By the admission of 29-year-old Takashi Kobayashi himself, not even he could have predicted the outcome of GT500 qualifying for Round 1 of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series at Okayama International Circuit.
In a second and final qualifying session interrupted by two red flags, Kobayashi, in his first race back in the GT500 category since 2012, secured pole position for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri, co-driver Tomoki Nojiri, and the #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT.
It’s ARTA’s first GT500 pole position in nearly seven years, the first since the 2010 Suzuka Summer Special (1000km) – when a then-unknown Kobayashi, in his first Super GT race weekend as a third driver, scored an upset by taking pole position for Aguri Suzuki’s team. Six years and nearly eight months later, Kobayashi delivered another upset result.
Q1 got underway, under cloudy skies with only brief bouts of drizzle – not enough to make the track undriveable on slick tyres, but perhaps enough to throw a monkey wrench into the plans of others.
Lexus and Toyota Racing Development (TRD) had clear goals for qualifying: To lock out the first three rows of the grid. In Q1, Hiroaki Ishiura put the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 top of the time sheets with a best lap of 1:18.521, just four-tenths off the lap record at the newly-resurfaced Okayama circuit. This was after co-driver Yuji Tachikawa set the pace in the morning practice for Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo.
Little did Ishiura know at the time, it would be the best lap of the afternoon.
Lexus swept the top four places in Q1, but they only managed to get five of their six cars into Q2, leading to the first of the stunners of the first phase of qualifying – the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate), defending GT500 champions, failing to advance to Q2 by just one-tenth of a second.
In addition, all four Nissan GT-Rs failed to advance out of Q1, with the best of the bunch being the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/J.P. Oliveira) in a meager eleventh, and the two Michelin-clad GT-Rs, last year’s race winning #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli), and the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) qualifying fourteenth and fifteenth at the very bottom of the grid – in fairness, the entire GT500 field was covered by just a second in Q1.
While Nissan suffered in Q1, Honda, who locked out the five lowest places on the grid this time last year, got three cars into Q2 – led by the ARTA NSX-GT, with Nojiri provisionally fifth.
That set up Q2, where Lexus were expected to dominate, as they did in Q1, Saturday morning practice, and throughout pre-season testing.
With two minutes left to go in the session, the first red flag was issued when Kazuki Nakajima in the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (with James Rossiter) spun and crashed at Mike Knight Corner (Turn 10). Nakajima, in his first race back in Super GT since 2014, did not set a time, and the #36 au LC500 will grid up eighth.
At the time, Kobayashi in the ARTA NSX-GT was fastest with a 1:20.604. Yuji Tachikawa was on a flyer at the time, seeking his record-extending 22nd career pole – but the time was nullified as the red flag had been issued, per GTA regulations. The session was restarted, and three minutes were put on the clock to give the seven remaining cars time for one last flyer with one or two warm-up laps.
But with 51 seconds left, the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) crawled to a halt at Attwood Curve (Turn 4), issuing a second red flag as Nakajima lost drive.
That meant that, in the most improbable of circumstances, Honda – just months removed from completing their first winless season in GT500 since 1997 – snatched pole position away from Lexus, and for the first time since August of 2010, Takashi Kobayashi and ARTA scored an unexpected pole position to lead the field to green on Sunday.
“Well, we got lucky today,” Kobayashi said with a flushed smile and a bit of a laugh. “We were able to get pole position because Nojiri did a great job in Q1 to get us qualified for Q2.”
“Certainly, we were lucky in part, but there is no denying that we were able to get pole because Honda and Bridgestone and the team worked hard to get the car in such good condition. So, tomorrow we will of course be going for nothing but the win.”
And unlike in 2010, the last time Kobayashi took a GT500 pole position – in his very first Super GT weekend – he’ll get to drive the ARTA NSX-GT in the race tomorrow, something he didn’t do in the 2010 Suzuka summer enduro as co-drivers Ralph Firman and Yuji Ide did all the driving that August afternoon.
Qualifying second for the third year in a row was the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli), with Oshima just three-tenths off of Kobayashi’s best time when the first red flag was issued. It’s the fourth consecutive year that Lexus Team LeMans will start on the front row at Okayama, including their 2014 pole position.
Third-quickest was the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), Hirakawa falling short of a hat trick of Okayama pole positions, but unlucky to do so, as was the ZENT Cerumo LC500, which only managed fourth-fastest after Tachikawa’s fastest lap was stricken.
The #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) was fifth, and will share the third row with the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto) in sixth. The #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT and #36 au TOM’s LC500 will start seventh and eighth, with the Mugen NSX being stripped of a time that would have had them third on the grid for bringing out the second red flag.
Honda currently lead the big three manufacturers with seven victories at Okayama International Circuit since its first championship round in 1999. With one on pole, and three in total up in the first four rows, they have a fighting chance for win number eight at the circuit.
Something that Honda supporters could have only dreamed of in their wildest imaginations a year ago here.
Feature Image Credit: Takashi Ogasawara / AUTOSPORTweb