Seventy-four laps on one set of Yokohama Advan tyres were just enough for Kondo Racing drivers Masataka Yanagida and Daiki Sasaki to hold on and win the third race of the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series at Sportsland Sugo.
The #24 Forum Engineering Nissan GT-R held off a field of hard-charging Lexus RC-Fs to take the GT500 class victory, in a race that was stopped six laps short of the scheduled distance after a hard crash by GT300 driver Shinnosuke Yamada (more on that story in our GT300 Race Report).
There was drama with one hour until the start, as the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda / Joao Paulo de Oliveira) suffered a broken propeller shaft on its final warm-up lap. Miraculously, the driveshaft was repaired in just twenty minutes, but the car would still be forced to start from the pit lane.
Polesitter Andrea Caldarelli took the #6 Wako’s Team LeMans RC-F to the lead early in the race, but the Italian’s undoing came once the GT500 field began to lap GT300 backmarkers. Under pressure from Takashi Kogure in the #17 Keihin NSX, Caldarelli was collected by the GT300 #22 R’Qs Mercedes SLS AMG of Hisashi Wada at turn one, lap six.
Kogure would take the lead, and for many laps the fleet of Honda NSXes began to make moves on a slightly damp track. But the #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F, with Hiroaki Ishiura at the wheel, would then start to reel in Kogure. Ishiura tried to make his move at Horseback Corner on lap 16, but he could not avoid tangling with the Keihin NSX, which spun from contact which was deemed a racing incident.
But the men on the move in the opening stint were Heikki Kovalainen in the #39 Denso SARD RC-F, and Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F. Kovalainen, who started eighth, was into the lead of the race by lap 23, when he passed Ishiura’s ZENT RC-F into turn one. For the first time in his Super GT career, Kovalainen was leading a Super GT race.
Sekiguchi, who started fourteenth, got past Ishiura on lap 25 at Hi-Point Corner to move all the way up into second place. Sekiguchi then spent the next several laps catching and pressing the former F1 Grand Prix winner in the Denso RC-F, but a botched passing attempt on the outside at Horseback gave Kovalainen some breathing room before finally stopping on lap 47.
A safety car for a wrecked GT300 #5 Mach Toyota 86 bunched up the field, and came just before the pit window was set to dawn. A handful of cars came into the pits as early as lap 31. One of those was the Forum Engineering GT-R of Yanagida, which pitted from sixth place.
Team director Masahiko Kondo made the brave decision to not change tyres as the former two-time GT500 champion Yanagida handed the car over to young Daiki Sasaki. Sasaki was second when the last of the GT500 cars made their pit stops, and made quick work of the Denso RC-F, now piloted by Kohei Hirate, on cold Bridgestone tyres.
Admirably, on double-stinted Yokohamas, Sasaki continued to hold the lead for more than 25 laps, as Hirate’s best efforts to pass Sasaki were thwarted due to traffic patterns, and later, other Lexus RC-Fs.
With eight laps to go, the ZENT RC-F of Yuji Tachikawa, the Wako’s RC-F of Kazuya Oshima, and the WedsSport RC-F of Yuji Kunimoto, were all in the frame as Hirate tried a pass at the Hairpin curve, attempting to use the #33 Excellence Porsche of Tim Bergmeister as a pick. But Hirate made contact with the back of Sasaki’s GT-R, causing minor damage.
With six laps to go, Tachikawa went for a brave outside pass at turn one that got him past Hirate, and nearly past Sasaki. The chase was on, and the Yokohama tyres on Sasaki’s car were now clearly falling off the cliff, but Shinnosuke Yamada’s heavy crash at the high-speed 110R in the #18 Upgarage 86 MC would bring the race to a red flag.
The race was called after 74 of a scheduled 81 laps, as the damage to the sponge barriers at 110R was too great to be repaired by corner workers in a timely manner.
That gave the win to Matchy’s squad in the new-look Nissan GT-R, their first since the 2015 Fuji 300km Race. For Sasaki, whose reputation as a late-race closer continues to grow every race, it is his second career GT500 race win, and for Yanagida, it is his fifth win – and first since the 2015 Buriram GT Race in Thailand.
For Nissan, they open the season with a three-race winning streak in GT500 – the first time ever that any manufacturer has won three straight races to open a season.
With the race results rolled back to the lap before the red flag, Tachikawa’s stellar outside pass came to be for naught. The Denso SARD RC-F of Kovalainen and Hirate finished second, their second consecutive P2 finish of the year, which now moves them into second in the championship standings.
Tachikawa and Ishiura finished third in the ZENT RC-F, Tachikawa’s 38th career podium finish aboard car number 38, and the team’s first podium since last year at Suzuka.
Despite getting collected in the early accident, Oshima and Caldarelli did well to finish fourth in the Wako’s RC-F – not quite the finish they and team boss Juichi Wakisaka wanted, but a solid third straight top-5 to open the 2016 season.
Kunimoto completed the comeback from 14th for the WedsSport Project BANDOH team, who finished fifth – their best finish of the season, and the WedsSport RC-F’s thirteenth consecutive points-scoring finish going back to 2014.
First of the Honda NSXes was the Keihin NSX of Kogure and Koudai Tsukakoshi, finishing 6th despite tangling with the ZENT RC-F, and picking up their first points of 2016, followed by another first-time scorer, the #15 Drago Modulo NSX (Hideki Mutoh/Oliver Turvey) in seventh.
The #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito / Nick Cassidy) looked good for points after recovering from their ten-second penalty stop, but was demoted from seventh to eleventh by race stewards after Cassidy was given a 37-second time penalty for dangerous driving. This promoted the following three cars:
James Rossiter and Ryo Hirakawa brought the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F home in eighth, carrying 54kg of ballast and quietly picking up enough points to stay third in the championship. Championship leaders Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli salvaged points out of a last-place start, finishing ninth despite carrying a whopping 80kg of ballast.
The #100 Raybrig NSX (Naoki Yamamoto / Takuya Izawa) that won last year, finished a disappointing tenth after Yamamoto started his opening stint well, but lost several seconds a lap with severe tyre wear.
Despite the miraculous repair job to get the car to start, the Calsonic GT-R did not even make the finish, as Oliveira appeared to have spun the car at the S-Curves just after getting in the car for his stint on lap 36 – a poor follow-up from his Super Formula victory at Fuji.
The #8 ARTA NSX (Kosuke Matsuura/Tomoki Nojiri) spun at Hi-Point after Nojiri tangled with eventual race winner Yanagida over tenth place, losing three laps in what turned out to be a poor day for ARTA all around. The #46 S Road MOLA GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) had a quiet race and finished outside the points after a late puncture.