Reigning GT500 Champions Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino scored their first win of the 2021 Autobacs Super GT Series, driving their #1 Stanley Honda NSX-GT to victory at Twin Ring Motegi, the home circuit for both Honda, and for Team Kunimitsu ace driver Yamamoto.
Sunday’s 63-lap Motegi GT 300km Race was the third race of the season, following the postponement of the Suzuka GT 300km Race from 30 May to 22 August. Per GT Association tradition, the Motegi race is still officially recognized as “Round 4” of the 2021 Super GT Series. It was another hot, sunny summer day in Tochigi Prefecture, with ambient temperature climbing as high as 34°C and track temperature sitting at 51°C for the start of the race just after 13:00 local time.
Makino started the race from pole position aboard the Stanley NSX, with Yuji Kunimoto sharing the front row in the #19 WedsSport Advan Toyota GR Supra. Makino took the lead from the first corner as Kunimoto settled into second place. By the start of lap seven, the GT500 leaders encountered GT300 traffic for the first time. Kunimoto was able to size up a move around the outside of Makino at turn five, then held his advantage through turns six and seven to take the lead of the race.
New tyre compounds from Yokohama were suiting the WedsSport Supra well, as Kunimoto was able to build a lead of as much as four seconds before the race reached one-thirds distance, where the routine pit stop window opened. Team Kunimitsu brought the Stanley NSX into the pits on lap 24, changing drivers from Makino to Yamamoto. The WedsSport Supra stayed out for five more laps, before pitting on lap 28, and changing drivers from Kunimoto to Ritomo Miyata. The Team Kunimitsu mechanics were quicker in the pits, and the undercut allowed Yamamoto to emerge from the routine pit stops with a four-second lead of his own, as the race hit half-distance.
But within a few laps, Miyata was on the charge – taking nearly a second per lap out of Yamamoto’s lead until he was within one second by lap 35. This began an enthralling chase between the silver and black Honda versus the blue and gold Toyota, as Miyata kept piling the pressure on the two-time and defending GT500 champion ahead of him, running nose-to-tail. Miyata tried to overtake Yamamoto around the outside of the downhill 90° Corner (turn ten), but Yamamoto was able to hold a perfect defensive posture to keep the 21-year-old TGR-DC protegé behind him.
The two continued to battle for the lead for most of the second half of the race, but Yamamoto had a decisive advantage over Miyata on the restarts after two brief Full Course Yellow interventions. The second of which spoiled a great battle for fifth, as the #64 Modulo NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa/Hiroki Otsu) crashed out when Otsu collided with the GT300 class #31 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Koki Saga/Yuhki Nakayama). Shortly after that, the #17 Astemo NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) retired after 49 laps with a gearbox issue – not the result they desired to follow their victory in the Fuji 500km.
With ten laps to go, Miyata once again closed back in from a three-second deficit, to within less than a second of Yamamoto. But he wasn’t able to get as close as before, and the Stanley NSX and its Bridgestone tyres had just enough grip left in them to gradually pull away by several tenths per lap.
The final margin of victory was 3.221 seconds as Yamamoto took the chequered flag, to secure a pole-to-win victory for Team Kunimitsu that was anything but routine.
“In these race conditions, we knew it was going to be a battle against the number 19 GR Supra,” said Yamamoto. “As I watched Makino-san race in the first half, I kept in mind the fact that there were times when our pace was good and times when it wasn’t. I decided that it would be difficult to try to pull away from No. 19 all at once, so my strategy was to let them put wear on their tire trying to catch up and then pick up the pace once their tyre performance had dropped.”
“Fortunately, the fact that there were two FCY periods that played to our advantage, and when I pushed hard at those times, I was able to open up a lead. With this, we were able to conduct the race in an ideal way for us. It was really a great race for us.”
“It was really good, the way it turned out,” said Makino. “In my stint during the first half, I fell back to second position, which made things a bit hard for us. I was really impressed by the performance of my teammate Yamamoto-san. As I watched (car No. 19 closing in), I was really nervous. But Yamamoto-san was truly magnificent.”
That ‘magnificent’ drive powered Yamamoto to his first major series win at his home circuit of Motegi. Though he grew up about 30 kilometres west of the track in the city of Utsunomiya, Yamamoto hadn’t won at Motegi since the 2009 All-Japan Formula Three Championship. It’s Yamamoto’s sixth career GT500 victory and Makino’s second win, in just his second Super GT race since returning from a bout of meningitis that sidelined him from the first round at Okayama. That makes it two wins in the last four races for Team Kunimitsu, going back to the 2020 finale at Fuji Speedway.
Though they missed out on their first win in five years, Kunimoto and Miyata were competitive all weekend long on the new Yokohama tyre compounds, powering them to a second-place finish. It’s TGR Team WedsSport Bandoh’s first GT500 podium since June 2019 at Buriram Circuit in Thailand, and for Miyata, it’s his first career podium in the GT500 class.
While the lead battle grabbed the headlines in GT500, the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi quietly and confidently drove to a third place finish. Tsuboi got around the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Ukyo Sasahara on the opening lap, and he and Sekiguchi were able to hold onto their second podium finish in the first three races. Sasahara fell to fifth at one stage, but he and Toshiki Oyu would work their way back to fourth place, and score the first top-ten finish for Mugen since switching to Dunlop tyres.
The #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Nirei Fukuzumi) used pit strategy to help them gain track position, finishing fifth after starting ninth in a race where overtaking came at something of a premium without slower traffic.
Just two of the Nissan GT-Rs finished inside the top ten, led by the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R (Kohei Hirate/Katsumasa Chiyo) in sixth, ahead of the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) in ninth, which scored its first points of the season on an otherwise frustrating afternoon for the Nissan faithful.
Three Toyotas made up the rest of the top ten: The #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra (Ryo Hirakawa/Sena Sakaguchi) dropped out of the top five after a slow pit stop and held on to finish in seventh, just ahead of the #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) in eighth, and the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra (Heikki Kovalainen/Yuichi Nakayama) in tenth. Just 1.6 seconds separated seventh through tenth over the line.
With the #14 Eneos X Prime GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Kenta Yamashita) finishing outside the points in 13th, their GT500 Championship lead has now been reduced to just three points over race winner Yamamoto in second (Makino, third in points, is mathematically ineligible to win the Drivers’ Championship). Hirakawa/Sakaguchi are fourth in the standings, trailing Oshima/Yamashita by eight points.
In the GT300 class, the #2 muta Racing Lotus Evora MC of Hiroki Katoh and Ryohei Sakaguchi claimed a rather shocking victory, climbing from 17th on the grid to the lead after a fortuitous Full Course Yellow, then holding on to win thanks to a remarkable defensive drive from first-time winner Sakaguchi.
At the start of the race, it was the #11 Gainer TanaX Nissan GT-R GT3 of Hironobu Yasuda that held the lead over the #244 Takanoko-no-yu Toyota GR Supra GT300 of Yuui Tsutsumi. The first 25 laps were a straight-up battle between the former GT300 Champion Yasuda, and the second-year GT300 driver Tsutsumi, as Yasuda was only able to extend his lead to as much as two seconds by the time both cars made their routine pit stops.
With the array of tyre strategies available in GT300, some teams were able to gain track position by changing just two tyres even in the punishing heat. The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 changed just the two left-side tyres before sending Nobuteru Taniguchi out for the second stint, and likewise, the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave GR Supra changed rear tyres only when changing drivers to Hiroki Yoshida. The Miku AMG and GreenBrave Supra had jumped forward into net second and third place, respectively, behind the Gainer GT-R now driven by Katsuyuki Hiranaka, which changed all four tyres on its stop.
A handful of GT300 teams were content to run towards the maximum two-thirds distance limit on a single stint, including the #2 muta Lotus of Katoh, who started 17th and had moved up six places before the pit window opened. They had inherited the class lead on lap 28. As they completed lap 37, the #35 arto Lexus RC F GT3 (Sean Walkinshaw/Giuliano Alesi) broke down at the side of the 130R corner (turn six) with smoke billowing out of the bonnet. The call was made for the #2 Lotus to pit in anticipation of an FCY or Safety Car, making the risky decision not to change tyres for Sakaguchi’s closing stint.
The move paid off, as the first FCY was declared after the Lotus made its pit stop, and Ryohei Sakaguchi now inherited a 12 second lead over projected leader Hiranaka. But how long could Sakaguchi hold his advantage once the race got going? It didn’t seem as if it would last long at all, not when Sakaguchi got a slow restart from the second FCY on lap 44 to cut the lead down to just five seconds, and by lap 48, Hiranaka was within a second of the lead. Sakaguchi and Hiranaka were separated by just two-tenths over the line after lap 50, but even on a set of double-stinted Bridgestone tyres, Sakaguchi was able to keep a steady pace and hold off Hiranaka.
Hiranaka then had to deal with the #52 GreenBrave Supra of Yoshida, who had passed Taniguchi for third place and was now bearing down on second. With Hiranaka now having to mind the Supra behind him, Sakaguchi was able to start pulling away, little by little, until he got a one second margin to start the last lap.
The gold and black Lotus MC held on to take the chequered flag after 58 laps, securing a reversal victory that was equal parts fortunate and brilliantly executed. It was an emotional scene for 46-year-old Ryohei Sakaguchi – the uncle of Toyota works driver Sena Sakaguchi – who had competed in 60 Super GT races since debuting in 2006, often as a journeyman with smaller teams. He hadn’t finished on the podium until last season, and now he was able to claim his first GT300 class win.
“I have been racing for a long time, but I think this was a day when everything went well for our team,” said Sakaguchi. “We came here to Motegi with some confidence, but there were mistakes in the qualifying.”
“But during the race, Katoh-san’s speed in the first half, the fact that our no-tyre-change strategy in our pit stop before the FCY went well, and the way our Advics brake system held out to the end were all great. When I took the checkered flag at the end to win the race, I thought there really are times like this when everything goes perfectly.”
“To win from 17th position on the starting grid is really too much to have even dreamed of,” Katoh laughed. “Since we had two months since the last race, we went back and reviewed the data we had, and that helped us get a better match between the machine and tyres for this third race.”
“While we were also helped by the timing of the FCY periods, we also had a very good pace during the race, which I think was due to the efforts of the drivers and the team. So, I am very happy with this result.” This is Katoh’s sixth career victory, where the 53-year-old put in yet another of his long, workhorse stints at the wheel of the Mother Chassis Evora. This also marks an important first victory for the muta Racing INGING team, following the merger between INGING and the Cars Tokai Dream28 squad this off-season, which allowed the V8-powered Lotus to continue racing in 2021.
The battle for second came down to the wire, but it was the #11 Gainer GT-R of Hiranaka and Yasuda that held on by 0.243 seconds to take the higher position ahead of the #52 GreenBrave Supra of Yoshida and Kohta Kawaai. Both teams bounced back after failing to score points at the Fuji 500km.
The #244 Takanoko-no-yu Supra of Tsutsumi and Atsushi Miyake recorded a new best GT300 finish for Max Racing, finishing fourth. The #4 Miku AMG of Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka ended their 100th Super GT championship race with a fifth-place finish, their best result of the season thus far.
The #25 Hoppy Porsche 911 GT3-R (Takamitsu Matsui/Kimiya Sato) scored its best finish of the season in sixth, as did the #9 NAC Pacific CarGuy Ferrari 488 GT3 (Kei Cozzolino/Naoki Yokomizo) – with their all-pro lineup running in the top ten almost all day to score a seventh-place finish, just what was asked of the tandem to help score crucial championship points.
The best Pro-Am car was the #30 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Hiroaki Nagai/Manabu Orido) in eighth, giving gentleman driver Nagai his best-ever Super GT finish. The #65 LEON Pyramid AMG (Naoya Gamou/Togo Suganami) had a tough race, but salvaged two points by finishing ninth, as the #18 UPGarage Honda NSX GT3 (Takashi Kobayashi/Teppei Natori) completed the top ten in tenth.
One of a couple of notable incidents saw the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira) and the #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Takashi Kogure/Yuya Motojima) take each other out of contention when Kogure and Oliveira made contact going into turn five. Oliveira would bring the #56 Realize GT-R into the garage for over 20 minutes of repairs, and he and Fujinami were classified 12 laps down in 26th. The #88 JLOC Huracán was classified eight laps down in 24th.
So now just four points cover the top six teams in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship, with the tandems of Hiranaka/Yasuda and Gamou/Suganami tied on 25 points – the former team ahead on countback with their second-place finish today. Fujinami/Oliveira are just one point back in third; the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Toyota GR Supra (Hiroki Yoshimoto/Shunsuke Kohno) is now another point back in fourth, followed by Yoshida/Kawaai in fifth, and Katoh/Ryo. Sakaguchi in sixth.
The other notable incident occurred with two laps to go, as Ren Sato suffered a heat stroke while at the wheel of the #55 ARTA Honda NSX GT3. Sato was unable to get out of his car after returning to the garage, and was taken to the circuit medical centre where he was given fluids, then was discharged three hours later. Sato and Shinichi Takagi were running outside the top ten at the time.
The published attendance for the two-day weekend was 20,000 spectators. Super GT returns to action following the summer games in Tokyo, where the series will head to Suzuka on 22 August, part of what will be the biggest weekend in sports car racing.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)