The second and final pre-season test session for the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series got underway at Fuji Speedway, and at the home circuit for the Toyota Motor Company, it was their fleet of Lexus LC500s which continued to show an advantage over their rivals during Saturday’s two test sessions.
Leading the charge on Saturday’s test session was Lexus Team au TOM’s, the flagship number 36 car setting the fastest time of the day courtesy of James Rossiter, the Brit turning in his best time in the afternoon session. In the morning session, it was the #6 Wako’s LC500 of Lexus Team LeMans that was quickest thanks to Italian Andrea Caldarelli, both drivers leading a Lexus lockout of the top five in both Saturday sessions.
The AM session got underway at 10:00 AM JST, and with the threat of snow on the forecast for Sunday, the GT Association decided on Friday to extend Session 1 by twenty minutes, and Session 2 by a total of forty minutes, to give the teams more time to run their cars in fine conditions.
Throughout the first hour of the session, it was clear that the Lexus LC500s on Bridgestone tyres were a notch above their rivals, with the #36 au TOM’s LC500 pacing the first hour of the test. Rossiter was joined by team director Daisuke Ito for this weekend’s test, with regular co-driver Kazuki Nakajima absent due to commitments with the Toyota Gazoo Racing WEC-LMP1 team.
In the second hour, Caldarelli in the #6 Wako’s LC500 (with Kazuya Oshima) turned in the fastest laps of the test, first a 1:29.294 to take the top spot from the #36 TOM’s car, then a 1:28.863 the following lap, which stood as the fastest time of the morning session.
There were three red flags, two in the second hour of the test. The #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) stopped at Panasonic Corner in the first half-hour. The next two came in the second hour of the test, the first for the #55 ARTA BMW M6 in GT300 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw), and the last for the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima), which stopped at the penultimate corner at Prius Corner.
No other drivers had an answer for Caldarelli’s best time of Session 1, and Lexus took positions 1 through 5 at their “home ground” in the morning test. Second behind the Wako’s LC500 was the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, driven to its fastest lap by seven-time Fuji Speedway race winner Yuji Tachikawa (with Hiroaki Ishiura).
Completing the top five were the #36 au TOM’s LC500, then the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy*), and then the defending champions’ #1 Denso SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen*/Kohei Hirate) to complete Lexus’ top five sweep.
Just behind them were the best of the Hondas and the Nissans respectively: The #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa*) in sixth, and the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda*/Jann Mardenborough) in seventh, both on Bridgestone tyres – giving the Japanese tyre maker an emphatic lockdown of the top seven places.
Conditions for the afternoon session were still fairly cold as the second session got underway at 2:00 PM JST, this session running until 4:50 PM in the afternoon with the additional forty minutes of time added on.
As they did in the morning session, the Lexus LC500s wasted little time getting to the head of the queue. “Fuji-meister” Tachikawa led the way after the first half-hour with his best time of 1:28.822 in the ZENT Cerumo LC500, setting the new fastest lap of the day.
But in the second hour of the test, it was Rossiter in the orange and white #36 au TOM’s LC500 that put the hammer down for the fastest lap of the afternoon session, and the fastest lap of the day – a 1:28.750, which got to within a second and a half of the official GT500 class lap record set last year (Katsumasa Chiyo – 1:27.366).
There were a few spins during Sessions 1 and 2, but the only stoppage in the afternoon session was brought on by a spin by the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Kenta Yamashita) at the hairpin TGR Corner. Despite the spin and their not being quite as fast as the Bridgestone-clad Lexus, this was a productive day for the WedsSport Bandoh team – especially for 21-year-old Yamashita, who was substituting for Yuji Kunimoto, also absent due to WEC commitments with Toyota.
Leading the second Lexus top-five lockout in as many sessions today were the #36 au TOM’s LC500 and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500, with the #6 Wako’s LC500 (Oshima*/Caldarelli) third, the #1 Denso SARD LC500 (Kovalainen/Hirate*) fourth, and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Hirakawa/Cassidy*) fifth, all covered by just 0.213 seconds on the final leaderboard.
The #12 Calsonic GT-R (Yasuda/Mardenborough*) was sixth, giving Bridgestone a lockout of the top six. And after their troubles in the morning session, the #16 Motul Mugen NSX (Mutoh*/D. Nakajima) recovered in the afternoon to lead the Honda contingent in seventh.
Once again, the Michelin-clad Nissan GT-Rs struggled for pace in the bitter cold conditions as track temps never climbed higher than 15°C on the day. The best of those runners was the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Matsuda/Quintarelli*) in tenth overall, eight-tenths adrift of the best time of Rossiter in the #36 au TOM’s LC500. Propping up the back of the GT500 leaderboard was the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura*), the sole Dunlop GT500 car two seconds adrift of P1 in fifteenth overall.
In GT300, the supreme horsepower of the FIA GT3 category cars were expected to shine through on Fuji’s high-speed sections. They certainly did just that, with GT3 cars taking nine of the top ten places in both Sessions 1 and 2 on Saturday.
Super Swede Björn Wirdheim led the way in Session 1 in the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-AMG GT3 (with Katsuyuki Hiranaka), pacing the AM session with a 1:36.935, just edging out the #3 B-Max Nissan GT-R of Mitsunori Takaboshi (with Kazuki Hoshino) by 0.052 seconds.
Third was the #33 D’Station Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii*/André Couto), in fourth was the #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 (Akihiro Tsuzuki*/Morio Nitta), and in fifth was the second Gainer car, the #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-R (Ryuichiro Tomita*/Hiroki Yoshida).
Gentleman driver Tsuzuki in the Ferrari deserves commendation for outpacing his three-time champion co-driver in fourth, and another underdog performance came from the sixth-place #360 RunUp GT-R, driven to its best lap by former gymkhana champion Yusaku Shibata (with Atsushi Tanaka and Shota Kiyohara). The only JAF-GT300/MC car in the top ten in Session 1 was the #18 Upgarage Bandoh Toyota 86 MC (Yuhki Nakayama*/Shintaro Kawabata) in seventh.
Faster times were still yet to come in the afternoon session, and 23-year-old Takaboshi continued his incredible pre-season form by setting the fastest GT300 lap of the day with less than a half-houir to go in Session 2. Takaboshi went fastest with a 1:36.221, within a half-second of the GT300 track record. The #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Hiranaka*/Wirdheim) was second-quickest in Session 2.
Kiwi Jono Lester continues to surprise in the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R (with Kyosuke Mineo), turning in the third-fastest time of the day in the afternoon session. Mercedes-AMG took three of the top five places in Session 2, with the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG (Nobuteru Taniguchi*/Tatsuya Kataoka) fourth, and the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa) fifth, the latter missing the services of Naoya Gamou who is racing for Toyota in the VLN Endurance Series this weekend.
Best of the JAF-GT300 contingent was the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi*/Hideki Yamauchi), and give a special shoutout to the #117 EIcars Bentley Continental GT3, which flexed its muscle at Fuji, going seventh-quickest on the day thanks to a fast lap from Ryohei Sakaguchi (with Yuji Ide).
With the threat of snow in the forecast for tomorrow, it remains to be seen if the Super GT teams can find more speed on Sunday – if they can even get any running in at all.