The second half of the SUPER GT season kicked off in fine style at Sportsland SUGO last weekend, and despite the brutal weather conditions (intense humidity and temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius (100 F)), a bumper crowd of over 38,500 race fans from around northeastern Japan came to witness the action on what was the first weekend of the summer holidays here.
Aston Martin flexing its muscles at the S Curve – so brilliant to have the marque in the series.
There were a number of familiar faces back on the grid in this, the first domestic GT event in nearly three months. Among them the R&D Sport-run Subaru Legacy, which showed promise throughout the weekend with a markedly faster car than the one they had at Fuji in May.
Winners last time out in GT300, the Re Amemiya RX-7 was another to preform strongly throughout the race weekend. Team boss Isamu Amemiya also confirmed that the squad will be retiring the car at the end of the season, and vowed they'd be going 'all-out' for wins in the remaining races.
For the #23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R from NISMO, their win here last year set them in good stead, though with the car now on Michelin rubber, would weather conditions play a deciding factor in their success this time around?
Back too is the second entry from Team Taisan, looking wicked in Saturday morning's practice session with these jetblack rims.
And the Hondas – how would the hilly track play out with the debuting machines….
– or particularly the cars with very little handicap weight?
The Weds Sports IS350 would end up having a weekend to forget when they failed to finish
While the points-leaders would continue with their ultra-steady form, keeping their place at the top of the tables.
A new car for the Goodsmile Racing crew (moving from a 996 to 997-type GT3R) saw a marked leap in performance – and practically got them a points-finish.
The ZENT Porsche RSR from Samurai team TSUCHIYA was again the best of the Porsche entries, really impressing in the race with its position and pace.
The lead Taisan car, at a circuit the team are very familiar with.
Hoping the luck that's befallen the 365 ThunderAsia Racing squad in the first half of the season is a thing of the past, SUPER GT's newest team came to SUGO with high hopes.
Qualifying was a walk in the park for the #23 NISMO GT-R, time attacker Benoit Treluyer nailing it when it counted most and taking pole position. The #23 machine had topped the timesheets in every single session thus far. Prospects looked good for the race.
Honda entries performed excellently in qualifying, three examples finishing in the top five, and four machines that made it to Super Lap (top eight). Only the #17 KEIHIN car from Real Racing was outside the group, tenth on the grid. An foreboding qualy result for the car making its debut at the circuit.
In GT300, a superb performance by Hiroki Katoh meant his 11th career pole position in the series.
And more from the EVANGILION Corolla AXIO – the Saga/Matsuura pair once again showing serious pace to take 2nd on the grid in the class.
And so to race day. As the 14:00 start time approached, the clouds overhead had completely blocked out the sun, which, during the morning had been blazing down. There was a small chance of rain forecast for the middle of the race.
Only 12 GT500 machines blasted down the main straight for the rolling start….
Because the #38 ZENT SC 430 had to start from the pitlane after being taken out by the #27 Ferrari in the morning warm-up session. Heavy contact meant that the Ferrari was unable to start the race. Judging by the amount of damage to the Lexus, it's a miracle they got it repaired in time to take the start at all!
In GT300, the #31 Corolla AXIO gave chase to the leading #2 Shiden, the pair of cars pulling out a healthy gap in the first few laps of the 22-car field.
But the dominance shown by the #23 GT-R was incredible. Within a handful of laps the car was 10 seconds away from its nearest pursuer, showing that the Michelins were enjoying the weather and track conditions (Michelin tyres scored pole in GT500 last year also, but in the wet conditions that ensued in the race, the French rubber wasn't able to match the Bridgestones).
Even the tail end of the GT300 pack is mightily impressive with entries from Aston Martin, Mosler, Lamborghini and Porsche.
My vote for most impressive upturn in performance and pace surely goes to the #62 Legacy B4 of Tetsuya Yamano and Kouta Sasaki (seen driving here in the opening stint). The car started a giant-killing 11th and by lap 10 was up to 6th place. The Subaru topped out at 4th, but a spin later on and subsequent trouble knocked them down the order. They eventually finished 13th and 3 laps back – but the potential of this car is undeniable!
A big vote of appreciation to the Goodsmile Racing guys too as they completed the race distance at a much improved pace over their previous mount, and finished tantalizingly close to a points-finish.
SUGO is compact, hilly and quite picturesque – and the main straight isn't nearly as steep as it looks head-on, though the run up the hill to the Dunlop Bridge definitely is.
To give you an idea of the size of things at SUGO, here's the control tower.
Despite the narrowness of the track, there was plenty of three-wide action.
The two Dunlop-shod cars in GT500 had a major battle for position at one point, the Nakajima Racing car getting quite scrappy in its attempts to pass the DENSO SARD SC 430 – leaving both cars with flat front tyres as a result.
Major kudos to the Hasemi Sport pairing of Kazuki Hoshino and Masataka Yanagida who, after starting 12th, made it to the 2nd step of the podium.
But they were a full lap behind the winners in GT300, the #2 Shiden of Hiroki Katoh and Hiroshi Hamaguchi. Rookie Hamaguchi actually set his fastest laps at the end!
Top drive from Ralph Firman saw the fifth-placed car move up early on, only to spin while battling the 3rd-placed Lexus. After falling to the back of the GT500 pack, he came back to 4th place within his stint. The car's chances were scuttled when teammate Yuji Ide spun at the pit lane exit. Later trouble with the bonnet also delayed the car and it eventually finished 4 laps down in a disappointing twelfth.
All eyes were focused on the #17 HSV-010 of Kodai Tsukakoshi in the second half of the race, the young hotshoe making serious inroads right from the early stages of his stint. He did net some good fortune later on, but this was to be his day.
Inheriting the lead with just 8 laps remaining in the 81-lap event was the strongest of the Hondas thus far this season, the #18 Weider car.
The reason: The guys who had led all afternoon in the #23 GT-R lost the position after suffering a freak accident when an errant piece of rubber from a car ahead bounced up and hit the GT-R's kill switch (located in an exposed area at the base of the windshield – as required by safety), bringing the machine to a halt. Driver Satoshi Motoyama was able to get going again after about a minute, but by that time the car had dropped to sixth.
Race action over the final five laps was intense as the #17 KEIHIN HSV repeatedly hounded the #18 machine of Takashi Kogure. Talk about the young lion taking on the old guard! What ensued was the closest finish in JGTC/SUPER GT history – a mere 25 thousandths of a second after over 1 hour and 50 minutes of racing. Tsukakoshi got ahead literally as the cars crossed the line. The place went wild!
Honda's, ahem, Japan's latest major player on the domestic scene has definitely arrived!
– Len Clarke