Welcome to the admittedly way-too-far-behind-schedule third installment of Super GT World’s 2017 Driver Rankings series. This post will be about the third round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, the Super GT in Kyushu 300km, held on May 21 at Autopolis circuit. Previous installments of our 2017 Driver Rankings series can be read here: Okayama | Fuji 500km
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 on August 27, 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 this round was fine, dry, and sunny as it had been all weekend. At the start of the race on Sunday afternoon, air temperature was 22°C, and the track temperature was 31°C. There was very little variance in air or track temperature throughout the race, only rising to 24°C air temperature, 33°C track temperature by the end of the race.
There was a 24-minute Safety Car intervention from lap 6 to lap 14, caused by a multi-car collision involving the #8 ARTA NSX-GT, the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86, and the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT.
And now, for some observations from these rankings.
You’re probably going to notice a pattern with the GT500 side of this set of data: This race was extremely skewed towards the drivers who started the race for their respective teams – by that I mean, the starting drivers had better conditions for which to set their ten fastest race laps. This was the case for 12 of the 14 teams who got both their drivers on the page.
The early Safety Car provided not one but two chances for drivers to set laps with no interference from dense GT300 traffic on a technical, winding circuit. On average, the drivers who did the opening stint averaged about a second faster than their co-drivers.
With two exceptions. The first was João Paulo de Oliveira in the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R, who did twice as many laps as Daiki Sasaki on his closing stint.
The second was one of the absolute star performers of the race, Koudai Tsukakoshi, in the #17 Keihin NSX-GT. We knew going into this race that the 15 kilogram weight reduction for the Hondas was going to make them very, very formidable – but apart from the #36 au TOM’s LC500 and the #1 Denso LC500, the Keihin NSX of Tsukakoshi was the fastest car of the closing laps of the race by nearly half a second over the rest of the field.
This pass on lap 33 around the inside of both Ryo Hirakawa and Daisuke Nakajima was one that helped Koudai Tsukakoshi push Keihin Real Racing up from a pit lane start, to 13th when he took the wheel for the start of his 42-lap stint. When second place was on the line, Tsukakoshi was catching the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Takuya Izawa by over a second a lap.
Pretty amazing stuff from a driver who I, personally, felt was Honda’s number one driver in their GT500 roster for the balance of an otherwise lackluster year. One day, he’ll drive that Keihin NSX to another win in this series – if he keeps driving like this every round.
Over to the GT300 side of things, starting with commendations for the top two rookies from the same team. Okay, yes, they did have zero ballast to work with, but both Natsu Sakaguchi (4th overall) and Kiyoto Fujinami (12th overall) have been outstanding in their first year with Team Mach – in this case, bringing the team their first Drivers’ Championship points-scoring finish since 2010.
The additional support from Tsuchiya Engineering on the technical side of things helps, of course it does – but adding two genuinely talented young drivers (and in the case of Sakaguchi, a driver seen as something of a “reclamation project” after two years out of racing) is what’s really taken this team from perennial backmarkers, to being back where they were in the mid-late 2000s: A solid privateer worthy of the Mach 5 livery they carry on their car.
As expected, the high altitudes of Autopolis had the potential to be a benefit for the turbocharged cars in GT300. In particular, both BMW M6 GT3s, which finished 3rd and 4th, with Shinichi Takagi (3rd overall) and Jörg Müller (9th overall) leading the charge for ARTA and Studie respectively. Give a little shoutout to rookie Sean Walkinshaw (20th overall) as well for holding onto third place as long as possible, with a heavy car and a partial set of worn Bridgestone tyres.
If the latest round of BoP changes were supposed to put the Mercedes-AMG GT3s down a peg, it didn’t really do a good job of it. With 35 kilograms of additional weight, the Silver Arrows could have struggled in this race. Instead, the likes of Tatsuya Kataoka, Katsuyuki Hiranaka, and Nobuteru Taniguchi put the AMGs right at the sharp end of the field – with both the Gainer Tanax and GSR Hatsune Miku AMGs running right on the lead lap before the former suffered a wheel failure.
At the front of GT300, it came down to the #25 VivaC 86, and the #61 Subaru BRZ, and just 0.091 seconds at the line on the final lap to decide the closest GT300 finish in history.
That’s twice the margin of the difference between the top GT300 driver average of Kenta Yamashita, and the second-best of Hideki Yamauchi, in the VivaC 86 and Subaru BRZ respectively. Yamashita could have easily checked out, but over the first 29 laps of the race, Yamauchi was able to keep up and put all the pressure on the reigning Japanese F3 champion.
On the other hand, Takamitsu Matsui (6th overall) had the best closing stint and averaged about 0.3 seconds a lap quicker than Takuto Iguchi (11th overall) when they took over their respective cars. On paper, Matsui should have checked out – but a fuel pick-up issue for the VivaC 86 nearly gave Subaru the opportunity to steal the win right from under Team Tsuchiya at the death.
Back to GT500. The top three Lexus LC500s in the field were fuel-flow, and thus, horsepower restricted – still, averages in the low 1:38 range for Andrea Caldarelli, Yuji Tachikawa and Nick Cassidy are more than respectable – and so too is the closing stint average from Ryo Hirakawa, just 0.3 seconds slower than Cassidy in a race where the closers weren’t going to be as fast.
We can only look back and wonder how good the finish of the GT500 race could have been if not for the collision between Kazuki Nakajima and Kohei Hirate, whose top ten averages were separated by just 0.044 seconds before they clashed with 15 to go. That stays consistent with just how hard their co-drivers, James Rossiter and Heikki Kovalainen, were racing each other in the opening leg of the race.
Lexus Team au TOM’s may feel themselves a bit fortunate, Lexus Team SARD may feel done wrong.
That said, if not for the safety car, if not for a slow pit stop on lap 34, the Raybrig NSX-GT might have dominated this race from pole position. That’s all down to how ridiculous Naoki Yamamoto‘s opening stint was.
No other driver in the GT500 field did a lap in the 1:35 range, Yamamoto did two. In succession, he turned in three laps that were all quicker than anyone else’s during the entire race, just before the safety car came out. At the rate he was driving, Yamamoto was averaging 1.2 to 1.8 seconds a lap faster than his closest adversary, Satoshi Motoyama (2nd overall).
It would be kind of unrealistic to expect Yamamoto to have that big a margin over the field every lap, but if he were to average 1.5 seconds a lap faster than the field over his 33 lap stint, without the interruption from a safety car, he would have had a 50-second lead in hand by the time it was time for Takuya Izawa to take the wheel of the car.
So Team Kunimitsu could have felt a little bit shorted out of a victory in the end – but at the very least, with they and Real Racing on the podium in Autopolis, there is still signs of optimism from Honda and from the Honda faithful. That next win will come this year, make no mistake.
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