With a championship on the line, the Nissan Motorsports team delivered a stunning lap in time trials when it mattered the most.
The #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli will start on pole position in GT500 for tomorrow’s final race of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series, the Motegi GT Grand Final at Twin Ring Motegi – and with their record-setting pole position at the 4.8 kilometer road course, gain a crucial bonus point towards their bid for NISMO’s third GT500 championship in a four-year span.
Track temperatures were a major story going into this weekend. After a chilly opening practice session in the morning, the sun came out, bringing temperatures up to 17°C/22°C air and track in time for the two-stage knockout qualifying session.
After weeks of concerns about the pace of the Michelin tyres in cold conditions, the two sole Michelin-clad cars took a 1-2 finish in Q1, led by the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R of Katsumasa Chiyo, and the #23 Motul GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda in second place.
Four of the five GT500 championship contenders advanced out of Q1 – leaving out only the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Hiroaki Ishiura, who missed advancing to Q2 by just 0.014 seconds – he and Yuji Tachikawa will start the race in ninth.
Andrea Caldarelli also narrowly advanced into the session, by less than a tenth of a second, he finished seventh in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 to give his co-driver Kazuya Oshima a chance at pole position. Kazuki Nakajima in the #36 au TOM’s LC500, and Nick Cassidy in the championship-leading #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500, advanced to Q2 in third and fifth respectively.
After double pole positions in last year’s double-header round at Motegi, the outgoing GT500 champions, Heikki Kovalainen and Kohei Hirate, will have to settle for 11th on the grid for tomorrow’s race after Kovalainen missed the cut in Q1.
Three Lexus LC500s, three Nissan GT-Rs, and two of the Honda NSX-GTs advanced into Q2 – a much more even spread than at the start of the season.
From their near miss experience in Q1, Oshima set the provisional pole time with a 1:37.207 in the Wako’s LC500. Ryo Hirakawa slotted in just behind, with a 1:37.366 in the KeePer LC500.
But on his final qualifying lap, Ronnie Quintarelli saved his best for last in the Motul GT-R, setting the fastest first, second, third, and eventually, fourth sectors en route to taking pole position with a new track record of 1:36.316, obliterating the field by nearly a full second – and resetting the GT500 lap record at Motegi by a tenth of a second.
It had been a long time coming for the flagship NISMO team, who hadn’t won a pole position in GT500 since Quintarelli qualified on top in the 2015 Suzuka 1000km. But the four-time GT500 champion’s flying lap – his ninth career pole position, the most among foreign-born drivers – was a massive effort, given the stakes at play.
“It turned out to be a great day for us,” said Quintarelli. “Until we got here, the team and we drivers had been thinking hard about how to make the car faster a get in the best condition possible for this race.
“In Q1, I was a bit worried when Tsugio (Matsuda) made his trial one lap late, but when I saw his sector times on that lap, I felt confident (about our machine’s potential). In Q2, I was sure that I could get pole if I ran well. In tomorrow’s race, I won’t be thinking about the title (because of the point gap), our priority is to win the race.”
That brings the points tally for Matsuda and Quintarelli to 62 points, meaning that they now trail Hirakawa & Cassidy by just seven points, and trail Oshima & Caldarelli by just a single point. NISMO can win the GT500 championship with at least a fourth place finish, depending on the results of their championship rivals around them. (If they finished as they qualified, NISMO would win the championship by two points over Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s.)
It would be a record ninth GT500 championship for NISMO, a record-extending fifth GT500 drivers’ championship for Quintarelli, and a third for Matsuda – putting him in elite company as one of only six three-time premier class champions in history.
The Wako’s 4CR of Oshima and Caldarelli will start second, it is their second front-row start of the season – and gives Lexus Team Wako’s LeMans a great chance at their first GT500 championship in 15 years. They finished second in last year’s season finale at Motegi, behind the eventual champions at Lexus Team SARD.
It is still the KeePer TOM’s LC500 of Hirakawa and Cassidy that holds the keys to the GT500 championship on Sunday. They start third for tomorrow’s race, needing to win or finish second to win the championship, regardless of the results of their rivals.
Satoshi Motoyama followed up Chiyo’s Q1 efforts by qualifying fourth in the S Road GT-R, a great effort for both the Michelin-clad GT-Rs – and a great Q2 effort for Motoyama as he completes his 21st season in GT500.
The third row will feature one-half of the double-header winners from last year, the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/João Paulo de Oliveira), alongside the best of the Hondas, the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto/Takuya Izawa), which starts sixth and will attempt to take a win for Honda at their second home race.
James Rossiter finished seventh in Q2, putting the #36 au TOM’s LC500 on the fourth row, next to the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (Koudai Tsukakoshi/Takashi Kogure) in eighth.