After going without a single race victory in the last two seasons, Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO returned to the top step of the podium in the GT300 class during Sunday’s opening round of the 2017 Super GT Series at Okayama International Circuit.
A tenacious start from Tatsuya Kataoka, a two-tyre stop to gain track position and take advantage of the resurfaced Okayama International Circuit, and smooth driving at the end from Nobuteru Taniguchi helped propel the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 to the team’s first victory since 2014, and their first as a Mercedes-AMG customer team.
They lead the GT300 podium ahead of the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG of Haruki Kurosawa and Naoya Gamou, and the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 GT3-R of Jono Lester and Kyosuke Mineo.
There was drama during the warm-up session before the race, when the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 (Richard Lyons/Masataka Yanagida) was hit by the #48 Shohoku GT-R (Hiroshi Takamori/Masaki Tanaka), giving the Audi a broken suspension – miraculously, the car was fixed quickly, but the #21 Audi wouldn’t be a factor in the race – nor would the Shohoku GT-R, which started from pit lane.
From the team’s first pole position, Kurosawa led the #65 LEON AMG to the green flag after a delayed start caused by three GT500 class Honda NSX-GTs suffering electrical failures during the formation laps.
After the race officially began under the safety car, the race was neutralized for a second time just a few laps later for the #52 Saitama Toyopet GreenBrave Toyota Mark X MC (Taku Bamba/Shigekazu Wakisaka) crashing at Mike Knight Corner (Turn 10), bringing out the second safety car.
It was a difficult first weekend for the Super GT newcomers at GreenBrave – after a crash in Q1 on Saturday forced them to start the race from pit lane.
The race resumed on lap 10, with Kurosawa leading, Kataoka second, and Kenta Yamashita in the #25 VivaC 86 MC in third. Kurosawa in his Bridgestone-clad LEON AMG tried to put a gap on his Mercedes rival, but as the GT500 field came through, it allowed Kataoka to gradually close the gap.
On lap 18, the Hatsune Miku AMG made its move in the double hairpin complex at Redman and Hobbs corners (Turns 7 and 8), as Kataoka and the Miku AMG danced past Kurosawa at the inside of Redman, and had cleared the LEON AMG by the next corner. This allowed Yamashita, the reigning All-Japan F3 champion, to close in on Kurosawa just before the leaders came in for their mid-race pit stops.
Strategy came into play for the GT300 leaders in a big way. The VivaC 86 pitted first on lap 27 for fuel, a driver change to Takamitsu Matsui, and two left-side Yokohama tyres. The following lap, the LEON AMG pitted for fuel, and four new Bridgestone tyres as pole winner Naoya Gamou took over the cockpit. Gamou came out ahead of Matsui on the track, but couldn’t hold the position on cold tyres – reigning GT300 champion Matsui took the position, setting up an incredible battle between them.
On lap 29, Kataoka pitted the Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG from the lead, taking fuel and two left-side tyres. Nobuteru Taniguchi took the wheel for the final 48 laps of the race, and came out well ahead of the battle for what would have been second place.
The #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) had a good start to the race, with Yamauchi climbing up to fourth before pitting on lap 29. However, on lap 36, Iguchi was forced to pull over exiting Piper Corner, and retired with what was officially listed as an electrical failure – taking them out of a potential podium position.
As Matsui and Gamou battled valiantly for position, the #5 Mach Syaken 86 MC GTNET (Natsu Sakaguchi/Kiyoto Fujinami) had worked its way up from seventeenth on the grid, and was running right behind the LEON AMG and VivaC 86 on track, looking for their best finish since 2010. But Fujinami spun off on his own on lap 48, losing a lap in the process – Team Mach would finish 17th.
Shortly thereafter, the third safety car came out on lap 49, when the #50 Ferrari 488 GT3 (Akihiro Tsuzuki/Morio Nitta) was involved in a heavy head-on crash at Williams Corner (Turn 2). Nitta accidentally sideswiped a GT500 class car, sending it spinning head-on into the inside concrete barrier.
The race was neutralized for several laps while Nitta was helped out of his stricken Ferrari and taken to the infield medical centre via ambulance. The team, and Nitta himself, later confirmed that he had suffered no serious injuries in the crash.
The race would resume with twenty laps to go, with Taniguchi in first, Matsui in second, and Gamou in fourth. Behind them in fourth, was the #55 ARTA BMW M6 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw) – which went 47 laps on Takagi’s opening stint, and gained lots of track position by electing not to change tyres during their pit stop.
The battle between Matsui and Gamou – who were just weeks removed from winning their class as co-drivers in the first VLN round in Germany – continued on for second place. Gamou had the advantage of fresh Bridgestone tyres and a significant horsepower advantage, but Matsui drove cleverly in defense of his position, as his lighter, more agile Toyota 86 MC used up less of its tyres on the new track surface.
They would battle until eight laps to go, when, caught up in faster GT500 traffic, Matsui spun out at Hobbs Corner from second place. Gamou drove through to second place as a result of the somewhat anti-climactic finish to their great battle.
But up front, nobody had an answer for Taniguchi, who drove 48 smooth, consistent laps and checked out from the field behind him to secure the victory for Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO.
The win was the first for Goodsmile Racing since the 2014 Fuji GT 500km Race, 23 races ago. It was also their first since switching from BMW to Mercedes-Benz in 2015. For Taniguchi, he moves back into second place all-time with 17 career wins, tying Shinichi Takagi and moving one away from Morio Nitta’s all-time mark of 18. It’s the ninth GT300 class win for Kataoka.
“We were ready to win before we even got to the circuit,” said Taniguchi after the race. “Even though we weren’t able to get pole position, but that was because we chose hard tires for the qualifying in order to give us an advantage in the race. If we had only been concerned about winning pole position, we might have chosen a different strategy. Anyway, the machine and the tires were both outstanding. That is all there is to say. This was truly a race that we won because of the machine and the tires.”
“The flow really wasn’t going well for us coming into this race,” said Kataoka, “but we were able to win because of the strengths of the machine and the tires. We have won a good number of races until now, but never have we had such a good machine as today. I am really grateful to the team for setting up the machine so well and to Yokohama for the great tires they prepared for us.”
The victory also gives Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO an important boost of credibility as the team prepares for its international excursion in this year’s 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in July.
The LEON AMG finished second, to complete the second straight Mercedes-AMG GT3 1-2 finish at Okayama. Last year, K2 R&D LEON Racing won their first race ahead of Goodsmile Racing, this year, they switched places – but the team still come away with valuable championship points to kick off the season, and Gamou also took fastest lap of the race.
The final place on the podium was won by the #9 Gulf Porsche of Lester and Mineo, in a race that saw Lester drive from 15th to 6th in his opening stint, and Mineo take advantage of Matsui’s spin to put Pacific with Gulf Racing on the podium for the first time ever – coming off a season where the team scored just two points all of last season.
For Mineo, it’s his first podium in Super GT since the 2013 Sugo GT 300km, and for Lester, it’s an emotional maiden podium in just his second career Super GT start.
“Today’s podium felt like a win to me. It’s been an emotional day. I’m still fizzing after a nail-biting race from the middle of the pack,” Lester said after the race.
“It’s gratifying to turn our pre-season testing pace into a result. You never know with these things – who’s sandbagging or who’s showing their real hand. Okayama was the first real test for us, and we delivered. Thank you to the team.”
After the late spin by Matsui, the VivaC 86 MC would hang on to finish fourth – upset over losing the podium late in the race, but still taking away a great points haul from the weekend.
The #55 ARTA BMW of Takagi and Walkinshaw would hold on to finish fifth – their Bridgestone tyres lost some pace at the end of an 81-lap stint, but it was a good result to salvage some dignity from the GT500 team’s humiliating DNS after taking pole position on Saturday.
The #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-R (Ryuichiro Tomita/Hiroki Yoshida) had a quiet, yet productive afternoon, finishing sixth in class, and edging out their Nissan stablemates at NDDP Racing, the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi) which came back from starting 16th to finish 7th.
Finishing eighth was the #51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa Lexus RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi), earning the best result for the RC F GT3 in Super GT after two difficult seasons with the previous-generation RC F. It’s a great result, especially after their sister car, the #60 Syntium RC F GT3 (Akira Iida/Hiroki Yoshimoto) lost drive during the third safety car period.
Ninth was the #33 D’Station Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller), another big mover which came up from nineteenth on the grid to get into the points.
Completing the points-scorers was the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Rintaro Kubo) in tenth. Kubo made a few fearless moves early on in the race, but apr Racing were just glad to get points after the #30 Prius (Hiroaki Nagai/Kota Sasaki) crashed out on lap 42.
Among the notable non-scorers, the #7 Studie BMW M6 (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara) finished on the lead lap in 13th – a miracle given the car didn’t run at all on Saturday due to electrical issues.
And in its first race in Super GT, the #117 EIcars Bentley Continental GT3 (Yuji Ide/Ryohei Sakaguchi) came home, one lap down in 20th position.