Just as they did in Sportsland Sugo in July, Kondo Racing’s #24 Forum Engineering Nissan GT-R of Daiki Sasaki and Masataka Yanagida gambled on a fuel-only stop. And just as they did in Sugo, Kondo Racing went on to win the first race of the two-race Motegi GT Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi, their second win of the 2016 season.
And just as they did at Sugo, the Forum Engineering GT-R held off the second-placed #39 Denso SARD Lexus RC-F of Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, despite the Denso RC-F taking pole position that morning, running on four fresh tyres and with the ex-Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Kovalainen at the wheel on the final stint.
But it was a crucial result for Lexus Team SARD, who thanks to a subpar outing from the championship leaders at NISMO, move into the championship lead with just tomorrow’s final race and qualifying left to run – and one race closer to winning SARD’s first GT500 championship after 22 years of frustration.
Kovalainen’s first career Super GT pole parlayed into a great start for his co-driver Hirate, with Daisuke Ito in the #36 au TOM’s RC-F jumping the Forum Engineering GT-R from the front row, following before, during, and after the safety car intervention for a heavy crash involving the GT300 class #55 ARTA BMW.
After Hirate and Ito spent the race battling for position out on track, au TOM’s chief engineer Tsutomu Tojo made the call in the pits to go with rear tyres only as Kiwi rookie Nick Cassidy relieved Ito, allowing them to jump the Denso RC-F after their pit stop, with Kovalainen replacing Hirate.
Cassidy on two tyres did a marvelous job to hold off Kovalainen on four tyres for several laps, showing the 22-year-old’s already innate skill – but eventually, Cassidy’s pace began to fall off, and Kovalainen found his way past after several attempts.
It wasn’t all good news in the Lexus Team TOM’s camp, as shortly after their pitstop, the #37 KeePer TOM’s RC-F (James Rossiter/Ryo Hirakawa) suffered a left front brake fire requiring a First Rescue Operation intervention, and forced the KeePer RC-F to retire. For Hirakawa, it was cruel deja vu from the European Le Mans Series finale in Estoril, and that unfortunately eliminated one half of the TOM’s squad from championship contention.
As Cassidy and Kovalainen battled, it opened the door for the Yokohama-clad Forum Engineering GT-R, and the #19 WedsSport Advan RC-F (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto), to stay out longer than the field. Willing to test the long-run durability of the Yokohama tyres that had been so strong in recent races, the WedsSport RC-F came in on lap 30 from second place, for fuel only and a change of drivers from Sekiguchi to the newly-crowned Super Formula Champion Kunimoto.
Sasaki, however, stayed out four more laps before bringing in the Forum Engineering GT-R on lap 34, with Yanagida driving the car home for the final 19 laps of the race, also taking fuel only. “From the outset I had in mind the strategy of running the whole race without a tire change,” Sasaki said after the race. “So, I was thinking that I could follow the two lead machines skillfully without pushing too hard, it would make things easier for us in the second half of the race.”
“I tried to save the tires as much as possible, but it still turned out that I left Yanagida-san with a lot of hard work in the final stages of the race.”
Yanagida had the track position, but once Kovalainen passed Cassidy and when GT300 traffic came into play, Kovalainen was catching fast.
Kovalainen closed the gap to Yanagida to just 0.2 seconds in the final laps of the race, but Yanagida had enough life left in the double-stinted Yokohama tyres – which were used in qualifying earlier in the day, for the record – to hold off the Flying Finn and take the chequered flag for Kondo Racing.
“I was being chased hard in the late laps of the race and I hear that things were really tense for everyone in our pit, and to tell the truth, I was really tense out there too!” Yanagida said after the race. “We won today but I can’t feel really ecstatic about it yet. I want to save that for when we win tomorrow and everything is over. The biggest reason for today’s win has to be the fact that we got a front-row spot on the grid.”
And with a gleam in his eye, the 37-year-old Yanagida, himself a two-time GT500 and GT300 champion, talked up his team’s prospects for Sunday. “What is our strategy for tomorrow? I’ll leave it to you to imagine.”
It’s Nissan’s fifth win of 2016, and the third for Yokohama Advan tyres in 2016, a personal best for Yokohama. The win is the fifth career win for Yanagida, the third career win for Sasaki, and the seventh for Masahiko Kondo’s team, who win two races in a season for the first time in team history.
Kovalainen took second for he and Hirate in the Denso RC-F, their third second-place finish of 2016, with the au RC-F of Ito/Cassidy finishing third, giving Lexus RC-Fs two out of the three podium places.
Finishing fourth after qualifying tenth was the #6 Wako’s RC-F (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli), their sixth top-five finish in seven races this season, keeping them within the title fight for tomorrow’s final race. The WedsSport RC-F of Sekiguchi/Kunimoto finished fifth, keeping their record points scoring streak going for an eighteenth consecutive race. After starting fourteenth, the #38 ZENT Cerumo RC-F (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) finished an impressive sixth, giving Lexus a lockout of positions 2 through 6.
Despite a rather reckless tangling at the 90° Corner (Turn 11) whilst battling for position, Joao Paulo de Oliveira finished seventh in the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (with Hironobu Yasuda), finally making the move on Satoshi Motoyama’s #46 S Road GT-R (with Katsumasa Chiyo) a few laps later at the same corner. Motoyama/Chiyo held on to finish eighth.
Ninth place was not enough for the championship-leading #1 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) to hold the lead after the penultimate race. For the first time ever in 2016, NISMO concede the championship lead after a comparatively poor race on 56kg of ballast.
Completing the points finishers, a pitiful tenth place for the #100 Raybrig NSX (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa), which faded mightily after a good start from Yamamoto. It was the best of the Honda fleet at their home ground at Motegi, and now one of Honda’s five cars have to win tomorrow in order to prevent their first winless GT500 campaign since 1997.
Going into qualifying tomorrow, eight team and driver combinations still have a shot to win the GT500 Drivers’ Championship.
At 61 points, Kovalainen/Hirate are the new leaders in the standings, ahead of Matsuda/Quintarelli, who fall to second at 58 points. A win for either of the top two teams secures the championship for them.
Oshima/Caldarelli fall to third place despite their strong finish, but are just seven points out of the lead at 54 points. Tachikawa/Ishiura move to 50 points, and Sekiguchi/Kunimoto remain fifth with 47 points.
Ito/Cassidy are still in it at 46 points, and the victory today saves the title bid for Yanagida/Sasaki, who now sit at 42 points, but must win again tomorrow to have any championship chance. Oliveira/Yasuda at 40 points must take pole position tomorrow and win the race to remain in the hunt.