The second day of official pre-season testing for the Autobacs Super GT Series at Okayama International Circuit saw the continuation of Lexus’ domination of the GT500 leaderboards from opening day on Saturday.
Just as they did on Saturday, Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s paced the Sunday morning test session, with Nick Cassidy turning in the fastest lap of the day in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500. In the afternoon, Lexus completed another dominant sweep of the top six places, led by Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo and Hiroaki Ishiura.
Sunday morning’s test began at 9:10 AM JST, kicked off by a brief Safety Car training session – a benefit for the new drivers to learn the series’ Safety Car procedures and protocol.
Session 3 would be hampered by a total of four red flags, the first happening minutes after the end of the Safety Car training, when the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) stopped at the penultimate corner (Mike Knight Corner). The #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto/Kamui Kobayashi) and the #6 Wako’s LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) also stopped out on track, bringing out the second and third red flags respectively.
The session was extended a further five minutes, but the fourth red flag would bring a premature end to the session.
Shinnosuke Yamada spun and crashed exiting turn 2 (Williams Corner) in the #26 Taisan SARD Audi R8 LMS. Yamada was able to get out of the car unscathed, but the Audi had badly damaged the rear suspension, taking them out for the rest of the day.
Before the rash of red flags, it seemed like two Honda NSX-GTs would have an answer for Lexus’ testing domination, with the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure*) and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri*/Takashi Kobayashi) leading the session 1-2 at one point, Kogure posting a 1:18.511, Nojiri a 1:18.544.
But before the third red flag of the morning was issued, it was the Kiwi “Cass” that stood on the Gas in the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500. Cassidy turned in the fastest lap of the morning session with a 1:18.395, one that would hold up as the fastest lap throughout the day.
Between Cassidy’s best lap on Sunday, and his co-driver Ryo Hirakawa nearly setting a new lap record on Saturday, Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s led two out of four sessions at Okayama – a track where they haven’t finished worse than second in the last three races held at the 3.7 kilometer circuit.
The session finished with the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 on top, ahead of the Keihin NSX-GT and the ARTA NSX-GT. The #6 Wako’s LC500 (Oshima*/Caldarelli) was fourth despite their earlier dramas, in fifth was the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate*), and in sixth was the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa*).
It was a 3-3 split of the top six between Lexus and Honda, with the best of the Nissan GT-Rs, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda*/Jann Mardenborough) down in eighth.
The afternoon session got underway at 1:45 PM JST with a practice race start, led by the front row of the #1 Denso SARD LC500 and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500. But just like the morning session, there would be even more red flags to be had.
The first came when Hiroaki Nagai lost his left rear tyre on the #30 Toyota Prius apr GT and spun into the gravel at the first corner. The second was just before the end of the first hour, this time it was for the stopped #52 GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC (Takayuki Hiranuma/Taku Bamba).
As the second hour of Session 4 began, Ishiura clocked the fastest lap of the afternoon session with a 1:18.423, putting Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo on top of the time sheets for the first time all weekend.
But when it was co-driver Yuji Tachikawa’s turn to take the wheel of the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, he would bring out the third red flag of the afternoon when his car lost control at the first corner, spinning into the gravel and impacting the sponge panels with the back of the car. Tachikawa was not injured in the crash, and was able to walk out of the car under his own power.
Despite the crash at the end, the ZENT Cerumo LC500’s best time from Ishiura stood as the best, and just like they did in Session 1 on Saturday morning, Lexus Gazoo Racing locked out the top six places on the running order for the second session this weekend.
The #1 Denso SARD LC500 was second, the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 third, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima*/James Rossiter) was fourth, and the #6 Wako’s LC500 in fifth and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 in sixth completed Lexus’ second top-six sweep of the weekend.
The best of the Nissans was the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira*) in seventh, and the #17 Keihin NSX-GT in eighth was the highest ranked Honda in the afternoon.
GT300 continued similar themes from Saturday as well, with a Toyota 86 MC leading the morning session, and a Nissan GT-R GT3 leading the afternoon session.
In Session 3, Kenta Yamashita set a new unofficial GT300 lap record around Okayama, setting a best lap time of 1:25.523 in the #25 VivaC 86 MC (with Takamitsu Matsui and Takeshi Tsuchiya) just before the fourth and final red flag for Yamada’s crash.
Yamashita’s best lap time was 0.063 seconds faster than Tsuchiya’s official lap record from qualifying last year, and 0.045 seconds quicker than Mitsunori Takaboshi’s best time from Saturday afternoon in the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (with Kazuki Hoshino). This performance will give the reigning All-Japan Formula Three champion, Macau Grand Prix standout, and Toyota Young Driver Programme (TDP) protegé even more momentum going into his return season of Super GT.
The #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi*) finished second, ahead of the aforementioned B-Max GT-R in third, and the #65 Leon Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou*) in fourth.
In session 4, it was the Nissan Driver Development Programme’s top pupil Takaboshi who once again went to the top of the leaderboard. His best lap time of a 1:25.893 set in the final 15 minutes was best in the afternoon, an improvement from his Session 3 time, but not enough to wrestle fastest lap of the day from Yamashita.
The #25 VivaC 86 MC was second-fastest in the afternoon, Takamitsu Matsui setting the car’s quickest lap this time. In third was the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi*/Tatsuya Kataoka), and in fourth, the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R (Kyosuke Mineo/Jono Lester*).
The #33 D’Station Porsche (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) wasn’t far behind the Gulf Porsche in sixth, and rounding off the top ten were two of the smallest teams in GT300 putting in big performances: The #5 Mach Syaken 86 MC GTNET (Natsu Sakaguchi*/Kiyoto Fujinami) of Team Mach in ninth, and the #360 RunUp GT-R (Yusaku Shibata/Atsushi Tanaka/Shota Kiyohara*) in tenth for Tomei Sports.
The teams will have a few days to prepare for the second official test session at Fuji Speedway on March 25-26, the high-speed circuit providing new challenges from the tight and technical Okayama circuit – and the question on everyone’s minds will be if Lexus can continue their testing excellence on their home ground at the foothill of Mount Fuji.