In a day that was dominated by the Toyota GR Supras, the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra of Ryo Hirakawa and Kenta Yamashita led every on-track session at Fuji Speedway on Saturday, including both phases of qualifying, where Yamashita took his second career GT500 class pole position and the new track record for a GT500 car at Fuji. This gives championship contender Hirakawa a bonus point in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship, which as of today, moves him into the lead of the standings by a single point going into Sunday afternoon’s eighth and final round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series – the Takanokono Hotel Fuji GT 300km Race.
At their “home circuit” at Fuji, Toyota locked out the front two rows in the GT500 grid, while in GT300, the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida and Kohta Kawaai took pole position, as the rookie Kawaai smashed a four-year-old track record to take his first career Super GT pole position and a crucial bonus point for both drivers.
During Saturday morning’s practice session, Yamashita went fastest of all GT500 runners. That set the KeePer TOM’s Supra up well for qualifying in the afternoon on a cool day – with air temperatures at 12-13°C, and track temps at 16-17°C. In Q1, Hirakawa took the top spot – this, in fact, was the KeePer Supra’s first Q2 placement since the very first round of the season at Fuji, in July. And with his final attack lap in Q2, Yamashita broke the track record that was set in that first race, clocking in with a 1’26.386 to take the pole position – Yamashita’s first since the 2019 round at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, where he also set a new course record.
This bodes well for Hirakawa’s chances on Sunday: The 2017 GT500 Champion started from pole when he and former co-driver Nick Cassidy won at Fuji Speedway on 19 July to open the season, leading 64 out of 66 laps.
Yamashita said in the post-qualifying press conference, “Before the qualifying, we didn’t know much about (the competitors’) conditions, and since we knew our chances of clearing Q1 might be slim, we had to ask Hirakawa-san to run in Q1 for us. In the previous round at Motegi, I had failed to clear Q1, which left me in sort of a trauma.”
“It turned out that Hirakawa-san finished on top in Q1, and that put even more pressure on me to do well in Q2. But we had such a good match between the car set-up and the tires, and I am glad to have been able to make the best of that advantage to win pole position.”
The #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) qualified 2nd, giving the team their best qualifying result of the 2020 season at the course where they won in October. The #36 au TOM’s GR Supra (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sacha Fenestraz) qualified 3rd, which matches their best result. And with the #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) rounding out the top four, they completed a thoroughly dominant display from the fifth-generation GR Supras in qualifying. It’s the first time Toyota have locked out the top four places in GT500 Qualifying since the 2016 season finale at Twin Ring Motegi.
The best of the rest was the #64 Modulo Honda NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa/Hiroki Otsu), which qualified 5th. Unfortunately, they are now mathematically eliminated from title contention, as they needed the maximum 21 points to remain eligible going into this weekend.
Rounding out the rest of the front four rows are the #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) in 6th, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Tadasuke Makino) in 7th, in the last race for Team Kunimitsu with the Raybrig colours – and the only non-title contender to advance to Q2, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Kazuki Hiramine) in 8th.
Further back in the GT500 grid, three championship contenders missed out on a place in Q2. The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Nirei Fukuzumi), which hadn’t started off the front row at Fuji in three previous races, could only manage 11th in Q1. The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette), which entered this weekend as the points leader on countback, qualified just behind them in 12th. And the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Sho Tsuboi), after a good practice, couldn’t string together a strong lap in Q1 and settled for 13th on the grid – the most shocking result of them all, given the successes of the other Bridgestone-clad Toyota teams.
Six teams can win the championship by simply winning Sunday’s 66-lap race: The KeePer Supra of Hirakawa, the Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi & Baguette, the Motul GT-R of Matsuda & Quintarelli, the Raybrig NSX of Yamamoto & Makino, the ARTA NSX of Nojiri & Fukuzumi, and the Wako’s Supra of Oshima & Tsuboi (who owns a tiebreaker over Hirakawa). Sekiguchi & Fenestraz need a minimum 4th place finish to stay alive, Nakayama needs a minimum 3rd place finish with Kovalainen, and Tachikawa & Ishiura can only win the championship by winning the race on Sunday.
In GT300, the big story before qualifying was the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Toshiki Oyu/Nobuharu Matsushita) being ruled out of the session before it even began. They ran just six laps in Practice before an engine issue ended their day. This means Oyu will now have to win from 30th on the grid (or a pit-lane start, which is more likely) to have any shot at the title tomorrow. Though, some good news for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri came earlier this weekend, when Shinichi Takagi returned to the paddock after being released from the hospital this Thursday. Takagi is still recovering from back and wrist injuries sustained in a Super Taikyu crash at Okayama three weeks ago.
The #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport led the way in Practice, with Hideki Yamauchi setting a new unofficial GT300 lap record.
In Q1, the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) was eliminated from title contention after finishing 12th in their group, with only the top eight in each group advancing to Q2. This ends a run of tri-annual championships for Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO, the 2011, 2014, and 2017 GT300 Champions. They’ll start 24th in Sunday’s race.
Q2, however, belonged to 26-year-old Kawaai, who used the benefit of a slipstream down the 1.475-kilometre front stretch to his benefit. Kawaai first set a 1’35.068 to jump to provisional P1, and officially take the GT300 track record – after it had stood since May 2016. On his next lap, he lowered it even further, to a 1’34.665, the first-ever sub-1’35 lap for a GT300 car around Fuji. Put into perspective, Kawaai’s record time would have been reasonably competitive in the GT500 class back in 2005, the year this circuit configuration was first used.
“I was fortunate to be able to make use of other cars’ slipstream with good timing, but it was also having this car that the team had set up so well that I was able to run my time attack with confidence,” said Kawaai, a first-time GT300 pole winner.
“And all this enabled me to leave with a new course record. At least this pole position has given us one more series point, but we are going to have to win tomorrow’s race in order to have a chance of getting the series title, so now I want to work with Yoshida-san and the team to prepare for the race.”
Yoshida & Kawaai, who won the season-opening round at Fuji in July, move up to 42 points on the year, 14 behind the current GT300 Championship leaders. They can win the championship with a minimum 2nd-place finish, depending on where the others in front of them finish – but their best chance will be with a victory.
The #61 Subaru BRZ (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), the car that was inadvertently used as the tow for the GreenBrave Supra in Q2, makes it an all-JAF-GT300 front row in 2nd. Playing the role of potential spoiler, the #6 Advics MC86 (Ryohei Sakaguchi/Kazuto Kotaka) qualified 3rd after leading the second group of qualifiers in Q1. Fastest of the GT3 cars was the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Sena Sakaguchi), in 4th.
Ranked 2nd in points, the #65 LEON Pyramid AMG (Naoya Gamou/Togo Suganami) starts 5th, two spots ahead of the top-ranked #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira) in 7th. In-between is the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) which starts 6th, the leader of the first Q1 group.
Fujinami & Oliveira can still clinch the championship by winning the race. Gamou & Suganami can finish no lower than 5th. Hiranaka & Yasuda must finish at least 2nd, just like Yoshida & Kawaai. Meanwhile, Iguchi & Yamauchi must win to have any shot at the title, as does Oyu with Matsushita.
Starting 8th is the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Masataka Yanagida), and starting 9th is the #244 Takanoko-no-yu RC F GT3 (Atsushi Miyake/Yuui Tsutsumi), with Tsutsumi having been drafted in just today to replace regular driver Rintaro Kubo. The #5 Mach5G GTNET MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki) completes the top ten of the GT300 grid.
Green flag time for Sunday’s race is 13:00 JST / 4:00 GMT / 5:00 CET / Saturday 23:00 EST, and international coverage will be available live and free on The Race via YouTube.