SUPER GT's annual 'Golden Week' (Spring Break) event at the eponymous circuit 100kms west of Tokyo is always a huge crowd-puller, and is one of the most important events of the season for drivers, teams and fans alike. In the shadow of the great volcano.
This year, the race was at the start of the five-day holiday, and as the weekend wore on, the number of fans really started to increase. Total attendee figures over the two days was 79,600 – with 53,000 of them on race day alone. Not bad for a nationally-based series!
One of the first things I noticed on Saturday morning was this tribute to veteran driver Yuji Tachikawa, celebrating his 100th event in the JGTC/SUPER GT. Yuji is one of the quickest drivers in the series, and is a former GT500 champion (in 2005, alongside current CERUMO team boss Toranosuke Takagi). He's also one of the most popular drivers on the grid.
Spot entries are always a feature of this blue riband event, and this year the #25 ZENT Porsche RSR was the one catching everyone's eye. With the driver duo who campaigned the Aston Martin DBR9 in the same race in 2009, Takeshi Tsuchiya and Akihiro Tsuzuki were out to impress. Nearly taking pole certainly did the trick, and they would start the 400km on the front row of the grid.
Another of the spot entries for this event was this 2nd car from Team Taisan, featuring a pair of experienced GT300 drivers – Yuya Sakamoto and former Legacy B4 pilot Shogo Mitsuyama.
This isn't a spot entry, but a re-livery of the #31 Toyota Corolla AXIO of Koki Saga and Kouske Matsuura. The new colouring is influenced by the manga (comic book) Evangeloin. Talk about getting dressed in the dark!
Another convincing qualifying for the #33 Hankook Porsche with pole position yet again in the 24-car class. The race itself would not be so auspicious.
Winners the last time out (Okayama four weeks ago), the #18 Honda HSV-010GT of Loic Duval and Takashi Kogure was saddled with an enormous 40kgs' success ballast for this round, and duly fell down the order in qualifying at this, the highest-speed track in Japan thanks to that 0.9 mile (1.45km) straight.
The other of the pair of Corolla AXIO entries fared impressively well in qualifying, netting third. The following day would be a memorable one…
Back in GT500, the NISSAN camp had a weekend they probably won't be talking about at parties. Here, the #24 GT-R of Joao Paolo de Oliveira and Hironobu Yasuda qualified eighth, finishing the race in the same position after a dogged fight.
…while the #23 NISMO entry, in which Benoit Treluyer put in a scintillating drive to grab fourth on the grid, had to start from the pitlane two laps into the event. To add insult to injury, the engine to let go during teammate Satoshi Motoyama's middle stint. In terms of the title hunt, this was a crucial weekend for the team, and if they don't win in Sepang next month those championship dreams will surely be dashed.
One spot behind the #24 KONDO RACING GT-R in qualifying was the #12 CALSONIC IMPUL GT-R, which scored the best result for NIssan in the race with sixth.
Hugely impressive over the course of the entire weekend was the Aston Martin Vantage GT2, the car taking fourth in qualifying and then netting the first podium ever in Japan for an Aston Martin – ever. Brilliant!
The race got underway in blazing hot sunshine on a blindingly bright day – must've been all that snow reflecting off of Mt. Fuji, which looms over the circuit. As usual, Ralph Firman in the bright orange Honda HAV-010GT made an insanely good start, rocketing past a pair of Lexxi (that's plural of Lexus, right?!) into third by the first corner. That guy's success rate at Fuji is worth a post in itself – amazing.
In GT300, it was no less exciting as the two dozen cars in the class jostled for position behind the pair of leading Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs. It would be only a handful of laps before the Aston Martin Vantage GT2 of Hiroki Yoshimoto was leading…
Hey, I thought D1 was next week… Taku Bamba overcooks it into Turn 1 – but in fairness to the former TOM'S driver, he had the GOOD SMILE RACING 996 in a stratospheric position until that point – battling for 5th in class is something that car has never even dreamed about. He's actually fighting with the car that took pole… (And we're only seven laps into the 88-lap race).
Reigning GT300 champs the WedsSports IS350 qualified in a subdued ninth, but made it all count in the race by rising to fourth.
Less fortunate was the Firman/Ide ARTA HSV-010GT, losing lots of bodywork after contact with a GT300 machine in the later stages. The car was summoned back to the pits for repairs – but once back out on track, things seemed to unravel fairly rapidly…
In stark contrast, the #35 TEAM KRAFT Lexus SC430 of Hiroaki Ishiura/Kazuya Oshima dominated the weekend, taking a lights-to-flag victory after also dominating qualifying the dat before. This team was also victorious in this event in 2006 with drivers Peter Dumbreck and Naoki Hattori at the wheel – proving that Dunlop rubber can win in SUPER GT.
GT300 was a fraught affair fight up to the chequered flag, the battle between the #43 Garaiya (pictured above) and the #31 Corolla AXIO eventually going Toyota's way.
In fact, it was a Toyota whitewash, the make taking the first four positions in GT500 and the also win in GT300. Roll on Sepang!