It’s been over four and a half years since the last time that TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh won pole position for an Autobacs Super GT Series race. But on Monday afternoon, during qualifying for the Takanokono Hotel Fuji GT 500km Race, 21-year-old Ritomo Miyata captured his first career GT500 class pole position, powering he and Yuji Kunimoto to the pole in their #19 WedsSport Advan Toyota GR Supra.
But before the cars took to the track, however, the entire Super GT paddock paused to reflect on the life and legacy of one of the most respected figures in Japanese motorsport.
Tsuchiya Engineering founder Haruo Tsuchiya, who passed away on 11 April, was honoured with a minute’s silence before the start of Free Practice. His son Takeshi Tsuchiya (current Tsuchiya Engineering Team Director), GT Association Chairman Masaaki Bandoh, and two-time GT300 Champion driver Shinichi Takagi stood together, joined by the two-time GT300 Championship-winning Toyota MR2 GT300 built by Tsuchiya Engineering – just as it appeared in 1999 when it was driven by Morio Nitta, Yasushi Kikuchi, and Takagi.
Kunimoto set the fastest time in Free Practice aboard the #19 WedsSport Supra, just ahead of the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT of Nirei Fukuzumi, and the #1 Stanley NSX-GT driven by Tadasuke Makino, who made his return to racing after a six-month recovery from meningitis.
Also, the series carried out its first successful Full Course Yellow (FCY) protocol during an official session, and the GTA has approved its use in tomorrow’s race (if necessary), a long-awaited introduction for the system after technical issues tied to Japan’s terrestrial radio laws.
The first phase of GT500 Qualifying got underway just after 3 PM local time, under sunny skies and a comfortable 17°C air temperature. The track surface was just under 30°C throughout each stage of qualifying. It was perfect weather for the thousands of spectators on hand to enjoy – with what may be the largest crowd at a Super GT event since the series and its circuits re-opened the gates to spectators in October.
All six of Toyota’s GR Supras finished in the top eight in Q1 to advance to Q2, led by Okayama winner (and Fuji lap record holder) Kenta Yamashita in the #14 Eneos X Prime GR Supra, leading the Q1 session with a best lap of 1’27.176. This in spite of the fact that the Eneos Supra was carrying 40 kilogrammes of Success Weight after their season-opening victory. The #8 ARTA NSX finished second, this time in the hands of Tomoki Nojiri, coming off of back-to-back wins to open the Super Formula Championship. Nojiri was just 0.019 seconds back of the top time set by Yamashita.
But in a close Q1 where the top ten were covered by less than four-tenths of a second, only one Honda made it through to Q2 – and only one Nissan advanced as Tsugio Matsuda in the #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R got in just 0.031s above the cut line in eighth.
The big surprise was the #1 Stanley NSX-GT – not only did they miss Q2, but two-time and reigning GT500 Champion Naoki Yamamoto was 15th and last in the session, over half a second slower than the next car. Yamamoto, Hideki Mutoh, and the returning Tadasuke Makino will have their work cut out for them Sunday – as no Fuji 500km winner in Super GT has ever started from lower than 11th, when Satoshi Motoyama and Richard Lyons won for NISMO in 2007.
Of the eight that advanced into Q2, certainly, there was a lot of attention on two cars in particular: The #23 Motul GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli, and the #38 ZENT GR Supra of Yuji Tachikawa. The two most successful qualifiers in GT500 history – Tachikawa with 24 poles, Quintarelli with 14. And both veterans had taken two poles each in the last five Fuji 500kms – Tachikawa in 2017 and 2018, Quintarelli in 2015 and 2019. As the minutes ticked down in Q2 and we got our first true flying laps, Tachikawa struck first, with a lap of 1’27.114. Quintarelli was next over the line, clocking in just behind him in 2nd.
But with less than a minute to go, Ritomo Miyata came streaking down the homestretch, setting the fastest second and third sector times to rocket to the top of the leaderboard with a 1’26.496, a blistering lap that came within 0.110s of the all-time GT500 lap record set last November. As the chequered flag fell and the rest of the field were completing their last flying laps, it seemed as if no other car had the pace to challenge for pole – or so it seemed.
With his final lap, Fukuzumi in the #8 ARTA NSX-GT gave it everything, including an outright fastest third sector, to set a 1’26.499, just three-thousandths of a second shy of snatching pole position for Honda on Toyota’s home circuit.
But in an upset, it’s the #19 WedsSport Supra on pole position, for only the third time since TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh moved up to GT500 in 2011: André Couto took their first premier class pole in the wet at Autopolis in 2012, and Yuhi Sekiguchi won pole for the 2016 race at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand – a race that he and Kunimoto eventually went on to win, the first, and so far the only victory for the WedsSport team in GT500 competition.
“Last year we got a top time in Q1 but weren’t able to get a good result in the end, so this year I talked with Kunimoto-san and the team and we agreed to try to get a good rhythm going from the start of qualifying,” said Miyata, who scores his first career GT500 pole position in his 12th start in the top flight. “Finally, I was able to get the top time in Q2, so I’m very happy.”
“In Q1, Kunimoto-san made a really good time attack for us, so we took advantage of the data from that and I was able to go all-out and attack hard in Q2. The race is a long 500 kilometres. We have to run it while putting as little stress as possible on the car and the tires, so I want to approach it from a different perspective from this qualifying. This will be the first time I am starting from pole position, but I am going to do my best to keep from losing position in my stint.”
For Yokohama Rubber, this is their first GT500 pole since the 2018 Buriram round – and the first pole at the Fuji Golden Week round since the very first All-Japan GT Championship race in 1994, when Kazuo Mogi won the pole in Team Taisan’s Porsche 962C. Yokohama hasn’t had much success in the Golden Week race, at least on the GT500 side. Their last GT500 win in this event came in 1997, predating the revival of the Fuji 500km.
Kunimoto and Miyata will share the front row with the ARTA NSX of Nojiri and Fukuzumi, who qualified 1st or 2nd five times last season. They’ll be Honda’s leading candidates to end a 21-year drought for the manufacturer in the Fuji Golden Week round, with their last victory in this event coming in 2000.
“Tomorrow’s race is also a very long race, but I hope to take advantage of being able to start from the front. We’ve had quite a few frustrating races at Fuji, so we’ll do our best tomorrow to make what we’ve done so far come true,” said Fukuzumi.
Best of the five Bridgestone-clad Toyotas was the #38 ZENT Supra of Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura, who finished the session in 3rd, and will be going for their third Fuji 500km win as a team in the last four races. Tachikawa, himself, will be aiming to extend his own record at the circuit and claim his tenth victory at Fuji Speedway, and his sixth in the 500km. It would be a fifth Fuji 500km win for Ishiura.
They qualified ahead of the two TOM’s Toyotas, with the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sho Tsuboi) lining up 4th, and the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra (Ryo Hirakawa/Sena Sakaguchi) in 5th. The best Q2 efforts from Kazuya Oshima put himself and Q1 pacesetter Yamashita 6th on the grid in the #14 Eneos Supra.
The #23 Motul GT-R of Quintarelli qualified 7th, the same place where Tachikawa and Ishiura started when they won in 2019. NISMO drivers Matsuda and Quintarelli will be going for their fourth Fuji 500km win as teammates, having previously won in 2015, 2016, and 2018. Completing the first four rows is the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama), in 8th.
GT300 class pole position went to the brand-new #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi, in just the second-ever race for the second-generation BRZ, and around a track where the more powerful FIA GT3 cars are usually favoured over the traditional GT300 and Mother Chassis vehicles.
Just like at Okayama, the Subaru was fastest in Free Practice. But at Okayama, they struggled in Qualifying, and finished outside the points in 15th during the race. Iguchi was determined not to let that same fate befall them during GT300 Q1, where they were drawn into Group A based on the results of Okayama. Iguchi led his group with a best lap of 1’35.963, 0.141s clear of the #2 muta Racing Lotus Evora MC of Hiroki Katoh in 2nd.
The #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R GT3 of Kiyoto Fujinami and João Paulo de Oliveira entered the weekend on 60kg of Success Weight, but even with that, the defending GT300 Champions were still a surprise as they went out in Q1, with Fujinami only able to manage 13th in the group, meaning he and Oliveira will start well back in 26th tomorrow. Also out in Q1 Group A were the sentimental favourites from Hoppy Team Tsuchiya, the #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) starts 22nd, and Max Racing – who have strong ties to Tsuchiya Engineering, also missed the cut with their #244 Takanoko-no-yu Toyota GR Supra (Atsushi Miyake/Yuui Tsutsumi) starting 24th, a tough follow-up from leading their Q1 group at Okayama.
In Group B, the scintillating speed of the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Toyota GR Supra was back on display, as sophomore Shunsuke Kohno led his group with a best lap of 1’35.727. That put two Dunlop-clad cars on top of their respective groups. Second in the group was the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3 of Shinichi Takagi, the all-time GT300 wins leader at Fuji Speedway with nine career victories.
16 cars advanced to Q2, and in the dying minutes, it looked as if the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 was on its way to pole position. Ren Sato, in just his second GT300 appearance, set a lap of 1’35.485 to take the provisional top spot. Meanwhile, Hideki Yamauchi in the #61 Subaru had a bad second sector on his first flying lap, meaning he’d have just one more chance to move back up the order. On his last lap, Yamauchi went purple in sector two, then coming down the home stretch, caught the slipstream of the #18 UPGarage NSX of Takashi Kobayashi – enough to gain enough speed to snatch pole position with a 1’35.343, just as the chequered flag came out!
It’s the first pole for the new BRZ, succeeding the first-generation model that won its last pole at Motegi in November 2020. For Yamauchi, this is his fifth career GT300 pole position, four of which have come as a Subaru driver.
“The team put together a good car setup for us, and Dunlop prepared some very good tires, so I was able to make a good time attack,” said Yamauchi. “And most important of all, I was able to make the most of the advice Iguchi-san gave me after his Q1 run. I want to tell Iguchi-san how much that helped me. I’m really grateful. Tomorrow, I want to do my very best to show that this team, that all of us are the strongest out there.”
Subaru have never won a Golden Week race at Fuji, and R&D Sport’s last win in this event came back in 2006 during the team’s previous partnership with Vemac Cars.
Ren Sato’s time was good enough to put the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 on the front row in second, a great bounceback for the 19-year-old after a difficult first race at Okayama. This will also mean that Takagi will have a great starting position for which to claim his first victory since the 2019 round at Sportsland Sugo.
“It’s my first time to race in a ‘box car’, and I’m still getting used to Super GT races, so I’m still learning about long runs. But I’m not worried about my stamina or how to drive the car in long runs, so I hope I can just drive a calm race tomorrow,” said Sato.
Two V8-powered Supra GT300s will share the second row, with the #60 Syntium GR Supra (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Shunsuke Kohno) qualifying 3rd, ahead of the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave GR Supra (Hiroki Yoshida/Kohta Kawaai), winners of two of the four Fuji rounds in 2020, starting 4th.
It was a great qualifying for the two Mother Chassis cars, with the #2 muta Lotus of Katoh, Ryohei Sakaguchi, and Kazuto Kotaka qualifying 5th, and the #5 Mach Syaken GTNET Toyota MC86 (Yuya Hiraki/Reiji Hiraki) in 8th. They bookend the two Gainer Nissan GT-Rs, expected to be two of the favourites to win tomorrow: The #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) was 6th-fastest, just ahead of the #10 Gainer TanaX with Impul GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) in 7th.
The #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Naoya Gamou/Togo Suganami) qualified in 9th, ahead of the hybrid-powered #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama) in 10th. The next three rows are filled out by the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) in 11th, the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Teppei Natori) in 12th, the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F GT3 (Morio Nitta/Hibiki Taira) in 13th – then the three “GT300 Pro-Am” cars that advanced to Q2, led by the #7 Studie PLUS BMW M6 GT3 (Seiji Ara/Tomohide Yamaguchi), then the #360 RunUp Rivaux GT-R (Takayuki Aoki/Atsushi Tanaka/Yudai Uchida), and the #9 Pacific NAC CarGuy Ferrari 488 GT3 (Takeshi Kimura/Kei Cozzolino).
The Golden Week classic, the Fuji 500km, is set to go green Tuesday at 14:30 JST (local time), 6:30 AM BST / 7:30 AM CEST / 1:30 AM EDT.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)