The Autobacs Super GT Series made their long-awaited return to Autopolis circuit for the Super GT in Kyushu 300km on May 21, the first race at the mountainous circuit in Oita Prefecture since 2015.
After starting seventh on the grid after an accident in the second stage of Saturday qualifying, the #36 au TOM’s Lexus LC500 of Kazuki Nakajima and James Rossiter charged through the field, and on to take the victory at Autopolis – as Nakajima’s incredible start to the 2017 season across Super GT, WEC, and Super Formula continues.
Lexus remain undefeated in GT500 in the 2017 Super GT season, but the win was not without controversy, after a collision with the defending GT500 champions’ #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen & Kohei Hirate while the two Lexus cars were battling for the top spot with 15 laps to go in the 65 lap race.
Under perfect conditions for a race, the pole winning #100 Raybrig Honda NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto and Takuya Izawa led the way – with Yamamoto intent on streaking out into the lead, building up an advantage of over six seconds after just four laps. He set the outright fastest lap of the race on his second lap in his pursuit of a stunning victory for the forlorn Honda NSX-GTs.
That advantage was negated during a 24-minute safety car period, when the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi), having started from the pit lane after a mechanical issue in the Warm-Up session, spun exiting the final corner on Lap 5, right into the path of an oncoming GT300 class Toyota Prius apr GT, which made significant contact with the ARTA NSX.
This safety car intervention bunched up the field, and when the race restarted on Lap 14, Yamamoto was tasked with trying to build up his advantage once again. Meanwhile, having started seventh on the grid, James Rossiter in the #36 au TOM’s LC500 was on a hard charge through the field after passing his fellow Lexus rivals, the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500. He’d moved up to fourth by Lap 19, and two laps later, he had knocked the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo) off the podium.
By the halfway point of the race, it had become a battle of Yamamoto in the Raybrig NSX against two Lexus LC500s – the Denso LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and the au TOM’s LC500 of Rossiter – for the overall victory. Kovalainen and Rossiter had a tough, but fair battle for second place for several laps – and right before the leaders began to pit, Rossiter moved past Kovalainen, who was visibly frustrated with losing the position after exiting the Denso SARD LC500 after their Lap 33 pit stop.
The pit stops would be a critical point in the battle for the lead. Both the Raybrig NSX and Denso LC500 pitted on the same lap, but trouble for the Team Kunimitsu mechanics on their stop meant that Takuya Izawa, now aboard the Raybrig NSX, came out well behind the Denso LC500 piloted by Kohei Hirate.
Rossiter would stay out for two more laps, before pitting the #36 au TOM’s LC500 at the end of Lap 35 and giving the controls to Kazuki Nakajima, back in Super GT after missing the Fuji 500km.
After the sluggish pit stop, Izawa in the Raybrig NSX began to fade away from the leaders, so it was now truly a battle between Nakajima and Hirate for the victory over the next several laps – with Izawa now leading a distant, furious six-car battle for third place.
The battle for the lead would hit its boiling point with 15 laps to go. Going through Turns 13 & 14 in the final sector, Nakajima and Hirate were side-by-side for the lead of the race. At the left-handed Turn 14, Nakajima had the inside line, climbing over the kerbs as Hirate turned into the corner, resulting in a collision that sent Hirate’s Denso SARD LC500 into a spin under the bridge. A separate collision with the oncoming #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 just metres later, forced both cars to retire.
The au TOM’s LC500 had suffered some damage to the right front quarter-panel, but they had built up a lead of nearly half a minute over the rest of the field – and after being cleared by the stewards at the conclusion of their investigation of the incident between the #36 and #1 Lexus, Nakajima could coast home to take the victory for Lexus Team au TOM’s.
“After yesterday’s qualifying, I was starting to lose my confidence,” Nakajima laughed, “so I decided to race calmly today. But, James did a magnificent job at the wheel and got us to where we could take the lead. That was more than I ever expected.”
“I had a bad time getting through the traffic and it allowed the No. 1 car to catch up with me. There was nothing I could do about the ensuing collision and that was unfortunate. There was some damage to my machine, but fortunately I was somehow able to get to the finish first.”
“Today was truly a day full of action,” said his co-driver Rossiter. “At first, I was running behind the battle between Andrea [Caldarelli, No. 6] and Nick [Cassidy, No. 37] and that was the toughest part. But after the Safety Car came out, I though that the real race would be from that point on, so I pushed hard. I kept running in full-attack mode, and I really enjoyed it. We got the win, so I am satisfied.”
It’s the 6th career Super GT win for Rossiter, and the 5th career win for Nakajima – and his first since returning to Super GT after a two-year hiatus, the first win for the duo since the 2014 Buriram Super GT Race in Thailand. Nakajima has now started his 2017 campaign with victories in Super GT, Super Formula, and two wins in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
This was also the first victory for first-year team director Daisuke Ito at the helm of the #36 squad. For Lexus, its their third straight win to open the 2017 season, and their fourth in a row going back to the end of the 2016 season. The Lexus LC500 also makes history, becoming the first GT500 car ever to win its first three races in succession in GT500 competition.
After the Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 retired, the heated six-way battle for third became a battle for second place – and it was taken, in the most incredible of fightbacks, by the #17 Keihin NSX-GT of Koudai Tsukakoshi and Takashi Kogure.
Like the ARTA NSX-GT, they too had suffered a pre-race issue and were forced to start from pit lane, and when the race went green, Kogure had to get through the entire GT300 field – the safety car helped them catch back up. Then they made a very early pit stop, coming in at the end of Lap 23, to change drivers to Tsukakoshi who went on a tear. He made a brilliant three-wide pass on Lap 33 past the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT and the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500, and in the final 20 laps, he was right behind the struggling Raybrig NSX-GT of Izawa.
After several laps of trying to get past, Tsukakoshi made his move into second place with 12 laps to go, and did not look back – the Keihin Real Racing team finishing in second, ahead of Raybrig Team Kunimitsu, to take Honda’s first podium finishes of the 2017 season.
For their work in helping Real Racing overcome a Q1 crash, a pit lane start, and come back all the way from 15th to finish 2nd, the mechanics of the #17 Keihin NSX-GT were also given the ZF Award after the race to honour the best crew of mechanics at every round.
Yamamoto and Izawa, who led the first 33 laps, would probably rue their slow pit stop and their lack of pace in the closing leg of the race – but still, their third place finish will be a huge boost for Team Kunimitsu.
And for Honda on the whole, who have now asserted themselves as the second-best of the GT500 manufacturers behind Lexus, following a recent 15 kilogram weight deduction for all five of their mid-engined machines, an adjustment that seemed to pay huge dividends for the entire fleet.
Also having a splendid weekend were Nissan, who got all four Nissan GT-Rs into the points, headed up by the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R of Motoyama and Chiyo, which scored its first points of 2017 after a fourth place finish. Though they faded after a front row start, Motoyama and Chiyo will still be happy to get on the board after two frustrating races at Okayama and Fuji.
The #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli) finished just behind the S Road MOLA team in fifth, having come back from 11th on the grid after another quiet, but productive day for NISMO – who entered this year’s race at Autopolis as the two-time and defending winners of this event.
The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) finished seventh, and the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira) was promoted to ninth after a 36-second time penalty demoted the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) down one position into tenth, after accruing two black and white flags during the race.
The #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy were a quiet sixth, carrying 62 kilograms of ballast including a fuel-flow restrictor – but still, they gain five valuable championship points to maintain their lead in the GT500 Championship standings.
Completing the points-scorers in eighth place was the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 (Yuhi Sekiguchi/Yuji Kunimoto), the twenty-first consecutive points-paying finish for Lexus Team WedsSport Bandoh, and for lead driver Sekiguchi.
After Autopolis, Hirakawa and Cassidy lead the Drivers’ Championship by 4 points over Rossiter on his lonesome, 36 points to 32. Tachikawa and Ishiura are now level with the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) – which retired after a puncture with 3 laps to go – at 30 points, 3rd and 4th in the standings.
Kazuki Nakajima is fifth in the championship, 10 points back of the leaders, but after missing the Fuji 500km, he will not be eligible to win the Drivers’ Championship in 2017. Tsukakoshi and Kogure are the highest-ranked non-Lexus drivers, 18 points back in sixth place, and tied at 18 points with Matsuda and Quintarelli, who are seventh.
After the two-month Spring Break, the Autobacs Super GT Series will return on July 23 at Sportsland SUGO, for the first leg of the traditional three-race Summer Series.