In the midst of the extraordinary scenes that unfolded on the last lap of the final round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series at Fuji Speedway, the climax of the GT500 class race largely overshadowed another compelling drama that played out in the GT300 class.
The #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R GT3, driven by Kiyoto Fujinami and João Paulo de Oliveira, had to work hard to get to where they could win the championship. Even though they entered the race with a five-point lead in the championship table, it wasn’t a certainty that they would end the season as GT300 Champions. But thanks to the skill of both drivers and the preparation of a team that has had to navigate unthinkable turmoil, a long-tenured team and two hard-working, talented drivers finally got their first Super GT crown.
And they weren’t the only star performers of the day, by any stretch.
So in this DSC Wrap-Up, we wanted to do an in-depth overview of the many stories that unfolded in the GT300 class finale.
GT300: Kondo Racing, Oliveira, & Fujinami win the title
Round 8 brought the series back to Fuji Speedway for the fourth time this season. The Takanokono Hotel Fuji GT 300km Race (the fourth race with this same title) was held in the coldest conditions that the teams had to face all year. Success Ballast was no longer in play to alter the playing field, and going into Sunday’s race, six teams still had a mathematical chance to win the GT300 Championships – but two teams stood above the others as the favourites: The #56 Realize GT-R of Fujinami & Oliveira, and the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Naoya Gamou & Togo Suganami. The other four teams effectively needed to win the race and also needed misfortune on the part of those top two squads to have a chance.
But when you are a longshot, you can at least do what you can to put yourself in with a chance. And from Saturday qualifying onward, the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida & Kohta Kawaai seized that opportunity. The exclamation mark was Kawaai’s record lap in qualifying to take pole position, and a crucial bonus point in the Drivers’ Championship for himself and Yoshida.
30 GT300 class cars entered this weekend. But just 29 ended up taking the green flag. The first casualty was the #5 Mach5G GTNET/Mach Syaken Toyota MC86 (Natsu Sakaguchi/Yuya Hiraki), who finished 2nd in the season-opener at Fuji in July – but didn’t take the start after suffering a transmission failure during the Warm-Up session.
There would be more early attrition once the field took the green flag at just past 13:05 JST, and for Team JLOC, the last race of the Super GT season would end in just a matter of minutes. Their #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) broke down after just one lap, suffering from a terminal issue with the cooling system. On the second lap, the #87 T-Dash Huracán (Tsubasa Takahashi/Shinnosuke Yamada) was knocked out after Takahashi made contact with the #34 Modulo Kenwood Honda NSX-GT of Jake Parsons. Parsons recovered from a spin, he and Ryo Michigami finished 17th.
But up at the front, two teams in JAF-GT300 cars, in a must-win situation, made their claim to the race victory. Kawaai started from pole in the #52 GreenBrave Supra, but it was the 2nd-place starter, Hideki Yamauchi in the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport, who pulled a textbook up-and-under pass through Turns 1 & 2 to take the lead just seconds into the race. Yamauchi and Takuto Iguchi have been Subaru/R&D Sport’s leading drivers for six seasons, and this year they had their best chance ever to give Subaru their first-ever championship as a Super GT manufacturer, and R&D Sport’s first as a team.
It was a showdown at the front of the field between the large-displacement, naturally-aspirated V8 engine of the Toyota Supra versus the small-displacement, turbocharged Flat-4 engine of the Subaru BRZ. And, it was a showdown between their tyre partners – Bridgestone, and Dunlop, respectively. They had a clear advantage over Yokohama tyres for much of the weekend, and that was true in these cooler conditions, where the track temperature was just 17°C at race start – and the teams were given two extra Formation Laps to put heat into the tyres. GT3 cars now dominate the landscape in GT300, so the success of the JAF-GT300 cars was a refreshing sight for many.
The two cars ran tail-to-nose and gradually pulled away from the field, but on Lap 9, Kawaai seized an opportunity to take back the lead. He tucked into Yamauchi’s slipstream, then dived up the inside of TGR Corner (Turn 1) and outbraked Yamauchi, holding the lead through the critical exit of Turn 2 into Coca-Cola Corner (Turn 3). Gradually, the GreenBrave Supra began to open up a gap to the Subaru, whose tyres were beginning to wear out from heavy abrasion in the cold temperatures, and was losing grip rapidly.
Just a few seconds back, Fujinami in the #56 Realize GT-R was bearing down on the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R of Hironobu Yasuda for fourth place, and the #65 LEON AMG of Suganami was right behind Fujinami as well. Both Fujinami and Suganami were mentored by Yasuda in their karting days, and the veteran Yasuda was proud of their progress in the lead up to the race. Fujinami got past Yasuda on Lap 17, out of Turn 2, while Suganami passed him for 5th at Panasonic Corner (Turn 16). When the GT500 leaders hit 1/3rd distance (Lap 22), the GT300 leaders were on Lap 19. This was the point where the LEON AMG came to the pits to undercut the field. Gamou took the wheel for the rest of the race, and K2 R&D LEON Racing opted not to change tyres. Double-stinting the tyres was the same strategy LEON Racing went with to win Round 4 at Twin Ring Motegi.
On Lap 24, Fujinami came into the pits – nearly getting sideswiped by a faster GT500 car that was also coming in – but the #56 Realize GT-R had a drama-free stop. They took four fresh tyres and put Oliveira in ’til the end of the race. The GreenBrave Supra was overcutting the other race leaders – and on Lap 28, they made their pit stop. Just like they did when they won Round 1 at Fuji in July, they double-stinted their Bridgestone tyres to the end, with Yoshida getting in for the closing stint.
When all the GT300 teams had pitted for routine service, the #52 GreenBrave Supra’s no-exchange strategy had worked out, and Yoshida had a 35-second lead over the #65 LEON AMG of Gamou in 2nd. With the #56 Realize GT-R of Oliveira in fourth, and over 10 seconds behind the next car, the strategy from K2 R&D LEON Racing Chief Engineer Tadashi Mizota had the LEON AMG in position to take their second set of GT300 Championships in three years, by just two points.
But if Oliveira could catch the next car, they would gain another three points, and Fujinami & Oliveira would become champions by a single point. The third-placed car was the #6 Advics muta INGING MC86 – which started strong in the hands of veteran Ryohei Sakaguchi, and was still running comfortably in third with rookie Kazuto Kotaka at the wheel. They had made the call to change all four Bridgestone tyres on their stop, and were playing the role of potential championship spoilers.
In time, however, the veteran Oliveira began to claw away at Kotaka’s advantage by lapping consistently in the 1’38 range. From a gap of over ten seconds, it was now just five seconds after 46 laps. Two laps later, the gap was down to three seconds. All Fujinami could do was watch from his chair and hope for his co-driver to reverse the deficit. Eventually, the gap continued to come down, to less than a second. And on Lap 52, Oliveira made a fantastic run out of the Dunlop Corner complex, dived to the inside of Kotaka at Turn 13, and took third place in the class – moving the Realize GT-R to the provisional lead in the championship.
But Oliveira wasn’t satisfied, he could see that Gamou was right up the road in 2nd, and was starting to experience some fall-off in pace as the track temperature dropped to 10°C. In just two laps, Oliveira closed in on Gamou, and then made the move for second place down the frontstretch into TGR Corner. It was a demonstrative pass, for Kondo Racing to clinch the title by finishing ahead of their nearest championship rivals. The gap would expand further when Kotaka passed Gamou for third place on the next lap.
Up front, the #52 GreenBrave Supra was in a league of its own – 45 seconds up the road in first place as the GT500 leaders took their fateful white flag. Yoshida and Kawaai took the chequered flag after 61 laps completed. They had won this battle, but the championship was won by Kondo Racing and their Nissan GT-R of Oliveira and Fujinami by a margin of nine points.
It was a much-needed triumph for Kondo Racing team and the student and dealership mechanics from the Nissan Mechanic Challenge who’ve supported them all season. This is Kondo Racing’s 20th anniversary as an organisation, and their 15th season in Super GT, having first entered the series in GT500 in 2006 before expanding to include a GT300 effort last season. They’d won a teams’ championship in Super Formula already, but never a championship in Super GT.
And then, two weeks before the race, the team was thrown into turmoil when team President & CEO Masahiko Kondo announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from his sporting and musical careers after it was revealed that he was in a multi-year extramarital affair. With the exposure of the affair dominating weekly tabloids in Japan, many fans speculated what would happen to Kondo Racing not just this weekend, but going forward into 2021.
Rather than let the hysteria away from the paddock demoralize them, the team galvanised around Deputy Team Director Hatsuki Kohno, and Fujinami and Oliveira drove a consistent, flawless race to take the result that they needed to bring the team their first Super GT title – and, a first title for both drivers.
It was the crowning moment that João Paulo Lima de Oliveira had waited fifteen seasons to achieve in Super GT. Thirteen of those seasons were spent in GT500 with Nissan, and while he came close, the Brazilian never could manage to claim the GT500 Championship. After a promising but frustrating first season in GT300, Oliveira was teetering on the verge of exiting Super GT without a title. Instead, he moved back to Kondo Racing – with whom he took his first and last GT500 victories – and has finally captured the elusive crown to compliment his 2005 All-Japan F3 and 2010 Super Formula titles.
“At the start of this season, I had no team to drive for and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to race,” said Oliveira after the race. “So, I am so glad that Manager Kondo asked me to come and I was able to race with this team. My partner Fujinami-san really drove fantastically throughout the season. Thanks to the work of the engineers and the mechanics, we had a great car, and we drivers also worked hard to be able to get this championship. I am very, very happy.”
And for 25-year-old Fujinami, his season was a realization of the potential he showed as a member of the Nissan Driver Development Programme (NDDP) that sent the likes of Katsumasa Chiyo, Mitsunori Takaboshi, Daiki Sasaki, and Hironobu Yasuda upwards to GT500 success. Dropped from the programme after 2013, Fujinami made his Super GT debut in 2017, but then couldn’t land a full-time ride for the next two years, so he put his priorities in Super Taikyu where he won back-to-back ST-X (GT3) class titles. At Kondo Racing, he has delivered on his potential with speed and laser-like focus, and in doing so, he’s perhaps given himself a fair shot at a step up to GT500 with Nissan just like his NDDP forerunners.
“I have been supported by a lot of people around me until now, so more than anything, I wanted to pay back my debt to them with a good result,” said Fujinami. “This year I learned so much by being fortunate to have J.P. as my driving partner, and everyone on the team did so much to help me, so it was truly a great environment to work in. Going forward, I still want to work harder, but right now I am very happy, and relieved.”
“The combination of Fujinami-san’s speed and the experience and technique of J.P. made for a great system this season,” said Deputy Team Director Kohno. “Since competing with us in GT300 this year, J.P. has become more of an ‘adult J.P.’ ever since. I feel that he has become more conscious of carrying the car to the finish line intact. Fujinami, who joined the team from this season, may not be as experienced, but was very competitive in every race. As he progressed, he became more and more confident and mature, with J.P.’s leadership.”
“On the other hand, I think the students of Nissan Motor College and the mechanics of the Nissan dealerships also gained good experience by working together in the field of racing. In this project aimed at human resource development, more than 10,000 students from Nissan Motor College have been involved in racing from the time we were entering in Super Taikyu. Many have graduated from the college, became dealership mechanics upon entering society, and then came back to the project to participate in racing. When you think about it, I think ‘continuity is power’ is a true expression of this project. As we have accumulated many experiences as a team, Director Kondo always told the students to smile when they are happy, and to shed tears when they are sad because of their failures. I think this season is the result of everyone fighting with that in mind.”
This championship is Nissan’s first in Super GT since they swept both the GT500 and GT300 titles in 2015, and it’s the first for the current-generation GT-R GT3. In total, it is Nissan’s eighth GT300 Drivers’ Championship.
Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave’s second win of 2020 clinched a second-place finish in the GT300 Championship for Yoshida and Kawaai. Their new GR Supra, constructed by apr Racing to the design specifications provided by Saitama Toyopet, proved to be as effective a car as it looked from the moment it broke cover in winter testing. Journeyman Yoshida enjoyed the best year of his career to date, and Kawaai showed his strength as a rookie coming straight out of Formula 4.
“I am glad that we got these two wins at the opening round and the final round,” said Yoshida, who is credited with his third career victory. “This year brought a new challenge for us in getting adjusted to the new GR Supra, but after our owner, [Takayuki] Hiranuma-san, decided to go with the new car this season, the team adapted to it and the people at Bridgestone Corporation prepared some fantastic tires for us. This time Kohta got pole position in the qualifying for us and also gave a great performance in the race, so this is all just too good to be true.”
“We were able to win, but in terms of strength, I was still disappointed at being passed by No. 61 at the start. But I think I did the job that was required of me,” said Kawaai.
It has been a tremendous four-year upward arc for Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave from upstarts to race winners and title contenders, and just like the championship-winning Kondo Racing team, they are also a team that is staffed with dealership mechanics working in a racing capacity.
The #6 Advics MC86 held on for a third-place finish, the second podium of the season for Advics muta racing INGING in their first year as an independent entry. It’s another well-earned podium for another career journeyman in Sakaguchi, and for Kotaka, a strong finish to his rookie season, after being sidelined from the last round at Motegi due to a fever.
The #65 LEON AMG of Gamou & Suganami consolidated third place in the GT300 Championship with a fourth-place finish.
Further back in the pack, many more great stories were unfolding – including a long-awaited breakthrough for Michelin’s two GT300 customers. The #9 Pacific NAC D’station Aston Martin Vantage GT3 (Tomonobu Fujii/Takuro Shinohara) scored their best finish of 2020, finishing fifth. It’s D’station Racing’s best Super GT finish since finishing 2nd at Okayama in 2018, and the best for Aston Martin since their return to the series. In 9th, the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Shunsuke Kohno) ended a season of learning with their first top-ten of the year.
The #10 TanaX Itochu Enex with Impul GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) finished in 6th, and from 29th on the grid after failing to take part in qualifying, the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 (Toshiki Oyu/Nobuharu Matsushita) gained 22 places to finish 7th. Unable to solve the tyre abrasion issue, the #61 Subaru BRZ of Iguchi & Yamauchi dropped to 8th, with the ARTA NSX overtaking them for 7th with three laps to go. The #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama) ended the season with a 10th place finish, improving from 21st on the grid.
And in 11th, the #50 Arnage Racing AMG GT3 (Masaki Kano/Hideto Yasuoka) jumped from 27th on the grid, to just one position out of their first top-ten finish since Okayama in 2018.
Teams throughout GT300 had to navigate one of the most difficult periods in motorsport since the years after the Lehman Shock of 2008, and in particular, independent teams like the ones competing in GT300 are most at risk as a result. They navigated the season gracefully, a reflection of how the GT Association (GTA) navigated their series through the novel coronavirus pandemic.
A hard-working team and their skilled were rightfully crowned the champions in a hard-fought GT300 class, and we can only hope that Super GT’s second division will continue to maintain its strength and competitiveness for 2021 and beyond.