Kondo’s reigning champions Joao Paulo de Oliveira and Kiyoto Fujinami opened their title defence with their third win in five races on Sunday in their Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3.
It came after a mid-race safety car period shuffled the pack in both classes, as the majority of cars all dived into the pits on the same lap in anticipation of a caution period following a spin for the Tomei Sports Nissan of Yudai Uchida.
Prior to that, Fujinami had been running third behind the pole-winning #11 Gainer Nissan of Hironobu Yasuda and the Saitama Toyopet Green Brave Toyota GR Supra of Kohta Kawaai, with the lead battle remaining virtually static from the opening lap until the pitstop phase.
Kawaai reacted to the spin by pitting at the end of lap 30, with Yasuda and Fujinami leaving it until the next lap to come in – by which point the pitlane had become crowded full of GT500 cars that had also entered the pits in anticipation of the safety car being called.
With space at a premium in the narrow pitlane, most teams opted for a ‘dive’ pitstop whereby cars stop at a 45-degree angle, and then need to be pushed back before continuing on their way.
That was the case for the #11 Gainer squad, which lost an estimated 10 seconds as it had to squeeze in between the GT500 class NDDP/B-Max Nissan and the sister #10 Gainer car that had pitted in the lap before.
#11 GAINER TANAX GT-R
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Conversely, the Kondo squad was fortunate enough to have free space either side – the box in front belonged to the team’s GT500 car, which stayed out during the safety car, while the garage behind was assigned to the NISMO engine service department.
That meant Fujinami was able to make his stop more or less normally and enjoy a smooth changeover to de Oliveira, who emerged from the pits with the net lead.
“When I heard over the radio [that the safety car might appear] I was already at the last corner, so I couldn’t pit in, and had to run one more lap,” recalled Fujinami of the pit sequence.
“During that lap I was wondering what would happen if the safety car came out, but luckily it came out after I came into the pits.
“Another lucky thing was the line-up of the pits, and I was instructed over the radio to enter diagonally. But in reality, the pit stalls next to ours remained empty, and we were able to do our pitstop in parallel [to the garage], minimising the time loss.”
De Oliveira was tasked with hanging on to the advantage for the latter half of the race, with the LEON Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Naoya Gamou – likewise benefitting from a clear pit stall in front – pressuring the Kondo Nissan for the remainder of the 82-lap race distance.
Meanwhile, the #11 Gainer machine, now with Katsuyuki Hiranaka on board, that had led the race up to that point found itself demoted to a net fifth behind the Saitama Toyopet Supra and the Inging Lotus Evora MC.
Hiranaka was able to get one place back at the expense of the Lotus but otherwise the order out front didn’t change, with de Oliveira hanging on to win by just 0.454s ahead of Gamou.
“We didn’t expect to win at Okayama, especially after the GTA [official pre-season] test,” said de Oliveira. “The pace was not so strong, and when we came here the goal was just to score some good points.
“When the race restarted I had 40 laps left with car #65 [Gamou] behind me. There was huge pressure because I couldn’t manage the tyres exactly how I wanted. I had to push very hard right from the restart because he and the Supra were in my mirror the whole race.
“It was a tremendous race, I couldn’t take my eyes off the track for a second and I had to use every millimetre of the track to get this win.”
De Oliveira and Fujinami’s win means they head to the second round of the season at Fuji carrying the maximum 60kg success handicap weight.
“Of course it’s a fantastic start, it’s the best way to start the season,” continued de Oliveira. “We already have a heavy handicap for Fuji, so the goal is to continue to score as many points as possible.
“Fuji will be tougher than we previously imagined because of the handicap weight, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and we’ll just continue to work hard.”
Kiyoto Fujinami, Joao Paulo de Oliveira, #56 Realize Nissan Automobile College GT-R
Photo by: Masahide Kamio