Astemo Real Racing and drivers Koudai Tsukakoshi and Bertrand Baguette scored the victory in an action-packed second round of the 2021 Autobacs Super GT Series, winning the Takanokono Hotel Fuji GT 500km Race aboard their #17 Astemo Honda NSX-GT, and giving Honda their first victory in Super GT’s annual Golden Week holiday race at Fuji Speedway in twenty-one years.
Thousands of fanatical spectators, even socially distanced and in limited numbers, made the pilgrimage to Fuji Speedway on Tuesday in anticipation of a fantastic 110-lap race. Conditions were perfect for a race in springtime, sunny skies, temperatures of around 20°C, what few clouds there were, only somewhat obstructed the view of majestic Mount Fuji to the west of the 4.563 kilometre course.
Polesitter Ritomo Miyata led the field of fifteen GT500 cars to the green flag at just past 2:30 PM, but his #19 WedsSport Advan Toyota GR Supra was quickly swallowed up by a pack of Bridgestone-clad rivals, and Miyata dropped to sixth by the end of the first lap. The #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Nirei Fukuzumi led the first lap from 2nd on the grid, followed by the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra of Sho Tsuboi in 2nd, and the #38 ZENT GR Supra of Hiroaki Ishiura in 3rd. A rare, catastrophic engine failure on the #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R knocked Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli out of the race after just two laps. Quintarelli was able to get out of his smoking, burning Nissan on his own, but the Safety Car was deployed on Lap 3, then withdrawn again at the end of Lap 6.
Once the Safety Car was withdrawn, Tsuboi used the straightline speed advantage of his Toyota to get a run on race leader Fukuzumi, and take the lead with a clean pass at Coca-Cola Corner (Turn 3). Setting a string of fast laps, Tsuboi began to pull out a gap of as much as 3 seconds over Fukuzumi over the course of the first stint. Behind them, Ishiura had fallen into the clutches of the #14 Eneos X Prime GR Supra of Kenta Yamashita, who had moved up to 4th place. On Lap 16, Yamashita lined up an overtake around the outside of Ishiura at Dunlop Corner (Turn 10), and the two Toyotas banged doors on the way up the next left-right chicane, as Yamashita took third position. A piece of the ZENT Supra’s side skirts fell off, and Ishiura was overtaken by the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra of Ryo Hirakawa on Lap 20.
On Lap 31, Ishiura’s left-rear tyre flew off its hub at the exit of Panasonic Corner (Turn 16), rolling and bouncing back onto the track. That brought out the very first Full Course Yellow (FCY) in a Super GT race, its introduction coming on Lap 32 after over a year of delays and troubleshooting.
Ishiura brought the ZENT Supra back to the garage, retiring the car after 31 laps, before nine-time Fuji winner Yuji Tachikawa could even turn a wheel. Just as the stray wheel was bouncing down the home straight, the #17 Astemo NSX pitted for the first time, with Tsukakoshi having moved up from 11th on the grid, to 13th after Lap 2, back up to 9th. The timing of the FCY meant that the first routine pit stop was made before pit lane was closed, which helped the Astemo NSX gain a massive chunk of time on the rest of the pack once the FCY was withdrawn on Lap 33.
Tsuboi kept Fukuzumi behind him for 31 laps, pitting on Lap 37 for the first routine stop. Fukuzumi came in on Lap 40. But the Astemo Real Racing crew’s call to pit their car before the first FCY paid off in the end, when all cars made their first routine stops, the #17 Astemo NSX, now in the hands of Baguette, was leading by over five seconds.
Yuhi Sekiguchi was 2nd in the #36 au Supra, and Kazuya Oshima was 3rd in the #14 Eneos Supra. A second FCY was brought out on Lap 47, to retrieve a stranded GT300 car in Sector 3, and clean up debris. After the FCY was withdrawn, Tomoki Nojiri in the ARTA NSX got to the tail of Oshima, and passed the Toyota at Dunlop Corner for 3rd.
Meanwhile, the bulletproof Belgian Baguette continued to hammer out fast laps at the front, stretching his lead out to over 10 seconds from Sekiguchi, who was now having to fight off Nojiri for 2nd place. At the end of a 37-lap stint, Baguette pitted the Astemo NSX on Lap 68. But they lost time due to trouble exchanging the left-front tyre. Sekiguchi cycled his way back to the lead for another seven laps, before pitting at the end of Lap 75. That then cycled the ARTA NSX of Nojiri to the lead until their second stop, on Lap 78, where the ARTA mechanics gave their car a fast stop to get Fukuzumi out with a lead over Tsukakoshi, even on cold tyres.
But the veteran Tsukakoshi was keen to take back the lead over the young lion Fukuzumi, and the two Hondas began to battle at the front for the race lead spectacularly. There was an extraordinary sequence from Lap 80 to Lap 82 where Fukuzumi and Tsukakoshi swapped the lead over the line, often swapping the lead at alternating corners! Eventually, with a light touch out of Panasonic Corner at the end of Lap 82, Fukuzumi took a more decisive lead over his Honda stablemate, and as Fukuzumi and Tsukakoshi battled, Tsuboi in the #36 au Supra had caught the leading duo, making it a three-way lead battle. Tsuboi was able to use that straightline speed advantage to slip past Tsukakoshi and move into 2nd place on Lap 87, and now he had race leader Fukuzumi right in his line of sight with less than 20 laps remaining, reminiscent of his great chase against Yamashita at Okayama International Circuit to open the season.
Fukuzumi, Tsuboi, Tsukakoshi, and now Yamashita were all within less than three seconds of one another in a four-car lead pack. On Lap 97, a third FCY was retrieved to fetch the GT300 class #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama), which had broken down in Sector 2. Fukuzumi had put a GT300 car between himself and his three pursuers just before the FCY, giving him a large gap once the FCY was released on Lap 99. Once that happened, however, the top two cars were struck down from the leading fight.
First, the #36 au TOM’s Supra of Tsuboi never got up to speed, and broke down at the side Coca-Cola Corner just seconds after the FCY was withdrawn, retiring after 98 laps with what is believed to be a broken propeller shaft. Within seconds, the #8 ARTA NSX of Fukuzumi was given a drive-through penalty for overtaking a GT300 car in a waved yellow flag zone, just before the third FCY was introduced. All of a sudden, Tsukakoshi was back in the race lead, and Yamashita, right behind him, was a close second place. And in an improbable third was the #1 Stanley NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto, who had started 15th and last!
Within a second of the leader, Yamashita made his best charge for the lead on Lap 103, trying to outbrake Tsukakoshi into TGR Corner around the outside, but Tsukakoshi defended his lead sternly, yet fairly, over the course of a heroic 42-lap final stint in order to keep the orange and red Toyota at bay over the final laps of a gripping and intense Fuji 500km.
Recency bias be damned, this could go down as one of the all-time great runnings of Super GT’s Golden Week classic, as the Astemo NSX of Tsukakoshi took the chequered flag over the Eneos Supra of Yamashita – after three hours of racing, the margin of victory was just 0.831 seconds – the second closest margin in this event’s history since the Fuji 500km became part of the Super GT Series calendar. This also ties the lowest-ever starting position for a GT500 class winner at the Fuji 500km, as Tsukakoshi and Baguette match Satoshi Motoyama and Richard Lyons’ victory from 11th on the grid in 2007.
This was the first win for Honda at the Fuji Golden Week event since 2000, when Katsutomo Kaneishi, the founder and Director of Astemo Real Racing, won alongside Juichi Wakisaka in the Takata Dome NSX in the 300km All-Japan Fuji GT Race. It’s Real Racing’s third victory since the start of 2020 (including one at Fuji last August), and the first in the new red and silver colours of title sponsor Hitachi Astemo. For Tsukakoshi, it is his fifth career victory, all of them with Real Racing, and for Baguette, it is the fourth of his career.
Tsukakoshi remarked after the race, “I made a mistake in yesterday’s qualifying, and I wasn’t able to show real speed in the first stint to give us any good momentum. But thanks to good judgement by the team, we were able to take the lead thanks to the timing of our pit stop. After that, Baguette kept us well in the lead. With the help of everyone on the team, I was able to hold off the pressure from behind. This was truly a team victory. Next time I want to show some decisive speed myself to get us a win.”
“For my stint, I was able to go out in the lead after the pit stop thanks to the good strategy and judgement of the team,” said Baguette. “After that, the tyre choice turned out to be right too. This was truly a fortunate win for us.”
With a win and a 5th place at Okayama, Tsukakoshi and Baguette move into 2nd in the GT500 Championship, still early days, but Astemo Real Racing once again look like strong title favourites in 2021.
Although they fell short of a second straight victory to open the 2021 season, the second-placed #14 Eneos GR Supra of Oshima and Yamashita fought hard all race long, stretching out their lead in the GT500 Championship to nine points over Tsukakoshi/Baguette.
Two Toyotas got on the GT500 podium as the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra of Hirakawa and Sena Sakaguchi finished 3rd, their second-straight third-place finish of the season. Extracting a measure of payback on his 2020 rival Yamamoto after the bitter end to last year’s season finale at Fuji, Hirakawa slipstreamed past the Stanley NSX with three laps to go to lock up the final podium position. Hirakawa and Sakaguchi now sit third in the championship, 12 points behind Oshima/Yamashita.
But even losing out on the podium late should not take away from the tremendous effort from reigning champions Team Kunimitsu and their drivers to work their way from last on the grid to finish a close 4th. Yamamoto fought his way through the pack in his two stints, but the other big story was a great 39-lap stint from the returning Tadasuke Makino, his first racing laps since being hospitalized with meningitis in late December, looking on the surface as if he’s in top racing condition once again. Veteran Hideki Mutoh was able to support his teammates from the garage, in lieu of not being able to drive during today’s race.
The top four finishers in GT500 were covered by just 1.552 seconds!
Another strong fightback was had by the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Katsumasa Chiyo), which moved up from 12th on the grid to finish in 5th, best of the Nissan fleet by far on what was otherwise yet another challenging day for the GT-R quartet. The #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) had a quiet, but still productive 6th place finish, just 0.053s seconds ahead of the pole-winning #19 WedsSport GR Supra of Miyata and Yuji Kunimoto in 7th, matching their best finish from last season.
A devastated Fukuzumi collapsed in a heap against his ARTA NSX, after his penalty dropped him and Nojiri from the lead to an 8th place finish – just a week after losing out on a maiden Super Formula victory at Suzuka. The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Kazuki Hiramine/Nobuharu Matsushita) finished 9th, and the #64 Modulo NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa/Hiroki Otsu) finished 10th, both cars moving up a spot after the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Ukyo Sasahara/Toshiki Oyu) received a drive-through penalty when Sasahara spun off at Dunlop Corner during the third FCY, demoting them out of the points to 11th.
The fight for the GT300 class victory was every bit as tense as the GT500 battle, and after drama in the last ten laps, the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshimoto and Shunsuke Kohno picked up the team’s first victory with their brand-new vehicle.
From the moment the 29-car GT300 field took the green flag, polesitter Hideki Yamauchi in the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport had his hands full with the Syntium GR Supra of Kohno, who got past the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 of rookie Ren Sato to take 2nd position on the opening lap. After the first Safety Car was withdrawn, the top two cars, each running on Dunlop tyres, locked up in a tense tail-to-nose chase, with Kohno staying within a second of Yamauchi over the course of the first 35 laps of the race.
Quite a few of the traditional GT300 and Mother Chassis vehicles made very early first pit stops and driver changes to try and undercut the field and, in the case of certain cars the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshida, double-stint a set of Bridgestone tyres as Yoshida passed the baton to Kohta Kawaai during their first pit stop on Lap 24.
The #61 Subaru BRZ was on Lap 30 when the first FCY was introduced and then withdrawn on Lap 31. Shortly thereafter, the leaders began to make their first round of routine pit stops. The #55 ARTA NSX GT3 pitted on Lap 34, the #61 Subaru BRZ pitted from the lead on Lap 35, and then after running up front for a few more laps, Kohno brought the #60 Syntium GR Supra in on Lap 40. All three of these cars changed four tyres along with refuelling and a driver change, but the #52 GreenBrave GR Supra of Kawaai had gained gobs of track position after the first round of routine pit stops were completed.
Kawaai took the eight-second lead he was given after the second FCY, and built up an advantage to over fifteen seconds by the end of his middle stint of the race. On Lap 63, the GreenBrave Supra made its second stop, changed all four tyres this time, and put Yoshida in for what was expected to be a long final stint. In the interim, the #55 ARTA NSX, now being driven by nine-time Fuji class winner Shinichi Takagi, had moved ahead of the #61 Subaru BRZ of Takuto Iguchi, and they had both moved ahead of the #60 Syntium GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshimoto after the first pit cycle.
Takagi pitted on Lap 71, then Iguchi and Yoshimoto, who continued their co-drivers’ battle for position, were among those who stopped on Lap 73. Sato was back in the ARTA NSX and initially came out ahead of the Syntium GR Supra of Kohno and the Subaru BRZ of Yamauchi, but soon Kohno and Yamauchi would find their way through, Kohno overtaking Sato on the home straight for 2nd on Lap 82, then Yamauchi passing for 3rd at Dunlop Corner two laps later. Yoshida still had a commanding lead of over 7 seconds though, even after the third FCY, and the Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave crew seemed assured of victory.
But with just seven laps remaining, Yoshida began to slow to a crawl around the 100R Corner, and drove back to the pits to retire with a driveshaft failure after 97 laps completed. Heartache for the GreenBrave crew after leading a race-high 44 laps turned to elation for LM Corsa, who had now inherited the lead with Kohno 1st, Yamauchi just behind him in 2nd, and Sato in 3rd, running in that order tail-to-nose over the final laps of the race.
But Kohno had the measure of Yamauchi in the final laps, and took the chequered flag after 103 laps to give the new #60 Syntium GR Supra its first win in just its second race, taking the win by a final margin of just 0.712 seconds.
It was an emotional first victory for 25-year-old Kohno, who shed tears in the post-race interview. While working his way up Japan’s single-seater ladder from F4 to F3, Kohno had spent several years as an apprentice mechanic at Goodsmile Racing & Team UKYO, working with his father, chief engineer Takao Kohno and getting acclimated to the working environment of Super GT from the mechanics’ perspective until he made his debut as a driver last season.
Kohno and the rest of the LM Corsa team struggled in 2020, the combination of their ageing Lexus RC F GT3 and Michelin rubber resulting in a season where they managed only a best finish of 9th at the final race of the year. But the new combination of the V8-powered GR Supra and Dunlop rubber has given LM Corsa their first win since the 2019 race at Autopolis. This is also the first win for a traditional GT300 car at the Fuji 500km since 2013.
Yoshimoto, who picked up his eighth career GT300 class victory, and his first at Fuji, said: “Last year the performances of younger drivers really stood out in Super GT as a whole, but we had a difficult season and Shunsuke wasn’t able to get any good race results. But this year, I felt that we were able to provide a much better competitive environment, and already we have this win, which I am really glad that Shunsuke can experience. From this season we have the GR Supra GT, and I feel that the condition of the team and the car are both outstanding. And after changing once, Dunlop fortunately took us back and supplied us with fantastic tyres. This time the machine trouble of car No. 52 was a big factor, but next time I want to see us come back even stronger and take our next win.”
“I’m so happy for this first win that I think I am going to cry!” exclaimed Kohno. “The car that the team prepared for us and the
tyres that Dunlop brought for us were both great, and that enabled us to run at a good pace and hold out in the competitive parts of the race. At the end, I was able to pass the car in front of me. To win that way was great. I am very happy.”
Leading every session in the lead-up to the race, and leading the first 35 laps on the day, the #61 Subaru of Iguchi and Yamauchi finished a close 2nd, giving the second-generation BRZ a maiden podium in its second race, a much more representative result than the 15th-place non-scoring result at Okayama.
Completing the GT300 podium was the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 of Takagi, back on the podium for the first time since his return from injuries sustained in a Super Taikyu crash at Okayama in November, and a bounce-back first career podium for the rookie Sato, in just his second race. Just 1.268 seconds covered the podium finishers.
4th place changed hands on the last lap, as the #65 LEON Pyramid Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Naoya Gamou/Togo Suganami), which overtook the #10 Gainer TanaX with Impul Nissan GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Keishi Ishikawa) as the Nissan hit trouble, but still finished in 5th. Unfortunately, the sister #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda), which was running 6th with just two laps remaining, suffered a mechanical failure and dropped out of the points to 16th.
That promoted the two biggest movers in the race another position, the #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) moved up 14 positions from 20th to finish 6th, and the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira), overcoming 60kg of Success Weight to gain 19 positions and go from 26th on the grid to a 7th place finish!
That 7th place keeps Fujinami and Oliveira in the lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship, by a single point over Yoshimoto/Kohno in 2nd, who are ahead of Gamou/Suganami on countback with their victory today. Iguchi/Yamauchi are eight points back in 4th.
The rest of the GT500 top ten finishers include the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) in 8th, the #18 UPGarage NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Teppei Natori) in 9th, and the #2 muta Racing Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Ryohei Sakaguchi/Kazuto Kotaka) in 10th. The Lotus was actually the first car to make a routine stop, way back on Lap 6 – third driver Kotaka only drove those first six laps, while Katoh spent a whopping 51 laps at the wheel on the second stint!
On an emotional weekend where Super GT gathered to remember Tsuchiya Engineering founder Haruo Tsuchiya on Monday, the two cars they prepared almost cracked the top ten, but fell just short of points. Max Racing’s #244 Takanoko-no-yu GR Supra (Atsushi Miyake/Yuui Tsutsumi) gained 13 places to go from 24th to finish 11th, while the #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) gained nine places off the start, finishing 13th for Hoppy Team Tsuchiya.
The Autobacs Super GT Series returns on 30 May to yet another legendary venue, Suzuka Circuit, for the Suzuka GT 300km Race.
Images courtesy of the GT Association.