Commentary: A Suzuka 1000km to remember

The 45th International Suzuka 1000km isn’t just another stop on the Super GT calendar. It’s a race with 50 years of history and tradition, intersecting so many eras of Japanese and International-level motorsport.

It was billed to be the most important race in the championship. It proved to be exactly that, in so many ways.

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The most herculean team effort in the race had to go to NISMO, who started this race carrying the maximum 100 kilograms of ballast – which is almost impossible to overcome at a track like Suzuka.

But nobody told Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli that before the race, as they climbed their way up from 12th on the GT500 class grid, and pushed as high as fourth place before running out of fuel on the last lap – and still finishing sixth.

Their fastest lap was the slowest of the GT500 field, but they were so consistent, especially late in the race, and able to get so much life out of their Michelin tyres. It was a masterful drive from the two-time and defending champions Matsuda and Quintarelli.

Yes, they gave up a few points in running out of fuel. But they may have spiritually put the title out of reach with a performance like that – a champion team, at the peak of their powers, showing incredible resiliency over adversity.

It’s almost impossible to see any team overhauling them at Motegi, when the ballast starts to come off, if they keep racing like this. Nothing seems to phase the Motul Autech GT-R, not even if they run out of fuel on the last kilometer of the race. They’re the closest thing Super GT has to an overpowered, all-dominant, completely unstoppable juggernaut in a series constructed around parity.

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A fourth win in seven years for the Subaru R&D Sport team at the Suzuka 1000km capped off an incredible Summer Series for the blue boxers.

Entering the fourth round (third race) of 2016, Hideki Yamauchi and Takuto Iguchi had yet to score a single point in the 2016 GT300 Class championship. Exiting this round at Suzuka, they’ve now scored 47 points, giving them a nine-point lead as most of the front-runners in the championship around them hit trouble at Suzuka.

The Subaru BRZ has always had the potential, and has certainly had the resources to compete for GT300 championships, but they’ve never been able to string it all together for a title run. But something seems different about this Subaru team compared to previous years.

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Whether its the improved race pace of the Dunlop tyres, the gradually improved reliability compared to seasons past, or the confidence from drivers Iguchi and Yamauchi – both 28 years old, hungry for their first Super GT championships, and equally as fast – it’s all come together at just the right time for Subaru and their supporters.

For the first time ever, the Subaru BRZ is a bonafide title contender in GT300. How they approach the next three races at Thailand and Motegi could go a long way in determining whether or not the championship will be theirs.

Three breakout performances from young drivers in this race were among the many highlights of the day, as well.

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19-year-old Tadasuke Makino now owns the GT300 class lap record at Suzuka, more importantly, his one stint in the Mooncraft Engineering Lotus Evora MC of Cars Tokai Dream28 reinforced the hype around him going into this race.

Makino drove with the poise of a 19-year pro, especially in the intermittent wet conditions that hit throughout the race.

A Honda-backed young driver, Makino showed that he has what it takes to compete in this series as a regular. That is, if Honda doesn’t decide that his talents are such that they warrant a chance to climb the ladder to Formula 1 – and from what I’ve seen, he’s worth that chance.

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“Super Sub” Mitsunori Takaboshi never drove a GT500 car before this weekend, but never did he look out of place as the injury substitute for Katsumasa Chiyo in the S Road MOLA GT-R.

His three stints demonstrated his confidence and tenacity, especially in his mid-race battle with the Wako’s RC-F of Kazuya Oshima where Takaboshi made several attempts to lunge past the Lexus at the 130R before finally getting it done with a pass ’round the outside.

He helped the team rally to a podium finish after a costly stop-go penalty, and from my perspective, he won himself a full-time GT500 drive for next year.

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But the star of the show at the end was 22-year-old Nick Cassidy from New Zealand, who became the first Kiwi to record a Super GT podium finish, on the one-year anniversary of his debut as a wildcard third driver.

He and Daisuke Ito fell just short of a victory, but Cassidy still deserves the utmost of praise for his efforts in securing the second part of a Lexus 1-2 finish, and a close one at that, highlighted by his battle for the lead with Yuji Tachikawa in the second half of the race.

Speaking to Simon Chapman of Velocity News, Cassidy said that “to be racing against Tachikawa-san for the lead of Suzuka 1000km on slicks in the rain, was a pretty cool moment for me.” That might be underselling it just a bit, in all honesty.

He took the fight to a three-time GT500 champion, now the second-winningest driver in the sport’s history, and didn’t back down for a single lap in treacherous conditions whilst fighting for the victory in the biggest single race of the season.

If Cassidy never lands the racing drive in Formula 1 that his performances in single-seaters to this day have easily justified, he has absolutely and undoubtedly found a home in Japan, in Super GT, and inevitably in Super Formula – and for once, we’re not just saying that because he plugged us on race weekend!

It’s one podium finish, and Cassidy is keeping modest expectations for the final three races, but “Big Cass” has arrived, well and truly.

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For every moment of triumph, there is one of heartbreak – especially in a race like this. That’s the BMW Team Studie M6 (aka the “Teddy Bear BMW”) losing its engine 20 minutes before the start of the race and failing to even take the start with an all-pro lineup.

In their hardship, they became more admirable. The day before, they suffered a misfiring issue and lifted a sparkplug from team principal Yasuaki “Bob” Suzuki’s X5M:

The day before the race, the team had fun as drivers Augusto Farfus, Jörg Müller, and Seiji Ara drove around Tokyo as Mario Kart characters – Farfus as Mario, Müller as Luigi, and Ara as the only character befitting of a Le Mans 24 Hours overall champion, Waluigi!

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Image Credit: © Wataru Tamura

Bob Suzuki, the fun-loving and unapologetically emotional team boss, apologized profusely in the wake of their DNS result – but in some ways, they’ve emerged as one of the more entertaining teams to follow in GT300. Hopefully their results take a turn for the better in what’s been a lost season for Studie.

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And I can’t help but feel for Kazuho Takahashi, the man behind the Honda Cars Tokai name, whose unforced error on lap 83 ended the Lotus’ best chance at a win all year.

Takahashi absorbed all the blame for crashing out, while putting over the performances of his co-drivers Katoh and Makino. It was an “Am Driver” mistake out of the Tracy Krohn/Paul Dalla Lana book. It’s also so hard to watch from the human perspective.

Takahashi, a businessman first and racing driver second, at age 63, deserves more respect for continuing to even get out there and race at this level. It’s the most bitter pill to swallow to know that in a GT300 class that is no longer pro-am, but evolved into a true pro category, that the team won’t reach the levels of success that it deserves until Takahashi stops driving.

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And it’s capped off with Honda’s great promise turned to dismal results, at home ground at Suzuka.

The Drago Modulo Honda squad looked absolutely poised for at least a podium finish, if their record-setting pole position was any indication. Then their engine let go. Keihin Real Racing’s event saw their fifth significant accident-related setback in the last six years – somehow, out of this, they still finished tenth place (and we’re not done talking about them just yet).

Honda should have done better than the seventh place from the Raybrig NSX of Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa. Optimism has now been crushed to a fine powder of pessimism in the Honda camp, and it’s hard to see how they can turn it around in the last three races to avoid a winless campaign.

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Which brings us to the battle for victory in GT500, and that includes talking about that pass. The one on lap 129 where Tachikawa in the ZENT Cerumo RC-F overtook Cassidy in the au TOM’s RC-F, under what was a very obvious yellow flag situation.

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This pass had everyone, from Racecar Engineering‘s Sam Collins (who commentated the race for NISMO TV and Radio Le Mans), to our friend Alex Sinclair of SB Nation, wondering why the pass wasn’t penalized with a time penalty or a 10-second stop/go – there was no way Tachikawa should have been allowed to pass under yellows.

Except for the matter that it was not signaled as such to either driver.

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From the race footage, the flag stand in the upper right hand corner shows that both Cassidy and Tachikawa were shown the white flag (indicating a slow moving official or competitors’ vehicle ahead) as they approached Spoon Curve, where Takashi Kogure’s Keihin NSX was stranded in the gravel at the exit of the corner.

By the time the yellow flag was displayed (2nd image), both drivers were now well past the flag stand. Cassidy slowed down for the course vehicle ahead. Tachikawa slowed down just a little less, and made the move for the lead.

There were shades of the 2012 Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix and Sebastian Vettel’s lap four overtake on Jean-Eric Vergne all over this one. That was one that was hotly debated for weeks afterwards, as to whether or not Vettel passed a car for position under flashing yellow lights. In the end, the FIA ruled that the pass was legal, as Vettel was responding to his first signal – a green flag shown at trackside by a marshal – and he was not penalized.

Similarly, the GTA stewards, led by Driving Standard Observer Naoki Hattori – a pro’s pro of domestic racing drivers – determined that Tachikawa had not made an overtake under yellows.

The GTA marshalls and stewards enforce driving infringements very strictly. Ask Jono Lester, who had his fastest lap in Q1 taken away due to exceeding track limits the day before. Ask Ryuichiro Tomita, who may not have even tagged the GT300 class winning Subaru into a spin at the S-Curves and still got a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Ask Satoshi Motoyama, who was given a 10-second stop-go penalty for overtaking under clearly indicated yellows, and lost his chance to win his first Suzuka 1000km because of it.

They are stern, but ultimately fair and consistent. And as a 19-year veteran of GT500 racing, had Tachikawa been shown a yellow flag in the same sector, I have faith that Tachikawa – who races hard, but fair, and has for his entire legendary career – would have held his position until the track had cleared.

The sector should have been under yellows from the get-go, there’s no question about it. Especially in conditions that looked eerily similar to those on a wretched October afternoon two years ago at the same track, active course vehicles and all. But a closer examination does reveal that Tachikawa’s lap 129 pass was valid.

As valid as his breathtakingly clever pass on Satoshi Motoyama on lap 14 at the Casio Triangle, one of many that he made to get from 8th on the grid to 2nd in just under 30 laps at the start.

As valid as the pass he made to re-take the lead three laps later, a lead the ZENT RC-F effectively would not relinquish for the rest of the race.

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And in a sense, it was also an overdue stroke of good fortune for the ZENT team.

Just this year alone, they lost the Fuji 500km when they were caught out at the worst time under a safety car, and ran out of fuel. They lost the race at Sugo due to the red flag with 7 to go, and didn’t even get to keep second place after a daring pass. Combined with the missed chances at Thailand and Fuji last year, both aggravated by brake issues, and Tachikawa and Ishiura had been hurting for two years with rotten luck that betrays their supreme skills as drivers.

Hey, did anyone mention yet that co-driver Hiroaki Ishiura, who beat three current WEC LMP1 drivers with previous F1 experience (including a former GT500 champion) to win last year’s Super Formula Championship, drove an absolutely flawless 91 laps at the front of the field? That kind of got lost in the kerfuffle around Tachikawa and Cassidy, didn’t it.

Cerumo, Tachikawa, and Ishiura had all won this race before. But the 2001 race won by Tachikawa and Cerumo was a stand-alone event that didn’t count for the championship. And the 2009 race won by Ishiura was shortened due to the last recession that hit Japan like a bullet train. It was the second win at this event for all three parties, but it sure felt like their first.

On Sunday, they finally caught a break for a change, and Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo won one of the most memorable Suzuka 1000km races in recent memory.

 

 

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