Catching the first flight out of Tokyo’s Haneda airport was always going to be a tough ask considering how little sleep I usually get, but making my way down to Okayama International circuit in western Honshu to cover the season opener for Super GT 2014 more than got me motivated. 2014 is an important and exciting year for the series as it ushers in a potentially great new slew of changes that can realistically spur this series to greater heights now and in the future years to come…
No sooner had I arrived at the circuit, that I was greeted by long time friend and GT300 Audi Team Hitotsuyama driver, Richard Lyons, who this year is paired up with former Porsche driver, Tomonobu Fujii.
After a brief catch up with Richard and the team, I went out to take in the paddock area, hopeful that I could grab a first hand visual understanding of the new future of Super GT. It was during this initiation of sorts that I found myself at the Kondo Racing camp catching up with 2011 GT1 World Champion, Michael Krumm.
Time was tight by this stage and I wasn’t able to talk to Michael as much as I would have liked to but I did get a good look at his new machine and the much-touted changes which bring the GT500 machines inline with their FIA sanctioned DTM counterparts in Europe – most of the changes visually easy to spot. That said, restrictions on what could (and could not) be shot were fierce and I was not allowed to take, let alone publish, images of the new Kondo GT-R machine’s heavily guarded mechanical idiosyncrasies. It wasn’t just Kondo Racing either. For some reason, all the Super GT500 teams were incredibly guarded and keeping photographers strictly at bay from snapping away at anything of mechanical nature.
The newly developed cars introduced for the season are racing under unified regulations in line with that of the FIA for the DTM series in Europe. These regulations apply not only to minimum weight and exterior measurements but also to the engines which have been downsized to 2.0L turbocharged, inline four cylinder engines from the previous 3.4L V8 – not including new designs for the floor, rear wing, rear diffuser and front splitter. Additionally, the Super GT series has also taken on FIA specification “DTM tyre sizes” but is still keeping the series available to a multitude of tire suppliers, meaning that “tires” will play a major role in this years championship.
Needless to say, these changes will pave the way for joint races and perhaps a new international series of races with teams from DTM in the future. That makes me more than a little excited!
During my rounds of the paddock catching up with friends from many seasons past, I bumped into 2010 Formula Nippon champion JP Oliveira over at the team Impul pit and just had to ask him for his thoughts on a few things regarding the 2014 season…
7tune: What do you think about the changes for Super GT, JP?
JP Oliveira: I think every series needs a change from time to time. Just look at F1! You have to change in order to give a new challenge to drivers and teams.
7tune: How are the new cars driving and feeling?
JP Oliveira: The new cars are awesome to drive. We have more grip compared to last year and we gained on power due to the turbo engine as well, so it’s more challenging to drive. The cars are faster especially on high speed corners, so that’s fun for us drivers!
7tune: With the unification of technical regulations with the FIA, what do you see in the future for Super GT?
JP Oliveira: The (FIA)DTM Joint regulation is a really attractive point for the future. If we manage to bring Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes, Audi and also BMW to race together, it could be a major championship like we’ve never seen before in Japan!
Having thanked JP for his time, I grabbed a quick bite to eat but had barely finished before it was time for the grid walk! The “Gridwalk” is usually split into two categories…the usual hoard of “press” wanting to shoot cars, drivers and personnel and the “fans”; some of whom are more into this …
Due to the overprotective nature of the teams, getting any closer to the GT500 machines on the grid was “difficult” and by this stage, time was of the essence, anyways.
Here’s Lyons and Fujii with Ohkita san, President of Audi Japan.
Audi has taken a big interest in Team Hitotsuyama this year and has made a big push, with Hitotsuyama effectively becoming the first Audi works team in Japan. Throughout the off-season, Hitotsuyama technicians have been learning more about the car after being sent to Germany and hopefully this information can translate to better on-track performance. For 2014, Yokohama have replaced Hankook as the tire of choice on the Audi R8 Ultra – an arguably wiser choice by the team as the R8 was plagued with tire related difficulties in the 2013 season.
The weather in Okayama proved to be a major factor for the season opener. Throughout the whole race, the unpredictability was apparent as teams grappled with which tire compounds and driver orders to run with in the changing and difficult conditions.
Lyons started off his stint strongly after taking over from Fujii, who had, by that stage, dropped back to 22nd having been involved in an altercation with a GT500 car ahead of him early in his stint. Lyons clawed back the positions at the driver change to get inside the GT300 class top ten and finish the race in a solid 8th place; a strong end to what looked like a potentially disappointing afternoon for the team.
Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka in the Good Smile liveried BMW Z4 GT300 car were storming their way through the field but hot on their heels was another Z4 piloted by Jorg Muller and Seiji Ara.
With conditions fluctuating under a shower of hail, the driving became slightly treacherous for all competitors, many of whom grappled with the choice between slicks and rain tires.
A good battle emerged between the number 6 Eneos Sustina Lexus RCF and the number 37 KeePer Toms Lexus RCF, sometimes racing nose to tail down the straights.
Inbetween hunting for good shooting spots and the need to rest my ears, I like to also take in the surrounding attractions at races, especially around the paddocks. Some real beauty’s can be seen.
Interestingly, Liberty Walk also turned up at Okayama with their gorgeous F458 spider, sporting over fenders designed by Kei Miura of Rocket Bunny fame.
But back to where the action was and the eventual winners here at Okayama for the GT300 class turned out to be a bit of a surprise; a straight trifecta for German engineering.
After a brave fightback by Jorg Muller who gradually ate away at Nobu Taniguchi’s lead as the weather worsened.
Z4 and a lucky break for the number 11 Gainer Mercedes SLS after a blown tyre just In time to change driver, a BMW 1-2 and a Mercedes 3rd place
In the GT500 class, the Lexus machines dominated – particularly, the Eneos Sustina #6 with driver Oshima recording fastest lap of the race at a 1`21.997
But after a series of pit stops due to the unstable weather, the Keeper Tom’s Lexus ran out as the eventual winner but most importantly, Lexus had bagged a strong 1-2 finish in very tricky conditions.
3rd place in the Super GT class went to JP Oliveira and Hironobu Yasuda who after his shunt on lap two, recovered strongly and was unlucky not to take second place since the Eneos Lexus was struggling with transmission issues.
All in all, it was an intriguing start to the 2014 Super GT season, Naturally, it is still early days and only time will tell if the Lexus teams will dominate GT500 this year and whether the domestic Japanese manufacturers can overpower the influx of German engineering in GT300 class – a class that provides potentially the closest fought battles we have ever seen in Super GT.
Either way, it’s sure to be a great season!
Words and Photos – Adrian Venner
7Tune – The Ultimate Motorsport Experience Since 2005.
7Tune would like to thank the following organisations and individuals for their time in Okayama…
Team Hitotsuyama: http://www.hitotsuyamaracing.net
Richard Lyons Racing: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Richard-Lyons-Racing/132711516741211 JP
Oliveira and impul racing: http://www.impul.co.jp/race/
Follow Adrian Venner on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/APV-Photography/168147649965042?ref=hl
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