Kohei Hirate held off a late charge by Sastoshi Motoyama in the S-Road MOLA Nissan to take victory in an incomprehensibly eventful and slightly bizarre contest at Sugo. The Gainer Mercedes of Bjorn Wirdheim and Katsuyuki Hiranaka won in GT300. Ultimately, both winners ended up near the front not due to pace, but simply being lucky with safety cars.
The start of the race was held in damp conditions, leading to a tyre dilemma for each team. Most decided to use wet tyres, which turned out to be the correct decision. In GT500 there were a few exceptions as the WedsSport car, the two non-Michelin Nissans and the Zent Cerumo Lexus all took on slick tyres. These cars ended up as the four last finishers.
The start of the race quickly turned into a Honda cup. Naoki Yamamoto beat Tomoki Nojiri off the start to take the lead, but he struggled to keep his tyre temperatures high and a five way Honda battle for the lead ensued. This number was reduced to four when Takashi Kogure’s engine cover disintegrated, just as he was challenging for the lead.
Meanwhile, Kenta Yamashita was having no trouble at the front of GT300, pulling away into the distance. He was followed by Yukhi Nakayama and a hard charging Kazuki Hoshino, who was holding up a train of 4 cars. All this good work was undone though when a safety car was called for debris spewed all around 110R. It had come from the Thai Toyota 86, but it is unclear how this occurred.
From the restart not just Yamashita but also Yamamoto had to try and pull away again. Neither of them found this particularly difficult, and in reality the GT500 restart was uneventful. The GT300 restart was more interesting though. Hoshino used the straight line speed of his Nissan to slipstream alongside Yukhi Nakayama in his Toyota 86. Nakayama defended on the inside and broke so late he almost divebombed Yamashita. Hoshino swept round the outside only to find two GT500 cars still on slick tires in front of him. Hoshino swerved out of the way, hitting Nakayama who spun into the struggling WedsSport Lexus which Hoshino was trying to avoid. That was the end of a promising race for the UpGarage 86. The picture below depicts the incident fairly well.
The lead battle started to deteriorate and when Nojiri was slightly overzealous in the dampening conditions he spun. Yamamoto eventually got his tyres up to temperature and streaked off into the distance. Seemingly the opposite happened to Hideki Mutoh in the Mugen Honda, and eventually Bertrand Baguette passed Mutoh. this meant the Epson NSX, the perennial GT500 backmarker in Super GT, was now in second! I did say this race was bizarre.
The conditions eventually became a torrential downpour and this benefited a few certain cars. Haruki Kurosawa’s Mercedes and its Dunlop tyres seemed ideal for the wet conditions. Rubber on the racing line meant the outside line tended to be grippy, so Kurosawa practically went into beast mode and started spectacularly flying around the outside of competitors at 110R. He toiled through the field for 20 laps and eventually led the race by 20 seconds having restarted in 9th.
Heikki Kovalainen seemed to enjoy the wet conditions. He passed a struggling Mutoh and set his eyes on Baguette in the Epson car. He was matching the pace of Yamamoto, who was now out of sight, ten seconds up the road. Yamashita didn’t have such luck with his car. He was struggling massively and had fallen down to 6th place. Kurosawa was in another postcode, 19 seconds ahead of Yuichi Nakayama’s Lexus.
The race was flipped on its head though when the Forum Engineering Nissan, now being driver by Joao Paolo Oliveira slid into the barriers at 110R, bringing out the safety car. At this point the track was just about ready for dry tires. It was the perfect time to make a pit stop. It was too perfect. Sugo has a very small pitlane and if the race director had have opened the pit lane 40 cars would have pitted. Last time this happened in 2015, there was an enourmous, chaotic traffic jam. So the race directors kept the pits closed. A few of the Lexi pitted straight after the safety car, and then four more cars pitted the lap after. These four cars emerged as the two leaders in GT500 and GT300 respectively.
This was because seconds after entering the pitlane the safety car came out. So these four cars had a pitstop while the rest of the field was travelling slowly. They didn’t lose time while warming up their tires either. After the safety car, the DENSO Lexus now in the hands of Hirate led from Motoyama. The pair had to work their way through lapped traffic, and Motoyama inevitably tried various opportunistic moves, to no avail. Incidentally, the dominant Raybrig car was now in 8th.
Akihiro Tsuzuki led GT300 in his Ferrari, which had pitted at the right time, but he made a small mistake, allowing Hiranaka to inherit the lead. This order didn’t change. With Hirate now pulling away from Motoyama in clear air, it looked as if there was no battling left in this race. In classic Super GT style, this was exactly what did not happen.
Instead Motoyama’s Michelin tyres entered their ideal operating window and Hirate started to struggle. The six second lead gap evaporated and with three laps left we had a lead battle on our hands all over again. It is worth pointing out at this point that the Mola Nissan had started the race in last. Coming onto the final lap, Motoyama got a good exit out of 110R. He elected to try and cut back on Hirate through turn 1, and into turn 2 the cars were side by side. Hirate managed to drive around the outside and kept the lead.
With no traffic it looked as if Motoyama had used his last chance. But at the third to last corner the rain was coming down again. Hirate overestimated the amount of grip and slid into the gravel. Motoyama made the same mistake to a slightly lesser extent, but he still found himself up the inside of Hirate. The two touched, pushing Hirate practically sideways. Motoyama actually ended up inadvertently pushing Hirate back into a forwards facing position, and Hirate took victory.
The aftermath showed an interesting contrast to other racing series. If something along these lines had happened in NASCAR, the two drivers probably would have got out and fought each other. In F1, fans of the respective drivers would argue for ages. In Super GT, on the other hand, there was a sporting embrace between Hirate and Motoyama. Ultimately, it was entirely a racing incident so there should not have been controversy.
By the way, if that race was still too boring for you, right at the end we saw a bit of sibling rivalry as Kazuki and Daisuke Nakajima had a battle for sixth place. Daisuke managed to hold off his older brother.
The Wako’s Lexus now leads the championship in GT500, and the VivaC 86 retains its GT300 lead in the championship.
Pictures are courtesy of Autosport web. Check out their comprehensive gallery here.