It’s been nearly two whole years since the last time Honda won in the premier GT500 class of the Autobacs Super GT Series, but after locking out the top three places and four of the top five in qualifying for the Sugo GT 300km Race on Saturday afternoon, things are looking good for the fleet of Honda NSX-GTs.
That fleet was led by the #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri and Takashi Kobayashi, who led both phases of knockout qualifying, and went on to capture the team’s second pole position of 2017, the second straight for Honda and their third overall this season.
Q1 was delayed ever so slightly by a red flag in the first part of GT300 qualifying, and after the customary layover period, each team got a chance to set a flying lap as the time ticked down in the first stage.
Kobayashi, who won pole position for ARTA back at the 2017 season opener at Okayama, led the way in Q1 with a best lap of 1:11.579, with Yuhi Sekiguchi in the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 second by just 0.018 seconds.
With the entire field covered by just over a second in Q1, there were bound to be some disappointed teams – none more so than in the Nissan camp, who saw three of their four GT-Rs bounced out after Q1 despite bringing their first engine update this weekend. The #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Jann Mardenborough) was the first to miss the cut – by only 0.038 seconds.
But the shockers were the Michelin-clad #23 Motul Autech GT-R (Ronnie Quintarelli) and the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Katsumasa Chiyo) who qualified 14th and 15th, at the back of the GT500 grid.
The championship-leading #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Nick Cassidy) did all it could with a Stage 2 fuel flow restrictor and 38 additional kilos of ballast, qualifying in 11th ahead of title rivals, the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Hiroaki Ishiura) in 12th and the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (James Rossiter) in 13th, also fuel-flow restricted.
With four cars in Q2 and on a green track washed clean by light rain before qualifying, the Honda NSX-GTs would set out to take pole position.
With only one lap to do it, Nojiri went fastest in all four sectors, and shot straight to the top of the leaderboard with a 1:10.915 – a much quicker lap than was expected with the reduced downforce of the 2017 spec GT500 cars, getting to within four-tenths of the current lap record. It was a good enough lap to take ARTA’s second pole of 2017, by nearly half a second over the field.
“I’m relieved to have gotten pole position,” Nojiri said in the post-qualifying press conference. “We had been in good condition from the official tests and our sponsors had been looking forward to a good performance from us, but I had been feeing a bit of unexpected pressure as a result.”
“In the end, although this is still just the qualifying, it is the job of the drivers to turn those expectations into solid results. I was confident that I had the concentration necessary to put in one very fast lap, but must admit honestly that I am still relieved that I was actually able to get pole position.”
This is Nojiri’s first career Super GT pole position – at a track where he scored an unlikely first-year race win in Super Formula three years ago. ARTA’s last GT500 race win came at Sugo in a chaotic race in 2013 – a double victory for the team in both GT500 and GT300.
On the front row for the 2nd straight race is the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT of Naoki Yamamoto & Takuya Izawa, who won Honda’s last GT500 race nearly 22 months ago. They qualified 2nd after a quick lap from Yamamoto.
Koudai Tsukakoshi qualified third in the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (with Takashi Kogure), and the Yokohama-clad #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT of Hideki Mutoh (with Daisuke Nakajima) finished Q2 in fifth place.
The best of the Lexus fleet was the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500, which was qualified in fourth by Yuji Kunimoto in Q2 – they were also the best team on Yokohama Advan rubber.
The #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate) recovered from their Saturday practice crash by qualifying seventh, ahead of last year’s pole-winning car, the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 (Kazuya Oshima/Andrea Caldarelli) in eighth on the grid after going fastest in that same practice session. The sole GT-R to advance into Q2, last year’s race-winning #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira) finished ahead of them in sixth place.
Rain is in the forecast for Sunday’s 81 lap race however – which could give some of the teams who were unlucky in Q1 a chance to storm through the field and take the victory tomorrow. At any rate, it will be an eventful race, and after their results in qualifying, Honda have given their supporters something to be hopeful for at the end of a long and frustrating run of form over the last two seasons.