With the right combination of determined driving, a little luck, and the right tyres for the conditions on the road, the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Björn Wirdheim was able to dig deep, and come back from starting 17th on the grid in Sunday’s Sugo GT 300km Race at Sportsland SUGO to win the GT300 class.
The GT300 race was one that saw a number of incidents in predominantly wet conditions, and the chaos of three Safety Car interventions during the race helped create a surprise runner-up in the #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 of Akihiro Tsuzuki and Morio Nitta, who finished second ahead of the GT300 Championship leaders, the #25 VivaC Toyota 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui & Kenta Yamashita.
An all-Mother Chassis front row led the 28-car field to the green, with a wet track requiring rain tyres for the start of the race. Reigning All-Japan F3 champion Yamashita quickly took to putting some distance between himself and the rest of the field, including the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 (Yuhki Nakayama/Shintaro Kawabata) that started second.
But quickly, the treachery of the technical 3.7 kilometer bullring bit with venom. The first Safety Car came out shortly after Nattavude Charoensukhawatana’s big hit at the exit of 110R on Lap 5. The #35 Arto 86 MC 101 lost most of its front end, but the 53-year-old Thai fighter was able to drive away safely to the garage to retire the garage.
Immediately after the safety car withdrew at the end of Lap 10, the Upgarage 86 was knocked out of contention after a clumsy incident involving the other Bandoh-owned car, the #19 WedsSport Advan LC500 from the GT500 class. But the wet conditions were a benefit to the cars on Bridgestone Potenza and Dunlop Direzza tyres.
One such machine was the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG of Haruki Kurosawa, which went on a tear after the first restart. Within a few laps, he had passed Yamashita for the lead, and soon took the #51 JMS P.MU LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 of Yuichi Nakayama with him to make it a Bridgestone 1-2 at the front of the field.
The #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Shinichi Takagi, carrying a live onboard camera for the race, was also making a spirited charge from 21st on the grid up to 4th by the time the second Safety Car came out on Lap 36.
At the end of the second Safety Car, several cars immediately dived down into the pits. One of them was the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG, which had climbed up as high as eighth thanks to a strong first leg from the former International F3000 champion Wirdheim. The VivaC 86 also followed suit, with Takamitsu Matsui taking over, as did the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG, started by Tatsuya Kataoka and being taken over by Nobuteru Taniguchi.
Up front, the LEON Cvstos AMG tried to re-open its lead margin, and the ARTA BMW was charging up through the field. Having made it up to third, Takagi tried to pass Nakayama’s Lexus for 2nd – but the two clashed under braking at Turn 1 on Lap 46, pitching the ARTA BMW into a spin and inflicting terminal suspension damage. At the same time, Hiroshi Takamori in the #48 Shokumou.jp GT-R crashed at 110R, bringing out the third Safety Car just two laps after the withdrawal of the second.
The LEON AMG, JMS RC F, and the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi) were all running in the top 3, but yet to make their pit stops – their fates were sealed. Behind them, an unlikely team was set to inherit the lead once those top three had pitted: The #50 INGING & Arnage Ferrari, which had climbed up from 16th to 4th by the time the Safety Car was deployed – this despite a spin just a handful of laps earlier, the only blemish on a solid first stint from the three-time GT300 champion Nitta to put his gentleman co-driver Tsuzuki in the virtual lead of the race.
Hiranaka would quickly dispatch of Tsuzuki, and the leaders in front of them pitted to give the Gainer AMG the lead of the race. Behind them, Matsui and Taniguchi slugged it out for third place, and despite the best defensive efforts of the two-time GT300 champion Taniguchi, the reigning champion and pole winner Matsui was able to pass the Hatsune Miku AMG on Lap 64 – though Taniguchi would maintain pressure on the VivaC 86 ahead of him.
A sudden downpour on the final lap meant that Hiranaka would have to crawl home to the finish, but he had enough time in hand to gingerly take the chequered flag, completing the comeback drive and winning a wild and wet thriller at Sugo.
“Today, the start was very difficult, but it turned out to be the best conditions for the Dunlop tires,” Wirdheim said after the race. “For the first ten laps after the start the traffic was really tough, so I had to run very carefully at the high pace I was going and I managed to get up to 6th position.”
“After that, the track conditions changed and I lost some ground, but the performance of the Dunlop tires in the early stages of the race and the and the fact that we executed a strategy of doing our pit stop as soon as the Safety Car ended up leading to the best result. I am very happy to get this first win in some time.”
Hiranaka said, “Björn ran very well in the first stint and quickly got us into the top ten. And then the team did a great job with the pit work. These were the big reasons for our win today. Also, we were helped by the Safety Car, which was lucky.”
“It has really been some time since we felt we had a chance to win and were able to run with assurance, and for that reason, there was a feeling of some pressure too. So, I am really relieved that we won.”
It’s Gainer’s first win as a team since the 2015 Suzuka 1000km with the Nissan GT-R of André Couto, Katsumasa Chiyo and Ryuichiro Tomita – but it’s the first for the #11 crew of Hiranaka and Wirdheim since the 2014 Motegi GT 250km Race, two and a half seasons ago.
And just 7.2 seconds adrift, Tsuzuki brought the #50 Ferrari home to an improbable second-place finish for an independent pro-am team that, just a few months ago, had to rebuild their tattered car after a frightening crash at Okayama, and were forced to miss the Fuji 500km as a result.
It’s the best Super GT result for Ferrari since 2011, the best finish for Arnage Racing since 2013 – when they were an Aston Martin customer – as well as a career-best finish for Tsuzuki. For Nitta, GT300’s winningest driver, it’s his first podium since leaving apr Racing at the end of 2014.
The battle for third place went to the wire, and despite one last volley from Taniguchi, Matsui was able to edge the VivaC 86 ahead of the Miku AMG by 0.199 seconds for the final podium place. Taniguchi, in turn, was able to edge out the #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F (Akira Iida/Hiroki Yoshimoto) by 0.174 seconds for fourth.
A fifth place effort for Iida and Yoshimoto, their best finish since LM Corsa switched to the Lexus RC F GT3, was sufficient to earn the team and their mechanics the ZF Award for Round 4, for their cumulative efforts over the last two and a half seasons.
The #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Rintaro Kubo) recovered from a spin during the race to finish a season-best sixth place, ahead of the LEON AMG of Kurosawa and Naoya Gamou, the unlucky losers out of the flurry of Safety Cars.
The JMS RC F of Nakayama and Sho Tsuboi finished eighth on the road, but Nakayama was assessed a 47-second time penalty for overtaking under a safety car – demoting them to thirteenth. Moving up to eighth was the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi), in ninth was the #61 Subaru BRZ, and completing the points-scorers in tenth was the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 (Jono Lester/Kyosuke Mineo).
Matsui & Yamashita, now with 41 points, extended their lead in the championship to six points over Hiranaka & Wirdheim, who draw level with Taniguchi & Kataoka at 35 points – but edge ahead of the GSR duo with their second-place finish at Fuji. Nakayama and Tsuboi slide to fourth in the standings, 13 points back of the leaders, and Kurosawa & Gamou are one point back of them in fifth.
A much different challenge awaits the teams at Fuji International Speedway in two weeks’ time, where the #55 ARTA crew have won the last two years running at the 300km race in August.