On the same weekend as the 89th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the teams and drivers of the Autobacs Super GT Series travelled to historic Suzuka Circuit for the fourth race of the 2021 season. Officially, the weekend’s promotional material referred to the event as “Round 3” of the 2021 Super GT Series, because the event was originally scheduled to take place on the weekend of 30 May, before being delayed until 22 August – the date of the rescheduled Le Mans 24 Hours – due to rising cases of the novel coronavirus.
With all hands of DSC on deck to help with Le Mans coverage, the report of the Fujimaki Group Suzuka GT 300km Race was withheld until after the weekend. Here is a report of the major events as they happened that weekend.
21 August: Qualifying
Rain showers were forecast all week in the build up to the weekend, which began on Saturday. While there were intermittent showers during Practice in the morning, the rain stopped in time for Qualifying at 14:30 local time.
Pole position in the GT500 class went to the #64 Modulo Honda NSX-GT of Takuya Izawa and Hiroki Otsu, while the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Ukyo Sasahara and Toshiki Oyu qualified in second to secure a front row lockout for the two Dunlop-clad Hondas.
Otsu led Q1 with the best time of the afternoon, a 1’44.733 which was just four tenths of a second off the GT500 course record set by Tomoki Nojiri in 2018. Izawa would follow his young teammate’s performance with the fastest time in Q2, a 1’45.128, to edge out GT500 rookie Oyu in the #16 Red Bull NSX-GT by two tenths of a second.
This was Izawa’s third career pole position, all of which have come since joining Modulo Nakajima Racing last season.
The #23 Motul Autech Nissan GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), the fastest car from the morning’s Practice session, qualified in third – alongside the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Daiki Sasaki) in fourth. Hondas and Nissans alternated the first four rows of the GT500 grid, as the big surprise from Q1 was that none of the six Toyota GR Supras advanced to Q2 for the first time since Super GT adopted the knockout qualifying format in 2007.
GT300 pole position went to the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport of Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi, for the second time this season. Just as in GT500, the pole winning Subaru BRZ swept both phases of Qualifying – with Iguchi leading his group in Q1, and Yamauchi converting a best lap of 1’57.322 to claim his sixth career pole position. Dunlop/Sumitomo Rubber have now won all four pole positions in GT300 this season.
At a circuit where the lighter, more agile GT300 and Mother Chassis vehicles were expected to have an advantage, the #5 Mach Syaken Toyota MC86 (Yuya Hiraki/Reiji Hiraki) qualified a strong second, ahead of the #244 Takanoko-no-yu Toyota GR Supra GT300 (Atsushi Miyake/Yuui Tsutsumi), which led their respective Q1 group and finished third place out of the 16 cars that advanced into Q2.
22 August: Race Day
There’s a popular saying in sports car racing, “Nothing good comes from warm-up sessions.” While most of Super GT’s 20 minute warm-ups are uneventful affairs, this Sunday, the #18 UPGarage Honda NSX GT3 of Teppei Natori suffered a horrifying accident at the 130R Corner during the warm-up.
— hiro_hojyo (@hhiro111) August 22, 2021
The right front wheel came off just before the entrance of Suzuka’s most notorious high-speed corner, sending Natori into the sponge barriers with enough momentum to flip his car upside down on top of the barriers.
— hiro_hojyo (@hhiro111) August 22, 2021
Immediately, the Super GT First Rescue Operation (FRO) team was on site to assist Natori, who escaped the crash with no significant injuries. However, the #18 UPGarage NSX that he and Takashi Kobayashi were set to drive was written off for the weekend, reducing the GT300 field to just 28 cars for the start of the race at 14:40 JST.
Rain was also forecast for Sunday, but just as it was Saturday, conditions were dry for the start of the 52 lap race. In fact, the sun was able to break through the clouds a little bit, and the air temperature climbed to a warm, humid 30°C with a track temperature of 35°C.
From pole position, Izawa in the #64 Modulo NSX led from Oyu in the #16 Red Bull NSX, and Quintarelli in the #23 Motul GT-R. After four laps of racing with clear track ahead, Izawa had pulled out a lead of 2.4 seconds over Oyu with no inclination of trouble on the horizon.
But on lap five, Izawa’s brakes suffered a catastrophic failure exiting 130R on the way into the Triangle chicane. A puff of black smoke from the front wheels preceded Izawa crashing into the sponge barriers, resulting in a lengthy Safety Car intervention to repair the barriers. By the time the race restarted on lap 12, it was Oyu who was now leading, ahead of a trio of Nissan GT-Rs led by Quintarelli, then Sasaki, and then the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo. It was no small task for Oyu to keep the four-time GT500 champion Quintarelli at bay, but he maintained his advantage while also negotiating traffic at the narrow, twisting 5.807 kilometre figure-of-eight.
The window for routine pit stops opened on lap 18, and two laps later, the #16 Red Bull NSX and #3 CraftSports GT-R pitted for fuel, tyres, and a change of drivers. The #23 Motul GT-R came in on lap 24, and the #24 Realize GT-R pitted a lap later.
When all teams had made their routine pit stops, the undercut allowed Kohei Hirate in the #3 CraftSports GT-R to take the lead of the race. The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R, which started eighth in the hands of Nobuharu Matsushita, pitted on lap 18 and was able to climb to second place with Kazuki Hiramine at the wheel, with the #23 Motul GT-R third, piloted by Mie Prefecture’s very own legend Matsuda.
Worries about Dunlop’s race tyre compounds resurfaced as Ukyo Sasahara took over the #16 Red Bull NSX, and once he was overtaken by Matsuda at the start of his stint, it began a freefall down the order as he struggled to get any grip from his tyres.
Hirate now held a five second lead, but it was Matsuda who was putting in a vintage stint aboard the red and black Motul GT-R. He passed Hiramine for second position on lap 30, and then set out to chase down the white and black CraftSports GT-R ahead of him. A series of fastest laps brought the lead down to just over one second by lap 39. The following lap, Matsuda was right on Hirate’s bumper over the start/finish line.
With consistent speed and supreme manouevering through traffic, Matsuda saw his opportunity to take the lead on lap 41, as the two leading Nissans were approaching a GT300-class Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 going into the Nissin Hairpin. Hirate was held momentarily up by the slower traffic, forcing him to concede the inside line – and the race lead – to Matsuda.
The 42-year-old veteran continued to string together fast times over the final twelve laps of the race, bringing the margin up to 12.5 seconds before taking the chequered flag with an 11.362 second margin of victory. This secured the third consecutive win at Suzuka for the #23 NISMO team of Matsuda and Quintarelli, who swept both races at Suzuka last season – making them the first team to ever win three consecutive
The victory marked a significant milestone for GT500’s all-time wins leader Matsuda, who scored his 23rd career victory to match his car number, Nissan and NISMO’s signature number. This was also Matsuda’s record fifth win at his home track of Suzuka. For Quintarelli, it is his 17th career win, which moves him ahead of Satoshi Motoyama for third on the all-time premier class wins list.
“When I got out on the track in the second half, I was in fourth position, and I thought that I should be able to get a podium finish, but I was upset by that,” said Matsuda after the race. “But that made me reach down deeper. And whenever I race here in my native Mie Prefecture, I always seem to find some extra strength inside me. When I saw an F1 race here at Suzuka when I was a child, it made me want to become a racer.”
“So, I am very happy to have been able to concentrate on my race here at Suzuka and run in control of the car and the tires to have such a good race. For me, I feel that today was the best race I have run in my entire career, including formula racing.”
“As with last year here at Suzuka, the Nissan/NISMO team and the people at Michelin put together a great car for us that has enabled us to win a third straight victory here. When I got out of the pit, I felt disappointed that I had lost ground for us, but Tsugio-san ran such a fantastic race that we were able to win,” said Quintarelli.
Hirate brought the #3 CraftSports GT-R in second place to complete a Michelin/Nissan 1-2 finish in GT500. This also ties Chiyo’s best-ever result in the top class, with his first podium since the 2017 round at Sportsland Sugo.
And the #24 Realize GT-R of Sasaki and Mitsunori Takaboshi finished in third to complete Nissan’s first clean sweep of a GT500 podium since 2014 at Autopolis. It’s the end of a long podium drought in GT500 for both the Kondo Racing team, their first since the 2016 Motegi double-header, and for Takaboshi, who last finished on the podium in his GT500 debut at the 2016 Suzuka 1000km.
If this is to be the last season for the R35 Nissan GT-R in GT500, then this Sunday may have marked one of the last great moments for this car at the venue where the R35 won on debut in 2008.
Just off the podium, the #1 Stanley NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino finished an impressive fourth place. Starting in 11th place and laden with 37kg of physical Success Weight and the “Stage 1” fuel flow restrictor, the undercut gave Team Kunimitsu their best chance to move up the field. Yamamoto began his stint in eighth place, but worked his way into the top five and overtook Hiramine for fourth place with ten laps to go.
The result moves Yamamoto into the lead of the GT500 Drivers’ Championship with 40 points, with Makino, who missed the opening round of the season at Okayama, second on 37 points.
The best of the Toyotas was the #36 au TOM’s GR Supra (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sho Tsuboi), which instead overcut most of the field to go from 12th on the grid to a fifth-place finish. Sekiguchi and Tsuboi have now moved into fourth in the championship, just two points behind the #14 Eneos X Prime GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Kenta Yamashita) – which struggled on their “Stage 2” fuel flow restrictor all weekend, and finished outside the points in 12th.
Behind them there was a frantic five-car battle in the final laps for sixth place, but Hiramine in the #12 Calsonic GT-R managed to hang on to the top spot in the line by less than half a second over the #17 Astemo NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette) in seventh, the #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) in eighth, the #16 Red Bull NSX that fell to ninth, and the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra (Ryo Hirakawa/Sena Sakaguchi) completing the points in tenth. Just 3.1 seconds covered positions six through ten over the line.
With the field in GT300 reduced to 28 cars, polesitter Hideki Yamauchi in the #61 Subaru BRZ led from the opening lap. Yuya Hiraki in the #5 Mach MC86 didn’t have the best of starts, dropping to fourth on the opening lap behind Atsushi Miyake in the #244 Takanoko-no-yu GR Supra in second, and the #9 NAC Pacific-CarGuy Racing Ferrari 488 GTE of Kei Cozzolino in third.
After the Safety Car was withdrawn for Izawa’s crash, Yamauchi was still at the head of the field, but he wasn’t able to gain any separation from Miyake behind him. On lap 13, Miyake made a brave lunge up the inside at Dunlop Corner to take the class lead, which also allowed Cozzolino to overtake Yamauchi for second place. This was a genuine fight for the lead as well, as Pacific CarGuy Racing had two professional drivers this weekend (with Takeshi Kimura away at Le Mans) that were trying to end a twelve-year winless run for Ferrari in GT300.
Miyake pitted from the lead on lap 24, while Cozzolino came in three laps later. But the net lead in GT300 had already changed hands: The #5 Mach MC86 made its routine stop on lap 21, changing drivers from Yuya to younger brother Reiji Hiraki – but not changing tyres, which allowed them to gain significant track position.
It was a gamble on a high-degradation circuit like Suzuka, but Team Mach were in position to score a shock victory and take their first win in their 18th season in Super GT, if Reiji Hiraki could hold off the charge of the #244 Takanoko-no-yu Supra, now with fresh tyres and Yuui Tsutsumi at the wheel.
Within two laps, Tsutsumi was right on the diffuser of Hiraki, but the first-year driver in the Mach MC86 was able to hold off Tsutsumi for several laps. A two-car lead battle became a three-car lead battle when the #88 JLOC Lamborghini Huracán GT3 of Takashi Kogure closed in on Hiraki and Tsutsumi. Finally, on lap 38, Tsutsumi struck as Hiraki struggled to keep his car on the road through Degner Curve, allowing the Takanoko-no-yu Supra through to take what was now officially the class lead after every team made their compulsory pit stops.
Kogure found his way through on the following lap, and on lap 43, Hiraki spun at Degner Curve, dropping him behind the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi and off of the podium.
Tsutsumi gradually pulled out a margin of as much as 7.6 seconds over Kogure, but he made a small error through the S-Curves with four laps to go, running off through the gravel before rejoining the track. The time lost was not significant, and ultimately, after completing 49 laps he was able to hang on to score Max Racing’s first Super GT victory in just their second season – and the first for their new Toyota GR Supra GT300.
For both the former Honda-backed F4 driver Miyake and the former Mazda MX-5 Cup racer Tsutsumi, it is their first Super GT victories – an experience that Max Racing team director, Tetsuya Tanaka, is quite familiar with from his time as a Super GT driver.
Moreover, their victory gives Miyake and Tsutsumi the lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship by a margin of seven points.
“I made a mistake in yesterday’s qualifying,” said Miyake, “so I was determined to make up for that with my performance in the first stint and I was able to bring us back to the pit stop in the lead. That is why I feel that there has never been such a satisfying race for me in my Super GT career until now. I am so happy that we were able to win today.”
“I am so happy to get this win, but it was a race in which I surely made myself and everyone very nervous, which I regret,” lamented Tsutsumi. “Still, I am very happy with today’s result.”
Kogure and Yuya Motojima finished second in the #88 JLOC Huracán, grabbing their first podium of the 2021 season and their fourth as teammates since 2019.
With a special livery featuring artwork that would have featured on their Suzuka 10 Hours car, Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka drove the #4 GSR Miku AMG to their first podium of the season, in third place.
The #9 CarGuy Ferrari of Cozzolino and Naoki Yokomizo overtook the #5 Mach MC86 with two laps to go, to finish a season-best fourth place. Cozzolino and Yokomizo came away with 12 points in their two races together, exactly what the team hoped for when nominating Yokomizo to replace gentleman driver Kimura. Reiji Hiraki held on to fifth place in the Mach MC86, but then on the cooldown lap, he appeared to collapse upon getting out of the car, suffering from heat stroke just as Ren Sato did at Motegi last month. Older brother Yuya Hiraki confirmed that Reiji’s cool suit had failed, and that he received medical attention after the race.
The #30 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Hiroaki Nagai/Manabu Orido) put in by far the best result for a Pro-Am team in GT300 this year, finishing sixth. Orido was competitive throughout his opening stint – but the real eye opener was Nagai, who held onto sixth place and came within half a second of overtaking the ailing Hiraki.
The #55 ARTA NSX GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Ren Sato) had a fantastic recovery drive, from 22nd on the grid to finish seventh thanks to a strong closing stint from Sato – who found pace as light rain fell during the last 15 laps.
Another astonishing comeback drive came courtesy of the reigning champions’ #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira): Fujinami accidentally hit the pit lane speed limiter on the first lap, which dropped him to 27th. It was during the Safety Car that they got clever with pit strategy, changing tyres and topping off the tank on lap nine. After 33 laps, Oliveira took over with another fresh set of tyres, and from 20th he surged into the top ten with six laps left, and finished in eighth – scoring crucial championship points, and consolidating second in the GT300 Championship.
The #2 muta Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Ryohei Sakaguchi) followed up their Motegi win with points in ninth place, while the #61 Subaru BRZ of Iguchi and Yamauchi suffered with tyre degradation issues and finished tenth.
The published attendance was 18,500 spectators in total over two days, and it is our sincerest hope that they along with the rest of the Super GT competitors are in good health with COVID-19 cases in Japan surging rapidly.
The second half of the 2021 Super GT season kicks off in less than three weeks’ time, at the always-entertaining Sportsland Sugo in the woodlands of the Tohoku region.