December 3, 2020

Five cars within two points: Super GT’s title race hots up

Toyota holds a narrow advantage with two of its GR Supras leading the way, but after a dominant showing in the opening round of the season for the new car, the marque’s leading crews can all point to at least two races in which they failed to score as many points as they should have done, keeping the title race at the top very close.

Meanwhile, Honda and Nissan each have a car firmly in the hunt, with both the #17 Real Racing NSX-GT and #23 NISMO GT-R scoring two victories apiece to keep themselves in range – but struggling for form when they’ve not been on the top step of the podium.

With the situation so finely poised, we’ve taken the chance to look at each of the title protagonists in turn heading into this weekend’s Motegi round – where the usual success handicaps are halved. That means every point scored so far translates into 1kg of ballast, with the fuel restrictors that have been in play for the last four races no longer in use.

Kazuya Oshima/Sho Tsuboi – #14 Cerumo Toyota GR Supra – 47 points

0 wins/0 poles. September Motegi result – 4th

The case for: Despite having yet to claim a win in the ‘Rookie Racing’-entered Cerumo machine, Oshima and Tsuboi have shown consistent race pace just about everywhere and have done a solid job of mitigating the effects of the success handicaps. The best example of that was at Fuji III, where the pair finished second, although Tsuboi felt they could have won if they’d started higher up the grid. Fourth last time at Motegi despite being among the heaviest cars, they should be even more competitive now the handicaps have been slashed.

The case against: Besides qualifying, points were thrown away needlessly in both Suzuka races, which could make the difference in the final reckoning. In August, a slow pitstop turned a possible podium or at least a top-five into a disappointing ninth. Two weeks ago, a costly stint length calculation error probably cost the team a small handful of points. With the margins so fine, another similar slip-up could spell the end of the #14 squad’s hopes.

What they say: “We need to win at Motegi. I’m confident, we have a good set-up for Motegi and we don’t have a fuel restrictor this time. At Suzuka we had good cornering speed, so if we have more power, we should be very quick. If we can start from the front, we have a good chance to win. But it will be tough.” (Oshima)

Verdict: On balance, the favourites – if the team doesn’t give away any more points cheaply.

#14 WAKO'S 4CR GR Supra

#14 WAKO’S 4CR GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Ryo Hirakawa – #37 TOM’S Toyota GR Supra – 46 points

1 win/1 pole. September Motegi result – 6th

The case for: Both Oshima and Tsuboi had identified the #37 car as the team’s biggest threat for the title run-in – and it’s not hard to see why. But that was before the news that Nick Cassidy would be standing aside for the final two races of the season to focus on his Formula E preparations for 2021. The good news is that Cassidy’s replacement Kenta Yamashita is straight out the top drawer, and already excelled earlier this year when he was pressed into action to replace Heikki Kovalainen at fellow Toyota squad SARD. Yes, the pressure will be higher this time, but there’s certainly nobody better available to do the job.

The case against: After four months away, expecting Yamashita to perform at the level at which Cassidy has operated this season is a big ask. The New Zealander often made big progress in the opening stint from unpromising grid positions, and while the need to do that may be lessened by the success handicaps being halved, whoever does the first stint this weekend will need to show similar incisiveness. The #37 crew has also been battling engine issues for several races, although almost all the Toyota runners had a fresh unit for Suzuka II.

What they say: “I think the situation is similar to that of the opening round. Since all the top contenders have similar handicap weight, it’s virtually like having no weight. I’m also looking forward to racing with no fuel restrictor because it was quite tough at Suzuka. I think I can win if everything goes well, so the goal is to win both the remaining races.” (Hirakawa)

Verdict: A lot depends on how quickly Yamashita can get (back) up to speed.

#37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra

#37 KeePer TOM’S GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Ronnie Quintarelli/Tsugio Matsuda – #23 NISMO Nissan GT-R – 45 points

2 wins/0 poles. September Motegi result – 8th

The case for: The most decorated driver pairing in the SUPER GT paddock reignited their title bid with victory last time out at Suzuka, making it a clean sweep of wins at the Japanese Grand Prix venue. What the Nissan GT-R lacks in raw pace Quintarelli and Matsuda have sometimes been able to make up for with sound strategy, often going for long first stints on their Michelin tyres, although pace has been lacking on previous visits to Motegi and Fuji. 

The case against: If we’re honest, the second Suzuka win was extremely fortunate, coming as the result of a perfectly timed safety car. It’s hard to say where Quintarelli and Matsuda may have finished without it, but suffice to say that it’s unlikely they would have been in a position where they could be considered true contenders ahead of this weekend. Fuji in particular has been not an especially happy hunting ground this year for any Nissan crew.

What they say: “We are still lacking in some areas; I honestly think the final race will be tough. Motegi is extremely important for us. If we can make a small gap at Motegi, and then it goes well at Fuji… it would be good to win, but honestly right now we don’t have the performance to win the final round.” (Yutaka Suzuki, NISMO team director)

 Verdict: Of the top five, definitely the crew most reliant on luck to come out on top.

#23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R

#23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Koudai Tsukakoshi/Bertrand Baguette – #17 Real Racing Honda NSX-GT – 45 points

2 wins/0 poles. September Motegi result – 1st

The case for: Tsukakoshi and Baguette have been the standout pairing of the five-car Honda stable in 2020 so far, and their second win of the season during the previous visit to Motegi was especially impressive as it came while carrying some 46kg of success ballast. Since then, the #17 car has been lumbered with the stage three fuel restrictor, which seems to penalise the Honda more than it does the Toyota, although even with that the Belgian-Japanese duo have managed to grind out a few valuable points to keep themselves firmly in the hunt.

The case against: The Honda is still lacking slightly in straight-line speed, and when the handicaps are done away with completely at Fuji, the NSX-GT is going to have a hard time living with the ultra-slippery Supra. That said, Baguette and Tsukakoshi’s win at the Toyota-owned in August was impressive and they weren’t too far off the pace in the opener before having to drop out of contention for a possible podium finish with a turbo problem.

What they say: “Motegi is a track the car likes, and it’s a very important race for the championship because I believe in Fuji it will be impossible to beat Toyota. We have to be in front after Motegi and if we don’t do that, we can forget the championship.” (Baguette)

Verdict: A win at Motegi and a points buffer going into Fuji could set them up nicely.

#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT

#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Yuhi Sekiguchi/Sacha Fenestraz – #36 TOM’S GR Supra – 45 points

0 wins/0 poles. September Motegi result – 11th

The case for: At first it seemed as if the new-for-2020 pairing in the #36 TOM’S car could do no wrong. A solid second in the Fuji opener for Sekiguchi and GT500 rookie Fenestraz was followed up with a similar result in Round 2 even though they had the second-heaviest car in the field, and while third in the following event at Suzuka owed a little to good fortune, it confirmed their status as a true force to be reckoned with in the title battle.

The case against: Sekiguchi has blown hot and cold this year – turning in some fantastic stints on some occasions and struggling on others. His arguably over-zealous defending against Cassidy in the first Motegi race resulted in a handful of points going begging, as did the lock-up at the start of his stint in Fuji III that ultimately resulted in a puncture. Fenestraz meanwhile has put in a series of assured performances so far in his first season in the big leagues, but how he handles the pressure now the title is on the line remains to be seen.

What they say: “The chances are still there, until the last race there will be a chance. When the car is light and with no restrictor, we looked quite strong at the start of the season at Fuji. That gives us some confidence, and the new engine felt good even with the restrictor, so without it it’s going to be great. I hope we can have a good last two races.” (Fenestraz)

Verdict: Still very much in the picture if Sekiguchi can cut out the errors.

#36 au TOM'S GR Supra

#36 au TOM’S GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The outsiders 

Yuichi Nakayama – #39 SARD Toyota GR Supra – 39 points (1 win)

Naoki Yamamoto/Tadasuke Makino – #100 Team Kunimitsu Honda NSX-GT – 38 points

Hiroaki Ishiura/Yuji Tachikawa – #38 Cerumo Toyota GR Supra – 36 points (1 pole)

Nirei Fukuzumi/Tomoki Nojiri – #8 ARTA Honda NSX-GT – 28 points (3 poles)

Besides the main five contenders, there are four more crews that are still within a race win of the head of the standings – although, given their form across the season so far, it would be fairer to call them outside bets rather than strong challengers.

SARD Toyota’s Yuichi Nakayama is the only driver in this list to have won this year, sharing the spoils with Heikki Kovalainen at Fuji III, but the team’s form has been very inconsistent elsewhere. The previous race at Suzuka proved little short of a disaster, as Kovalainen was left baffled after an utterly different run to 11th place, and the September Motegi race was another difficult one for the team led by former champ Juichi Wakisaka.

Kunimitsu Honda pair Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino were unfortunate to be left with their first non-score of the year at Suzuka after Makino was rear-ended on his way into the pits by Cassidy, which probably cost them a seventh or eighth-place finish. So far this year the #100 crew has had only one trip to the podium, which was in the first Suzuka race, and given Toyota’s probable strength at Fuji they realistically need a win at Motegi.

The second Cerumo car, the #38 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura, was strong last time out at Motegi but that was heavily influenced by their low handicap weight that weekend, so it’s unlikely they will be so strong this time around. ARTA Honda duo Tomoki Nojiri and Nirei Fukuzumi meanwhile have so far failed to find a way to convert their reliably strong qualifying pace into race results, and the first Motegi race wasn’t kind to them either.

It would be a surprise to see any of these crews edge their way into real contention by the time we get to Fuji later this month, but the beauty of SUPER GT is that you never know.

#8 ARTA NSX-GT

#8 ARTA NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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