2016 Review: Real Racing

Honda had a pretty bad 2016 season in Super GT’s GT500 class, but through it all, Real Racing and their Keihin NSX were the best of the bunch, and by a considerable margin at that.

#17 Keihin Honda NSX Concept-GT

Drivers: Koudai Tsukakoshi / Takashi Kogure
GT500 Drivers’ Championship: 11th Place (27 points)
GT300 Teams’ Championship: 11th Place (43 points)
Podiums: 1 (Fuji 300km)
Best Finish: 2nd (Fuji 300km)
Fastest Laps: 1 (Sugo)
Best Qualifying: 2nd (Sugo)

The only change in Honda’s GT500 driver lineup put former GT500 Champion Kogure together with Real Racing mainstay Tsukakoshi, together forming their most experienced driver lineup. And did that experience really, truly pay off in 2016.

Honda’s issues with the 2016 NSX Concept-GT were well-documented this season: The removal of the hybrid powertrain exposed a twin-turbo engine that lacked horsepower compared to its rivals, and a chassis that was unstable and difficult to drive.

Through the first two races of 2016, Tsukakoshi and Kogure felt the ill effects of the NSX’s poor form, failing to qualify or finish inside the top ten at Okayama, and then at Fuji, just as they had a chance to break into the points, Tsukakoshi got caught up in an incident with the Drago Modulo NSX that damaged the suspension of both cars.

2016_gt_r4_001

At Sugo, buoyed by recent upgrades to the Honda HR414-E powerplant, Tsukakoshi qualified the Keihin NSX on the front row. They were in the fight for the lead of the race on Sunday, but Kogure got himself caught up in a racing incident that spun him out – ultimately, sixth place would be their reward.

Two weeks later at Fuji Speedway, Tsukakoshi beat out the Raybrig NSX of Takuya Izawa for second place, and lead home Honda’s first podium finishes of 2016. Second place for the Keihin NSX would be as close as any Honda ever got to winning a race this season, and the double podium for Honda ended up counting for two-thirds of their total podiums.

Perennially stricken with poor luck at Suzuka, they once again had to overcome a spin into the gravel just to finish two laps down in tenth place – an incident that precipitated a somewhat controversial pass for the lead.

Once again, they had a potential podium finish lost after being tangled in an early incident at Buriram, but with good support from the Thai fans in one of Keihin’s biggest non-Japanese markets, Kogure and Tsukakoshi overcame the trouble to finish sixth. Motegi was a letdown, much like it was for the entire Honda team: A gearbox failure and retirement in the first race, then eleventh – the best that Honda could do that day – in the second.

2016_gt_r8_003

In addition to being the highest-ranked Honda drivers and team in their respective standings, the Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi and Kogure was also the only Honda to score a podium finish, a front row start, and a fastest lap of the race all in the same season. The only thing they didn’t do – the only thing they haven’t done since that memorable photo finish at Sugo in 2010 – was take a race win. It’s the second-longest active winless streak in GT500, the longest belonging to Nakajima Racing.

36-year-old Kogure passed an important milestone in his own career with his 100th career Super GT race, but the star of the show was Tsukakoshi, who might have been, pound for bound, the best of Honda’s full-time GT500 drivers in terms of qualifying speed and racecraft.

At Sugo and Buriram, Tsukakoshi’s fast closing stints helped to undo their mistakes early in the race, and his hard battle with Izawa at Fuji showed that he has the tenacity to stand with the best of them.

This is a very effective pairing that team director Katsutomo Kaneishi has to work with – he’s worked with Tsukakoshi since 2008, and knows Kogure from his later years as a driver. Real Racing have come so close, so many times in the last few years to winning a championship of their own despite not winning but one race – if the new NSX-GT is up to the task, they have to be considered Honda’s best option to win a championship in 2017.

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