For the first time since the 2008 International Suzuka 1000km, the famous #100 Raybrig Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT has taken pole position for an Autobacs Super GT Series race, thanks to incredible runs from drivers Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa on Saturday during qualifying for the Super GT in Kyushu 300km.
Aided by a recent 15 kilogram weight reduction for all of the Honda NSX-GTs, Izawa set the fastest time in the first round of knockout qualifying, and then Yamamoto made it count in the second stage, the only driver to set a lap time under 1 minute, 34 seconds on Saturday.
Conditions for qualifying were fine, dry, and sunny – but for the first time ever, high temperatures in late Spring came into play, with track temperatures reaching as high as 46°C by the second stage of qualifying.
After the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT was quickest in Saturday morning practice, Izawa was the quickest man in Q1, a session that saw a number of disappointed drivers who didn’t make the cut to the top eight and progress to Q2.
Three Nissan GT-Rs missed the cut – including the #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) in eleventh, the two-time and defending winners at Autopolis from 2014-2015, and the 2015 pole-winning #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) in ninth, just 0.040 seconds behind the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Hideki Mutoh, which took the eighth and final spot for Q2 promotion.
Only Katsumasa Chiyo in the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R made it into Q2 out of the Nissan fleet, with a 5th-place effort.
But the most disappointed team might have been Keihin Real Racing, whose #17 Keihin NSX-GT was second-quickest in practice, but will start fifteenth and last on the grid on Sunday afternoon. Takashi Kogure spun off and crashed as he started his flying lap at the end of Q1, and thus, the Keihin NSX wasn’t able to set a true quick lap in the session.
Despite carrying over 40 kilograms of ballast, and fuel-flow restrictors that would reduce horsepower, the top three teams in the championship all advanced to Q2 – five Lexus LC500s in total made it into the second phase of qualifying, headed up by James Rossiter in the #36 au TOM’s LC500.
That set up an intriguing Q2 session – could Yamamoto, who set the fastest time in practice, take pole position when it counted in the final twelve-minute session?
The former Super Formula champion and Suzuka 1000km winner waited until the final seconds of Q2 to set his fastest lap of the day, a 1:33.740 – still about a second slower than the GT500 lap record at Autopolis set in 2015.
However, it was good enough for Yamamoto to take his first pole position of his Super GT career, and the first pole position for Team Kunimitsu since the 2008 Suzuka 1000km.
“I am very happy that we got the pole position,” Yamamoto said after qualifying. “The machine’s balance was very good from the time we started running today. I can’t remember how long it has been since we were able to run in such good condition, and that is strong evidence of just how good it has become.”
“The team has come into this season with a new make-up, and I wanted to get a good result in order to show how well this team can work together and get results. So, I am glad that we have at least gotten the pole position.”
As team director Kunimitsu Takahashi would later clarify, Sunday’s race at Autopolis will be the first time since 2008 that the Raybrig Honda was the fastest car in qualifying – but it’s the first time that Team Kunimitsu will actually start from pole position since September 10, 2006, at Twin Ring Motegi – a span of over ten years.
All in all, it adds up to Honda’s second pole position of 2017 – and one that came on speed and merit, after a disjointed Q2 at Okayama that gave the #8 ARTA NSX-GT the pole position.
Satoshi Motoyama, a four-time winner at Autopolis, was six-tenths of a second off the pace of Yamamoto – but was still second-quickest in Q2, putting the Michelin-clad S Road GT-R on the outside of the front row with a 1:34.331 fastest lap.
Third-fastest and best of the Lexus fleet was the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate), carrying 30 kilograms of ballast, they were a second off the pole-winning time.
Kazuki Nakajima, in his return to Super GT after missing the Fuji 500km due to his WEC commitments, ran off course on his final flying lap in Q2. During the incident, both Andrea Caldarelli in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 and Yuji Tachikawa in the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 were penalized with the loss of their fastest laps for failing to slow down sufficiently for the yellow flags in the sector
This promoted Daisuke Nakajima in the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT to fourth, one place ahead of the GT500 Championship leaders, the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), which qualified fifth despite carrying 45 kilograms of ballast and a fuel-flow restrictor.
The post-qualifying penalties put the #6 Wako’s LC500 sixth on the grid, the #36 au TOM’s LC500 seventh, and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 eighth.
It’s been ten years since a Honda won at Autopolis in GT500 – but with the Raybrig NSX-GT of Yamamoto and Izawa on pole, the undulating, technical, and abrasive circuit might become the venue where Honda breaks their 19-month winless drought, dating back to the 2015 Sugo GT 300km Race – a race won by Yamamoto and Izawa in the Raybrig NSX.