For the first time since August 2016 – 1,832 days ago – the iconic #12 Calsonic Impul Nissan GT-R has won in the Autobacs Super GT Series. Kazuki Hiramine and Nobuharu Matsushita won a dramatic and exciting fifth round of the 2021 Super GT Series at Sportsland Sugo.
Sunday’s race was a welcome return for Super GT to the 3.586km Sugo circuit, after a year’s absence due to the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because of priority measures put into place by the Miyagi Prefecture government, attendance was officially limited to just 5,000 spectators. Even still, there was still a pronounced energy from the spectators in attendance, who were greeted with beautiful late summer weather: Sunny skies and air temperatures around 29°C for the start of the race.
After an additional formation lap, Tomoki Nojiri in the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT led the GT500 class field to the green flag, ahead of Toshiki Oyu in the #16 Red Bull Motul Mugen NSX-GT. The two Hondas ran tail-to-nose over the first three laps. Then, the pace in the Dunlop-clad Red Bull NSX began to diminish, as the Bridgestone-clad ARTA NSX pulled away to a decisive lead.
Oyu would fall into the clutches of a four-car battle for second, which included the #12 Calsonic GT-R of Matsushita, the #17 Astemo NSX-GT of Bertrand Baguette, and the #3 CraftSports Motul GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo. Matsushita, who started third, was able to get his nose past Oyu over the start/finish line on a couple of occasions, yet unable to hold an advantage through turns one and two. On lap 15, another overtake attempt from Matsushita opened the door for Baguette to swipe third place. Five laps later, the fortunes reversed, and Matsushita was able to re-pass Baguette, then make another charge at Oyu.
On lap 21, Matsushita got past Oyu into Hi-Point Corner (turn seven), and Baguette followed through into third with an overtake at Horseback Corner (turn nine).
While the battle for second place raged on, Nojiri was putting in a mammoth opening stint at the head of the field. He had built a lead of over 20 seconds after 15 laps, and even after losing time in traffic, he still had a lead of nearly 15 seconds by the time the race reached one-thirds’ distance and the window for routine pit work opened. At the end of lap 31, the ARTA NSX made its pit stop, and Nojiri was relieved for Nirei Fukuzumi. Two laps later, the Calsonic GT-R pitted, and Matsushita was relieved for Kazuki Hiramine. The gap at this time was still over ten seconds, and a pole-to-win victory seemed assured for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri.
On lap 37, the first of the top teams in the standings dropped out of the race. Just two laps into Kohei Hirate’s stint aboard the #3 CraftSports GT-R, the car suffered an engine issue which forced them to retire while running third.
Hiramine then started to gradually close in on race leader Fukuzumi, and then on lap 46, race control gave the #8 ARTA NSX a drive through penalty for a pit work infringement. During the pit stop, the mechanic responsible for changing the left front tyre did not lay the old tyre flat on the ground after replacing it, which is against the sporting regulations.
Moments later, the Safety Car was brought out when the #19 WedsSport Advan Toyota GR Supra (Yuji Kunimoto/Ritomo Miyata) broke down at the exit of 110R Corner (turn 12). As flames began to rise from the bonnet of the WedsSport Supra, Miyata got out of his car, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and attempted to extinguish the flames before the First Response Operation (FRO) vehicles arrived.
Fukuzumi hadn’t served the ARTA NSX’s drive through penalty yet, but was instructed to come into the pit lane during the Safety Car and after pit lane opened. What unfolded next was a chain of calamity for the ARTA team: Fukuzumi drove past a red light at the exit of pit lane, attempting to serve the penalty. Race control told the ARTA pit wall that the first attempt at serving the penalty was invalid, and instructed them to drive through the pits again. Then they drove through a third time, once the Safety Car was withdrawn on lap 53. Within minutes, the ARTA NSX was hit with a ten second stop and go penalty for running the red light at pit exit. Their chances of winning were now long gone.
Hiramine restarted the race from the class lead, ahead of the #17 Astemo NSX of Koudai Tsukakoshi, and the #1 Stanley NSX of Naoki Yamamoto. Further back, more trouble struck the Toyota fleet. The #38 ZENT GR Supra (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) retired in the pits with a mechanical issue on lap 57. On lap 63, the #14 Eneos X Prime GR Supra (Kazuya Oshima/Kenta Yamashita) which entered the weekend second in the championship standings, broke down before the first corner with an engine issue. This brought out a Full Course Yellow (FCY) that lasted until lap 65 when the race resumed once again.
Yamamoto took advantage of a slow reaction from Tsukakoshi to take second place after the FCY was withdrawn, while Hiramine gradually began to pull out a lead of 5-6 seconds over the field.
While contesting fourth place, Yuichi Nakayama in the #39 Denso Kobelco SARD GR Supra tried to outbrake Ryo Hirakawa in the #37 KeePer TOM’s GR Supra at the end of the front stretch. Nakayama and Hirakawa made contact through turn one, resulting in terminal damage to the right front wheel hub of the KeePer Supra. Nakayama was given a black and white flag for the collision.
That was the last major drama to unfold behind Hiramine, who drove a flawless stint all the way to the chequered flag – finally relieving Team Impul and their iconic blue car of five years of winless frustration in Super GT.
Team director Kazuyoshi Hoshino was relieved to finally reach the top step of the podium once again, while Hiramine and Matsushita couldn’t hold back their emotions in front of the fans – not after scoring their first Super GT victories in any category.
“I really have no words to explain how I feel right now. It has really been a long struggle,” said Hiramine, whose own career has seen struggles that mirror those of his team. When he was dropped by the Honda Formula Dream Project (HFDP) at the end of 2012, Hiramine didn’t race for nearly two years until JLOC threw him a lifeline in Super GT’s GT300 class. Improbably, Hiramine landed a chance to audition for a GT500 drive after the 2019 season, and moved up to the premier class with Nissan last year – something that would have seemed impossible as he faced a premature end to his driving career.
“I know our Impul fans and everyone supporting us have been waiting for this win, so I am so sorry that it took this long. We have only been able to come this far thanks to your cheers of support. I want to thank you all so much!” Hiramine shouted.
“We have all struggled so hard and suffered so much disappointment to reach this day,” said Matsushita, the former HFDP driver who raced in Formula 2 for five seasons, never abandoning his dream of reaching F1 until the bitter end in 2020. “During the official practice on Saturday, I was really scolded by Hoshino-san. But after being able to finish third in qualifying, he told me I would be responsible for starting the race.”
“At first, I wasn’t able to pick up the pace, but in the end, we were still able to win the race. It is only thanks to Kazuki-san and the team that I have been able to be part of this win in my first season in GT500, so I want to say thank you to everyone.” After an off-season filled with off-track flashpoints such as the dispute with Honda that temporarily shut him out of Super Formula action, he could simply showcase the talent that made him such a force earlier in his career.
The final margin of victory was 8.511 seconds from the Calsonic GT-R to the second placed Stanley NSX of Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino. It seemed almost impossible that they could compete for a podium heading into the weekend: Their effective 80kg of Success Ballast included the “Stage 2” fuel flow restrictor, and they were starting from tenth on the grid. Once the race got going, Makino tried to save as much fuel as possible early on. But he struggled with the heavy ballast as well as pickup on his tyres, and dropped as low as 13th before the routine pit stops.
But by pitting on lap 27 as the pit window opened up, Team Kunimitsu were able to undercut most of their rivals and overtake them by the time the pit cycle ended. Yamamoto was able to battle wheel-to-wheel with his great rival Hirakawa as he took fourth place from the KeePer Supra, then moved up into the podium positions after the ARTA NSX’s successive penalties.
Honda secured second and third places on the podium as the Astemo NSX of Tsukakoshi and Baguette completed the top three. They, too, had to contend with a hefty 60kg of Success Weight, which included the “Stage 1” fuel flow restrictor. Yet, they ran in the top five for most of the race and scored crucial championship points.
Only one of the six Toyotas finished the race without trouble of some sort: The #36 au TOM’s GR Supra of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Sho Tsuboi, in fourth. Sekiguchi held his nerve as he, Oshima, and Kunimoto drove three-wide towards turn one in the first half of the race, while Tsuboi worked his way through the field, took advantage of the friendly fire between Nakayama and Hirakawa, then held off the Denso Supra of Nakayama at the chequered flag by less than two tenths of a second.
These results have given Naoki Yamamoto a commanding lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship: With three races remaining, Yamamoto leads Tsukakoshi and Baguette by 14 points, while Sekiguchi and Tsuboi are 15 points behind. Coming off their third straight non-scoring result, Oshima and Yamashita drop to effective fourth in the table, 20 points behind Yamamoto.
Behind the #39 Denso Supra of Heikki Kovalainen and Nakayama in fifth, the #24 Realize Corporation Advan GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Daiki Sasaki) had a fantastic race, driving from 15th and last on the grid to finish sixth. After serving a five second penalty stop for an unapproved engine change, the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) drove back through the field to finish seventh.
The two Dunlop-clad Hondas, the #64 Modulo NSX-GT (Takuya Izawa/Hiroki Otsu), and the #16 Red Bull NSX of Ukyo Sasahara and Oyu, finished eighth and ninth, respectively. And even after a total of five trips down pit lane and two penalties, the attrition helped the #8 ARTA NSX of Nojiri and Fukuzumi salvage the final point in tenth.
After winning pole position for the third time this season, the new #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport finally claimed its first GT300 class victory, ending a long winless drought for the R&D Sport team and drivers Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi.
Iguchi started from the pole position in class, followed by the #18 UPGarage Honda NSX GT3 of Takashi Kobayashi, and the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Toyota GR Supra of Hiroki Yoshimoto. While Iguchi maintained his lead, the #55 ARTA NSX GT3 of Shinichi Takagi was on the move from fifth on the grid. After just three laps, Takagi had overtaken Yoshimoto for third, before chasing down his old ARTA co-driver Kobayashi up ahead of him. The two cars ran tail-to-nose for several laps, but finally on lap 20, Takagi was able to slipstream past Kobayashi to put the ARTA NSX GT3 in second place.
Iguchi now had a lead of as much as six seconds, but Takagi was closing in. The pit window had opened, and the ARTA NSX GT3 came in on lap 35, changing drivers to Ren Sato. Two laps later, the Subaru BRZ came in from the lead, with Hideki Yamauchi taking over until the end of the race.
After the Safety Car ended, Yamauchi was able to maintain the Subaru’s lead over the Honda of Sato behind him. After 63 laps, Yamauchi had stretched his lead out to over ten seconds, and he would maintain this margin until the end of lap 78, when he took the chequered flag and the GT300 class victory for Subaru by 11.442 seconds.
This was the first win for Subaru, R&D Sport, Iguchi and Yamauchi since the 2018 race at Sugo with the previous-generation BRZ. For Iguchi, it is the sixth win of his career, all but one of which have come as a driver for Subaru. It is Yamauchi’s third career win, all of which have been with Subaru.
“This is really great!” exclaimed Iguchi. “I can’t remember how many years it has been since I was given the job of being the starting driver. Since the team gave me this important role in such a big race, I did everything I could to open up as much of a lead as possible over the cars behind me.”
“I was able to pass the lead on to Yamauchi-san and he ran so well to give us the win. There have been some difficulties in breaking in the new BRZ this season, but the work of the team and the tire maker has paid off to give us this fantastic race week.”
“Watching how hard Iguchi-san worked in the first stint to get such a lead over 2nd place, I knew I had to do my best as a driver, so I gave it my all,” said Yamauchi.
“The remaining races of the season will be our ‘show time,’ and since we will have a chance to show what we can do, I want to give it my best and work with Iguchi-san to win the season championship we want so much.”
Subaru and R&D Sport have been in this position before, on the cusp of competing for a championship yet never able to grab the top prize in GT300. After just one podium finish in the first half of the season, the pole-to-win victory gives Iguchi and Yamauchi a one-point lead in the GT300 Drivers’ Championship.
Sato was able to bring the ARTA NSX GT3 home to a second place finish for himself and Takagi, ending the day as the best FIA GT3 car. As for their Honda stablemates they battled earlier in the day, the #18 UPGarage NSX sunk to 12th after a very slow pit stop that included issues with Kobayashi’s cool suit.
The #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) was one of the first cars to pit on lap 25, and crucially, they changed only left side tyres in a bid to gain track position. They were running third in class, but on lap 55, the left front tyre burst, and Taniguchi brought the car into the pits. He set the fastest lap of the race, but the Hatsune Miku AMG was saddled with a 23rd place finish.
The #60 Syntium GR Supra of Yoshimoto and Shunsuke Kohno thus moved back up into third in class, but then Kohno was caught up in an incident at turn two that also involved the #2 muta Racing Lotus Evora MC (Hiroki Katoh/Ryohei Sakaguchi), and the #30 Toyota GR Sport Prius PHV apr GT (Hiroaki Nagai/Manabu Orido). This dropped the Syntium GR Supra down to sixth place.
This moved the #56 Realize Nissan Automobile Technical College GT-R (Kiyoto Fujinami/João Paulo de Oliveira) up into third place. Fujinami and Oliveira had taken turns working their way from tenth on the grid, but once Oliveira got past Kohno for third place, he started closing in on Sato – and came within 2.1 seconds of second place. They will, however, gladly take a second podium while running the race with 81kg of Success Weight.
Scoring their first points of the season were Kosuke Matsuura and Natsu Sakaguchi in the #87 Granseed Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in fourth, ahead of the #60 Syntium GR Supra of Yoshimoto and Kohno in fifth.
The #34 Yogibo NSX GT3 (Ryo Michigami/Shogo Mitsuyama) earned their first points of the season in sixth place. Michigami had a fair, yet intense battle for seventh place with the #244 Takanoko-no-yu GR Supra of Atsushi Miyake that went on for several laps. On the last lap, Michigami overtook his old GT500 team mate Takashi Kogure in the #88 JLOC Huracán GT3 (with Yuya Motojima) over the line, after Kogure struggled over the final two laps of the race.
Behind the JLOC Huracán in seventh, the #96 K-Tunes Lexus RC F (Morio Nitta/Kazuto Kotaka) finished in eighth. And despite a puncture on the final lap, the #244 Takanoko-no-yu Supra of Miyake and Yuui Tsutsumi, running on the maximum 100kg of Success Weight, scored points in ninth. Completing the points scorers were the #11 Gainer TanaX GT-R (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Hironobu Yasuda) in tenth. Just 2.4 seconds behind, the pro-am #7 Studie PLUS BMW M6 GT3 (Seiji Ara/Tomohide Yamaguchi) was on the verge of scoring a top ten finish – however, clubman driver Yamaguchi could not keep the pro drivers behind him at bay long enough to stay in the points.
As mentioned, Iguchi and Yamauchi lead the GT300 Drivers’ Championship by a single point over Fujinami/Oliveira in second. Miyake/Tsutsumi are third (-3 points), Takagi/Ren Sato move to fourth (-9 points), ahead of Yoshimoto/Kohno in fifth (-10 points).
The next round of the 2021 Autobacs Super GT Series will be the 300km race at Autopolis International Racing Course on the island of Kyushu. The sixth round at Autopolis takes place on 23-24 October, in six weeks’ time.
Images courtesy of the GT Association (GTA)