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Last-To-First Victory & A Season Sweep For NISMO At Suzuka Circuit

Audi Team Hitotsuyama scores first GT300 class victory since 2016

Round 6 of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series from Suzuka Circuit produced one of the most sensational results of the season. The #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli started from the back of the grid after Matsuda suffered a frightening crash during Saturday qualifying. But thanks to a well-timed pit stop and strong driving from the two ace drivers of the flagship NISMO team, they were able to take their second win of the season, sweep both races at Suzuka for the season, and most importantly, pull themselves right back into the forefront of what is shaping up to be a classic battle for the GT500 Championship.

It was a perfect autumn afternoon at Suzuka Circuit, with sunny skies and temperatures around 20°C. An announced crowd of 19,000 spectators were on hand for race day, much higher than what was expected as Super GT welcomed spectators back to the circuit in the second half of the season, but still within national and prefectural public health and wellness protocols.

Two Honda NSX-GTs led the field to green, and polesitter Tomoki Nojiri in the #8 ARTA NSX-GT got the holeshot into the First Corner ahead of Takuya Izawa in the #64 Modulo NSX-GT. Yuji Kunimoto held third in the #19 WedsSport Advan Toyota GR Supra off the start, but soon he was being pressed by Daiki Sasaki in the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R, and going into the First Corner on Lap 6, Sasaki passed Kunimoto to go into 3rd. Yuji Tachikawa in the #38 ZENT GR Supra followed Sasaki through into 4th, passing Kunimoto around the outside. By Lap 11, Sasaki was bearing down on Izawa, and on Lap 12, Sasaki made the move to break up the Honda 1-2.

Further back in the field, positions lower in the points were being contested amongst the championship front-runners. The top six teams in the championship were covered by just nine points going into this weekend, so every position that could be gained was crucial for the cars that were on the higher end of the Success Ballast scale.

That was the scene for a major flashpoint in the championship, that came on Lap 18. Tadasuke Makino was running 8th in the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT, and Nick Cassidy was running 9th in the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra. The two came into the pits together on that lap – but Cassidy was caught off guard by Makino slowing earlier than expected. The two cars made heavy contact, and while TV cameras didn’t catch the initial contact, they did see the Raybrig NSX’s rear bodywork and diffuser badly damaged, and the KeePer Supra’s front end with a hole in the bonnet.

Makino’s co-driver Naoki Yamamoto gestured in disbelief as the Raybrig NSX was brought to the garage. After 20 laps of repairs, Yamamoto eventually came back to finish the race, albeit as a non-classified finisher. Cassidy copped a drive-through penalty for the #37 KeePer Supra for avoidable contact, which had to be served by co-driver Ryo Hirakawa. On Lap 31, Hirakawa drove to the garage, and the KeePer TOM’s GR Supra retired from the race, ending a 12-race scoring streak for Hirakawa & Cassidy.

The ARTA NSX pitted on Lap 19, and Nirei Fukuzumi climbed aboard. A lap later, the Calsonic GT-R pitted, with Kazuki Hiramine climbing in. Hiramine came out ahead of Fukuzumi on track, and maintained his advantage – not without some controversy, though, as Hiramine could be seen weaving back and forth to put temperature into his cold Bridgestone tyres, right in front of Fukuzumi. The ZENT Supra pitted on Lap 21, and that cycled Quintarelli in the Motul GT-R to the lead.

Then on Lap 22, the GT300 class #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra of Kohta Kawaai spun off at the S-Curves. It was at this moment that the Motul GT-R was brought to the pits, just before a Safety Car was deployed for the incident. Quintarelli was relieved by Matsuda, and the NISMO staff on the pit wall were relieved that they were able to come out with the race lead!

Upon the restart of the race on Lap 27, Matsuda maintained his lead, right ahead of Hiramine. The classic Nissan rivalry between NISMO and Impul played out on track in a dramatic chase over the next several laps. The GT500 class freshman Hiramine fancied a move at the Triangle Chicane on Lap 35, but the veteran Matsuda held him off to keep the lead. It was as close as Hiramine and the Calsonic GT-R would get to passing the Motul GT-R of Matsuda, with the latter knuckling down to set a series of fast laps as the track temperature began to drop.

Soon, Hiramine would have to fend off a hard-charging Fukuzumi in the ARTA NSX-GT for second, and eventually it became a four-car battle involving the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo, and the #38 ZENT GR Supra of Hiroaki Ishiura.

But the story of the race was the red Motul GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli, coming back from last on the grid, coming back from a qualifying crash for Matsuda and somehow escaping terminal damage that could have written off their weekend completely. Some even feared at the time that Matsuda could have been seriously injured. Through all of these setbacks, NISMO completed the miracle victory from the tail of the GT500 grid.

“I am so happy that we were able to win here in front of the fans today,” said Matsuda after the race. “During my time attack in  qualifying, the condition of the car was so good that I pushed too hard and crashed. But in my stint in the second half of the race I was able to believe in the preparations I had made before the race, and hold on to the lead to win.”

“The team staff had been able to fix the car perfectly after the crash and the engineers’ decision on the pit stop timing was perfect, as was the performance of our Michelin tires, so I think this was really a victory that we owe to everyone.”

Quintarelli explained the critical call to come into the pits: “Since I was able to run well in my stint today, I was planning to run on more before making the pit stop. Coming out of the 130R curve I was suddenly told over the radio, “Bring it in for the pit top immediately!” It surprised me so much that I wanted to check what I had just heard, but it turned out to be such a good decision by the team and we were fortunate that the timing was perfect.”

“At the time I didn’t know what was going on but when I saw that we were in the lead when Tsugio-san got back on the track after the pit stop, I really thought their decision had been perfect as always,” Quintarelli laughed. “When I think about what happened in the Qualifying, this win was truly a miracle.”

It’s a landmark victory for both NISMO drivers: It’s Matsuda’s 22nd career GT500 class win, extending his career record for the most premier class victories. For his co-driver Quintarelli, it is his 16th career win, which ties him with Nissan racing legend Satoshi Motoyama for third on the all-time list. In a season where Nissan’s form has been truly hard to read, the manufacturer have now won multiple races in a season at the GT500 level for the first time since 2016 – and so have the flagship NISMO team, who won the first two races of that 2016 season.

In the moment, the most important implication of this win for Matsuda & Quintarelli is that it brings them within two points of the lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, where just two points now covers the top five driver crews in the championship table.

Hiramine held on by 0.726 seconds to keep second position, giving the Calsonic Impul GT-R its first podium finish since the rain-shortened 2019 Okayama round. In fact, this is the best finish for Team Impul since they won at Fuji in August 2016.

With Sasaki and Hiramine holding on to bring up the second part of a Nissan 1-2 finish, that marks the manufacturer’s first 1-2 result since the 2015 Autopolis round, where it was also the Motul/NISMO GT-R of Matsuda & Quintarelli finishing ahead of the Calsonic Impul GT-R.

The ARTA NSX of Nojiri and Fukuzumi finished in third, giving Autobacs Racing Team Aguri their second consecutive GT500 class podium, much to the delight of the many Honda faithful who were watching from the manufacturer’s home circuit. They finished 0.914 seconds ahead of the CraftSports GT-R of Chiyo and Kohei Hirate – who came so close to giving Nissan a clean sweep of the podium. Tachikawa and Ishiura were 5th in the ZENT Supra, keeping them within title contention with the points that they collected.

The Modulo NSX of Izawa and Hiroki Otsu finished 6th, ahead of the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sacha Fenestraz), which ended a two-race scoreless drought and climbed from 12th on the grid to finish 7th, another crucial result for the championship. The #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough) scored its best finish of the year in 8th, ahead of the #19 WedsSport Supra of Kunimoto and Ritomo Miyata in 9th, and the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) scoring the last championship point in 10th, on the day that Tsukakoshi celebrated his 100th Super GT race – all with the Real Racing team.

With the retirements of the Raybrig NSX and KeePer Supra, and the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Sho Tsuboi) finishing out of the points in 12th (and even making two driver changes, with Oshima doing two separate stints), the front five, as mentioned, are now covered by just two points. Oshima/Tsuboi still lead on 47 points, Hirakawa/Cassidy have 46, but now three crews are tied at 45 points – Matsuda/Quintarelli, Tsukakoshi/Baguette, and Sekiguchi/Fenestraz. 42 points are still available over the final two races of the season.

GT500 RACE RESULT >>

In the GT300 class, Audi Team Hitotsuyama claimed their first Super GT victory in nearly four years, as the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Shintaro Kawabata and Tsubasa Kondo picked up the victory in a race that also changed dramatically after the mid-race Safety Car intervention.

The GT300 grid was down to 29 cars after the #244 Takanoko-no-yu Lexus RC F GT3 (Rintaro Kubo/Atsushi Miyake) was withdrawn following their accident in Saturday Practice.

Today was a great milestone of longevity for polesitter Morio Nitta, who was making his 200th Super GT appearance (including non-championship rounds), making him the first driver to reach this mark. He led the first seven laps of the race in his #96 K-Tunes RC F GT3 but was then overtaken by the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Hideki Yamauchi. Whether suffering from a lack of grip or driving conservatively to protect the tyres, Nitta began to tumble down the running order, as Yamauchi in the other Dunlop-clad car established his lead. Running 2nd was the #6 Advics muta Toyota MC86 of Ryohei Sakaguchi, who pitted on Lap 17 for a change of drivers to Kazuto Kotaka, refuelled, but did not change tyres.

When the Safety Car came out for the #52 GreenBrave Supra’s crash at the S-Curves, the Advics MC86 would assume the net lead of the race – because the cars in front of them, including the Subaru BRZ of Yamauchi, were unable to come in while the pit lane was closed during the Safety Car period. This was a flashpoint that will undoubtedly fire up talks of introducing a Full Course Yellow protocol to the series, which is set to take place in 2021.

On Lap 26, most of the leaders, including the Subaru BRZ, rushed into the pits as the Safety Car was withdrawn. Kotaka now led in the Advics MC86, but on used tyres, was unable to hold off Kawabata in the Hitotsuyama R8 for very long, with the red Audi on four fresh Yokohama tyres. They officially took the race lead on Lap 30 and maintained a steady margin over the rest of the field.

In the end, the Hitotsuyama R8 was victorious, the first win for Hitotsuyama Racing since November 2016 in the first leg of a double-header at Twin Ring Motegi, their first since partnering with Team Le Mans in the offseason, and their second win in Super GT. This was also Audi’s first win in the series since that Motegi race in 2016.

“It has truly been a long time, but how great that our first podium finish in three years was a win,” said Kawabata after the race. “This year we have a new team organization and there were times that were frustrating because we were so close to a good result. This time we also had luck on our side, but my partner was really fast, and the tires were very good. I am so grateful that the team was able to prepare the car this well for us.

But even though he led the final 20 laps, Kawabata explained that the victory was not guaranteed. “At the end, we were very close to running out of gas, so it was similar to my win at Super Taikyu two weeks ago, but this seems to be the way it always goes with me (laughs). But it is great that we won.”

“I still can’t believe that we won,” said co-driver Kondo, who drove from 6th to 4th in his opening stint. “But the moment that Kawabata-san took the checkered flag, I was really happy. The team did such a good job on setting up the car that I was able to really enjoy driving it. It has been just a great race weekend.”

For both drivers, it is their first career Super GT victories, and what a journey they’ve both taken. Kawabata was inactive for nearly all of 2019, before being signed by Audi Team Hitotsuyama this season to partner factory ace Christopher Mies. With the novel coronavirus pandemic, Mies has been unable to come over from Europe to race in Super GT, giving Kondo – the newly-crowned, three-time Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champion – his first full-time Super GT opportunity on just two weeks’ notice before the start of the season.

And speaking of Kawabata – somewhere, the late, great Keiji Matsumoto will be proud of his last protegé taking his first victory, as he is the last in a lineage of students of “Matsumoto-ism” that also includes the likes of Juichi Wakisaka, Ryo Michigami, and Shinji Nakano.

The Advics MC86 of Sakaguchi and Kotaka was wrapped up in a gripping battle for 2nd with the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka in the final laps. But the rookie Kotaka withstood immense pressure from the three-time GT300 Champion Taniguchi and held on to take 2nd by just 0.641 seconds.

This is INGING Motorsports’ first podium with the MC86, and not only is it the first podium for Kotaka, but it’s also the first for 45-year-old journeyman Sakaguchi – who is in just his fourth full-time season since debuting in 2016, and hadn’t finished better than 6th in 54 previous starts.

Taniguchi and Kataoka went on to finish 3rd after starting 14th, a brilliant drive that was punctuated by a strong opening stint from Kataoka and great overtaking from Taniguchi. This gives Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO their first podium finish since last season’s race at Sugo, much to the delight of their supporters.

The #5 Mach Syaken MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) scored their first points since the season opener at Fuji, finishing 4th. And even after worries early in the race, Sena Sakaguchi brought the K-Tunes RC F back into the forefront with a 5th place finish.

The #87 T-Dash Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Tsubasa Takahashi/Shinnosuke Yamada) benefitted from the Safety Car intervention, scoring its first points finish of the year in 6th. The #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Toshiki Oyu) was the best of the customer Hondas in 7th. The #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 (Seiji Ara/Tomohide Yamaguchi) scored points for the second consecutive race in 8th, ahead of the #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) in 9th.

The last point went to the #65 LEON Pyramid AMG of Naoya Gamou and Togo Suganami, who recovered from 25th on the grid to finish in 10th. That was a major result given some of the other title contenders that finished outside the points: The #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Masataka Yanagida) 11th, the #61 Subaru BRZ of Yamauchi & Takuto Iguchi 12th, the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) 15th, and the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira) in 16th.

Gamou/Suganami now lead the GT300 Championship by 10 points, but just 12 points cover positions 2nd through 8th: Yasuda/Hiranaka are still 2nd, Takagi/Oyu move into 3rd, Fujinami/Oliveira drop to 4th, ahead of Iguchi/Yamauchi in 5th, Hiroki Yoshida & Kohta Kawaai in 6th, Katoh/Yanagida 7th, and moving way up into the thick of it are Kawabata & Kondo in 8th.

GT300 RACE RESULT >>

The penultimate round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series takes place in three weeks’ time at Twin Ring Motegi, on 7 November.