Welcome to the second installment of Super GT World’s 2017 Driver Rankings series. Here, we take a look at the 33rd running of the Fuji GT 500km Race, held on the Golden Week holiday of May 4, 2017, at Fuji International Speedway. (For our driver rankings for the 2017 Okayama GT 300km Race, click here.)
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 a one-time fee of ¥860 JPY/$7.99 USD/£7.99 GBP, all other functions are free of charge.
Weather for the 2017 Fuji 500km was fine, sunny, and dry throughout the weekend. At the start of the race on Thursday afternoon, the air temperature was 19°C, and the track temperature was 29°C. By the middle of the race, temperatures had risen significantly, up to as high as 24°C air temperature, and 35°C track temperature.
There were no safety cars during the race, and only one non-classified runner during the race. However, due to crash damage from previous sessions, both the #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 and the #360 RunUp Nissan GT-R GT3 withdrew from the event.
Some observations – and there’s quite a lot of them!
The conditions of this race tend to favor the drivers who did two stints at the wheel. Teams will typically give their faster drivers two stints during this particular race to maximize their time at the wheel, and they’ll respond by going faster still.
They’ll have two chances to set their fastest times on new or lightly used tyres. They’ll have more laps to pull from – as many as 72 laps for some drivers. The cooler conditions at the start of today’s race in particular will only help even more.
But there were three notable exceptions, starting with the only middle-stint driver to go faster than their opening/closing driver in GT500: Ryo Hirakawa (8th fastest, GT500) averaged just under a tenth faster than his co-driver Nick Cassidy, and he also reeled off the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500’s fastest lap – and on 40 kilograms of ballast, no less.
Nobuteru Taniguchi (2nd fastest, GT300) had victory in his sights for Goodsmile Racing, until the first of two left-front punctures which took the Miku AMG out of the points. That first puncture put a premature end to his middle stint – so imagine how much more speed NOB could have shown if he’d been given a few more laps at the wheel – and like Hirakawa, Taniguchi was also driving with an extra 40kg on board!
The milestone of the race was Yuji Tachikawa taking his record-tying 18th GT500 victory. But if the Hatsune Miku AMG didn’t suffer those punctures, we’d likely be talking about Taniguchi tying the GT300 wins record in the same afternoon with what could have, and to many people should have, been his 18th GT300 win.
And then there was the fastest rookie in the field, Sho Tsuboi, of the winning #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3, who averaged two-tenths quicker than co-driver Yuichi Nakayama and was fourth fastest out of 59 drivers. Both JMS RC F drivers were on their game, and Tsuboi’s middle leg performance in particular put them in position to finally capture the Lexus RC F GT3’s first Super GT race victory.
One other middle-stint driver who outperformed their two-stint driver was Hideto Yasuoka – 47th fastest, but in an outdated Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, for a single-car independent, and still four-tenths quicker than regular R’Qs SLS driver Masaki Jyonai. Why Yasuoka, who was Arnage Racing’s fastest driver all last season in a similar SLS AMG, wasn’t given more seat time in the car for his one-off is baffling.
A few third drivers were drafted in for some GT300 teams. Junichiro Yamashita and Masayuki Ueda did as well as could be expected for true gentleman drivers at or above 50 years old. Taiyou Iida actually did alright as the “ringer” for the “Shokumou Squad”.
But the one third driver who made the most significant impact for their team? No question, it was Yuya Motojima (12th fastest, GT300) of the #87 Shop Channel JLOC Lamborghini team, who was a tenth faster than regular driver Kimiya Sato (pictured right of Motojima) and about a half-second quicker than other regular driver Shinya Hosokawa.
Motojima’s quick pace at the end of the race helped clinch the “second” JLOC car’s best finish in three years. He was a finalist for our Shingo Tachi Memorial Award last year for his incredible efforts in helping Team Taisan SARD get back on their feet in GT300. It’s ridiculous how he doesn’t have a full-time drive this year.
There was a keen eye on how well Lexus’ GT500 replacement drivers would do at the Fuji 500km. It’s always hard to replace drivers like Kazuki Nakajima and Yuji Kunimoto, who have won three Super Formula titles between them, and in the case of Nakajima, he’s a household name that’s proven as one of the World Endurance Championship’s all-around best drivers.
Daisuke Ito, apart from an overambitious passing attempt on Kohei Hirate and a subsequent drivethrough penalty that relegated the #36 au TOM’s LC500 off the podium, looked like he hadn’t missed a day in a race car. 9th fastest overall in GT500, 3rd of all drivers who did the middle stint.
The newly-appointed team director was displaced from Lexus GT500 driver roster after 2016 as they looked to make their fleet younger and faster. Ito will wait until the end of the season before deciding to retire from racing – but if this was his last Super GT race, the former GT500 champion went out as close to on top as one could ask.
The other substitute performer was Kenta Yamashita who is way down the order in the GT500 leaderboards. Yes, 29th out of 30, and nearly a second slower than Yuhi Sekiguchi looks pretty wretched out of context. The 21-year-old did go into the weekend with very modest goals in mind, wasn’t shooting to go as fast as possible, just wanted to run a clean weekend.
That’s respectable – especially for a very, very young driver making his GT500 debut, and one that’s also having to switch from GT300 to GT500 and back in a span of three rounds. It doesn’t help either that the Yokohama tyres fitted to the WedsSport LC500 aren’t giving the car as much pace or longevity as their Bridgestone-clad stablemates.
Yamashita is one of the highest-rated young drivers in Japanese motorsport, and he’ll be fast when he gets back in his “regular” VivaC Toyota 86 MC, and he’ll be faster still when he gets his first full-time chance in GT500. It just stands to highlight how impressively the likes of Mitsunori Takaboshi and Tadasuke Makino did in their big GT500 debuts last season. That’s very hard to do in the middle of the season – being a rookie is hard!
Tsubasa Kondo, Yamashita’s replacement in the #25 VivaC 86 MC, was shockingly off the pace of his co-driver Takamitsu Matsui – even in the context that the JAF-GT300 cars were struggling a lot this week to keep up with the faster, brawnier, shoutier FIA GT3s.
Like Yamashita in the LC500, Kondo very well could have been driving conservatively and trying to get comfortable in a new car – one that he’d only driven a handful of times in winter testing.
Between Taniguchi, Kataoka, Björn Wirdheim, Katsuyuki Hiranaka, and Naoya Gamou all in the GT300 top ten, it’s no wonder why the GT Association had to hit the Mercedes-AMG GT3s with a bit of a nerf for Autopolis in the form of a 35kg weight penalty.
Commend Kota Sasaki for being the fastest of the four drivers in the two Toyota Prius apr GTs. Yes, the #30 team did essentially become a non-factor after a steering issue, but that’s still a very solid job for Sasaki to average a 1:39.7 – faster than both the #31 Prius’ drivers, Koki Saga and Rintaro Kubo, who arguably have better tyres from Bridgestone, and who certainly have a more potent engine and hybrid system.
Perhaps more impressive was the effort from his co-driver, Hiroaki Nagai – the true gentleman driver who averaged a very respectable 1:40.6 – just a couple tenths slower than his counterpart Kubo in the #31 car, and a tenth faster than two-time GT500 champion Masataka Yanagida in a WRT-prepared Hitotsuyama Audi R8.
This is also the point where it has to be said that Yanagida’s performances in the first two races are starting to look worrisome. I’m not a racing driver or a coach. But it’s very alarming that a 38-year-old professional racing driver, the only two-time champion of both Super GT classes, and one-half of the first GT300 driver combination made up of two former GT500 champions, seems to have lost so much race pace in the span of a single winter off-season.
Richard Lyons is a fantastic driver and has been for over a decade. So has Yanagida – so seeing such a disparity between Yanagida and Lyons throws up red flags. Still, it’s nothing close to the nearly 4-second gulf between Mooncraft Lotus drivers Hiroki Katoh (24th) and Kazuho Takahashi (59th).
Can we also talk about how ridiculous it was that rookie Natsu Sakaguchi did a single 51-lap stint during the race in the Mach Syaken MC86? That’s about 200km on a single tank of fuel and set of tyres – definitely enough to get a young driver back into race mode after two years out.
Lexus and Bridgestone still reign supreme in GT500, so it’s time to once again highlight the star performers for their rivals at Nissan and at Honda.
For Nissan, that star performer was NISMO’s Ronnie Quintarelli, and he was outstanding all week long, starting with a front-row qualifying effort on Wednesday, a shocker given the horsepower deficit the Nissan GT-Rs have to the Lexus LC500s.
That lack of horsepower was even more evident during the race, as the Lexus fleet would just swarm the Motul Autech GT-R on the 1.5 kilometer main straight. Quintarelli had to maximize the longevity of his Michelin tyres, and maximize what the car could give him in sectors 2 and 3.
There’s a reason why RQ is a four-time GT500 champion: He’s a tenacious, uncompromising competitor. Seventh-fastest average overall, the only Nissan driver and the only Michelin driver in the top 15, and averaging over a half-second faster than the second-fastest Nissan driver, Katsumasa Chiyo in 16th.
For Honda, who needed a great performance after their nightmarish weekend at Okayama, their star performer was Naoki Yamamoto who ripped a 1:31.2 average seemingly out of nowhere to go fourth-fastest overall at a track where Honda has traditionally struggled in recent years.
That’s six-tenths faster than both Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure in a similar Keihin NSX-GT, also carrying zero ballast and also on Bridgestone tyres, and over a second a lap faster than Takuya Izawa, Yamamoto’s co-driver in the Raybrig NSX-GT.
It’s a performance like that which can give Honda supporters hope for the season to come – oh, and getting sixth place to lead a total of three NSXes in the points? Also a good day under the circumstances.
The story of the GT300 class at the Fuji 500km, apart from the first win for the Lexus RC F and the heartbreaking punctures for the GSR Mercedes, was how the D’station Porsche of Tomonobu Fujii and Sven Müller came back from as low as 23rd place to finish 3rd.
Müller was incredibly consistent in his middle leg of the race, the second-fastest middle stint of the race in GT300 behind only his fellow rookie Tsuboi in the JMS RC F. Lots of low 1:39s lap times, and his fastest lap of 1:38.774 came in the 28th lap of his stint.
With Müller set to miss the next three races due to his prior commitments in Germany – made before he was announced at D’station Racing – André Couto will now have to come in for relief pitching duties for the next three rounds, but as D’station Racing’s general manager and baseball great Kazuhiro Sasaki can attest, finding anyone with Müller’s velocity and control is gonna be mighty tough.
But that’s alright, because they’ve still got Tomonobu Fujii, who drove brilliantly at the track that’s one “I” away from being named in his honour. After being spun out on Lap 11, Fujii already made up 18 places by the time he pitted on lap 35. That was, in large part, due to the Porsche’s incredible straight-line speed.
Fujii shattered the class’ best lap on the fourth lap of his second stint, hammering out a ridiculous 1:38.083 – four-tenths quicker than the second-fastest lap by Gamou, the only other driver to lap under 1:38.5. That 1:38.083 was part of a string of 22 consecutive laps for Fujii under 1:40s.
This was Fujii’s 100th career Super GT start, and this was one of his most memorable individual performances. 2016 and the start of 2017 have been great for Fujii – he’s the ace driver for the reigning Super Taikyu ST-X champions, helped Audi Team Hitotsuyama to their first win last November, and now has Porsche off to their best start in GT300 in five years.
Whew. Okay, back to the top of the order in GT500.
Six-tenths covered the top eleven drivers in GT500, nine of which were driving a Lexus LC500 on Bridgestone tyres. This is the car and tyre combination to beat in GT500, bar none.
The Lexus has the handling balance that the Honda doesn’t, and the power that the Nissan doesn’t. Michelin need to keep making gains, Yokohama needs to get back to where they were by the end of last year, and Dunlop have needed a second client in GT500 for about five or six years anyway.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting Yuji Tachikawa to be at the top of this board. 3rd isn’t bad though, and he and Hiroaki Ishiura (6th fastest, and fastest middle stint) did lead 106 out of 110 laps and win the race comfortably.
No, the top spots belong to two drivers whose teams were battling for second right up until the collision with Ito and Hirate, their co-drivers James Rossiter and Heikki Kovalainen respectively.
Want an idea of how much the damage from that middle-race crash cost the Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 in terms of pace? The top ten average from Kovalainen’s second stint only was a 1:32.218 – over a second slower than his 1:31.128 average compiled entirely from laps in his opening stint, before the collision. This disparity in pace also passes the “eyeball test” as Hirate and Kovalainen were visibly struggling to keep the Denso LC500 on the road and ahead of other cars.
And that brings us to the fastest man on track, James Rossiter, who set the fastest lap of the race with a 1:30.480, and the fastest top ten laptime average with a 1:31.037, the second driver from either of Lexus Team TOM’s to top the leaderboards this season.
The five-lap sequence that included Rossiter’s fastest lap of 1:30.480 also included a 1:30.593 and a 1:30.810, before and after that purple lap respectively.
Rossiter also set another sub-1:31 laptime in his second stint, a 1:30.953 on the fifth lap of his second and closing stint of the race. Rossiter had more sub-1:31 laps than any other driver on the day – four in total. At the venue where the Oxford native won his first and second Super GT races in 2013, James Rossiter was stellar in a performance that should have earned better than a fifth-place finish.
Whew. That’s enough words from me.