The Motul NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli took their second straight victory to open the 2016 GT500 season at the Fuji 500km, after taking the lead of the race with four laps to go when a left-rear tyre failure brought a dominant race by the Calsonic Impul GT-R to a gutting, premature end.
Joao Paulo de Oliveira and Hironobu Yasuda led for most of the way through the first seventy laps of the Golden Week Classic from pole position, followed by the S Road MOLA GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo and Satoshi Motoyama.
Quintarelli started the Motul GT-R, and by lap 15, he was already past the “Fuji-meister” Yuji Tachikawa in the Zent Cerumo Lexus RC-F for third place despite carrying 40 kilograms of success ballast. At one point, Nissan looked set to sweep the podium.
But the complexion of the race changed drastically when the Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto, fresh off his season-opening win in the Super Formula series at Suzuka, suffered an explosive left rear tyre failure exiting the high-speed 100R corner. With many terrifying bits of carbon fibre left on the track from the stricken Raybrig NSX forced a safety car intervention, right at the end of the pit window for GT500 cars.
The ban on pitting under Safety Car periods caught out two major players for the win, and eliminated them from contention. The S Road GT-R was forced to pit under the safety car from second place to refuel, and incurred a 90 second stop/go penalty for doing so. The Zent RC-F did not pit under the safety car, but Hiroaki Ishiura could not even complete a lap before it sputtered to a stop with no fuel.
Yasuda pitted the Calsonic GT-R on lap 78, with Matsuda coming in two laps later in the Motul GT-R, to hand their cars over to Oliveira and Quintarelli respectively. The two most aggressive drivers in Super GT battled it out for the lead over the next few laps, both desperate to hold the lead – Quintarelli in particular caught the ire of Impul team boss Kazuyoshi Hoshino for his harsh defense.
Still, Oliveira made the move for the lead on lap 96, and looked set to take the Calsonic GT-R’s first race win in two years – until catastrophe struck on lap 107. Rounding the same 100R corner that caught out the Raybrig NSX, Oliveira suffered a similar left-rear tyre blowout, causing him to spin into the tarmac runoff and out of the race. The images of a dejected Oliveira lying in disbelief on the tyre walls lining the runoff won’t soon be forgotten.
That allowed Quintarelli to cruise the Motul GT-R to an unexpected and unforgettable victory. It’s their second consecutive win at the Fuji 500km, and their second consecutive victory to open the season.
No team in GT500 history has ever won three consecutive championships, but every team in either GT500 or GT300 that has won the first two races of a season has gone on to win the championship the same year – including NISMO, in 1998 and 2008, and most recently Goodsmile Racing, in 2014.
Matsuda extends his all-time record for career victories with eighteen, while Quintarelli has now tied Ralph Firman and Benoit Treluyer as the winningest foreign driver in GT500, with his twelfth victory. The Italian credited tyre management and great strategy to helping them to their victory:
“We went into this race carrying 40kg of handicap weight, so I paid close attention to tire management when driving in the first stint. The team made a really good judgment with the pit stop timing. Tsugio went out for his stint with a full tank, which would have been pretty tough due to the weight, but he did a great job. For our final stint we were able to keep the refueling time down to a minimum, put the car out as light as possible, and this enabled me to push as hard as I did.”
Out of the chaos that unfolded in the final 35 laps, the Denso SARD RC-F of Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate took an improbable second place finish, the best result for Lexus Team SARD since Sepang 2013, Hirate’s first podium since winning at Sugo in 2014 for Cerumo, and for Kovalainen, his first podium finish in Super GT – and his first in any form of racing since the 2008 Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix with McLaren.
Lexus took two of the three podium places on their home track, with James Rossiter and Ryo Hirakawa driving a quiet, but productive race to finish third in the KeePer TOM’s RC-F – their second straight podium finish to open the season keeps them in reach of the NISMO duo. Once again, they’ll be busy abroad – Rossiter has to race in the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps later in the week, while Hirakawa will race in Imola next weekend in the European Le Mans Series.
Rossiter and Hirakawa climbed up from ninth place, leading a trio of great drives from Lexus teams deep in the field. Their sister car, the au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito and Nick Cassidy), finished fourth after starting thirteenth, and the Wako’s LeMans RC-F (Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli) gave team director Juichi Wakisaka a performance worth smiling about to go from fifteenth and last on the grid to finish fifth.
Honda got two of their struggling NSXes in the points after a tough day saw three of their cars retire. Kosuke Matsuura and Tomoki Nojiri finished sixth in the ARTA NSX, and the Epson Nakajima Racing NSX of Daisuke Nakajima and Bertrand Baguette finally notched their first points of the year in tenth.
Between them, the S Road GT-R recovered from the gut punch of a penalty to finish seventh, the WedsSport RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi and Yuji Kunimoto) put all six Lexus RC-Fs in the points with an eighth-place finish (the WedsSport team’s twelfth straight points-paying finish) and the Forum Engineering GT-R of Kondo Racing (Daiki Sasaki and Masataka Yanagida) finished ninth.