After starting out the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series with no points in the first two races, the #31 apr Racing Toyota Prius GT of Koki Saga and Yuichi Nakayama finally powered its way to its first GT300 class win of the season at Sportsland Sugo, after a late-race charge from Nakayama to get from third to first in just a handful of laps.
The #31 Prius team won over the pole-winning #25 VivaC Team Samurai Toyota 86 MC (Takeshi Tsuchiya/Takamitsu Matsui) in second place, which now moves into the lead of the GT300 championship following its second consecutive podium finish – in a shortened race, due to a crash involving Team Upgarage with Bandoh rookie driver Shinnosuke Yamada.
The apr team made the decision to put Nakayama on hard compound Bridgestone tyres for his closing stint, beginning after Saga pitted on lap 29 following a safety car for a spin involving the #5 Mach 86 MC of Junichiro Yamashita (with Masami Kageyama).
After them, some front-runners made huge gambles on their pit strategies. Tsuchiya led for the first 31 laps in the VivaC 86, and handed the car over to Matsui – having only changed left-side tyres in doing so.
The #18 Upgarage 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama/Shinnosuke Yamada) pitted for new rear tyres only – but the surprise of the race came as Kazuki Hiramine drove 47 laps in the #88 ManePa JLOC Lamborghini Huracan, before pitting to hand the car over to Manabu Orido – and changing no tyres in the process.
Employing a similar strategy to the one employed by Kondo Racing to ultimately win the GT500 class, Orido had to hold off the pressure from a trio of Toyota-badged challengers – Yamada, Matsui, and Nakayama.
But the pace on the Upgarage 86 began to fall away, and allowed the VivaC 86 and the #31 Prius to move ahead into second and third.
That’s when, in traffic, Yuichi Nakayama made the first crucial overtake of the race on lap 62 – passing Matsui with a strong-arm move through the Hairpin Curve, as Matsui was caught up in trying to chase down Orido – in the end, the VivaC 86 was also starting to lose pace after changing just two tyres.
Orido was on “MAX Power” mode trying to nurse the car home, but by the next lap, Nakayama’s Prius caught up to Orido’s Lamborghini – and with help from the slipstream and a dash of extra power from the Prius’ hybrid system, Nakayama caught Orido before swooping past for the lead around the outside of Turn 1.
But the race was ultimately stopped due to Yamada’s hard crash on lap 71, at the high-speed 110R. Yamada appeared to lose control of the car before going nose-first into the protective tyre barriers. With very little run-off area throughout the lap, it was a high-speed impact, but thankfully the 23-year-old driver was not injured in the crash.
However, the crash did wipe out a lot of the tyre barriers, and with six laps left for the GT500 cars before the red flag was thrown, race control elected to call the race early.
The #31 Prius team finally scores its first points with a victory at Sugo – the fifth career win for Koki Saga, the third for Yuichi Nakayama in only his second full season.
The VivaC 86 finished second – their second podium finish in a row – and with the bonus point for pole position, Tsuchiya and Matsui move into the lead of the GT300 championship with 33 points – six points over the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R team of Kazuki Hoshino and Jann Mardenborough.
Finishing third and completing a JAF-GT300/MC podium sweep was the #61 Subaru R&D Sport BRZ (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), which briefly challenged for the lead early in the race and was starting to catch up to the VivaC 86 before the red flag. A race that could have gone so poorly for the Subaru team following Iguchi’s practice crash on Saturday, turned into their first podium finish since last year’s Suzuka 1000km – and their first points of 2016.
After leading briefly during the pit cycles, the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Bjorn Wirdheim) finished best of the FIA GT3 contingent in fourth.
Another great performance was had by the B-Max GT-R of Hoshino and Mardenborough, who qualified 21st yet moved up sixteen places to finish an astonishing fifth – not enough to keep the lead in the championship, but enough to stay within sight of the lead heading into the next round at Fuji Speedway.
The double-stinted tyre gamble didn’t pay off for the ManePa Lamborghini as well as hoped, but Orido and Hiramine still finished sixth for their effort. The #4 GSR Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi/Tatsuya Kataoka) finished a very quiet, yet productive seventh place. With the results rolled back to the lap before the red flag, Yamada and Yuhki Nakayama were classified eighth in the Upgarage 86.
The #51 JMS LM Corsa Ferrari 488 (Morio Nitta/Akihiro Tsuzuki) finished ninth, and the #7 Studie BMW M6 (Seiji Ara/Jörg Müller) was tenth to complete the points scorers.
A few cars failed to make the finish. Shinichi Takagi crashed the #55 ARTA BMW M6 at the tricky SP-Curves, a broken driveshaft ended Richard Lyons’ stint in the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8, and the #50 Odyssey SLS AMG (Hideto Yasuoka/Rintaro Kubo) broke down at the side entering Hi-Point Corner – not the way Yasuoka wanted to celebrate his 33rd birthday.
Kazuho Takahashi also had a very early spin in the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora that compromised the Lotus’ race, which ended with him and Hiroki Katoh finishing 20th and last among classified runners, seven laps down.