The eighth and final round of the 2020 Autobacs Super GT Series at Fuji Speedway will be remembered for generations to come, for one of the most incredible endings to a motor race that has ever been witnessed. It echoes similar moments throughout recent history: Toyota’s final-minute breakdown at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, J.R. Hildebrand’s final-corner crash that opened the door for Dan Wheldon to win his second Indianapolis 500 in 2011, and of course, Lewis Hamilton’s unexpected overtake on Timo Glock to win the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship.
The moment where the GT500 Championships were decided in the final corner, when the #100 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto & Tadasuke Makino took the lead when the #37 KeePer TOM’s Toyota GR Supra of Ryo Hirakawa & Kenta Yamashita ran out of fuel just short of the chequered flag.
It’s a moment big enough to overshadow some of the more incredible stories of the weekend: A team that had dominated most of the race until those fateful final few hundreds of metres, one of the bravest first-lap overtakes that ever worked out, untimely collisions and strategic backfires that cost some other teams a shot at the championship. And that’s before even getting into the GT300 class – where an embattled team and a beloved veteran won their first championships, an upstart squad bookended their most successful season with race victories, season-best results for a few other less-heralded teams, and some impressive driving from most of the top ten finishers.
Put simply, this race had it all. And front and centre, was the battle for the GT500 Championships.
GT500: A Championship Battle For The Ages
Round 8 of the 2020 Super GT Season, the Takanokono Hotel Fuji GT 300km Race. The fourth and final visit to Fuji Speedway in this season that’s been anything but normal thanks in large part to the novel coronavirus pandemic. After the #37 KeePer TOM’s Supra of Hirakawa & Yamashita led Saturday’s practice, both phases of qualifying, and took pole position, Hirakawa now stood atop the Drivers’ Championship table by just a single point. Six different teams could win the race and clinch the GT500 Championship on Sunday afternoon.
Temperatures on this day were colder than anything the teams had faced this season: Air temperatures at just 9°C, track temps at 17°C, at the start of the race. The skies above the town of Oyama looked a bit ominous, but the race remained dry throughout. Because of the cold track surface, the teams were given two additional formation laps to bring their tyres up to temperature, and the race itself was reduced to 65 laps from the scheduled 66.
From the moment the green lights finally went out to start the race, Yamashita got away with the lead. The #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra of Heikki Kovalainen followed in 2nd, ahead of the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra of Sacha Fenestraz in 3rd, and the #38 ZENT GR Supra of Yuji Tachikawa in 4th. But the story of the opening lap was the heroic charge of the #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R of four-time GT500 Champion, Ronnie Quintarelli, who plunged right into the heart of this Toyota offensive. From 6th on the grid, Quintarelli passed Tachikawa for 4th, then closed in on the leading trio of Yamashita, Kovalainen, and Fenestraz ahead of him. Quintarelli got a fantastic run out of Advan Corner (Turn 6), and he was three-abreast with Yamashita and Kovalainen through the 300R bend, and once Fenestraz got his nose alongside the rear of his teammate Yamashita, they funneled into the tight Dunlop Corner (Turn 10) nearly four-wide.
Quintarelli outbraked the three Toyotas, and held it around the tight left-right chicane up the hill into the final sector, and the Motul GT-R unexpectedly led the first lap of the race. Quintarelli, of course, was seeking his record-extending third championship. Tsugio Matsuda, his co-driver and the winningest GT500 driver of all-time, sought to join elite company with his third. And NISMO, the flagship team of Nissan, looked to bring the marque its first championship in a turbulent five-year span.
It was a brave fight, but once the Bridgestone tyres were up to temperature and the leaders began to hit slower GT300 traffic, Quintarelli couldn’t maintain his lead. Yamashita went up and under Quintarelli out of Panasonic Corner (Turn 16) to get alongside, then used all 1,475 metres of the front stretch to slip past. And from there, the KeePer TOM’s Supra began to pull away, as 25-year-old Yamashita, the outgoing GT500 Champion of 2019, looked as if he hadn’t missed a day in a GT500 car. His lead was nearly 7 seconds at the end of Lap 10.
This was only Yamashita’s third race of the season, and his second race in relief of Nick Cassidy – who was watching from Valencia, Spain, during testing for the FIA Formula E World Championship. Cassidy was sorely missed as a presence in these last two races, his sticker was carried on the doors of the KeePer Supra this weekend. If anyone could be considered a comparable replacement for the Kiwi, though, his longtime friend and former teammate Yamashita exceeded the requirements – part of the reason why he seems to have a future in Toyota Gazoo Racing’s factory WEC programme in the near future.
As Yamashita and the KeePer Supra pulled out a gap, Quintarelli and the Motul GT-R began to tumble down the order. Fenestraz got by him for 2nd on Lap 11. And by the end of Lap 16, Quintarelli had dropped to 7th place, lacking the pace to stay afloat on his Michelin-clad Nissan.
The NISMO team weren’t the only team to have their championship hopes dashed early, however: Contact between Kovalainen and Fenestraz at GR Supra Corner (Turn 15) sent the Denso Supra to the pits for repairs at the end of Lap 5. This was a fatal blow for Kovalainen’s co-driver Yuichi Nakayama, who still had an outside chance to win the Drivers’ Championship. They went down a lap in the pits and dropped to the back of the GT300 grid. Nakayama drove up to as high as 10th in his closing stint, but then had to go back to the pits with just five laps left, dropping the Denso Supra to 14th in the final results, 5 laps down.
After 20 laps, Yamashita now held a lead of nearly 15 seconds over his teammate Fenestraz. But now another threat was emerging, from the rival Honda camp. At the start, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Bertrand Baguette – who started 12th – did well to make up six positions in just two laps, equalling Quintarelli’s mega start at the front. Baguette continued to climb through the field, and he was joined in the top five by the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Makino, who started 7th. Eventually, Makino overtook Baguette for 4th, then Quintarelli for 3rd, and the Raybrig NSX began to close in on second-placed Fenestraz.
At the end of Lap 20, Fenestraz got caught in slower traffic, and Makino made the pass for 2nd place, but couldn’t get enough separation from the orange and white au TOM’s Supra to hold on. Fenestraz slipstreamed past on the front stretch as it became Lap 21. But Makino in the Raybrig NSX stuck with him. He lunged past Fenestraz into Dunlop Corner, held on through the chicane, and this time he maintained second place, just as the pit window had opened.
The pit window opened from Lap 22, which gave the Raybrig NSX and Keihin NSX a chance to change tyres, refuel, and change drivers. Makino was relieved by Naoki Yamamoto, Baguette was relieved by Koudai Tsukakoshi. But on this same lap, the #14 Wako’s 4CR GR Supra also pitted. Kazuya Oshima, the 2019 GT500 Champion, had done well to climb from 13th on the grid to 5th before the pit stops. A critical call came down from the pit wall at TGR Team Wako’s Rookie: They would change drivers to Sho Tsuboi and refuel, but would not change tyres.
So when Yamashita pitted at the end of Lap 23, the KeePer Supra, on four fresh – yet cold – Bridgestone tyres couldn’t hold off the Wako’s Supra. Tsuboi took the net race lead ahead of Hirakawa. Chief Engineer Kazuya Abe’s gamble had paid off…or so it seemed. Once Hirakawa had his Bridgestones up to temperature, he attacked Tsuboi, sweeping past on Lap 27 to take back the net lead, which became the true race lead on the next lap, with all routine pit work complete.
Tsuboi slipped back into a frantic battle for 2nd with Yamamoto in the Raybrig NSX, and Yuhi Sekiguchi, now in the #36 au TOM’s Supra. The trio were almost three-wide across the line to start Lap 31. Tsuboi was able to hold onto second, but Sekiguchi, with the slipstream, lined up a move around the outside of Tsuboi at TGR Corner. Neither car really got it stopped in time, and they made contact well off the apex. Yamamoto, on the other hand, got past both of them out of Turn 2 to take 2nd place for good.
That contact was a fatal blow for the Wako’s Supra, who had to pit at the end of the lap for damage, and on Lap 34, they returned to the garage and retired, with the damage being larger than expected. No first-year title for the first-year team that replaced outgoing champions Team Le Mans.
The Raybrig NSX still had to fend off the au Supra, however. Yamamoto and Sekiguchi ran within a second of each other for several laps, Sekiguchi trying his best to push the Raybrig NSX down a spot and secure a TOM’s 1-2 finish – just like the season opener in July. But by the time there were twenty laps remaining, Yamamoto had broken Sekiguchi’s attack, and began to pull away into a comfortable second position.
Up front, however, Ryo Hirakawa was doing everything that he needed to do to wrap up the race win and the championship. His lead was up to 16 seconds, and he was steadily lapping in the 1’29 to 1’31 range in clean air and through traffic. With the Toyotas so powerful in a straight line, and the support of their fans at their “home circuit”, the race and the championship should really have been decided here.
Then, the track temperature started to drop a bit, down to around 10°C at Lap 50. Whether due to the drop in surface temperature or just a coincidence, Hirakawa’s lap times began to drop to the 1’32-1’33 range as the tyre pickup began to worsen. Yamamoto, on the other hand, was now starting to lap steadily in the 1’31s, and was starting to gradually take time out of Hirakawa’s once-unassailable lead. With ten laps to go, the lead was down to just under ten seconds, and Yamamoto was only closing in faster. By Lap 58 of 65, the lead was now down to less than five seconds, and the television cameras picked up Raybrig/Team Kunimitsu race queen Nanako Aizawa in tears as the Raybrig NSX continued to close in towards an unthinkable reversal in the final laps.
The gap between Hirakawa and Yamamoto was down to just 2.079 seconds with three laps to go. If Hirakawa made an uncharacteristic mistake, Yamamoto was in a position to take the win away. Then, Hirakawa responded by extending his lead out to 2.4 seconds – from here, it seemed as if the job was done. As the two leaders began the 65th and final lap, the lead was now 2.7 seconds. TOM’s Racing was on their way to a fifth GT500 Drivers’ Championship, and Hirakawa was set to become a two-time champion at just 26 years of age. A perfect first sector, a serviceable second sector, and going up the hill in the third sector, Hirakawa just had one more corner to go to secure his championship.
As Hirakawa pressed on the accelerator out of Panasonic Corner, his KeePer TOM’s Supra suddenly seized up and ran out of fuel. Yamamoto lunged to the inside to power past, to take the lead in the final few hundred metres of the race.
The scenes on the pit walls of Team Kunimitsu and TOM’s were astonishing. Makino collapsed into tears of joy as Yamamoto took the chequered flag. Yamashita watched in disbelief as Hirakawa could just barely coast across the line in 2nd. There had been moments where the GT300 title had been decided on the last corner of the last lap at Fuji – it happened in 2006, it happened again in 2008. But never, had the GT500 Championship been decided in such a fashion, and in a winner-take-all race no less.
The #100 Raybrig NSX of Yamamoto & Makino won by 5.940 seconds to take the victory in the last race of the season. Yamamoto & Makino clinched the championship by just two points over Hirakawa, who just barely got over the line in second place, got out of his car, and slammed his fist into the armco barrier out of the most understandable of frustrations.
Chief Engineer Masaki Saeda of TGR Team KeePer TOM’s took full responsibility, pinning the cause of the KeePer Supra pulling up lame as a failure to properly calculate the rate of fuel consumption. But if the race had been just one lap longer, maybe Team Kunimitsu never would have won it either – as their car coasted to a halt on the cooldown lap in the last sector, they too were marginal to the end. But those hypotheticals were just that.
For the first time since 2016, the GT500 Champion won only the final race of the season en route to the championship. For Honda, it was their fifth GT500 Drivers’ Championship and the first for the new front-engined NSX-GT in its debut season. For Team Kunimitsu, it is their second set of GT500 Championships in the last three seasons. And of course, this was already an emotional day for the team: This was the final race for the Raybrig NSX. Team Kunimitsu’s long-time title sponsor, who’ve backed the team since 1995 and their class-winning effort at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will disappear as a brand as parent company Stanley Electric Group will restructure in 2021. A car that generations of Super GT fans grew up watching and playing as in video games (in many iterations) wrote an incredible final chapter of its history.
Yamamoto, who took his second GT500 Championship, was the hero of the day. The man who broke into GT500 with Team Kunimitsu in 2010 as a 21-year-old rookie, has spent nine of his eleven seasons driving for team president Kunimitsu Takahashi and carrying the Raybrig colours. He demonstrated to the world why he is regarded as Honda’s ace driver in Japan, and why his former co-driver Jenson Button praised his skills so sincerely during his brief time in Super GT.
“In races you truly never know what is going to happen until the very end,” said Yamamoto. “I am glad that I was able to keep pushing and never give up until the end.”
“Until now we have competed this season under the banner of the Raybrig brand, and I feel glad to have been able to give a performance worthy of this final run along with Tadasuke-san and the team. And the reason we were able to do it was thanks to the support we got from the Raybrig people over the course of this year. And also because of the support from the people at Honda and Bridgestone Corporation. But in the end, I think we owe it most all to the people at Raybrig, so to them, and to all of the fans who cheered us on, I say, ‘thank you!'”
“This was my eleventh Super GT season, and this race was by far my best, using all my experience, and everything going exactly to plan. Considering the speed they had, the #37 was maybe better in the race and deserved to win, but we were always in contact with the pit over the radio, saving our tires and fuel, and waiting for the right moment to speed up. I think our team effort won in the end. I’m so glad we could celebrate our sponsor Raybrig’s final year as a brand, with Kunimitsu Takahashi joining Makino and myself on the highest place on the podium.”
23-year-old Makino broke into Super GT in the middle of 2016 as a teenage phenom, and so impressive was he in just two seasons of single-seaters in Japan that he was moved to Europe to compete in European F3 in 2017 and to FIA Formula 2 in 2018. Makino was a race winner in F2, always capable of the pace needed to compete in F1. But for 2019 he was directed back to Japan, had an impressive first full season with Nakajima Racing in 2019 – and many wondered just how he would do on a Bridgestone-clad Honda. The task of replacing a past F1 World Champion in Button was immense, but Makino thrived under the circumstances.
“I still don’t know how to put this feeling in words,” said Makino. “Car No. 37 led the race all the way, and although our pace was good, I never thought it would come to this great ending. Of course, this is my first race win, and it is such a great thing that we got the championship as well. But, having raced this whole season with No. 37, I know how they must feel, too. This year, I have constantly been helped by the team and by Yamamoto-san, so I am really happy to have won the championship.”
“We made lots of preparations with the team coming to Fuji, so I’m glad we were rewarded by winning the championship. I expected warming up the tires to be a real issue, but had good race pace. By the time I handed the car to Yamamoto, however, we were 15 seconds behind the leader, and all I could do then was watch the proceedings. I honestly could not have imagined how the race would end, so I was just stunned. I’m very happy we could give Raybrig a worthy ending to the brand.”
The man himself, Kunimitsu Takahashi, who’s spent parts of seven decades in racing, has seen Yamamoto grow in front of his very eyes – and has unlocked the potential of his young teammate Makino. “Of the two champions, I’ve known Yamamoto for ten years now, and I have a strong impression that he is a ‘driver with no flaws’. He has a lot of experience, and can drive calmly in any situation. He is a perfect driver. That’s the strong impression I have of him,” Takahashi said. “On the other hand, I’ve only known Makino for a short time, but watching today’s race from the monitor in the pits, I could tell that he is a great driver. When I watched today’s race on the monitor, I could see how great he was as a driver, and I thought to myself, ‘this is the best.'”
“Today, we saw a great race, and on top of that, we got the gift of a win and a championship, so I’m very grateful – to Honda, who built the car, Bridgestone, who made the tires, Raybrig, who have been supporting us for many years, the fans who support us, and of course the GT Association who run the race and the media who cover the race. I am so grateful to everyone. When I express my gratitude, if I had won today, people would have heard me, but if I hadn’t won, it would have been difficult to convey my gratitude. In that sense, I would like to say, ‘Thank you so much for this victory today.'”
Masahiro Saeki, the GT500 Project Leader for Honda, also remarked after the race: “We used every last drop of fuel in this challenging race, but I’m overjoyed we managed to win the championship in our first year in Class 1. It’s amazing how we overcame the challenges with all the delays in development due to COVID-19. We won the championship, but after one season, we now know where we are better and where we aren’t. We’ll be building on our advantages and fixing our disadvantages to make next year even better. I look forward to your continued support for Honda Racing.”
For one side, total euphoria and joy. For the other, the crushing weight of disappointment. Hirakawa, who won the 2017 GT500 Championship, has now finished runner-up in each of the last three seasons – but this one hurts the most, with he and Yamashita having led 55 laps on the day – excluding, of course, the one that mattered the most.
It will be little consolation that both TOM’s Supras finished the last race on the podium, with the #36 au Supra of Sekiguchi & Fenestraz coming away from their battles with a third-place finish, and their fourth podium of the 2020 season. They ended the year fourth in the standings.
Further back, the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Tsukakoshi & Baguette secured third place in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship with a fourth-place finish in the final race. Although they didn’t win the championship, this year they showed the team’s ultimate potential for success, giving Real Racing their best championship result in seven years. This is also highly likely to be the last race for this team in their familiar blue and silver colours: Keihin will be folded into Hitachi Automotive Group’s new Astemo brand in 2021, similar to the fate of Raybrig.
The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Nirei Fukuzumi) finished fifth in the race and in the drivers’ championship, falling short of completing an incredible championship comeback after scoring just four points in the first half of the season. They scored more points in the second half of 2020 than any other team in GT500.
The highest-finishing Nissans in the race were the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Katsumasa Chiyo) in 6th, and the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Kazuki Hiramine) in 7th. It was a decent end to a season that was, save for NISMO’s sweep of the Suzuka rounds, another year of great hardship for the other three Nissan crews.
Finishing 8th was the #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura). Tachikawa, the elder statesman of the GT500 field, has not declared if this 22nd season as TGR Team Cerumo’s lead driver will be his last.
The #23 Motul GT-R of Matsuda & Quintarelli, from the highs of leading the first five laps, dropped all the way to 9th place, one lap down, just ahead of the last points-paying finisher, the #19 WedsSport Advan GR Supra (Yuji Kunimoto/Ritomo Miyata), in 10th.
A championship climax that promised so much, with so many teams able to take the title going into the weekend, over-delivered in the final moments. To paraphrase the legendary baseball broadcaster Vin Scully, in a year that had been so improbable, the impossible had happened on this afternoon at Fuji Speedway. It’s not hyperbolic to say this finish would stand up alongside Hamilton’s pass on Glock, or Porsche passing Toyota as the clock hit 00:00 at Le Mans, because it should.
This was the greatest finish in the 26-year history of this championship, and everyone that watched it unfold, from the circuit or from their homes, was a witness to something special.