I really wanted to catch the leading car No. 38 (ZENT GR Supra) faster than I did,” said Baguette. “That caused me to put too much wear on the front tires, but it helped us when the Safety Car came out. As with Round 2, we owe this win to the team and the Bridgestone tires.” It’s Baguette’s third career victory, at a track where he’d never finished better than 5th.
In total, Tsukakoshi and Baguette led a total of 53 out of the 63 laps, similar to the fashion in which they won Round 2 at Fuji.
Tachikawa and Ishiura were able to finish 2nd, their first podium finish of the 2020 campaign, and one that was much-needed to rejuvenate their championship challenge after retiring due to a gearbox failure at Round 3 at Suzuka.
And for the first time since returning to the GT500 class of Super GT in 2017, Team Mugen finished on the podium in 3rd with Mutoh and Sasahara, putting two Hondas on the podium.
You’ll have to go back a long way to find Mugen’s last GT500 podium finish. In 2003, they entered the #16 Honda NSX-GT for Daisuke Ito and Tom Coronel, which won that year’s race at Twin Ring Motegi. But by then, their car no longer carried the Mugen name following the original company’s bankruptcy, and became a Dome Racing car.
So to find the last time a car with the Mugen name finished on the podium in GT500, you’ll have to go back just a bit further – to October 2002, when Ito and Ryo Michigami won the very last Super GT race held at Miné Circuit!
From 9th on the grid, the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Sho Tsuboi) held off the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Tadasuke Makino) for fourth place, by just 0.426 seconds. Both cars maintain their perfect four-for-four record of points-scoring finishes in 2020.
So too does the #37 KeePer TOM’s Supra of Hirakawa in Cassidy. After dropping back to 11th, Cassidy went on a tear through the field, made the move past his teammate Sekiguchi with 9 laps to go to move into 7th place, then with two laps to go, passed the #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda to secure 6th place – after starting 13th, and running the weekend with a heavy Success Ballast handicap including the “Stage 1” fuel flow restrictor, they take away a significant haul of points.
Behind them, there was a three-wide photo finish for 7th place, 0.077 seconds covered the 7th, 8th, and 9th place finishers! It was the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo (with Kohei Hirate) that held off the #23 Motul GT-R of Matsuda (with Ronnie Quintarelli by 0.069 seconds, and then it was just 0.008 seconds between the Motul GT-R, and the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra of Yuichi Nakayama (with Heikki Kovalainen), that finished 9th. Even after having to take a second pit stop, the #64 Modulo NSX-GT of Izawa & Otsu still held on to finish 10th.
With Tsukakoshi & Baguette’s second win of the season, and the #36 au TOM’s Supra of Sekiguchi and Sacha Fenestraz finishing out of the points in 11th, Tsukakoshi & Baguette now take the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship with 43 points to 41 for Sekiguchi & Fenestraz. Hirakawa & Cassidy are five points out of first place in 3rd. The duos of Yamamoto & Makino and Oshima & Tsuboi are both 11 points back, with Yamamoto & Makino ahead on countback with their 2nd place finish at Suzuka. Tachikawa & Ishiura are in 6th, a further four points back, and Matsuda & Quintarelli are 7th, a further three points back.
Two rounds ago, Super GT temporarily enforced a rule to take four tyres on their pit stops to meet the regulations. That rule was then lifted for the last round. And today, by not changing tyres on their pit stop, the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Naoya Gamou and Togo Suganami were able to seize a chance to go from 13th on the grid to take the race victory.
Polesitter Takayuki Aoki in the #360 RunUp Rivaux Nissan GT-R GT3 showed vintage form in the opening stint. The 47-year-old driver, the 2001 GT300 Champion, pulled away from the pack in the opening laps. Before the first safety car, Aoki had a 5-second lead on the #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R of Kimiya Sato, who started 2nd. But after the restart, Aoki began pulling away from the pack again.
Suganami in the #65 LEON AMG had moved up to 10th, by the time the pit window opened. They were among the first to make their pit stop and driver change, on Lap 21, taking fuel only and changing drivers to Gamou. Aoki, meanwhile, would continue on for several more laps to maximize his time at the wheel. At the end of Lap 31, Aoki pitted, and the RunUp GT-R took on four fresh tyres and changed drivers to their amateur driver, Yusaku Shibata. Shibata initially came out ahead, but with Gamou’s tyres already up to temperature, the LEON AMG was able to get past in just three corners for the net race lead. On Lap 38, Gamou cycled back to the top spot, and then the second Safety Car was deployed.
It was expected that 2018 GT300 Champion Gamou would pull away from Shibata after the second safety car restart, but Shibata, a six-time national Gymkhana champion and time attack specialist, stuck with the LEON AMG, in pursuit of Tomei Sports’ first Super GT podium finish and potentially, a first victory. Takashi Kogure, in the #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3, soon joined the leading pack as well, having not finished better than 15th in the first three races.
But with four laps to go, disaster struck the black and red RunUp GT-R – they’d run out of gas well before the chequered flag, and Tomei Sports’ podium hopes were dashed, and it would only be the first of several late-laps dramas further back in the GT300 pack!
Gamou, who ran out of gas on the final corner of the final lap of the 2019 Motegi round and was denied a sure victory, would not be denied today, nor would his rookie teammate Suganami, as K2 R&D LEON Racing avenged their bitter defeat from ten months ago for the victory from the middle of the pack.
“In addition to the way the race played out, I didn’t expect our strategy to go this well,” said Gamou after the race. “This package of our car and the Bridgestone tires really fit the Motegi course perfectly, and I’m glad we were able to take advantage of this. I’m really relieved that we were able to win.” It’s the same package of the Mercedes-AMG GT3 and Bridgestone tyres that won the 2017 and 2018 Motegi rounds, the latter giving Gamou and Haruki Kurosawa the GT300 Drivers’ Championship.
It’s the fifth career GT300 race win for Gamou, and the first for Suganami, who joined the team with three rounds left in 2019 as Kurosawa stepped back from full-time driving duties to become Team Director. “Last year, there were races where we had the chance to win but couldn’t, and this year we had the speed but couldn’t win. That is why I am so happy to get my first win,” said Suganami.
After finishes of 25th, 15th, and 27th to open the season, finally, the fortunes of Team JLOC began to turn around. While the #87 car crashed out from the top ten, the #88 car of Kogure and Yuya Motojima held on to finish in 2nd, surpassing their best finish from 2019, a pair of third-place finishes. Kogure made a decisive move around the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi & Hideki Yamauchi on Lap 36 for the position.
The Subaru, which had been fast all weekend, still held on to finish in 3rd, with Iguchi & Yamauchi picking up their second podium in the last three races, despite a reported engine issue before the start of the race!
It was a certainty that fourth place would go to the Michelin-clad #9 Pacific NAC D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/Kei Cozzolino), but on the final lap, with the second-generation Vantage’s best-ever finish in sight, Cozzolino came to a stop!
That opened the door for the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Sena Sakaguchi), who hadn’t scored points throughout the first two races, to go from 6th to 4th in the final two laps and score their first top-ten finish of the season, and their first since switching to Dunlop tyres!
Shintaro Kawabata and Tsubasa Kondo put on an incredibly gutsy drive, their #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS GT3 went from 26th on the grid to finish in 5th place, giving Audi Team Hitotsuyama their first top-five finish since the 2016 Motegi double-header – where they won and finished 4th across the two races.
On track, the #56 Realize/Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira) put on a similar comeback drive after starting 28th. They’d pitted for tyres and extra fuel during the first Safety Car period on Lap 12, then changed drivers on Lap 37. Oliveira was 10th with six laps to go, but put on a late charge and passed the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R of Katsuyuki Hiranaka on the final lap to take 6th.
But after the race, Fujinami and Oliveira were given a 30-second post-race time penalty for a pit work violation – the engine was on while the car was still on its jacks! They were demoted down to 20th place in the official results. And with that, the #11 Gainer GT-R of Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda, running on the maximum 100 kilogrammes of Success Ballast, came from 12th on the grid to officially finish 6th and score five huge points in the championship.
The #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Toshiki Oyu) finished in 7th. Though their pace from qualifying didn’t last, 8th place for the #25 Hoppy Porsche of Takamitsu Matsui and Kimiya Sato gives Hoppy Team Tsuchiya their first points-paying finish since switching to Porsche from their previous Toyota MC86. Rounding out the points finishers, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) finished 9th after starting 18th, and the #34 Modulo Kenwood NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Jake Parsons) finished 10th.
The post-race time penalty for the #56 Realize GT-R altered the GT300 Drivers’ Championship: Hiranaka & Yasuda on 40 points now lead the standings by a single point over Gamou & Suganami, whose victory was their fourth points finish of the season. Iguchi & Yamauchi are 3rd, six points out of the lead.
The #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC of Hiroki Katoh & Masataka Yanagida put on a heroic effort to come from a pit lane start to finish 13th on +93kg of Success Ballast, but without scoring points, they fall to 4th in the standings, 9 points out of the lead. The #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida & Kohta Kawaai attempted the same two-stop strategy as the Realize GT-R, but having to take an emergency stop on Lap 49, they dropped to a 25th-place finish – and drop to 5th in the standings, trailing by 15 points.
And with that, the first half of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series is completed. But there are just three weeks until the start of the second half, and a return to Fuji Speedway for Round 5 on 2-3 October, around the time where the FIA World Endurance Championship’s 6 Hours of Fuji should have taken place.
Images courtesy of the GT Association