Lexus Team SARD defeats MOLA in Sugo thriller

Sportsland SUGO has been established as one of the favourite venues on the Autobacs Super GT Series calendar thanks to countless memorable finishes and thrilling moments – and this Sunday, the circuit staged yet another classic.

In a battle that went down to the final corners of the final lap, the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD Lexus LC500 of Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate got the upper hand on the #46 S Road Craftsports Nissan GT-R of Satoshi Motoyama and Katsumasa Chiyo, with Hirate and Motoyama clashing wheels with two corners to go on the very last lap of a race that saw weather, attrition, and Safety Cars play major factors in the outcome of the race.

There was also a change at the top of the GT500 championship standings, as the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 of Kazuya Oshima and Andrea Caldarelli finished third – putting them atop the standings ahead of their Lexus title rivals.

The race began with a damp track as showers persistently hit the 3.7 kilometer circuit in Murata Prefecture. Certain teams were willing to roll the dice and start the race on slick tyres, including last year’s winning car, the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R, as well as the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R, the #19 WedsSport Advan GT-R, and the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500.

But the gamble backfired, with the likes of Jann Mardenborough in the Calsonic GT-R struggling so badly for traction that they found themselves being overtaken on by several GT300 cars. They would get no reprieve as the Safety Car was deployed on Lap 6 for a crash involving the GT300 #35 Arto 86 MC 101, and with the pits closed under Safety Car conditions, the four teams who started on slicks would need to wait several more laps to get off their ill-suited slicks.

The start of the race briefly saw an all-Honda NSX-GT top five, but that was quickly squashed when the rear engine cover blew right off the back of the #17 Keihin NSX-GT while they were running fourth in line – forcing Koudai Tsukakoshi & Takashi Kogure out of the running.

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© Honda

The #8 ARTA NSX-GT of Tomoki Nojiri led the race from pole position, but it was Naoki Yamamoto in the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT that quickly asserted himself as the fastest man in the rainy conditions, taking the lead on lap 2. After the restart, Yamamoto quickly went to work in rebuilding his lead advantage, just as he did at the start of the race in Autopolis. Nojiri spun on Lap 16 at Horseback Corner, but quickly got going again.

In the wet conditions, Bertrand Baguette in the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT brought the Dunlop-clad machine roaring into life in second place. Meanwhile, as the track began to dry slowly, the Michelin-clad #23 Motul Autech GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli began to chip its way through the field.

At Lap 36, the pit window opened up for the GT500 front runners, and the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh/Daisuke Nakajima) was first to act. That would prove critical on Lap 40, when the safety car was deployed once again when João Paulo de Oliveira in the Forum Engineering GT-R slid off at the 110R corner and crashed into the sponge barriers. Oliveira was uninjured, but there would be no Sugo repeat for he, Daiki Sasaki, and Kondo Racing.

When the race restarted on Lap 47, the top nine teams had yet to pit, which could have put the Mugen NSX-GT in prime position to lead. The #6 Wako’s LC500, the #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa/Nick Cassidy), and the #8 ARTA NSX-GT all dived into the pits following the Honda NSX Safety Car.

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© Toyota

Meanwhile, both Heikki Kovalainen in the Denso LC500, who restarted the race in fifth, and Katsumasa Chiyo, who restarted in eighth in the S Road GT-R, waited one more lap to pit for fuel, tyres, and a driver change. That would prove crucial, when the Safety Car came out once again on Lap 49 for two simultaneous GT300 incidents.

The Raybrig NSX-GT, Epson NSX-GT, Motul GT-R, and the #36 au TOM’s LC500 were all stranded as the last cars left to pit – no team suffering more than Team Kunimitsu, who would lose a lap when pitting for a change of drivers to Takuya Izawa.

There was some initial confusion when Kazuya Oshima in the Wako’s LC500 was picked up as the first car in line behind them, but the leaders were now the Denso LC500 of Kohei Hirate, and the S Road GT-R of Satoshi Motoyama. Hirate began to pull away from Motoyama, the track drying out to sufficiently allow for running on dry tyres, and the traffic playing into the hands of the defending GT500 champion, who hammered out fast lap after fast lap.

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© Nissan

But as the laps began to tick down, the Michelin tyres on the silver and black S Road GT-R began to come into their own, and Motoyama began catching Hirate, slowly, then gradually faster. With 15 laps to go, the lead was as high as 6.9 seconds. Five laps later, the deficit was cleaved in half, and with five laps to go, Motoyama was now within a second of Hirate. The battle was on between the two multiple GT500 champions.

On the final lap, Motoyama was in the slipstream, and tried to make his move in turns 1 & 2 only for Hirate to slam the door shut. Then, the heavens opened at the west side of the circuit, and a sudden shower caused the Denso LC500 to slide off at the SP corners. Motoyama, in turn, also slid off course, but the two clashed, sliding through the penultimate SP-Out corner with wheels and fenders locked.

The S Road GT-R got the worst of the impact, and Hirate in the Denso LC500 was able to gingerly drive home to take the first win of the season for the defending GT500 champions, Lexus Team SARD.

It’s the fourth consecutive win of the season for the Lexus LC500, matching the record set by Nissan last season for the most consecutive GT500 race wins to open a Super GT season. Dating back to 2016, it’s Lexus’ fifth win in a row in the premier class – one fewer than the all-time record set by Honda in 1998-99.

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© Toyota

Kovalainen said after the race: “At the start, it was neither completely dry not completely wet, which made for very difficult conditions. I chose to start with a harder wet tire, and that turned out to be the best choice. This season our car had been delivering high performance from the beginning, and today the tire choice and the timing of the Safety Car interventions turned out best for us.”

“Actually I was only hoping for a podium finish, so getting the win is a great result.” It’s Kovalainen’s second career GT500 victory, having scored his first at the 2016 season finale at Twin Ring Motegi.

“After the start, we didn’t know what the weather would do,” said Hirate, whose seventh career victory moves him level with former GT500 champion Masami Kageyama. “So I didn’t know what tires to choose, and when I think about it, SUGO tends to have more than its share of difficult races like this. Today we chose to start with harder wet tires and that turned out to be a great choice.”

“And because of the timing of the Safety Car breaks, we managed to finish our pit stop at the best possible time. After leaving the pit it was a one-on-one battle with car No. 46. While paying attention to tire management, I was able to keep the lead at the end. I’m glad that I was able to win here at SUGO, because this is a place that I consider my second home.”

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© GT Association

The signature moment of the post-race ceremonies came at parc ferme, when Hirate and Motoyama, at the end of a heated battle for the victory, shook hands and embraced – two former champions in a classy show of respect in front of a crowd of 26,000 spectators on race day.

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© Nissan

Finishing second by 1.022 seconds, Motoyama and Chiyo scored Nissan’s first podium finish of the 2017 season, in their first race with the new engine update.

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© Toyota

In the battle for third place, Kazuya Oshima in the Wako’s LC500 was able to hold off a hard-charging Tsugio Matsuda in the Motul GT-R for third place by just 0.306 seconds, in a photo finish that happened just behind the two leaders.

By rounding off the podium to take their third podium finish of the season, Oshima & Caldarelli now lead the GT500 Championship standings with 41 points, despite having not won a race this season. They’re now four points ahead of Hirakawa & Cassidy in the KeePer TOM’s LC500 with 37 points to match their number, five points ahead of James Rossiter in the #36 au TOM’s LC500, and six points ahead of the biggest movers in the championship battle – Kovalainen and Hirate, now up to fourth in the standings.

Takashi Kobayashi was in podium contention late on, but ultimately would settle for fifth place as the ARTA NSX-GT was the highest-finishing Honda on a day that could have been much better. Still, four Hondas in the points wasn’t a bad result, with the Motul Mugen NSX-GT finishing sixth, the Epson NSX-GT of Baguette and Kosuke Matsuura in eighth, and the Raybrig NSX-GT of Yamamoto & Izawa relegated down to ninth after losing out in the Safety Car chaos.

Kazuki Nakajima & James Rossiter finished sixth in the au TOM’s LC500, and Hirakawa & Cassidy went on to finish tenth in the KeePer TOM’s LC500 to complete the points-scorers.

If it was your first Super GT race, you were treated to one of the best races in any corner of the globe this season. And if you’re a diehard fan of Super GT, you can revel in the fact that you saw yet another classic mid-summer battle at Sportsland Sugo. It was nothing less than proper, and properly entertaining motor racing.

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