Leon K2 R&D Racing took their long-awaited first victory in Super GT by leading a Mercedes-AMG 1-2 finish in the new AMG GT3’s Japanese debut.
Haruki Kurosawa drove the opening stint, and young co-driver Naoya Gamou brought the car to the head of the field in the second half to clinch the team’s first race victory, the first career Super GT victory for 26-year-old Gamou, and Kurosawa’s first GT300 win since 2007 at Autopolis.
Leon Racing had scored podium finishes in each of the last three seasons, so their first victory was a much-anticipated breakthrough for the entire team – and it was solidified with a gutsy strategy from the pit wall.
The pole-winning VivaC Team Samurai Toyota 86 took its second pole position, and started the race with Takeshi Tsuchiya taking the car right to the head of the largest GT300 grid in history.
Lap 31 saw Kurosawa bring the Leon AMG to the pits and hand the car over to Gamou. Four laps later, Tsuchiya gave the VivaC 86 over to co-driver Takamitsu Matsui.
But the Leon Racing crew only changed left-side tyres on their AMG, allowing them to exit the pit lane quicker than expected. With Matsui driving on cold sticker tyres, he struggled to get up to speed – and on his out lap, Gamou would pass him at the hairpin to sail off into a lead he would not relinquish.
The hard charger of the second half of the race was Nobuteru Taniguchi in the new-look Hatsune Miku AMG of Goodsmile Racing. Starting his stint on lap 30, NOB moved up from fifth to bring the car home second after getting past the rapidly-falling Matsui on lap 42.
It’s back-to-back podiums for the Miku team dating back to last year’s championship finale in Motegi, as Taniguchi, co-driver Tatsuya Kataoka, and GSR seek to rebound from a winless 2015 season.
Behind the Mercedes-AMG 1-2 finish, BMW also gave their new M6 GT3 a podium finish in its GT300 debut as Seiji Ara and Jörg Muller piloted the BMW Team Studie M6 to a respectable third place.
Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Bjorn Wirdheim, two former winners at Okayama, brought the Gainer Tanax AMG home to fourth – giving Mercedes-AMG a grand total of three of the top four finishers.
Another new-generation FIA GT3 machine that enjoyed a solid debut was the new Ferrari 488 GT3 of JMS LM Corsa, and drivers Morio Nitta and Akihiro Tsuzuki that finished a terrific fifth place – twenty places ahead of the LM Corsa “A” team with the struggling Syntium Lexus RC-F GT3 of Akira Iida and Hiroki Yoshimoto.
The new blood of GT3 locked out the top five, as Matsui limped home to finish sixth in the first of the JAF GT300-spec machines.
Completing the top ten, the new Audi R8 LMS of Team Hitotsuyama (Richard Lyons and Tomonobu Fujii) finished seventh. Andre Couto’s defense of the GT300 crown began with a solid drive from seventeenth on the grid to finish eighth in the number zero Gainer Tanax Nissan GT-R with new full-time wingman Ryuichiro Tomita.
Lamborghini gave the Húracan GT3 its first GT300 points finish on debut as well, by way of the ManePa JLOC car of Manabu Orido and Kazuki Hiramine in ninth. Completing the points scorers was the NDDP B-Max GT-R in tenth, giving GT Academy champion Jann Mardenborough points on his Super GT debut with co-driver Kazuki Hoshino.
It was a tough day for defending Okayama winners Koki Saga and Yuichi Nakayama – the excitement of the new-look Toyota Prius GT saw the number 31 car miss the points in twelfth place.
Sliding out of the points after impressive early runs were the #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi and Takashi Kobayashi) in eleventh, and the #61 Subaru R&D Sport BR-Z (Takuto Iguchi and Hideki Yamauchi) in twenty-third – the latter falling down the order after a late puncture.
Jörg Bergmeister’s full-time Super GT debut didn’t go so well, as he was hit with a drive-thru penalty for a jump start and hobbled the new Porsche 911 GT3-R of Excellence Team KTR to 22nd.
But spare a thought for those who didn’t even make the grid. Audi Team Braille didn’t even have a car to run, and withdrew before the weekend started. The Gulf Porsche of Gulf Racing with Pacific caught fire on Saturday’s non-competitive Circuit Safari session, leaving the car without an engine for the race. Then in Sunday’s final practice, the Team Mach Toyota 86 crashed at the first corner, leaving the car unable to be repaired for the start of the race.
However, Team Taisan SARD’s last-minute attempt to get their older-model Audi R8 on track for their GT300 return worked out, after the team missed all the official pre-season tests and all of Saturday’s sessions, Shogo Mitsuyama and almost-undefeated Porsche Carrera Cup champion Yuya Motojima finished 20th.