Toyota had won two of the previous three races held at Fuji Speedway and was expected to dominate again for SUPER GT’s fourth visit to the venue in 2020 as part of a heavily-revised calendar that features only three circuits.
However, even Honda drivers were left surprised by just how far ahead Toyota was on Saturday, with the GR Supras locking out the first two rows of the grid.
Nakajima Racing was the top Honda team in fifth on Dunlop tyres, seven tenths down on the pole-sitting #37 TOM’S Toyota, while Yamamoto was a further two places back and nearly a second off the pace in the Bridgestone-shod #100 Kunimitsu NSX-GT.
Yamamoto, who propelled Honda to its most recent GT500 success in 2018 with then-teammate Jenson Button, fears Honda could face a “total defeat” if the lead TOM’S car of Ryo Hirakawa and Kenta Yamashita can replicate its one-lap pace over a race distance.
“I didn’t make any mistakes and I think I ran to the best of my potential, but more than finishing seventh, the time difference [to pole] is the most frustrating thing,” said Yamamoto.
“It won’t be easy [to win the title]. Considering that the car with the most potential won pole, if nothing unusual happens in the race, it will be plain sailing [for the #37 car]. Toyota dealt us a heavy blow today, but we don’t know what will happen in the race and the championship is not decided in qualifying.
“If they [#37] are as fast in the race as they were in qualifying, it will be a total defeat. I wonder if the race will be a different story. But I didn’t expect the gap to be so big.”
#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Real Racing Honda duo Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi arrived at the Fuji decider level on points with Hirakawa in the standings, having scored two wins this year.
But they qualified a distant 12th and last among the Bridgestone Honda contingent, while the pole lap of Nick Cassidy’s stand-in Yamashita set allowed Hirakawa to take a one-point lead in the championship.
Baguette is convinced that the #17 Honda doesn’t have the raw pace to take the fight to the Toyotas, and will need luck on its side to stage an upset in Sunday’s title decider.
The last two SUPER GT races were effectively decided by the timing of the safety car, with the NISMO-entered Nissan GT-R of Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda in particular coming from the rear of the field to take an unlikely win two rounds back at Suzuka.
“We need something to happen like a safety car would be nice for example,” Baguette told Motorsport.com. “On true speed it’s gonna be difficult, but we will try again.
“If you pit before the safety car, if you get a similar situation to Motegi when you pit before the safety car [as the ARTA and Nakajima Hondas were able to] and they all have to pit after safety car. That’s the bad point of this championship.
“We got screwed twice by the safety car, I wouldn’t mind getting it on my side for once. I wouldn’t be ashamed or anything. I will completely take it.
“For the moment it’s not looking good. We will do more changes, but I think we have to invent something to beat them, I don’t know what kind of miracle we can do.”
Honda SUPER GT project leader Masahiro Saiki had previously warned that his marque needed a points lead heading to Fuji anticipation of a commanding showing from Toyota.
Having now witnessed just how quick Toyota proved to be on its home turf, Saiki conceded that the chances of Honda preventing its rival from sealing a fourth title in five years (including those under the Lexus brand) are now slim.
“If anything, up until the last race at Motegi it’s been quite warm, so this was the first qualifying session with a cold track surface,” Saiki said. “So I think it’s possible that the tyres we brought to deal with this drop in temperature didn’t work so well with our set-up.
“Tomorrow, the race pace will vary depending on how well the tyres we chose work.
“Part of me thinks it will be hard [to win the championship] from this grid position, but I think the situation has the potential to change a lot depending on how the race pace goes, including tyres and set-up, in response to such cold conditions. We hope our race pace is consistent.”
The main contenders for the championship:
Additional reporting by Tomohiro Yoshita