Three months removed from a heart-crushing loss at the Fuji 500km in May, Calsonic Team Impul came back to Fuji Speedway with unfinished business – and took home a commanding victory in the Fuji GT 300km Race.
In doing so, Calsonic GT-R drivers Hironobu Yasuda and Joao Paulo de Oliveira extend what is already a historic start to the season for Nissan, extending their unprecedented record to an astonishing four victories to open the 2016 Autobacs Super GT Series – and for Yasuda, Oliveira, and Team Impul, they break a winless drought dating back to the 2014 Fuji 500km.
Oliveira was dynamite off the start, leading the #46 S Road Craftsports MOLA GT-R of Satoshi Motoyama and gradually building a gap before a Safety Car was deployed on lap 19 for debris from an incident involving two GT300 backmarkers (more on that in our GT300 race report).
The first twenty laps saw astonishingly heavy atrition in GT500. The #15 Drago Modulo Honda NSX (Hideki Mutoh/Oliver Turvey) retired with a suspension issue that caused a left rear puncture, the #37 KeePer TOM’s Lexus RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa) suffered a yet-to-be-deciphered rear wing failure, and the most recent GT500 winners, the #24 Forum Engineering GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/Masataka Yanagida) retired with an engine issue – all within the first eleven laps.
After the safety car came in on lap 25, Oliveira checked out from the field as part of a Nissan 1-2-3, reinforcing their dominance at Fuji Speedway.
The shocker of the race came on lap 36, as Katsumasa Chiyo suffered a heavy high-speed impact in the S Road GT-R – which had just pitted three laps earlier and was in pursuit of the race leading Calsonic GT-R.
A brake failure caused Chiyo to spin from speeds as high as 290 kilometers per hour, through the tarmac and gravel runoff and head-on into the tyre barriers at the hairpin turn one – nearly collecting two GT300 cars in the process. Thankfully, Chiyo walked away from the crash, and was cleared from the infield care center without injury.
On lap 33, Oliveira brought the Calsonic GT-R in and handed the car over to Hironobu Yasuda, who inherited a lead which he would not relinquish – and would extend over his 33-lap closing stint as two Honda NSXes got involved in a heated fight for second place.
That battle was between the #100 Raybrig Team Kunimitsu NSX (Naoki Yamamoto / Takuya Izawa) and the #17 Keihin Real Racing NSX (Koudai Tsukakoshi / Takashi Kogure), with Izawa fighting off his Super Formula teammate Tsukakoshi for second over several laps. Tsukakoshi passed Izawa on lap 51, but in their heated battle, they allowed the fourth-place #1 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda / Ronnie Quintarelli) to close in with a chance at a podium despite running on 84 kilograms of ballast.
Yasuda brought the Calsonic Impul GT-R home by a winning margin of 25.424 seconds, banishing the ghosts of their Golden Week loss to capture their first victory in over two years, and the fourth in a row for the Nissan GT-Rs in GT500. Co-driver Oliveira fittingly delivered a gold-medal drive for his team as the Olympic Games began in his home country of Brazil.
For Oliveira, the win is the ninth in his Super GT career, as he’s now overtaken Takashi Kogure, Richard Lyons, and Ryo Michigami – all former GT500 champions – on the career GT500 wins list. Yasuda’s is his fourth as a GT500 driver.
The battle between the Hondas did not end in tears, as Tsukakoshi brought the Keihin NSX home in second, and Izawa brought the Raybrig NSX to third – for Honda’s first podium finishes of the 2016 season after a miserable start to the year, giving them a tidal wave of positive momentum going into the Suzuka 1000km – held, of course, at Honda’s home track.
The Motul GT-R came home in a solid fourth place, despite a slow pit stop in the middle of the race that cost them several places and the aforementioned ballast situation – supreme driving by Matsuda and Quintarelli and the strength of the Michelin tyres in the hot, sunny conditions.
Fifth was the best of the Lexus RC-Fs, a shockingly poor outing at their home race at Fuji Speedway – led by the #36 au TOM’s RC-F (Daisuke Ito/Nick Cassidy), which was the only RC-F in contention for a podium all day. Finishing a quietly productive sixth was the #8 ARTA NSX (Kosuke Matsuura/Tomoki Nojiri), on what proved to be a good day for the entire ARTA organization.
Positions 7 through 10 were all Lexus: The #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) was a surprising non-factor at their favored track in seventh, eighth was the #39 Denso SARD RC-F (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate), ninth was the #6 Wako’s LeMans RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli), and tenth was the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) – in the points for the fourteenth consecutive race, but only just so.
That fourth place finish for the NISMO GT-R, coupled by the misfortunes of their nearest Lexus pursuers, gives Matsuda and Quintarelli a 13-point lead in the GT500 Drivers’ Championship as they pursue an unprecedented third consecutive GT500 title. However, at 50 points, they’ll start the Suzuka 1000km with the maximum 100kg of success ballast.
Thirteen points back is Kovalainen and Hirate, with a twenty point gap to Rossiter and Hirakawa in third following their non-points finish. With their maximum 21-point weekend, Oliveira and Yasuda jump up six places in the championship standings to fourth – but they’re still 22 points back of the lead tandem from NISMO heading into the big one at Suzuka.