From an overly eventful start to their race to a confident pole-to-win victory, no team had the measure of the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli – which took a landmark victory in the final round of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series at Twin Ring Motegi.
Quintarelli and Matsuda took their first win of the season, setting career milestones for both drivers, and for Nissan, as well as avoiding a winless 2017 campaign for the manufacturer and securing second place in the championship.
They finished ahead of the #37 KeePer TOM’s Lexus LC500 of Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy, who with their second-place finish, secured history of their own as the two drivers at 23 years old became the youngest GT500 Drivers’ Champions in history.
Conditions were chilly and sunny for the final race of the 2017 season – it was the coldest race of the season, and after taking a record pole position in Saturday qualifying, it seemed as if Michelin and NISMO had found the cure to their cold-weather ailments.
However, before the start of the 53-lap, 250 kilometer final race on Sunday, it nearly ended in tears for the front-row starters!
Quintarelli got the start in the Motul GT-R, and countryman Andrea Caldarelli took the start in the #6 Wako’s 4CR LC500 – the front-row starters third and second in the GT500 championship going into the race. As the two cars rounded Victory Corner at the end of the formation lap, Caldarelli ran into the back of Quintarelli, causing rather significant damage to both cars!
The Motul GT-R lost a chunk of its rear diffuser and picked up a nasty tyre rub in the opening lap, but the problem went away, and Quintarelli checked out to a sizeable lead. Caldarelli, however, did not get away so lucky – they suffered front-end damage and struggled to keep the field behind them. By lap three, Nick Cassidy in the KeePer LC500 had overtaken Quintarelli for second place – effectively, the championship-deciding pass – and on lap six, Caldarelli tangled with the #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R of João Paulo de Oliveira, sending them spinning down the order and out of contention.
The Lexus armada also suffered another key blow when the #36 au TOM’s LC500 of James Rossiter lost eleven laps in the garage for a rear suspension failure. Kazuki Nakajima was able to finish out the race after the repairs, but the 36 team would not win the GT500 championship – and Rossiter’s frustration at Motegi compounded once again.
Now it was truly a two-car battle between the Motul GT-R and KeePer LC500 for the championship. The KeePer TOM’s crew tried an undercutting strategy when they pitted on lap 20 – with Cassidy yielding after a confident first stint to Ryo Hirakawa. On lap 23, the Motul GT-R made its stop, and Quintarelli gave the controls to Tsugio Matsuda – with the Motul GT-R emerging ahead after the pit stops.
It had effectively sealed up the victory for NISMO, but running in second, Hirakawa had the championship locked down for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s.
Motegi is home court for Honda, and their supporters were treated to a phenomenal battle for intra-constructor bragging rights as Koudai Tsukakoshi in the #17 Keihin NSX-GT (with Takashi Kogure) and Naoki Yamamoto in the #100 Raybrig NSX (with Takuya Izawa) slugged it out for position over several laps, battling wheel-to-wheel for practically the duration of their closing stints at the wheel.
At the front, Matsuda took a comfortable victory and maintained his leading margin, taking the win for NISMO by 6.2 seconds over Hirakawa and the KeePer TOM’s LC500.
Matsuda and Quintarelli did everything they could have to win the championship on the final day of the season, up to scoring the maximum 21 points over the weekend. But with their second-place finish, Hirakawa and Cassidy clinched the 2017 GT500 Drivers’ Championship for Lexus Team KeePer TOM’s.
Still, it was a cause for celebration at NISMO, as their two drivers made history of their own.
Tsugio Matsuda recorded his 19th career GT500 victory, moving him back ahead of Yuji Tachikawa for sole possession of first place for all-time Super GT premier class victories. His next victory will make him the first driver to record twenty victories.
Describing his weekend, Matsuda said in the post-race press conference: “We got one more season ranking point from yesterday’s pole position, and today we were able to win the race. We actually came here to Motegi aiming to win the championship title, but since car No. 37 finished 2nd today, we fell short of winning the title by just 2 points and ended up 2nd in the ranking.”
“But at the start of the season, the Lexus cars were dominating the top six places and had more than a 1-second/lap advantage over us, so I feel that we were finally able to win for the first time in this final round because the whole team came together and we worked to make progress on the machine-tire package. I want us to keep this flow going and come back next year to re-take the title.”
Ronnie Quintarelli, already a trail-blazer as the series’ only four-time GT500 champion, scored his 13th career victory – which makes him the winningest foreign driver in premier class history, finally breaking a deadlock with former champions Benoît Tréluyer and Ralph Firman for the record. He now trails only Matsuda, Tachikawa, and Satoshi Motoyama for the most victories ever in GT500 competition.
“I was a little worried with that contact at the start of the race, but there was no problem with the balance of the car and I was able to run perfectly from then on,” said Quintarelli.
“I’m glad we were able to win this race but to be honest, I also wanted to win the championship. So it’s a little disappointing that we missed out on it by such a small margin. Still, considering the difficult struggles we had at the beginning of the season, I think it’s amazing that we could come this far. Thank you so much to the fans for their continued support.”
It’s also the 50th GT500 race victory for the red-badged Nissan GT-R/Skyline GT-R, the most of any vehicle model in Super GT history.
In second place, Hirakawa and Cassidy drove a mistake-free final race when they needed it the most. Both drivers 23 years old, they surpass André Lotterer’s mark as the youngest GT500 champions in history. Cassidy also makes history for his native New Zealand as the first Kiwi driver to win a Super GT championship.
For TOM’s, it is their fourth GT500 championship (’97, ’06, ’09), but it is the first time that the number 37 team – seldom run in competition before 2013 – has taken the overall crown. They are also the first team to win the GT500 championship in the same year that they won the opening race, also last achieved by TOM’s in 2009.
The #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 (Yuji Tachikawa/Hiroaki Ishiura) were longshots to win the championship, but they still had a very good day, climbing up from ninth on the grid to finish third – and moving them up to fourth in the GT500 championship at the very end of the season with their third podium of 2017.
In the battle between Keihin and Raybrig, it was the Keihin NSX-GT that took fourth place off the Raybrig NSX-GT at the end of their heated battle for position.
Sixth was the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo), ahead of their Nissan stablemates, the #12 Calsonic Impul GT-R (Hironobu Yasuda/Jann Mardenborough) in seventh. The outgoing GT500 champions, the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate), finished eighth, ahead of a pair of Hondas, the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri/Takashi Kobayashi) in ninth, and the #64 Epson Trume Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) completing the points scorers in tenth.