Not even 82 additional kilograms of Success Ballast weight was going to stop young dynamo Kenta Yamashita from taking defending GT300 champions VivaC Team Tsuchiya to pole position in the biggest race of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series.
Despite the ballast penalty, Yamashita took his very first Super GT pole position for the 46th International Suzuka 1000km with a new course record, which will put him and his co-drivers Takamitsu Matsui and Tsubasa Kondo right at the front of the field for tomorrow’s final running of the Suzuka 1000km.
They lead a lockout of the top three places of the grid by the Toyota 86 MC by Dome, with the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 of Yuhki Nakayama & Shintaro Kawabata qualifying second.
In contrast to the wet start to practice, by Saturday afternoon, the conditions were perfect for time trials – and a chance to set new track records in both GT500 and GT300 classes.
The Mother Chassis cars had taken pole position every year since their introduction in 2015, and in Q1, that run for three in a row got off to a great start as rookie Kiyoto Fujinami put the #5 Mach Syaken MC86 GTNET on top with a best time of 1:58.680. Fujinami and three-time GT300 winner Hiroki Yoshimoto in the #60 Syntium LM Corsa Lexus RC F GT3 were the only drivers to go under the 1 minute, 59 second barrier in Q1.
One of the cars that was looking poised for a run for pole was the #2 Syntium Apple Lotus Evora MC, driven by third driver Hiroshi Hamaguchi in Q1. As Hamaguchi was on his fastest lap, trying to get back into the Top 14, he spun off at Spoon Curve, ending any hope of lead driver Hiroki Katoh making a run at pole in Q2.
Other teams who were unlucky to miss out in Q1 were the #31 Toyota Prius apr GT (Koki Saga/Rintaro Kubo), which finished just outside the top 14 by 0.021 seconds. Mitsunori Takaboshi also missed the cut in the #3 B-Max NDDP Nissan GT-R, with three-time GT300 winner Kazuki Hoshino. They were 15th and 16th respectively, ahead of the Lotus of Hamaguchi in 17th.
The two most recent winners, the #11 Gainer Tanax Mercedes-AMG GT3 (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) and the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 (Shinichi Takagi/Sean Walkinshaw), finished 19th and 23rd respectively, a disappointing Q1 for both championship contenders.
Crucially, the 14th and final transfer spot went to reigning GT300 Drivers’ Champion Takamitsu Matsui in the VivaC 86, setting up an intriguing Q2.
There was very little idea who would take pole position in Q2. At first, it seemed like the defending winners, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi), would have the upper hand. Then the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 of defending Suzuka pole winner Yuhki Nakayama went to the top spot, but only briefly.
After setting the fastest first two sectors, Yamashita put in an absolute belter of a lap – a new record time of 1:57.543 – to take the top spot in Q2 and put it well out of reach from the rest of the field. And given their weight handicap, it was even more impressive of a performance from the 22-year-old Toyota young driver protegé.
“I am very happy to have won pole position,” said Yamashita, who credited the team’s excellent run to their director and chief engineer, Takeshi Tsuchiya. “The machine’s balance wasn’t good when we first started running this morning, but by the start of the qualifying Takeshi-san made corrections to make it easier to drive.”
“We were carrying 82 kg of handicap weight but the feeling of the car was so wonderful that you almost couldn’t notice the extra weight. Having gotten not only the pole position but also the course record, I am very pleased.”
It is Yamashita’s first career pole as a Super GT driver, coming just one week after Yamashita took his first pole in the Super Formula Championship at Twin Ring Motegi. It’s the third pole of the year for the VivaC 86, after Matsui captured pole at Autopolis and Sportsland SUGO, and the third consecutive pole for a Mother Chassis vehicle at the Suzuka 1000km.
Nakayama went on to finish second with a time of 1 minute, 48 seconds even, giving the Upgarage Bandoh 86 its second straight front-row start at this event. Natsu Sakaguchi qualified the Mach Syaken MC86 in third place in Q2, tying the best start of the season for Team Mach, and the driver trio of Sakaguchi, Fujinami, and team director Tetsuji Tamanaka in his final race as a driver.
Qualifying an impressive fourth place, despite carrying the maximum 100 kilograms of Success Ballast, was the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka. Taniguchi got out of Q1 with an eighth-place effort, and Kataoka went on to finish fourth in Q2 – crediting his performance to lessons learned in the Spa 24 Hours. The Miku AMG was the highest-ranked FIA GT3 car on the grid.
It’s an all-Lexus third row, with the #51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi) qualifying in fifth, and the #60 Syntium RC F of Akira Iida & Yoshimoto in sixth.
The last two cars to win the GT300 class at the Suzuka 1000km will line up next to each other on row four: The 2015 winning car, #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-R (Ryuichiro Tomita/Hiroki Yoshida) in seventh, and the defending winners, the #61 Subaru BRZ of Yamauchi & Iguchi in eighth. After that, it’s an all-German GT3 row five, with the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa/Naoya Gamou) in ninth, and the #33 D’station Porsche (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller) completing the top ten.
An all-Italian sixth row of the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Manabu Orido/Kazuki Hiramine/Koji Yamanishi) and the #50 INGING & Arnage Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 (Akihiro Tsuzuki/Morio Nitta) follows, and the seventh row is made up of the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Masataka Yanagida) and the #30 Toyota Prius apr GT (Hiroaki Nagai/Kota Sasaki), which does not have its hybrid powertrain installed this weekend.
Only once in the last five years has the polesitter in GT300 gone on to win the race, but with a trio of young champion drivers, and an expertly-prepared vehicle, VivaC Team Tsuchiya will be gunning for the win on Sunday afternoon.