The #51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa Lexus RC F GT3 of Yuichi Nakayama and Sho Tsuboi took a defining victory in Sunday’s seventh and penultimate round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, the Chang Super GT Race at Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand.
The young Toyota drivers’ victory from second on the grid moves them into second in the GT300 championship standings, behind the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Nobuteru Taniguchi & Tatsuya Kataoka, which finished a strong second and regained the championship lead with just one race remaining.
Qualifying on Saturday saw a surprise atop the order, as the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS of Richard Lyons and Masataka Yanagida took pole position.
It was the first ever for Audi in Super GT competition. It was also Yanagida’s first GT300 class pole since 2010, and one that gave the team quite a lift of confidence at the back end of a woeful season thus far for Audi Sport’s two customer teams.
The race began on Sunday, just minutes after a sudden downpour left the track completely wet for the start of the race. While most of the reduced 24-car GT300 grid opted to start the race on wet tyres, a small handful took the gamble of starting on slicks, knowing that the track would soon dry on a 33°C afternoon in Thailand.
Lyons took the start in the Hitotsuyama R8, leading Nakayama in the JMS RC F in second, and then a battle for third between championship contenders Kataoka in the Miku AMG, Shinichi Takagi in the #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3, and Hideki Yamauchi in the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport. In just ten laps, the track had dried out as expected, and those who started the race on the wet tyres were losing several seconds per lap – they had to come in as early as possible, but not so early as to require a second pit stop later in the race.
The JMS LM Corsa crew timed their stop just right, bringing Nakayama in after just 18 laps to let rookie Tsuboi drive the rest of the way home, as well as taking on fuel and a set of slick Bridgestone tyres. Within two laps, the Hitotsuyama R8, Miku AMG, and ARTA BMW had also made their stops.
So too did the #65 LEON Cvstos AMG of Haruki Kurosawa, which led the GT300 Drivers’ Championship going into today’s race. But they had a long, poorly-executed stop due to an issue with the right rear tyre, which cost them several seconds. Things would only go from bad to worse, when co-driver Naoya Gamou was forced to serve a drivethrough penalty for a pit work violation from the team. He would bring the car home out of the points in 13th.
Similarly, the #11 Gainer Tanax AMG (Katsuyuki Hiranaka/Björn Wirdheim) would be knocked out of contention for the win after an air jack failure on their stop at lap 21, and an engine failure on lap 24 for the #61 Subaru BRZ ended their hopes of winning the 2017 championship – all before Takuto Iguchi could even drive a single lap of the race.
Meanwhile, those teams which had taken the gamble to start the race on slick tyres stayed out for as long as possible, trying to regain the ground lost after a dreadful start to the race. Leading that pack was Sven Müller in the #33 D’station Porsche, who started 17th, but stayed out in the lead until finally pitting at the end of lap 40 to let Tomonobu Fujii drive the final laps. Hiroki Yoshimoto in the #60 Syntium LM Corsa RC F GT3, which started the race from 21st on the grid, stayed out just one lap longer before turning the car over to Akira Iida.
When the entire field had finally come in for their stops, Tsuboi inherited the lead of the race by 10 seconds over a hard-charging Taniguchi.
There was more heartache to come, when the pole-winning #21 Hitotsuyama R8 was forced to retire after 45 laps due to simultaneous electrical and engine failures, only furthering the struggles for Audi in 2017.
Meanwhile, an entertaining battle was kicking off for third in class, with Tomonobu Fujii in the D’station Porsche leading Sean Walkinshaw in the ARTA BMW, to be joined by Ryuichiro Tomita in the #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-R (with Hiroki Yoshida). Newcomer Walkinshaw tried for several laps to get past the veteran Fujii, even trying a desperation pass at the final corner with 9 laps to go. It opened the door for Tomita, but with just two laps to go, the Gainer GT-R was forced to retire within sight of a top-five finish.
Tsuboi, meanwhile, drove a confident 43 laps at the front of the field – just under the maximum two-thirds’ distance allowed for a single driver – en route to the JMS LM Corsa crew’s second win of the season, making them the first repeat winners of 2017.
“Today we were able to start from the front row, and because of the rain that fell just before the start, we decided to start the race with the same wet-use tires we had used in the qualifying,” said Nakayama after the race.
“The track dried out faster than it had in the qualifying, so we changed drivers to Tsuboi after the minimum number of laps required. After that, I was just watching the race from the pit, but I was able to watch with assurance. I want to thank Tsuboi for the great job of driving he did for us.”
“As soon as we got out on the starting grid, rain began to fall, and though we couldn’t really know what would happen after that, it turned out that the track quickly began to dry after the start, which made things difficult,” said Tsuboi.
“The timing of our pit stop was very good, and as I went out on the track I was having to race against rivals that I couldn’t see. I was careful not to put too much wear on the tires and push hard when I could. When I saw the sign saying that there were 25 laps left, that felt very long to me, but I am glad that in the end I was able to get the win for us.”
It is Nakayama’s fifth career GT300 race win, and the second for Tsuboi – which matches Nakayama’s two wins in his 2015 rookie campaign. It’s the second victory for the Lexus RC F GT3, after taking its maiden Super GT victory in the Fuji 500km, as well as the third win for LM Corsa.
Taniguchi put on a good effort to try and close the gap to Tsuboi, ultimately bringing the Miku AMG home in second place by 5.121 seconds. It’s Goodsmile Racing’s fifth top-5 finish of the year, and their third podium finish – more than sufficient to take back the lead in the GT300 points tables.
And in the battle for third, Fujii held off Walkinshaw by just 0.210 seconds at the line to take the final podium position for D’station Racing, their second podium of the season. With their call to start the race on slicks and moving up 14 places on the grid to finish third, D’station Racing were given the ZF Award for Round 7 of the championship. Fourth place for the ARTA BMW crew was a bit of a disappointment, though it still leaves them mathematically eligible for the title.
Coming home a solid fifth place was the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Manabu Orido/Kazuki Hiramine), ahead of the #60 Syntium RC F of Iida & Yoshimoto which completed a strong comeback of their own to finish sixth. The best of the JAF-GT & Mother Chassis cars was the #18 Upgarage Bandoh 86 (Yuhki Nakayama/Shintaro Kawabata) in seventh, their best finish of the season thus far. The #11 Gainer AMG of Hiranaka & Wirdheim recovered to finish eighth after their pit mishaps, but it wasn’t enough to prevent them from being eliminated from title contention.
Completing the points-scorers was the #3 B-Max NDDP Nissan GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi), another slick-starter in ninth, followed by the #7 Studie BMW M6 (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara) in tenth.
Defending Buriram winners and GT300 champions VivaC Team Tsuchiya will not repeat as champions in 2017, after a tough weekend where the #25 VivaC 86 MC of Takamitsu Matsui & Kenta Yamashita qualified 19th, took the gamble to start on slicks and stop for fuel only late in the race, only to finish a lap down and out of the points in 15th.
That leaves only the top four teams in contention for the GT300 championship at the Motegi GT Grand Final on November 11-12. Taniguchi & Kataoka have 65 points, leading Nakayama & Tsuboi by nine points. Kurosawa & Gamou are now thirteen points out of the lead, and Takagi & Walkinshaw trail by nineteen points.