History was made by Honda, and the stage has been set for two incredible championship showdowns in the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series. The #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri and Nirei Fukuzumi took a commanding victory in the penultimate round of the 2020 season, the Fujimaki Group Motegi GT 300km Race at Twin Ring Motegi. In doing so, Autobacs Racing Team Aguri led a top-five sweep for Honda at their home circuit, the first time in Super GT history that Honda have swept the top five places in GT500.
It was a bit warmer on this Sunday afternoon than it was the day before in time trials, 22°C at the start of the race. Unlike the last time that Super GT visited Motegi in September, the grandstands were dotted with fans. A crowd of over 15,000 spectators were on hand – including a few supporters of the GT500 Hondas, cars which were built just 42 kilometres north at the HRD Sakura facility.
From pole position, the #64 Modulo NSX-GT of Hiroki Otsu jumped out to an early lead. Nojiri held second, ahead of the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Tadasuke Makino in third. Nakajima Racing were on pole for the second time this season, and the Modulo NSX had incredible short-run pace in the early laps – leading by over four seconds after four laps.
But once the grip in Otsu’s Dunlop tyres started to fall away, Nojiri in his Bridgestone-clad ARTA NSX began to close in rapidly. By Lap 9, Nojiri had closed up to the back of Otsu, and on Lap 10, Nojiri made the move for the lead through Turns 1 & 2. Two laps later, Makino passed Otsu for second position. It was still a Honda 1-2-3 as it was in qualifying, but the Modulo NSX once again lacked the long-run pace that their Bridgestone-clad stablemates were able to boast.
Once Nojiri got to the front, the orange and black ARTA NSX pulled away rapidly from the pack and continued to extend its margin over the field. Nojiri was leading by over 13 seconds when he pitted on Lap 23. There was a change of drivers to Fukuzumi. The Modulo NSX also pitted on Lap 23, with Takuya Izawa taking the wheel to the end.
Those stops became important as the GT300 class #5 Mach5G GTNET Toyota 86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) came to a stop on Lap 23 between Turns 8 and 9. On the next lap, the Safety Car was deployed, and the pit lane was closed while marshalls pushed the stricken GT300 car off the track. The Safety Car was withdrawn at the end of Lap 28, and starting with a pack of cars that followed the Safety Car into the pits, the rest of the GT500 field were finally able to complete their routine pitwork.
When the shuffling was completed after the pit cycles, the ARTA NSX of Fukuzumi and the Modulo NSX of Izawa were out front as expected. Over a minute behind them, the Raybrig NSX, now being driven by Naoki Yamamoto, was third. And in fourth, was Ukyo Sasahara, who had just taken over the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT from Hideki Mutoh – who pitted on Lap 30, and leapt from 11th place before the Safety Car, all the way into the top five. Honda now occupied the top four spots in the order.
In a battle for position that carried with it major championship implications, the #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda was trying to hold onto fifth spot, ahead of the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi in sixth, and the #37 KeePer TOM’s Toyota GR Supra of Ryo Hirakawa in seventh. As they ran, Matsuda and co-driver Ronnie Quintarelli would have moved to the top of the championship table. On Lap 49, Tsukakoshi overtook Matsuda through Turns 1 & 2, and Hirakawa seized the initiative to get past Matsuda into Turn 5. That change of positions put Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette at the top of the points table, and it put all five Hondas up front in the top five positions.
Fukuzumi, meanwhile, was pulling away from Izawa, and the rest of the field, at warp speed. He had 5 seconds over Izawa by Lap 35, 17 seconds by the end of Lap 45. With fifteen laps to go, Fukuzumi had already broken out a 25-second margin up front, and he continued to stretch that margin all the way to the final lap of the race, as Autobacs Racing Team Aguri took their first victory of the season in dominant style. The final margin of victory was a whopping 46.238 seconds!
It was the result that ARTA had been building towards, after suffering through a rash of poor fortune in the first half of the season, they’ve now scored three straight podium finishes, capped off with the team’s first victory since the rain-shortened 2019 race at Okayama – and before that, their first win in a dry-weather race since the 2018 finale at Motegi.
An emotional Fukuzumi shed tears in parc ferme when he was interviewed on television after the race, and his emotions continued to overflow in the post-race press conference. “Until now, we had often been able to start from up front but the races had not gone well, so I felt worried again today….” Fukuzumi said, still weeping with joy. “I am glad that we were finally able to win. I want to thank everyone.”
It is 23-year-old Fukuzumi’s first career GT500 class victory, and the fifth for his co-driver Nojiri. It’s the third win of the year for the new front-engined NSX-GT, which has really benefited from its low-drag downforce package that was introduced in the final pre-season test.
“As soon as I caught up to the Modulo NSX in the lead, I wanted to pass it right away. With strong determination I was able to make the overtake with good timing,” Nojiri said in the press conference. “I was also fortunate to be able to expand my lead after that. The team did a great job of preparing the car for us, and we got a lot of great development cooperation from Honda to increase the potential of the NSX-GT for all the teams. I think that is what led to this performance in the race.”
While the Modulo NSX of Izawa fell further in arrears of the ARTA NSX, the timing of the Safety Car still meant that he had enough of a buffer to the rest of the field, and was still able to take home a second-place finish. It’s Modulo Nakajima Racing’s first podium since the 2019 race at Sportsland Sugo – and their first dry-weather podium since winning the 2017 Suzuka 1000km.
“Today we were lucky because of the introduction of the Safety Car, and to be honest, my stint wasn’t very fast. But I’ve been working hard all year with the team and we’ve been able to improve our speed, and it’s finally paid off in terms of results,” Izawa said after the race. “The fact that we were able to reward the team in the form of a podium is what was so rewarding to me. For that reason I’m very happy.”
The #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Yamamoto and Makino rounded off the podium in third, giving Team Kunimitsu their second podium finish of the season. They finished two seconds ahead of the #16 Red Bull NSX-GT of Mutoh and Sasahara, in fourth. And in fifth place, was the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Tsukakoshi and Baguette.
In a historic day, Honda have swept the top five positions in GT500 for the first time in their history in Super GT. It’s their first clean sweep of the podium since the legendary 2007 race at Sportsland Sugo, and prior to that, the last time they had locked out the top four in GT500 was all the way back at the 2000 season finale at Suzuka Circuit. This matches Toyota’s top-five sweep at Fuji Speedway this July, in the debut race for the fifth-generation GR Supra.
And to do it at the Honda-owned Twin Ring Motegi, just south of the facility where these cars were built, just makes it all the more satisfying a result.
The #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra of Hirakawa and Kenta Yamashita was best of the rest in sixth. Yamashita, who is replacing Nick Cassidy for the final two rounds of the season, atoned for a subpar qualifying by his standards by driving his way from 13th on the grid into 7th on his opening stint, and Hirakawa maintained a steady pace throughout the second part of the race to score much-needed championship points.
The #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Matsuda and Quintarelli finished seventh, and solidly in the points. They finished ahead of the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) in eighth, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Kazuki Hiramine in ninth, and the #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) in tenth, just a half-second behind the Calsonic GT-R.
Meanwhile, the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Sho Tsuboi) struggled in the second half and finished out of the points in 12th, while the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sacha Fenestraz) dropped off the lead lap late, and finished 13th.
Ten teams will be mathematically eligible to win the GT500 Championship going into the season finale at Fuji Speedway on 29 November, headed by the duo of Tsukakoshi & Baguette, who are level with Hirakawa on 51 points, but hold the first tiebreaker, two wins to one. Matsuda & Quintarelli are on 49 points, and ahead on countback from Yamamoto & Makino, who are also on 49 points. And with 44 points scored in the last three races, Nojiri & Fukuzumi are now just three points outside of first place.
In the GT300 class, the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R GT3 of Kiyoto Fujinami and João Paulo de Oliveira took their second victory of the 2020 season, and with it, they also took the lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship after the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Naoya Gamou & Togo Suganami was delayed one lap during the pivotal Safety Car intervention.
The race started with the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Hideki Yamauchi leading from pole position. Starting from 2nd in a donor car from TRD, the #244 Takanoko-no-yu Lexus RC F GT3 (Rintaro Kubo/Atsushi Miyake) was asked to serve a fifteen-second stop/go penalty for a change of chassis – a harsh blow, but nothing that would dampen the spirits of the team after their qualifying triumph. With that penalty, the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R of Hironobu Yasuda moved up into second.
Yamauchi was leading by roughly 6 seconds when the race reached one-thirds’ distance. After 19 laps, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Tatsuya Kataoka pitted from fifth place, and Nobuteru Taniguchi took over. On Lap 21, the Realize GT-R of Fujinami pitted from fourth, relieved by Oliveira.
Then with 22 laps completed for the GT300 runners, the Safety Car was deployed for the stranded Mach MC86, and once again, the Subaru BRZ was left to twist in the wind just as they were in the last round at Suzuka Circuit. The crew at R&D Sport reacted by changing only two tyres on their pit stop to maintain track position.
The Miku AMG of Taniguchi was now in the net lead of the race, ahead of the Realize GT-R of Oliveira. Meanwhile, the #65 LEON AMG pitted on Lap 20 for a change of drivers (Suganami to Gamou) and fuel only, and at the time, this looked to be a decision that would have helped K2 R&D LEON Racing put at least one hand on the GT300 title, from 20th on the grid. But when the pit cycle closed, the LEON AMG was still down in 19th. It wasn’t easily spotted on the broadcast, but Gamou had come out just behind the Safety Car, and was delayed by one lap. A similar fate also befell the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Masataka Yanagida), who eventually finished down in 24th, and were eliminated from championship contention.
When the race restarted, Taniguchi led from Oliveira in 2nd, and the #18 UPGarage Honda NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Kosuke Matsuura) in third. But the UPGarage NSX’s podium bid was short-lived, as Matsuura would be asked to serve a drive-through penalty for a pit work violation. That promoted the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida to the final podium place. They pitted after the Safety Car was withdrawn, and maintained track position by taking fuel only when changing drivers.
Taniguchi and Oliveira were now in a heated dogfight for the race. On Lap 31, Oliveira dove to the inside at the 90° Corner, but Taniguchi remained alongside him as they passed under the remains of the superspeedway oval and out of the final corners. But even Taniguchi couldn’t withstand Oliveira’s determined attack, and the Brazilian muscled his way through into the race lead.
Further back, there was a fascinating battle heating up for third place between the GreenBrave Supra of Yoshida and the Subaru BRZ of Takuto Iguchi. They would soon be joined by the #11 Gainer GT-R of Hiranaka, who had four fresh Dunlop tyres underneath him, and was catching the two cars who had taken two or no tyres on their stops rapidly. And following them through was the #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R of Takayuki Aoki, ready to capitalize if any of the three cars ahead of him made a mistake.
With five laps to go, there was a major moment at Turn 5: While Iguchi and Hiranaka were running tail-to-nose, Hiranaka made contact with Iguchi, sending the blue Subaru BRZ spinning and making light contact with the guardrail. Iguchi only dropped to sixth, meanwhile Aoki passed both cars to move up to fourth.
Taniguchi was staying right with Oliveira all the way to the end of the race, but in the end, the Realize GT-R was able to hang on for the second win in the last three races. While Kondo Racing has had next to no luck in GT500 (the #24 Realize GT-R of Mitsunori Takaboshi/Jann Mardenborough lost five laps in the garage with mechanical issues, for instance), their GT300 side is now leading the championship going into the last race of the season.
“I am really so very happy!” exclaimed Fujinami. “Things weren’t going badly for us this time, but our rivals were really fast. Just like the last race, we benefited from the timing of the Safety Car intervention, but this time we were able to take the victory, so it was really great. As long as we are in this environment with this team, we need to produce strong results. And we have gotten help from the [Nissan Automobile Technical College] students as well – we are grateful for the nearly 300 students who came out to cheer for us today. It is good now to be at the top of the standings, but we can’t get complacent. We want to finish the final round in the best way possible.”
“Thank you, everyone!” said Oliveira. “We were in a tough position where we had to control the race. It was a long stint in the second half and Taniguchi-san in car No. 4 was closing in at the end. Still, I was able to enjoy the race, and since we are now the leaders in the championship title race, this has really been a good day for us.”
It’s Fujinami’s third career GT300 class victory, and the second for Oliveira. It’s also the third win of the season for Nissan in GT300.
Taniguchi wasn’t quite able to take the victory in the end, but he and Kataoka still finished a strong second, Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO’s best finish of the 2020 season, and their best result since the 2019 Sugo round, where they also finished in second place. Another strong result, much to the delight of the team’s many supporters.
“We had to make an early pit stop and then the safety car came in, so we were able to quickly move up the order and finally get to the top,” said Taniguchi. “We were just lucky to be able to get to that position. For the Subaru and the Gainer GT-R, which were really fast in this race, the timing of the safety car was not so good. But we’ve had a difficult season so far, so maybe the racing gods rewarded us a little bit more this time than they did at Suzuka last time.”
On the final lap, Aoki closed in on Yoshida, and made the move for third place just past the start/finish line. This gave the #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R of Aoki and rookie Takuya Otaki, who drove a brilliant opening stint, a podium finish. It’s the first podium for Tomei Sports since 1 October 1994, in the last race of the very first season of the All-Japan GT Championship – when they finished third at Miné Circuit in their Porsche 964, competing in what was then known as the “GT-2” category!
Since returning to the series in 2007, Tomei Sports have had only one other points-paying finish, it came last November at Motegi, and they nearly won here in September before running out of fuel just a handful of laps from the end. Now, the hard work and years of steady improvement from Keikichi Nakano’s team, have finally been rewarded with a podium finish.
From 18th on the grid, the GreenBrave Supra of Yoshida and Kawaai finished in fourth, a crucial result for their championship hopes. They had originally finished just six-tenths ahead of the #11 Gainer GT-R of Hiranaka and Yasuda, who were fifth on track. But after the race, they were given a 30-second time penalty for Hiranaka’s collision with Iguchi, which drops them down to ninth place – still in the points, but with fewer markers than they hoped for.
That promoted the #61 Subaru BRZ of Iguchi and Yamauchi back up to fifth place, and while they did still score points, this was truly a case of “what could have been” were it not for the timing of the Safety Car.
The #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) ran up in the top ten all day, and finished 6th – they made two stops, one under the Safety Car once pit lane opened to refuel and take tyres, and the second after the Safety Car was withdrawn, to change drivers. The #10 TanaX Itochu Enex with Impul GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) ended a three-race scoreless drought in 7th. In 8th, was the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 of Toshiki Oyu, and the debuting ex-Formula 2 ace Nobuharu Matsushita, who did well enough in place of the injured Shinichi Takagi.
And in tenth, it was a battle of two true Pro-Am teams for the last points-paying position: The #30 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT of Hiroaki Nagai and Manabu Orido got the place – taking the number 30 apr Racing team’s first top-ten finish the 2016 Fuji 500km.
But just one second behind them, was the #48 Shokumou K’s Frontier GT-R of Yuki Tanaka and the returning Ryuichiro Tomita. They finished just out of the points in 11th, but their effort was made all the more impressive when considering that Tanaka was spun on Lap 2, and Tomita, back for the first time since finishing his first season in the SRO GT World Challenge Europe, was hunting down the veteran Orido to the very end. If not for the spin, it could very well have been NILZZ Racing’s first top-ten since November 2016 at Motegi!
In the GT300 championship, Fujinami & Oliveira now lead Gamou & Suganami, 56 points to 51, and seven teams are still mathematically eligible to win the championship at Fuji on 29 November.
In a season unlike any other, the final round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series – three weeks from today, at historic Fuji Speedway – could deliver the greatest championship battles in the series’ quarter-century of history.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)