TGR Team SARD and the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD Toyota GR Supra scored a stunning victory in the fifth round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series at Fuji Speedway, with Heikki Kovalainen taking his first win since his delayed arrival, and co-driver Yuichi Nakayama elevating himself into the ranks of the title contenders with just three more rounds left in this unprecedented season in Japan’s premier sports car racing category.
But the big story of today’s race, the Takanoko-no Hotel Fuji GT 300km Race was the return of spectators to the circuit. A maximum capacity of 5,000 fans were allowed into the gates of the historic Fuji Speedway this weekend, and teams could now bring more personnel to the track. It was a welcome sight to see the main grandstand dotted with fans, all maintaining a healthy distance, all of them supporting their favourite teams and drivers.
The weather was cloudy, and though there was a light shower overnight, Sunday’s 66-lap race was dry from start to finish.
Nirei Fukuzumi started on pole position in the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT, Daiki Sasaki started alongside him in the #12 Calsonic Impul Nissan GT-R. Only one corner into the race, and an incident triggered the first and only Safety Car intervention of the race. The #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo and the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Hideki Mutoh made contact into TGR Corner, sending Mutoh spinning, but also sending the entire front bodywork of the white Craftsports GT-R flying off at speed. Chiyo pulled over at the 100R Corner after his Nissan caught fire. His co-driver, Kohei Hirate, would not get to turn a single lap in his 100th official Super GT race.
Crucially, before the Safety Car was deployed, Mitsunori Takaboshi in the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R had overtaken Fukuzumi for the lead. Ronnie Quintarelli had moved up to third in the #23 Motul Autech GT-R, while Sasaki had a scruffy opening lap after going wide at Turn 1 and dropped to fifth. In trying to regain track position, Sasaki overtook Yuji Kunimoto in the #19 WedsSport Advan GR Supra for fourth, but by then, the Safety Car lights were flashing at trackside, grounds for a penalty.
When the race restarted on Lap 5, Takaboshi held the lead, but Fukuzumi remained with the leader, as did Sasaki. At one point all three cars ran tail-to-nose while also carving their way through slower GT300 traffic. On Lap 13, Fukuzumi was able to slingshot his way past Takaboshi into TGR Corner and took the lead of the race. Meanwhile, Sasaki was indeed handed a drive-through penalty for overtaking under yellow flags, dropping the Calsonic GT-R out of the fight for the lead.
That promoted Kovalainen in the #39 Denso GR Supra up to third place. Kovalainen dropped from 5th to 6th on the opening lap, but overtook Kunimoto and Quintarelli on track to move up to 4th, then took the place from Sasaki after the penalty was assessed.
The race turned when the pit window opened at just past 1/3rds distance. The #24 Realize GT-R pitted on Lap 25, and Jann Mardenborough climbed aboard for a shot at a long-awaited first GT500 class victory. Just a lap later, the #8 ARTA NSX and #39 Denso Supra pitted from first and second positions. Tomoki Nojiri relieved Fukuzumi, and Nakayama relieved Kovalainen. Nakayama came out of the pits directly behind Nojiri, and both were well ahead of Mardenborough, thanks to lightning-fast pitwork.
But Nojiri had a ragged outlap, and Nakayama immediately went ahead at the hairpin Advan Corner. Suddenly, the Denso Supra held the race lead in a Toyota 1-2, with the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra running second after what Nick Cassidy called “the best stint of [his] life” on Twitter, climbing out of the car and handing over to co-driver Ryo Hirakawa after coming up from 11th on the grid with moves like a daring three-wide overtake on Lap 18 to go from 7th to 5th.
Not long after the pit stops on Lap 36 there was heartache at Kondo Racing when the #24 Realize GT-R of Mardenborough was stuck in second gear. The car limped back to the garage, eventually coming out of the pits to finish five laps down in 14th. It was a devastating blow for a team that hadn’t won in nearly four years, for two young drivers in Takaboshi and Mardenborough that have come close to their first premier class victory on a number of occasions.
Nakayama began to stretch his advantage over Hirakawa up front. The Denso Supra hadn’t finished better than 5th all season, so they were light on Success Ballast and still running at the standard fuel flow rate of 95 kilogrammes per hour. The KeePer Supra, on the other hand, was much heavier on Success Ballast, which included the “Stage 2” fuel flow restrictor, limiting them to 88.6kg/hr and resulting in a drop of around 40 horsepower.
Still, Hirakawa did his level best to fight off an attack from Nojiri, who’d recovered from the poor out-lap and was pressing for 2nd place. Nojiri tried to slingshot his way past Hirakawa for several laps, but Hirakawa was still able to fend off Nojiri, since his Supra still had plenty of top-end speed at the end of the front stretch. All the while, the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra was climbing up the ranks.
Kazuya Oshima started from 12th, but eventually clawed his way up to 8th before their pit stop on Lap 25. Sho Tsuboi climbed aboard, fresh off his first Super Formula victory at Okayama the previous week. Tsuboi effectively started his stint in 6th, but reeled in the cars in front of him.
By Lap 52, Tsuboi had caught the duo of Hirakawa and Nojiri. Tsuboi made his move for 3rd past Nojiri at Dunlop Corner (Turn 10), then was able to successfully slingshot his way past Hirakawa as they began lap 53. Hirakawa finally broke his resistance as Nojiri went through into 3rd in the same manoeuvre.
All the while, the #39 Denso SARD Supra – an iconic car from a historic team that has been racing for nearly half a century – ran to the victory unchallenged, as Nakayama took the chequered flag, leading the final 35 laps of the race. It seemed like a routine victory on the surface, but as Nakayama would elaborate after the race, this was hardly the case!
This is Kovalainen’s fifth career GT500 victory, all of which have come in consecutive seasons, a winning streak that began with his first championship-clinching victory at Twin Ring Motegi in November 2016. It’s the second win of the year for the new fifth-generation Toyota GR Supra, both of which have come at Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway.
But earlier this season, at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic and with travel restrictions in place, there were worries about Kovalainen being able to race in Super GT at all this season. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to participate in the first two rounds of this season. But I drove as hard as I could from the third round,” said Kovalainen, who rejoined TGR Team SARD at Suzuka in August after being granted permission to emigrate from his home in Finland.
“Today, everything went well with the machine, the tires and the race strategy. At the start the tires weren’t sufficiently warmed up, but once they were, there were no problems. And today, we had the cheering from the fans that had come to the race, and that helped us win. I am very glad that we were able to share this victory with our fans.”
“The timing of our pit stop was great, and the speed of our team’s tire changes was the fastest among the Toyota teams, so they delivered for us when it was most important,” said Kovalainen’s co-driver Nakayama. “When I got into the race for my stint, the ARTA NSX was in front of me and I was able to pass it before its tires got warmed up. Behind me, I knew that the KeePer TOM’s Supra was running at a fast pace, but I was able to gradually pull away from it.”
“From there it was difficult thinking about the fuel and the tire wear,” said Nakayama, who explained how close the team came to a disaster in the last laps: “At the end of the race I had a 10-second advantage, and then I saw the ‘No Fuel’ message on the steering wheel panel and I got in a bit of a hurry. There were two laps to go and I was fidgety, and then on the last lap, at the last corner, I started to run out of gas. From there to the control line, I took the checkered flag at a pace so slow that not even a GT300 car could get past. I was able to do a cooldown lap, but I don’t think I could have done another lap at racing speed.”
New team manager Juichi Wakisaka, who took his final race win as a driver with SARD, and who managed Team LeMans’ run to the 2019 GT500 Championship, collects his first win since joining the team in an overhaul that also included the addition of new chief race engineer Narunobu Makino. “Our team’s strength has gone up since last year, and that is thanks to our manager Juichi Wakisaka joining us and giving clear direction to our efforts. Today was truly a race where everything came together perfectly. And I also want to really thank everyone who came to cheer for us,” said Nakayama.
From 12th on the grid, the #14 Wako’s GR Supra of Oshima and Tsuboi moved up ten places and finished in 2nd, their third podium finish of the year and their fifth straight race in the points. This was a significant result for TGR Team Wako’s Rookie, whose drivers now move into the lead of the GT500 Drivers’ Championship by just one point over the KeePer TOM’s duo of Hirakawa and Cassidy with three races left.
“It wasn’t easy this time because we qualified in 12th place,” explained Tsuboi. “The performance we had in qualifying was not enough to solve the problems we were having with setting up the car. There are still some things to work on for the future. On the other hand, in the first two rounds from the start of the season at Fuji, I’ve been able to get on the podium from the back of the grid, so I felt confident.”
“Oshima’s pace was good, so I thought it would be a matter of how far I could catch up in my stint. This is a track that allows for overtaking, so I was able to make the most of that. We fought so hard that I don’t even remember how many cars we passed (laughs), so we had a lot of fun, and I think we were able to put on a show for the fans.”
The ARTA NSX-GT of Nojiri & Fukuzumi, after three straight races without a top-ten finish, finally scored their first podium of the season in third, finishing less than a second behind the Wako’s Supra.
The KeePer TOM’s GR Supra of Hirakawa & Cassidy came home in 4th after starting 11th, enough to move up to 2nd in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship. This despite their massive Success Ballast handicap and, as Hirakawa would elaborate on SNS after the race, engine issues which had the team on the verge of retiring before the race. Instead, Hirakawa & Cassidy persevered to maintain their 100 percent points-scoring record in 2020, their 27th top-ten finish in 29 races together.
The #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Tadasuke Makino) ran solidly near the front most of the day, and collected its fifth top-ten finish of the year in 5th place. After spinning on the opening lap, the #16 Red Bull NSX-GT of Mutoh and Ukyo Sasahara recovered to a 6th place finish, ahead of the #19 WedsSport GR Supra of Kunimoto and Ritomo Miyata in 7th.
The #12 Calsonic GT-R of Sasaki and Kazuki Hiramine recovered from its drive-through penalty, thanks to a late charge from Hiramine to finish 8th – their first points of the season. The #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) finished 9th, and rounding out the points, with a stiff Success Ballast handicap and an 85.5kg/h “Stage 3” fuel flow restrictor pulling them down, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi & Bertrand Baguette finished 10th, keeping them 3rd in the championship and just three points outside of the lead.
The #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda was denied a 6th place finish when they were forced to make an emergency pit stop with three laps to go, dropping them to 11th. And on the last lap, the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sacha Fenestraz picked up a left-front puncture. They would finish outside the points for the 2nd straight race, in 12th.
Sekiguchi & Fenestraz are still fourth in the championship, trailing the lead pair of Oshima & Tsuboi by 6 points. Kovalainen is mathematically ineligible to win the GT500 Championship, but now his co-driver Nakayama is fifth in the standings, just 8 points back, and one point ahead of Yamamoto & Makino who are sixth in the table.
Kondo Racing would have their hearts broken in GT500, but their GT300 entry, the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R GT3 of Kiyoto Fujinami and João Paulo de Oliveira, would put smiles back on the faces of Masahiko Kondo’s team as they rallied to win in the GT300 category.
Fujinami got the starting assignment in the #56 Realize GT-R, while polesitter Ryohei Sakaguchi led the field in his #6 Advics muta racing Toyota MC86, ahead of Yuhki Nakayama in the #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT. Fujinami began the race in sixth, but once the Safety Car withdrew, the 25-year-old went on a tear as he moved up to 4th at the end of the first racing lap. Then he overtook Hideki Yamauchi in the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport for 3rd on Lap 9. Three laps later, Fujinami passed Nakayama for 2nd. The top speed of the burly GT-R GT3 was too much for the journeyman Sakaguchi to fend off, and Fujinami took the race lead on Lap 15.
Round 1 winner Kohta Kawaai was also on the move in his #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra, and was up to third place behind Sakaguchi by Lap 20. Eventually, Kawaai was able to power through into 2nd.
On Lap 29, the #56 Realize GT-R pitted from the race lead. They changed drivers to Oliveira, took on fuel, and changed all four Yokohama tyres. Kawaai stayed out to overcut the field, and then, just as they did when they won the first race at Fuji in July, the GreenBrave team elected to double-stint their set of Bridgestone tyres to the end when they pitted on Lap 33, putting Hiroki Yoshida into the car.
Yoshida had no problem maintaining the net lead in class, while Oliveira even ran wide on his out-lap. But unlike the July race at Fuji, Yoshida wasn’t able to keep up a steady pace on old tyres, and Oliveira began taking 1-2 seconds per lap out of his advantage.
On Lap 47, Oliveira lunged up the inside of Yoshida at TGR Corner, planted his foot to the throttle, and made his pass for the lead around the outside of Coca-Cola Corner just as Fujinami did earlier in the race. This time, Oliveira would not give up the victory, and after two very disappointing outcomes at Suzuka and Motegi in the last two races, Kondo Racing finally broke through for their first GT300 class victory since joining the category in 2019.
“I am really so happy,” said Fujinami. “In our races, until now we have been able to compete near the top, but we couldn’t get that final result we wanted. Now we had held meetings to really pull the team together, and Yokohama prepared us with some very good tires. That is the kind of great environment where all I had to do was concentrate and compete in. I am grateful to everyone who has helped create this opportunity for me.” This is Fujinami’s second career GT300 victory. His first came last August in the Fuji 500 Miles with Team JLOC.
For Oliveira, the victory was a relief, following not just being hit twice at Suzuka in August, and being penalized after the Motegi race for a pitwork violation, but also after a challenging first year in GT300, scoring no points on the season. “It has taken me longer to win here in the GT300 class than it did in the GT500 class,” Oliveira said. “Fujinami-san succeeded in moving us up to a position where we were able to go for the win, so on my stint I was able to run at a good pace. We weren’t in a position where we could use strategies like eliminating the tire changes, but we were still able to win like we did, so I am really happy.”
Oliveira’s ninth and final GT500 class victory came at Fuji Speedway in August 2016. Over four years later, the Brazilian scores his first GT300 victory, as does Kondo Racing, who took their championship-winning Super Taikyu GT3 programme up to Super GT last season with the young duo of Kazuki Hiramine and Sacha Fenestraz.
From 12th on the grid, the #55 ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Shinichi Takagi and Toshiki Oyu finished in 2nd after a thrilling battle for the final podium places in the last laps. Oyu overtook the #65 LEON AMG of Naoya Gamou, and the #52 GreenBrave Supra of Yoshida, in the space of half a lap with just three laps remaining.
“I knew I was going to run out of time, so I just pushed and pushed and pushed and found my chance and made my move and passed them,” said Oyu after the race. “It’s a miracle that we were able to finish second, and I’m really happy with this result.”
“There have been many times in the past when we have been unable to translate our good performances into the final result. On top of that, for me personally, the flow of the Super Formula has been unsuccessful as well, so I came into this race week in a mentally distressed state,” Oyu added, alluding to his first-lap incident at Okayama that didn’t sit well with rival drivers like Oliveira and Fenestraz.
“But I knew that the only way to give back is with a strong result. I was able to make overtaking decisions at a point where I knew it was the only place I could do it, and I was able to ride aggressively and deliver results without making any mistakes, so I’m really happy about that.”
The work that K2 R&D LEON Racing put in to finish third cannot be understated, not when they were running on the maximum 100 kilogrammes of Success Ballast this weekend after Gamou & Suganami won at Motegi.
With their second straight podium and fifth straight top-six finish, Gamou & Suganami have now moved into the lead in the GT300 Championship and have a nine-point margin to second place.
In the end, the #52 GreenBrave Supra fell to a fourth-place finish, with Yoshida only holding off the #31 Toyota Prius of Koki Saga at the line by 0.081 seconds in a nail-biting photo finish. The front-engined Prius improves on its best finish of the season.
The #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) quietly drove to a 6th-place finish, just ahead of the #6 Advics MC86 of Ryohei Sakaguchi & Kazuto Kotaka, who also faded late in the race after a no-tyre exchange stop, but still took its best finish of the year in 7th. The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi & Tatsuya Kataoka, in the 100th race for Goodsmile Racing, finished 8th.
In 9th, the #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 (Seiji Ara/Tomohide Yamaguchi) scored BMW Team Studie x CSL’s first points since returning to the series after a two-year hiatus, and with a true pro-am lineup, no less! Yamaguchi was keen for a clean, quick stint following his Safety Car blunder at Motegi that earned him 7 penalty points on his license, and he did just that, while 2004 Le Mans winner Ara charged through the pack and into the points.
The #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) finished 10th on the maximum 100kg Success Ballast, and maintain 2nd in the Drivers’ Championship behind Gamou & Suganami. Unfortunately, the #61 Subaru BRZ of Yamauchi and Takuto Iguchi faded from the top ten, finishing 16th, they too had the maximum ballast, and fell behind after their pit stop. The #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Masataka Yanagida) finished 2 laps down in 27th, after having to make a second stop for tyres.
The Autobacs Super GT Series returns in three weeks time for Round 6, the Fujimaki Group Suzuka GT 300km Race, as the series makes its second and final trip to the legendary Suzuka Circuit.
Images courtesy of the GT Association