I found myself relaxing in an onsen up in the hills just outside Nagoya after a long few hours of shinkansen and bus travel, allowing myself a little luxury to soak and think about what was about to unfold on race day; Rossiter and Nakajima on pole with the title coming down to the wire, ever tightening…
The 2014 season is really at the tail end of proceedings with only Suzuka, a fly away to Thailand and Motegi left to run. Suzuka, especially, being crucial because there were bonus points on offer here. The 6 hour, 1000 kilometre enduro was absolutely vital for every participating team and driver pairing.
In the GT500 class, it was truly “game on” at Suzuka with a tight, three way battle. The Nismo (Quintarelli) Vs Keeper (Caldarelli) Vs Impul (Oliveira) trio at the top of the table has only nine points separating these top three teams and that makes for a fascinating climax to the season. That combined with the fact the rest of the chasing pack are within mathematical striking distance.
With Honda have finally found their stride and in resurgent form with the Keihin and Weider teams taking podium positions in the last races, there was pride on the line in Honda’s backyard and Suzuka was also shaping up to be a race that would definitely set the mood for the run to Thailand and then the climax at Motegi for the final round.
On the Sunday, as with most Super GT races, the drivers paid homage to the fans who travel from far and wide to see the spectacle and get close to the action. I believe SuperGT is as popular as it is because of its accessibility with drivers and the celebrity team owners and managers doing their best to meet, greet and communicate with their fans. Perhaps a couple of lessons for other racing series across the globe?
Much to my chagrin, rain was yet again forecast for the race but I was positively relieved to arrive at the circuit and find overcast conditions with a warm breeze blowing; the blue sky poking through where it could. I made haste to the grid to see how the competitors were shaping up… How was I supposed to know how long I was going to be able to stay dry with 7 hours to go!
On pole was James Rossiter, Kazuki Nakajima and the Tom’s Lexus RC-F, the second time in three races. Rossiter and Nakajima have been fast in this car over the past three races and the team’s latest pole position was of no real surprise today. Obviously in a good mood, James throws me a knowing wink before he is swamped by the media. I wished him luck and made my way further down the grid.
Behind the Tom’s Lexus came the Honda of Team Keihin with Ronnie Quintarelli in his Nissan to make up the top three starters.
Over in the GT300 class, the grid was looking decidedly Japanese heavy with the top five on the grid being Japanese makers; a first this season as German manufacturers have mostly dominated over their Japanese counterparts.
The parade lap kicks off but not as you would expect because much to everyones surprise, it’s led by the police in a Subaru WRX and Toyota Crown with the GT-R pace car in tow and a couple of other cars that look suspiciously more modified than stock!
The lights go out and it’s the #36 Lexus leading the field into turn one.
Almost immediately, there was some drama on the first lap as Kogure in the #100 Raybrig NSX got into a tangle with the Zent Cerumo Lexus of Hirate and span out at the Dunlop curves. This was a major blow as it put the team on the back foot early on. After being stranded for what seemed like an eternity, Kogure managed to get moving again on lap 5, making his way back to the pits for repairs but rejoined well out of contention.
The first half an hour was action packed and with the fans already entertained, Rossiter then proceeded to put in not one but three consecutive fastest laps. Tsukakoshi in the #17 Keihin NSX though, was never far behind and after the storming Rossiter hit the back of the GT300 pack, the Honda invariably made ground. This all culminated in a heart stopping moment on lap 11 where Rossiter steamed up behind an oblivious Arta CRZ at the entry to the fearsome 130R. Somehow, despite flashing his high beams toward the approach, Kobayashi didn’t see the fast approaching Lexus and forced Rossiter to take evasive action, thereby handing the lead to Tsukakoshi at the exit of the chicane.
Unfortunately some time around the 15th lap, multiple series veteran (GT and Open wheel) champ Satoshi Motoyama in the S-Road GTR started to essentially conk out and lose speed to eventually retire and more worryingly for the second time this season had an engine fire……
Meanwhile, in GT300 the fast starting tag team Honda boys were off to a good start with the Prius (Ed. It still amazes me that a Prius can be this fast..) in hot pursuit but the TWS Corsa Z4 was surging up through the pack right behind. The fight in this class was tight all the way through the field.
The Project Arta CRZ was not planning to be caught though and pumped out a 19 second lead over the rest of the pack in the next hour of the race.
At this stage in GT500, the Keihin NSX had well and truly taken the lead from the #36 Lexus with everyone keenly anticipating their pit strategies. The question on everyone’s lips regarded how many stops each of the teams would opt for, given that while 5 stops was the target, a single extra stop was a further 1 to 2 laps in the pits sitting idle.
The GT300 class had taken a turn as the chase for the podium was now developing into a two horse race, and looked set to remain that way, between the TWS Z4 and the Arta CRZ.
Pit-stops were now playing a vital part and the running order in GT500 was changing hands rapidly amongst retirements, tire blow-outs and penalties. Amongst those retirements in the race unfortunately, were long time 7tune friends, the Audi R8 trio of Lyons, Fujii and Hasse, who were sidelined by a broken gearbox.
With the race now well over 100 laps in distance covered, the GT500 pairing of Rossiter and Nakajima had re-established and opened up a decent lead, eventually going on to take the coveted trifecta of achievements; pole to win with fastest lap thrown in for good measure! Filling the 2nd and 3rd places on the podium were Quintarelli and Matsuda in the Motul Nissan along with Yamamoto and Makowiecki in the Weider NSX.
In GT300, the runaway pair of the Arta CRZ and TWS Z4 staged a great battle but the Arta CRZ heartbreakingly retired after a 130 lap battle with the Z4 leaving the BMW out in front where it carried on to take its first victory in the teams debut season. Making up the other steps on the podium for the GT300 podium were the Panasonic Prius and Studie BMW Z4.
The outcome of all this action leaves the GT500 championship tight at the top with Quintarelli sitting pretty but Caldarelli and JP Oliveira are hot on his heels with at least two other teams having an outside shot should these three lose the plot in the two remaining races! In GT300 it’s also super close with Taniguchi and Kataoka’s Good Smile Z4 and the heavily handicapped Wirdheim SLS Mercedes (+100kg’s of ballast!) battling it out for who will be champ this season.
Next up though is Thailand; a first for Super GT and all it’s teams and competitors. Let’s hope the Buriram International Circuit is ready in time!
If so, it’s sure to be a spectacle for spectators and a lottery for those within firing distance of the 2014 title in both classes.
Words and Photos – Adrian Venner
Editing – Adam Zillin
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