2017 Driver Rankings: Okayama GT 300km Race

Welcome to the first installment of Super GT World’s 2017 Driver Rankings series. Today, we’re going to examine the Okayama GT 300km Race, held on April 9, 2017 at Okayama International Circuit.

Our driver rankings are calculated by taking the average of each individual driver’s ten fastest laps during the race session. For the Suzuka 1000km, we will average each driver’s twenty fastest race laps.

The methodology is inspired by the works of racing driver David Heinemeier Hansson, who provides similar analytical breakdowns for World Endurance Championship, European Le Mans Series, and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races.

Timing and scoring data was taken from the data available through the official 2017 Super GT Live Timing App, available exclusively on iOS devices such as iPhone and iPad. Live functionality will cost ¥860 JPY/$7.99 USD/£7.99 GBP, all other functions are free of charge.

Race Conditions

Weather for the 2017 Okayama GT 300km Race was dry and partly cloudy, with air temperatures measuring 19°C at the start, and dropping to 17°C by the mid-way point of the race. Track temperatures dipped significantly from 25­°C at the start, to 19°C at the mid-stage.

There were a total of three safety car periods during the race. After delays due to multiple car failures during the parade and formation laps, the race start was delayed, and officially began with a safety car start on laps 1-2. There were two additional safety car periods, from lap 6 to lap 10, and then from lap 54 to lap 60.

As a result of the delayed start, the official race distance was shortened from 82 to 81 laps.

GT500

2017R1_GT500_Analysis

GT300

2017R1_GT300_Analysis

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Some observations…

Of the twelve GT300 rookie contenders, seven averaged above the median time of 1:28.497, and two got in the top ten. Sven Müller ranked inside the top ten of top ten laptime averages in GT300 because, well, he’s awesome. He won the two most prestigious Porsche Carrera Cup titles in the world last year, and he’s a factory Porsche racing driver who arguably should be the centerpiece of their factory GTE/GTLM programmes, and he’s still just 25 years old.

But you see Kiyoto Fujinami up there, one place ahead of Müller and ninth out of 56? He did extraordinarily well, were it not for a costly accident that cost his team a lap. He might have put Team Mach back into the points for the first time since 2010, and with a podium finish to boot – as he was gaining on Takamitsu Matsui and Naoya Gamou before spinning off on lap 48. It’s hard to think this’ll be the last time we see the 21-year-old former NDDP driver up this high on the board.

Kyosuke Mineo posting the fourth-fastest average in GT300 was a pleasant surprise, it was terrific to see Gulf Racing with Pacific finishing third in class thanks to both Mineo and Jono Lester (19th fastest top ten average) in general, but given that Mineo hasn’t had much tangible Super GT success apart from his 2012 championship season, and how much he struggled for pace with Lamborghini Team Direction SHIFT a year ago, this was pretty remarkable.

Especially for a team that never finished better than eighth all season long last year.

Here’s some other great performances: Yuichi Nakayama (8th fastest average) showed the best of what the new Lexus RC F GT3 has to offer, Kimiya Sato (13th fastest average) might have a case for being the fastest of all of JLOC’s drivers, and rookie Sean Walkinshaw (14th fastest) did more than enough for ARTA as he stepped up from Blancpain GT’s Silver Cup sub-class, right into the fire of mainline GT300 duty, with a brand new team and car – and a family legacy to uphold as well.

Well…someone had to lead the Honda and Nissan camps in GT500.

For Honda, Takashi Kogure and Koudai Tsukakoshi of Keihin Real Racing will probably still be left wondering what could have been, if their car didn’t break down twice during the formation laps with an ECU failure that left them eight laps down in twelfth – on their pace alone, they could have easily taken “best of the rest” honours in GT500.

Much was expected of Jann Mardenborough in his GT500 debut. The Welshman didn’t disappoint, posting the only sub-1:21 lap time for a Nissan driver in the race, and leading all seven eligible GT-R drivers in top ten laptime averages, while averaging 0.7 seconds better than his co-driver Hironobu Yasuda.

More and more, I find myself impressed with the sheer speed of Naoya Gamou – he had another quick stint at Okayama on fresh Bridgestone tyres, with a Mercedes-AMG GT3 that was clearly one of the best-equipped machines for the weekend.

Which is why it was so impressive that Takamitsu Matsui held him off for so long, right until an unforced error, a spin with 8 laps to go, put him off the podium. It was kind of amazing. On their top ten averages alone, Gamou really should have been through into second place a lot sooner. Just imagine what their combined talents will do for Toyota/Lexus Gazoo Racing at the Nürburgring 24 Hours in May.

And that brings us to the GT300 winners, Goodsmile Racing with Team UKYO. Tatsuya Kataoka had the fastest average, putting about a half-second a lap over his rival Haruki Kurosawa in the disjointed opening stint.

Nobuteru Taniguchi, on a half-used set of Yokohama tyres, only averaged 0.014 seconds slower. And even though a resurfaced Okayama circuit that only puts a significant load on the left-side tyres, wasn’t the most punishing track for tyres on the calendar – it still speaks to some volume about Taniguchi’s ability to keep going fast, consistently, on used tyres – a skill he picked up in his days as a drift driver.

We’ll get to the Lexus domination of GT500, but we also need to talk about how dominant Bridgestone have been in the same respect. 13 of the best 15 top ten laptime averages belong to Bridgestone-clad drivers. Including the best of the Nissan and Honda runners. And all ten of the Lexus/Bridgestone drivers swept the top ten on the GT500 leaderboard. In such a parity-driven championship, that’s so hard to achieve, with or without weight handicaps.

And that brings us to Lexus, who were clearly in a league of their own all weekend, and all winter long during testing.

They deserved to take the first-ever top-six sweep in the history of Super GT’s premier class, just on the pace of their six cars alone. Even the Yokohama-clad WedsSport team with Yuji Kunimoto and Yuhi Sekiguchi were still quicker than the entire Nissan driver stable.

All the Lexus/Bridgestone drivers were covered by just 0.513 seconds, and it’s a testament to the quality of just their fleet of 12 drivers alone that a full-time LMP1 star performer in Kazuki Nakajima, and a former Formula 1 Grand Prix winner in Heikki Kovalainen, are at the bottom of that grouping in ninth and tenth respectively.

The top ten laptime average leaderboards will show that Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s and Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans were so closely matched. Nick Cassidy and Kazuya Oshima averaged just 0.017 seconds apart from another for their respective teams. Ryo Hirakawa and Andrea Caldarelli were 0.023 seconds apart.

If you only took this race in through spreadsheets and laptime averages, you’d get the impression that this was an awesome, hotly-contested battle between the two teams for outright victory.

But if you only took this race in through the visuals, such as Cassidy’s “Scotty Award” winning, tyre-smoking overtake on Oshima on the very first green flag lap of the race…

scotty award winner cassidy

…Or the dozen or so laps that Hirakawa spent trying to fend off the relentless challenge of his former co-driver Caldarelli, before going on to win the race by just a second and a half…

hirakawa vs caldarelli

…you’d get the impression that this was exactly that: An awesome, thrilling, hotly-contested battle for the victory with virtually nothing between the teams and their respective drivers. The data passed the “eyeball test.” The visuals lined up with the maths.

This was a good-ass race, my dudes.

 

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