Gambling with a fuel-only stop as so many of the GT300 leaders did, the cards fell the right way for the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Tomonobu Fujii/Richard Lyons) as they went on to claim their first win of the 2016 season in the first race of the Motegi GT Grand Final. And a milestone race victory it was for the entire organization – for the Hitotsuyama Racing team, who win for the first time ever in Super GT, and for the manufacturer Audi, who end a long winless drought.
The day began with the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Bjorn Wirdheim) taking pole position courtesy of the bearded Swede, with Lyons second in the Audi. The Swede and the Ulsterman led the field from the drop of the green flag.
But this race, effectively an “elimination round” before the finale on Sunday, would see instantaneous drama on lap 3, when the #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi/Takashi Kobayashi was totalled in a heavy crash at the underpass before Turns 12 & 13, the incident also involving the #5 Mach Toyota 86 MC (Tetsuji Tamanaka/Masami Kageyama). Very thankfully, Takagi walked away from the crash unhurt. This resulted in a safety car intervention.
The race resumed with Wirdheim and Lyons leading the way, ahead of the #31 Toyota Prius GT (Koki Saga/Yuichi Nakayama), the #61 Subaru BRZ (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), and the #0 Gainer Tanax Nissan GT-R (Andre Couto/Ryuichiro Tomita).
The short distance and ballast situation for this race gave teams the incentive to gamble on their pitstops, and that’s exactly what the Hitotsuyama Audi and Gainer AMG did by taking fuel only, with the Audi getting out ahead of the Mercedes after their stops. As did the two top cars in the championship, the #25 VivaC 86 MC (Takeshi Tsuchiya/Takamitsu Matsui) and #3 B-Max GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Jann Mardenborough), the former pitting for left-sides only, the latter going for an early stop and no tyres to try and gain track position.
As Katsuyuki Hiranaka in the Gainer AMG began to fade down the order, Tomonobu Fujii in the lighter Hitotsuyama R8 was still able to hold onto the lead for the final few laps.
Meanwhile, up from tenth on the grid, the #33 Excellence Porsche (Naoya Yamano/Jörg Bergmeister) stayed out late, with Bergmeister kicking on the afterburners in a short closing stint that saw the German giant scythe his way up through the field on fresh tyres, finally picking off the #88 ManePa JLOC Lamborghini Huracán (Manabu Orido/Kazuki Hiramine) with just one lap remaining, the ManePa Lamborghini also opting to go fuel only on its stop.
There was more drama for the title contenders, as the Subaru BRZ was caught up in a collision with the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora (Kazuho Takahashi/Hiroki Katoh) at the 90° Corner (turn 11) and forced to stop with 3 to go, this after picking up a Drive-through Penalty for pit work violations. The #31 Prius was also forced to come in for an unscheduled second stop with less than 10 laps to go.
In the end though, nobody had an answer for Fujii, Lyons, and the Hitotsuyama Audi R8, who go on to claim a crucial win, and a milestone win at that.
Audi win in Super GT for the first time since the 2012 Okayama GT 300km Race, and for the first time ever with the second-generation R8 LMS. For Hitotsuyama Racing, who have competed in JGTC/Super GT for most of the last twenty years across both GT300 and GT500, this is their first-ever race win as an organization.
For Fujii, who was crowned Super Taikyu ST-X Class champion earlier this year with Kondo Racing, it is his eighth career GT300 victory, his first since the 2012 Fuji 300km. For Lyons, already a GT500 champion in 2004, this is his first career win as a GT300 driver.
“This is the third year since I came to this team and started driving Audi machines, and until last year, even though we would get and podium finish about once a year, we were still far from winning races,” Fujii remarked after the race. “This year, the machine is better and we came close to winning at Fuji in the summer. It was really disappointing to miss winning that race by 1/10th of a second, and there were a number of equally disappointing races after that, but this time we finally won.”
“So, I’m half happy and half simply relieved to get this result. With today’s win we have a chance to go for the title tomorrow, but I am going to go into the race tomorrow with do-or-die determination.”
Bergmeister drove on to second place for the Excellence Porsche, claiming Porsche’s best finish in Super GT since 2012, the best finish for Excellence Porsche Team KTR since 2012, and the first-ever Super GT podium finishes for both Yamano, the brother of a three-time GT300 champion, and the former Daytona 24h champion Bergmeister.
Orido and Hiramine in the ManePa JLOC Lamborghini completed the all-Volkswagen Audi Group podium sweep in GT300, taking their first podium of 2016. This is Hiramine’s first career podium finish, as well as the first Super GT podium for the Lamborghini Huracán. It is no doubt a positive result for the VWAG contingent, after a tumultuous month for their global motorsport programmes.
The Gainer AMG held on to finish fourth, ahead of one of the surprising late chargers of the race: The #26 Taisan SARD R8 (Yuya Motojima/Tsubasa Kondo), finishing fifth – their best result of 2016, Team Taisan’s best since their return to Super GT – and in their first race since missing the flyaway round in Buriram, Thailand. 2016 Porsche Carrera Cup Japan champ Kondo looked especially strong in his debut Super GT stint, to help put both Audis in the top five.
The Gainer GT-R of Couto/Tomita finished sixth, ahead of the VivaC 86 of Tsuchiya/Matsui in seventh, which extends its championship lead thanks to misfortune from their title rivals.
The #87 triple a JLOC Huracán (Shinya Hosokawa/Kimiya Sato) had a fantastic race of its own, to finish eighth and put both of Isao Noritake’s JLOC Lamborghinis in the points. The #65 Leon Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) finished ninth, and completing the points, another underdog team, the #48 Dijon Racing GT-R (Mitsunori Takaboshi/Takayuki Aoki), taking the team’s second points finish of 2016, and just their third top-ten finish in history.
The #31 Prius and #3 B-Max GT-R finished twelfth and thirteenth, both out of the points.
With tomorrow’s race and qualifying to decide the championship, the top seven teams in the GT300 championship are still eligible to win the title.
Tsuchiya/Matsui still lead, now with 58 points, and can clinch the title for VivaC Team Tsuchiya with at least a podium finish tomorrow no matter what their rivals do. Hoshino/Mardenborough remain second with 49 points, but with their win today, Lyons/Fujii vault all the way to third place, also with 49 points. Takagi/Kobayashi stay at 48 points, but their participation tomorrow is in serious jeopardy after their heavy crash today.
Iguchi/Yamauchi stay at 47 points, Saga/Nakayama stay at 42 points, and sixth place for Couto/Tomita keeps them alive at 37 points, but the Gainer GT-R would need to win pole position and the race tomorrow to have any shot at defending their GT300 title.