Defending GT500 champions NISMO began their pursuit of a historic third consecutive championship with a landmark victory at the 2016 season opener at Okayama, one that vaulted ace driver Tsugio Matsuda into the all-time wins lead in the premier class.
Four-time series champion Ronnie Quintarelli started the number 1 Motul Nissan GT-R third, in pursuit of James Rossiter in the pole-winning KeePer TOM’s Lexus RC-F.
Quintarelli first had to track down the Wako’s RC-F of defending Okayama champion Andrea Caldarelli. After closing in on his Italian compatriot, Quintarelli made the move at the hairpin on lap 28, and set sights on Rossiter.
Rossiter pitted the KeePer RC-F from the lead on lap 35. But the Michelin tyres on the Motul GT-R had a bit more in them, as Quintarelli stayed out an additional three laps before pitting and handing the wheel over to Matsuda. By the time he exited the pits, Matsuda was now more than eight seconds clear of the KeePer RC-F, now with course record holder Ryo Hirakawa at the wheel.
As Matsuda set sail into the distance, attention then shifted to the battle for second place – as Hirakawa was now fending off the charge of GT500 debutant Katsumasa Chiyo in the number 46 S Road MOLA GT-R.
After a solid first stint by co-driver Satoshi Motoyama, Chiyo rejoined the race in fourth behind Kazuya Oshima in the Wako’s RC-F. On lap 52, Chiyo made his move through the Revolver and Piper Corner complex, and was now in pursuit of Hirakawa.
The KeePer RC-F and the S Road GT-R ran nose to tail for much of the last few laps, as Chiyo was able to close on Hirakawa, but Hirakawa would not let the Bathurst hero and Blancpain Endurance Cup champion past.
Up the road, Tsugio Matsuda hammered out consistent laps at the head of the field, and was never challenged as he drove the Motul GT-R home to a victory in the opening race of their title defense. With a near-maximum 20 points, it was a perfect start to the pursuit of an unprecedented third consecutive championship for NISMO, Matsuda, and Quintarelli.
And for Matsuda, it was the seventeenth victory of his GT500 career – moving him past both Satoshi Motoyama and Yuji Tachikawa into the all-time lead in GT500 race victories. Though Matsuda did not acknowledge the milestone in his post-race comments, the victory now further establishes him as one of the greatest to ever race in Super GT – just like his co-driver Quintarelli.
Quintarelli won his eleventh career GT500 race, appropriately tying him with three-time GT500 champion Juichi Wakisaka, who was honoured with a pre-race ceremony and final lap of honour following the announcement of his retirement in February.
“This is my first time winning in the opening round, as well as at Okayama, but I have to be honest, it really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Quintarelli said after the race. “The team did a great job perfecting the car for this weekend and Michelin really came through for us. Our tire selection is really what enabled us to win here.
“It really goes to show that if your car and tires are properly suited to the conditions, you can really push hard. We’ll have a weight handicap in the next round so we’ll be working hard in the next round to overcome that.”
Rossiter and Hirakawa finished second in the KeePer RC-F – a podium finish proving the perfect send-off for both drivers before they head to Silverstone Circuit the following week to take part in the WEC/ELMS double-header.
Chiyo came home a sensational third in his maiden GT500 outing, with three-time champion Motoyama offering nothing but the utmost praise for his new co-driver:
“Chiyo could not have done a better performance. During the tests there was a period where we were in a bit of a slump, but I don’t think anyone could deny that he is ready for the GT500. His battle with the #6 RC F was a little risky but he skillfully got passed him in the end. Although he used tires that were slightly softer than those I used in my stint, they clearly allowed him to confidently attack the course and drive with a good pace. I felt pretty at ease watching his drive.”
Just missing out on the podium was Oshima and Caldarelli in the Wako’s RC-F, finishing fourth for new team principal Wakisaka in his managerial debut.
2015 runners-up, Calsonic Team Impul, and drivers Hironobu Yasuda and Joao Paulo de Oliveira, finished fifth in the famous Calsonic GT-R, ahead of the Zent Cerumo RC-F of Tachikawa and Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura.
Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate finished seventh in the Denso SARD RC-F, with series rookie Nick Cassidy and veteran Daisuke Ito finishing eighth in the new-look number 36 au TOM’s RC-F.
The WedsSport Bandoh RC-F of Yuhi Sekiguchi and Yuji Kunimoto made it four Lexuses (Lexii?) in a row, finishing ninth and maintaining an eleven-race points-scoring streak for the WedsSport RC-F dating back to the 2014 race in Buriram.
It was a miserable day for the retooled Honda NSX-GTs. The Raybrig Team Kunimitsu NSX of Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa were the only Honda to crack the points in tenth. Honda locked out the back five places on the GT500 starting grid, and the ARTA NSX of Kosuke Matsuura and Tomoki Nojiri was the race’s only retirement – when Nojiri had to box the car with brake failure after just 24 laps.