October 23, 2020

Super GT half-term report: Winners and losers so far in 2020


Winner: Toyota 

It may be Honda that leads the way in the drivers’ championship at the halfway stage at the season, but with four strong cars in the top six of the standings, Toyota seems like the stronger bet to triumph in its first year of GT500 competition with the new GR Supra.

The year started perfectly for the new car with a top-five lockout at the Fuji opener, and while there have been no further triumphs since then, Toyota crews have taken seven of a possible 12 podium finishes so far, against four for Honda and just one for Nissan. That’s partly down to the sheer strength in depth that exists within the marque’s two-car outfits, TOM’S and Cerumo. It’s hard to pick a stand-out crew from among them, but suffice to say that all four have given themselves a chance of the championship at this stage of the season – even though they can all point to at least one result that should have been better.

For the #36 TOM’S crew of Sacha Fenestraz and Yuhi Sekiguchi, that race was the most recent one at Motegi, where some slightly overzealous defending from Sekiguchi against Nick Cassidy in the sister car probably meant a handful of points went begging. Cassidy and Ryo Hirakawa can point to slow pitstops by the #37 side of the garage at both at Suzuka and Motegi. Likewise, the #14 Cerumo pair of Sho Tsuboi and Kazuya Oshima suffered from tardy pitwork at Suzuka, where the #38 machine of Hiroaki Ishiura and Yuji Tachikawa was forced out with gearbox trouble while fighting for victory.

Both TOM’S cars arrive at this weekend’s Fuji race with stage-two fuel flow restrictors as a result of their success, while the Cerumo cars have stage-one restrictors. That will act as a severe handicap at a track like Fuji, but nonetheless the four Toyota crews can realistically target some solid top-six or top-eight finishes that could make all the difference when the weight handicaps come off and the title is finally decided… also at Fuji.

#36 au TOM'S GR Supra, #37 KeePer TOM'S GR Supra

#36 au TOM’S GR Supra, #37 KeePer TOM’S GR Supra

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Winner: Real Racing 

SUPER GT is set up in such a way that winning multiple races in the first half of the season is a rare feat indeed. Before this year, you have to go back to 2016 for the previous time it happened, and the time before that was 2008. That context makes the achievements of Bertrand Baguette, Koudai Tsukakoshi and the whole Real Racing team even more impressive.

The potential was there even in 2019, as evidenced by the team’s two pole positions (the only one for Honda runners of that year), but it’s only this season that the team has been able to realise that potential. Perhaps it was not much surprise that a light, Bridgestone-shod Honda triumphed in the second weekend of the year at Fuji, but Baguette and Tsukakoshi’s subsequent win last time out at Motegi – which was achieved in pretty emphatic fashion despite their 46kg of success ballast – was by no means in the script.

Real Racing now has two points in hand over the #36 TOM’S crew at the head of the standings, but has crossed the threshold at which the harshest stage three fuel flow restrictor is applied. That could make even a top-10 finish this weekend a challenge, but the two TOM’S crews in particular have shown their adeptness at racking up the points when they have had the heaviest cars in the field. Now it’s the turn of Baguette and Tsukakoshi to prove they can do the same – their title chances could well hinge upon it.

#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT

#17 KEIHIN NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Winner: Mother Chassis and JAF GT300 cars

At the end of last season, it seemed SUPER GT’s homegrown Mother Chassis concept was on the brink of extinction as Tsuchiya Engineering traded its Toyota 86 MC for a Porsche 911 GT3 R and Saitama Toyopet parked its Mark X MC in favour of its self-built Toyota GR Supra GT300. But events in 2020 leave you wondering if the formula could be heading for a revival.

There are just three cars based around the standard Dome tub still on the grid in 2020, with Team Mach being joined in fielding an 86 MC by Inging Motorsport, along with the venerable Lotus Evora MC of Cars Tokai Dream28. But all three have had their highlights this year, with Team Mach getting on the podium in the Fuji opener, Inging grabbing pole at Round 2 and of course the Lotus taking a first win for a MC car in two years that weekend.

Of the three, only the Lotus looks to be a serious contender for the crown, thanks in part to the considerable driving talents of veterans Hiroki Katoh and Masataka Yanagida. But with the JAF GT300 contingent enjoying a revival of their own this year, the chances of a non-GT3 car winning the title for the first time since 2016 certainly can’t be disregarded.

A trio of top-four finishes for the works Subaru BRZ and victory for the Saitama Toyopet Supra in the opener have left them fourth and fifth overall at the halfway point. It’s a marked contrast to the situation last year, where GT3 cars won every race and ended up locking out the top eight spots in the championship. And with travel restrictions making it impossible for the top European GT3 factories to send out factory drivers and support staff to lend a helping hand, you wonder whether we might have already hit ‘peak GT3’.

#61 R&D Sport Subaru BRZ: Takuto Iguchi, Hideki Yamauchi

#61 R&D Sport Subaru BRZ: Takuto Iguchi, Hideki Yamauchi

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Winner: Dunlop

With four races down, the scoreboard for GT500’s tyre war this year reads: Bridgestone 3, Michelin 1, Yokohama 0, Dunlop. So far, so normal. But more unexpected is that Dunlop, which supplies just one of the 15 GT500 runners, the #64 Nakajima Racing Honda, managed to nick a pole position off Bridgestone at Suzuka.

It was both Nakajima and Dunlop’s first pole in GT500 since 2012, and while that pace couldn’t quite be replicated in the race, Takuya Izawa and Hiroki Otsu still came away with an encouraging fourth place, the team’s best dry-weather result in three years. At Motegi, they qualified a strong fifth and were running in the top three before tyre pick-up issues blunted their charge. Even though they only finished 10th finally, Nakajima has turned into a much more competitive proposition this year, and the team’s rubber is partly to thank.

Dunlop being competitive in GT300 is less of a novelty, but with two of its three cars in the top three of the standings – including the points-leading #11 Gainer Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Hironobu Yasuda, as well as the aforementioned Subaru – with four races to go, a first title since Gainer’s 2015 triumph is looking hopeful, all the more so as it has a foot in both the JAF GT300 and GT3 camps.

#64 Nakajima Racing Honda NSX-GT: Takuya Izawa, Hiroki Otsu

#64 Nakajima Racing Honda NSX-GT: Takuya Izawa, Hiroki Otsu

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Loser: Nissan

The revised 2020-spec Nissan GT-R looked in pre-season testing like it might struggle to match all-new designs from Honda and Toyota this year. And while perhaps the season has been a little better than first expected, there’s no denying that the Yokohama marque is lagging behind its rivals, especially when you look beyond the flagship #23 NISMO car.

Victory at Suzuka – by far the best-suited of this year’s three circuits to the slightly draggy, underpowered GT-R – for Ronnie Quintarelli and Tsugio Matsuda has been the highlight of an otherwise trying season. The pair’s next-best result has been eighth at Motegi, where Matsuda fell backwards in the closing stages having run in the top five. It was the #23 car’s first race of the year carrying any serious handicap weight, and that performance doesn’t bode well for this weekend’s Fuji race. Seventh in the standings and 18 points away from the lead, Quintarelli and Matsuda are arguably just about still in touch (titles have been won from further back in the last 10 years), but can ill-afford another poor result.

For what amounts to the second Nissan factory car, the #3 NDDP/B-Max machine of Katsumasa Chiyo and Kohei Hirate, there’s been good consistency but little in the way of front-running pace, with sixth their best finish so far. Meanwhile, a catalogue of misfortunes too numerous to mention here in recent races have prevented Kondo Racing adding to the solitary point Jann Mardenborough and Mitsunori Takaboshi scored in the season opener, while Impul’s Bridgestone-shod GT-R is the only GT500 runner yet to score in four races, a situation for which Daiki Sasaki has to shoulder the large portion of the blame.

Kondo and Impul go into this weekend with essentially no handicap weight and fresh engines to boot (the #23 and #3 crews already took their changes in the previous two races), so there can be no more excuses to finally start scoring serious points – especially for Impul. The #3 crew meanwhile looks as if it will have to start playing a supporting role to the #23 NISMO crew to keep Nissan’s slim championship hopes alive.

#23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R

#23 MOTUL AUTECH GT-R

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Loser: SARD 

It would be unfair to say that SARD has done a bad job so far in 2020, but at the same time it’s clear that performance-wise the team has a lot more work to do before it can consistently challenge fellow Bridgestone-shod Toyota squads TOM’S and Cerumo.

Matters weren’t helped at the start of the year by Heikki Kovalainen missing the opening two races of the season due to travel restrictions. While reigning champion Kenta Yamashita and Sena Sakaguchi both did an admirable job standing in for the Finn, the revolving door of drivers only delayed the process of the new team structure led by former Team LeMans team director and three-time GT500 champion Juichi Wakisaka bedding in. And that’s before you consider the disadvantage SARD already faces compared to the two-car teams.

On-track, the highlights have been two fifth places at Fuji Round 1 and Suzuka, although the latter result could have been more than that had Yuichi Nakayama not been rear-ended by Nirei Fukuzumi’s ARTA Honda around half-distance. The following race at Motegi promised much as Kovalainen and Nakayama qualified fourth, only to fall backwards in the race owing to a failed tyre gamble that left them down in ninth.

With Nakayama 24 points adrift of the lead and four Supra crews ahead of him in the standings, any realistic hopes of SARD contending for the title are probably over. But as the only Bridgestone Toyota not hobbled by a fuel restrictor this weekend at Fuji, the team does have a good chance to show it can still be a serious contender when the stars align.

#39 Team SARD Toyota GR Supra: Heikki Kovalainen, Yuichi Nakayama

#39 Team SARD Toyota GR Supra: Heikki Kovalainen, Yuichi Nakayama

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Loser: ARTA

The contrast in fortunes for Honda’s three Bridgestone runners has been fairly remarkable so far. While Real Racing rides high at the top of the drivers’ standings, and Team Kunimitsu sits a solid fourth thanks to the consistency of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino, ARTA duo Nirei Fukuzumi and Tomoki Nojiri languish in 12th, with just the four points they mustered in the Fuji opener to their credit.

The high point of their season arguably came before the first race even took place, when Fukuzumi set a new lap record around Fuji in Q1. Since then it’s pretty much all been downhill for ARTA, with a poor tyre choice and Honda’s general lack of race pace against the rampant Toyotas ending its hopes of a strong start to the year, Nojiri spinning out of the lead in the second Fuji race, Fukuzumi throwing away a possible podium by colliding with the SARD Toyota at Suzuka and then getting tangled up with Mardenborough’s Kondo Nissan at Motegi while scrapping for the minor points positions.

ARTA has gone into the last three races firmly among the favourites due to their lack of handicap weight, but in the last two races the #8 car has qualified far too low down the order to be a real factor. Back at Fuji, where the second race at least was going so well until Nojiri’s faux-pas, the team has a chance to finally capitalise on the inherent speed of its package this weekend, if both drivers can keep their noses clean. But any upturn in form now will arrive too late to save their championship chances.

#8 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri Honda NSX-GT: Tomoki Nojiri, Nirei Fukuzumi

#8 Autobacs Racing Team Aguri Honda NSX-GT: Tomoki Nojiri, Nirei Fukuzumi

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

Loser: Yokohama

Given Dunlop’s clear progress in the GT500 ranks with just one entry to work with, Yokohama now appears to be the tyre manufacturer with the biggest job ahead of it, especially after raising expectations of challenging for a first win in the upper class since 2016 with a relatively strong showing in pre-season testing.

Supplying three similar cars with Honda switching to the same front-rear concept as its rivals has helped the situation for all the Yokohama runners, with the data generated by the Mugen Honda team now proving relevant to Kondo Racing Nissan and Bandoh squads and vice versa. But progress has still been slow, with overheating problems over a stint somewhat masking the one-lap gains. Results-wise, Mugen’s surprise podium last time out at Motegi stands out as the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape.

In GT300, Yokohama’s GT3 runners have also by and large struggled. Its best placed car in the standings is the Cars Dream Tokai28 Lotus, which has the advantage of being considerably lighter and therefore easier on its tyres. Best of the Yokohama GT3 cars is the Kondo Nissan in seventh in the standings, with a best finish of fourth, and expected front-runners like the Goodsmile Racing Mercedes and the Drago Corse Honda have so far failed to make much of an impression, scrapping only for minor points placings.

#4 Goodsmile Racing & Team Ukyo Mercedes AMG GT3: Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka

#4 Goodsmile Racing & Team Ukyo Mercedes AMG GT3: Nobuteru Taniguchi, Tatsuya Kataoka

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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