Analysis: How did Kondo Racing win at Sugo?

The Forum Engineering Nissan GT-R of Kondo Racing entered the third race of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series at Sportsland Sugo as sort of an afterthought in the minds of many, and they left Sugo as GT500 class winners – securing a historic third straight victory for Nissan to open the season.

They pulled off an absolute blinder on strategy, going the official seventy-four lap distance on just one set of Yokohama tyres. It was a massive gamble, and in the end, unbeknownst to most of the audience outside of Japan until after the fact, they cashed out all the chips at the table.

But there were more factors that played into Daiki Sasaki and Masataka Yanagida’s sensational tandem drive to victory, resisting a hard-charging fleet of Lexus RC-Fs that were overwhelmingly favored to win.

What’s pretty astonishing about their victory at Sugo was how close the entire journey to the top step of the podium could have ended before it ever got going.

This is the outcome of a bit of a poorly-judged passing attempt by Tomoki Nojiri, who tried to send the orange #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT up the inside of Yanagida at Hi-Point Corner and got spun and beached in the gravel just three laps into an 81-lap race.

Nojiri ends up getting beached in the wet gravel trap and loses two laps. You can faintly see in the second screen, however, Yanagida run through the grass and eventually rejoin the track at the next corner. He drops from 10th to 13th out of this exchange, but it could have just as easily been Yanagida stuck in the gravel, and going down a lap or more and completely losing any chance at winning.

After that though, the rest of Yanagida’s stint goes well, and major contenders ahead of him start to fall away. The Wako’s RC-F and Keihin NSX each get punted out of the lead within the first sixteen laps. The au TOM’s RC-F has to serve its penalty stop, and the Raybrig NSX suddenly has major tyre wear issues about fifteen laps in.

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He’s got the Forum Engineering GT-R up into sixth place by the time the first Safety Car comes out for Junichiro Yamashita’s spin at 110R, on lap 26.

Truth be told, the Forum Engineering GT-R is not the fastest Yokohama-clad car in GT500 by this point in the race. That honour belongs to the WedsSport Advan RC-F of Racing Project Bandoh, which has gone from fourteenth on the GT500 grid all the way into second place in the same time frame thanks to an astonishing drive from Yuhi Sekiguchi.

Sekiguchi has avoided all the drama ahead of him including the tussle between Yanagida and Nojiri, and has been making aggressive, calculated overtakes in traffic all race long. That’s Sekiguchi’s modus operandi – he’s starting to assert himself as a credible star driver in 2016, and he’s got a good track record at Sugo in particular.

With the pit lane closed from laps 26 to 30 under the safety car, the end of the SC period will start at exactly the time the projected pit window opens for full-service stops. It’s the perfect time for Kondo Racing to execute the strategy that wins them the race.

The Forum Engineering GT-R comes in from sixth place as lap 31 begins and the pit lane opens, ahead of a small group of cars, such as the Drago Modulo NSX, the S Road MOLA GT-R, and the Raybrig NSX that was desperate to get off its first set of Bridgestones.

This is how they exit pit lane, with the S Road GT-R jumping the Drago NSX for position. But they’ve all lost the race off pit road. That’s because these cars have all refuelled, changed drivers, and changed all four tyres.

The Forum Engineering GT-R refuelled, changed drivers from Yanagida to Daiki Sasaki, but elected not to change Yokohama Advan tyres. Team principal Masahiko Kondo made the call, believing in the integrity of his tyres to last a full race distance – which is strange, considering it is typically the Michelin tyres that are widely regarded as the most durable in dry race conditions, and the Yokohamas are not well known for their long-run durability. At least they weren’t before this weekend.

But of course, Kondo didn’t sell millions of albums across Japan in his musical career that’s been going for 35 years and counting without taking a few calculated risks along the way, and this was a calculated risk. This no-tyre stop gives them an overwhelming track position advantage – in fact, they don’t even fall off the lead lap when they rejoin the course.

Sekiguchi pits the WedsSport RC-F on lap 45, and Kovalainen pits the Denso RC-F two laps later. Kovalainen’s co-driver, Kohei Hirate rejoins the track ahead of Sasaki in the Forum Engineering GT-R, which has leapfrogged the rest of the field by taking fuel only on its stop. But Hirate is a sitting duck on solid cold tyres, compared to Sasaki’s well-heated, and now double-stinted, tyres.

Sasaki makes the pass for the lead at Rainbow Corner on lap 47, as everyone wonders how in the fresh green forest hell a car that restarted the race by pitting from sixth suddenly rocketed into the lead. At this point, Martin Haven and Sam Collins, who are calling the race for NISMO TV, believe that Sasaki just engaged Ludicrous Speed on his outlaps, or that Yanagida somehow went full Michael Schumacher Mode on his inlaps (which were under the safety car).

Because they have no pit reporter on scene due to the limits of their broadcasting space, Haven and Collins won’t even know that Kondo Racing didn’t change tyres until after the race is over, and neither will most of the NISMO TV viewers. As a matter of fact, a small miscommunication between myself and Speedhunters‘ Pierre-Laurent Ribault on Twitter had me thinking that the Forum Engineering GT-R had at least changed left-side tyres!

One decision that helped make the no-tyres gamble easier was the conditions of the track. A morning shower washed away most of the rubber on the circuit, and Sugo is not a heavy tyre wear circuit as it is – especially not with a green surface. Track temperatures never got above 26°C all weekend.

And this isn’t the first time a team has ever successfully gambled on a double-stinted tyre strategy in the current GT500 era (since 2014). In the 2014 Buriram United Super GT Race at Chang International Circuit, Thailand, the #36 Petronas TOM’s RC-F took advantage of an entirely brand new track surface to execute a no-tyre stop, and come away with a crucial victory in the penultimate round of the championship.

Hirate never loses touch of Sasaki throughout the closing stint of the race, but the Denso RC-F continues to lose out when traffic from the slower GT300 cars comes into play.

On lap 57, Hirate drops from 0.4s behind Sasaki to nearly 2.5s as he’s held up through the 110R by the GT300-class Gainer Tanax AMG-GT3.

On lap 73, Sasaki is able to slip past the #25 VivaC 86 MC that’s challenging for the GT300 lead before the same 110R corner, once again leaving Hirate out to dry at the same spot.

Then on the next lap, Hirate catches Sasaki out of turn 3 in the run up to the Hairpin Curve, as they both catch Tim Bergmeister’s #33 Excellence Porsche. Bergmeister stays to the outside to let the leaders through. Sasaki goes one carlength in, not only to get past Bergmeister, but also to defend his position from Hirate. But Hirate sees a gap, and perhaps out of a bit of desperation, he goes for it at the Hairpin.

Instead, shortly after this still, Hirate clips the back of Sasaki’s GT-R enough to inflict very minor damage – but it unsettles Hirate enough to let the pursuing train of cars led by Yuji Tachikawa catch up soon afterwards.

By this point it’s clear that the Yokohamas on the Forum Engineering GT-R are starting to lurch over the dreaded cliff in terms of pace. But in his post-race comments, Sasaki was still confident that had the race still gone to the scheduled distance, he would have won anyway:

“There were still ten laps left to go at that point, but even if the Red Flag hadn’t come out, I was confident that if I was passed on the Umanose (horseback) or the last corner, I could still beat them because I was faster coming out of the last corner.”

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It’s not just brazen over-confidence. Throughout the last twenty-five or so laps, Sasaki was resisting every bit of pressure that Kohei Hirate, and later Yuji Tachikawa, threw at him.

Which leads me to what I feel was the most important element to executing this brave strategy and winning a crucial race in the Super GT championship: Daiki Sasaki.

Since stepping up to the GT500 category in 2014, Sasaki has began to cultivate a reputation as a terrific late-race “closer” in the vein of a fellow Nissan GT500 driver and NDDP graduate, Katsumasa Chiyo – specifically, recalling Chiyo’s late-race heroics at the Bathurst 12 Hour Race that so famously won the race in 2015, and almost won it again in 2016.

Sasaki made a late-race charge in the last fifteen laps for his first podium, in 2014 at Thailand. He came out of almost nowhere to erase a ten-second deficit to the lead in less than ten laps, and go from third to the lead in the span of just over a lap, to win his first race at Fuji Speedway last August. He passed Yuji Kunimoto with four laps left to score another podium finish at Sugo last October.

And this weekend, he handled the best of what two former GT500 champions could throw at him and never buckled under the pressure.

He’s also incredibly smart and gentle on his equipment. “Sasaki has the ability to run fast while still going easy on the tires,” says his co-driver Yanagida – which is a trait very few drivers Sasaki’s age have grasped by this point in their careers.

At 24 years old, Sasaki is already a top-level GT500 talent in a category that has no weak drivers at all. Within the Nissan stable, drivers like Satoshi Motoyama, Tsugio Matsuda, and Ronnie Quintarelli are beloved for their enduring and already legendary success. Katsumasa Chiyo is beloved for his “clutch factor” in international events. Joao Paulo de Oliveira is as brave and unrelenting as Ayrton Senna in his youth. Lest we forget also, that Yanagida is a two-time champion in both the GT500 and GT300 classes. And even in GT300 there are prolific drivers like Jann Mardenborough who is a true superstar of racing. They’re all bloody terrific.

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But Daiki Sasaki (seen above in his Formula 3 colours) absolutely and without question deserves to be mentioned among those other great Nissan drivers – and at 24, he’ll be in Super GT for the long haul as a fixture of the Nissan driver lineup.

With six laps to go, Yuji Tachikawa in the ZENT RC-F nearly took the lead away in just one corner as he swooped past Hirate for second and nearly got first place around the outside. Then came the critical red flag for Shinnosuke Yamada’s hard crash at the 110R, that ultimately stopped the race seven laps short of the scheduled finish.

Some had felt that the race ended on an anti-climax, preventing a thrilling shootout for the win with five laps remaining. They’re not terribly wrong. But if I’m being honest, after the race that Yanagida and Sasaki had driven, and realizing the enormity of their victory without changing tyres, they had done more than enough to earn the victory on merit, even if they were starting to fall off just before they were saved by the red flag.

It was more than just a monumental gamble that worked with a stroke of good fortune. It was a calculated gamble in favorable conditions. It was a resilient drive out of early trouble for Yanagida early in the race to get to a position where their strategy could even be viable. And it never would have worked out in the end without a genuine top-caliber driver leading the way home for “Matchy” Kondo and his team.

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