Five takeaways from Super GT's return to Suzuka

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Five takeaways from Super GT's return to Suzuka
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After two races at Fuji Speedway, SUPER GT's trip to Suzuka for the third round of the season turned the established form book on its head. Jamie Klein looks at the main talking points from an action-packed race.

Nissan can still shine on technical tracks

After a bruising start to the 2020 season, it must have come as a massive relief for Nissan and the NISMO team to not only get a first win for the new GT-R at Suzuka but to do so in convincing style, as the manufacturer’s ‘A-team’ of Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda ended a barren streak dating back to the spring Fuji race in 2018.

The Yokohama marque’s struggles with its reworked 2020 contender have been well-documented: a pre-season test at Fuji plagued by technical gremlins relating to the GT-R’s revised engine; an update designed to address the vibration issue that didn’t work as expected; a chronic lack of straight-line speed that made the GT-R vulnerable to its more slippery rivals on Fuji’s massive start/finish straight.

#23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda, Ronnie Quintarelli

#23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda, Ronnie Quintarelli

Photo by: GTA

There was a glimmer of hope when Nissans qualified four and five for the second Fuji race, but come the race the ‘red car’ of Quintarelli and Matsuda went backwards at a rate of knots and finished down in ninth, their Michelin tyres too hard for conditions that were slightly cooler than expected. That did at least ensure that the #23 GT-R went to Suzuka, a track better-suited to the draggy, high-downforce car, with virtually no success ballast.

This time however, Quintarelli was able to full advantage of the strength of the Nissan-Michelin package in the scorching summer heat to set up the win during his stint, pulling off a brilliant pass around the outside of Yuji Tachikawa’s Cerumo Supra at the hairpin in heavy traffic and then making a move on Takuya Izawa’s Nakajima Racing Honda to grab the advantage. For Matsuda, it was simply a case of finishing the job and keeping the second-placed Kunimitsu Honda at arm’s length, which he did with aplomb.

The stop-start layout of Motegi is likely to be a great deal tougher for Nissan, and especially the #23 car of Quintarelli and Matsuda with 44kg of ballast on board. But, after their early-season struggles at Fuji (previously one of their best tracks), it’s fair to say they can’t afford any more zeroes to keep their hopes of a third title as a duo alive.

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Race winners #23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda, Ronnie Quintarelli

Race winners #23 Nismo Nissan GT-R: Tsugio Matsuda, Ronnie Quintarelli

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Poor pitwork costs title contenders dear

Behind the winning Nissan and the Kunimitsu Honda of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino, there were probably half-a-dozen car crews that could have easily taken the final spot on the podium at Suzuka had things gone their way in a rather fraught race that featured three safety car periods and no shortage of less-than-inspired driving.

Once the #38 Cerumo car – seemingly the only car with the out-and-out speed in race trim to rival the #23 Nissan – had been eliminated by a gearbox issue, and the pole-winning #64 Nakajima Honda was demoted from first to seventh practically in one fell swoop, it was the SARD Toyota of Heikki Kovalainen and Yuichi Nakayama that emerged as the car most likely to finish third after the pitstops. Or, at least before Nakayama was rear-ended by an over-exuberant Nirei Fukuzumi in the ARTA Honda at the hairpin.

#8 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri Honda NSX-GT: Tomoki Nojiri, Nirei Fukuzumi

#8 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri Honda NSX-GT: Tomoki Nojiri, Nirei Fukuzumi

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

That cleared the way for the #36 TOM’S car of Sacha Fenestraz and Yuhi Sekiguchi to claim third and extended their points lead even further, despite carrying a 60kg weight handicap. But besides being gifted two spots in the incident between the SARD Toyota and ARTA Honda, they won big during the pitstop phase. Indeed, Fenestraz had been eighth before coming into the pits but with a swift turnaround by the TOM’S mechanics Sekiguchi emerged fifth, jumping the #14 Cerumo Toyota and two Hondas in the process.

Conversely, the #37 car of Nick Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa suffered a stop that was around seven seconds slower than that of the sister car, consigning them to seventh and ending an amazing run of eight consecutive top-four finishes for the 2017 champions, who now trail Fenestraz and Sekiguchi by eight points heading to Motegi.

Also left to rue slow stops were Cerumo pair Kazuya Oshima and Sho Tsuboi, who had looked good to maintain their 100 percent podium record but ended up a distant ninth, and Fuji winners Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi, who finished seventh. SUPER GT titles tend to be won or lost on the days that the strongest cars are carrying the most weight, and based on what we saw in Suzuka, the #36 crew is starting to look like a solid bet.

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#36 Team Tom's Toyota GR Supra: Yuhi Sekiguchi, Sacha Fenestraz

#36 Team Tom's Toyota GR Supra: Yuhi Sekiguchi, Sacha Fenestraz

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Honda can recover from qualifying badly

While Honda’s new front-engined NSX-GT dominated the second round of the season at Fuji, as Real Racing pair Baguette and Tsukakoshi converted second on the grid into victory, the fact that Team Kunimitsu car of Yamamoto and Makino was unable to make any real progress from seventh on the grid despite Makino’s demonstration of the #100 Honda’s one-lap prowess leading up to the race was cause for concern.

At Suzuka, qualifying did not go according to plan for any of the Bridgestone-shod Hondas, the best of which was the #17 Real Racing car that qualified seventh in the hands of a dissatisfied Baguette. One place behind that was the Team Kunimitsu machine, while the ARTA Honda shared by Fukuzumi and Tomoki Nojiri was coming all the way back from 14th as Fukuzumi struggled with what he described as a bad set-up.

#100 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX Concept GT: Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino

#100 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX Concept GT: Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Both Makino and Fukuzumi were pessimistic about their chances of making up ground in the race. And yet, despite Suzuka being a much tougher track at which to pass than Fuji, all three Hondas made good progress in their first stints, with the #100 and #8 cars (carrying 22kg and 8kg of ballast respectively) vaulting up the order and into podium contention. A different tyre choice prevented the #17 car, burdened with an additional 40kg after Baguette and Tsukakoshi’s Fuji win, from making the same incisive progress.

Post-race, Makino explained that a “big change” on car set-up made a world of difference to he and Yamamoto’s prospects, enabling them to rescue a strong-second finish from an unpromising situation – a far cry from their struggles with tyre pick-up and running in dirty air that ruined their Fuji chances. And while the #23 Nissan was too quick on this occasion, it underlined the #100 crew’s status as the strongest non-Toyota title challengers.

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Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino on the podium (#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT)

Naoki Yamamoto, Tadasuke Makino on the podium (#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT)

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The GT500 tyre war is alive and well

Given the recent dominance of Bridgestone in GT500, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a four-way tyre war raging in SUPER GT’s top division. Indeed, before Sunday, you had to go back to Quintarelli and Matsuda’s 2018 Fuji win to find the last dry race that was not won by one of the nine Bridgestone-equipped cars in the field.

And yet in qualifying at Suzuka, it was Dunlop - winless since 2017 and without a pole since 2012 - that was the class of the field, as the combination of the heat and the track's downforce demands gave the Nakajima Racing Honda of Takuya Izawa and Hiroki Otsu a rare chance to shine that they used to the maximum. With the Michelin-shod #23 Nissan lining up second on the grid and the Mugen Honda, which uses Yokohamas, starting fifth, it meant all four tyre manufacturers had cars starting the race inside the top five.

#16 Team Mugen Honda NSX-GT: Hideki Mutoh, Ukyo Sasahara

#16 Team Mugen Honda NSX-GT: Hideki Mutoh, Ukyo Sasahara

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

What won the day for Michelin in the end was the French tyre’s warm-up, a point where Makino conceded the Bridgestone was simply not as strong. That meant at the safety car restart, in particular the third and final one of the day, Matsuda was able to pull away easily and leave Yamamoto, in charge of the #100 Honda for the second stint, behind.

The Yokohama contingent suffered another miserable outing, coming away with just a single point for the Bandoh Toyota as the Mugen Honda and Kondo Nissan both hit trouble. But Dunlop had reason to be cheerful as Izawa and Otsu, despite falling as low as seventh in the first stint, brought home the #64 car home in a solid fourth place for their first points of 2020. No doubt they will be hoping for more searing heat at Motegi.

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#64 Nakajima Racing Honda NSX Concept GT: Takuya Izawa, Hiroki Otsu

#64 Nakajima Racing Honda NSX Concept GT: Takuya Izawa, Hiroki Otsu

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The GT3s aren't going down without a fight in GT300

After a couple of seasons of domination by FIA GT3 cars, SUPER GT’s GT300 class has witnessed a much tighter battle so far in 2020 between the three rulesets of car. In the first race of the year at Fuji, it was Saitama Toyopet’s brand-new Toyota GR Supra, built to the JAF’s GT300 rules, that prevailed, while three weeks later it was the turn of the Mother Chassis cars to prevail, as the Cars Tokai Dream28 Lotus Evora MC came out on top.

At Suzuka, the FIA GT3 cars got their revenge as the #11 Gainer Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda prevailed. Indeed, it should have been a podium lockout for the GT3 contingent, but the collision between the ARTA Honda NSX of Toshiki Oyu and the Kondo Racing Nissan of Joao Paulo de Oliveira gave the heavily-ballasted Lotus the chance to sneak onto the podium in third place behind the UpGarage Honda.

#56 Kondo Racing Nissan GT-R: Kiyoto Fujinami, Joao Paulo de Oliveira

#56 Kondo Racing Nissan GT-R: Kiyoto Fujinami, Joao Paulo de Oliveira

Photo by: GTA

De Oliveira - who ended up down in ninth at the finish after being hit by the second Gainer Nissan on the final lap - said that while the lighter MC and JAF GT300 cars have an advantage in qualifying, he feels the GT3s are stronger in race trim, partly because they are less sensitive to success ballast rules that saddle cars with 3kg of extra weight for every point they earn. And that theory was certainly borne out at Suzuka in both qualifying and the race.

With three rounds down, the top three in the GT300 standings are occupied by three different types of car, with the #11 Nissan (GT3) now leading the Lotus (MC) and the Supra (JAF GT300). For all the controversy surrounding the decision to (temporarily) force teams to change all four tyres at their pitstops, it seems the rulemakers are doing a pretty good job of ensuring that any type of car is capable of winning this year, which is how it should be.

#11 GAINER TANAX GT-R

#11 GAINER TANAX GT-R

Photo by: GTA

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About this article

Series Super GT
Event Suzuka
Author Jamie Klein