January 27, 2021

What happened to Honda’s other title contenders at Fuji?

Prior to the weekend, Real Racing Honda pair Bertrand Baguette and Koudai Tsukakoshi were tied at the head of the standings with TOM’S Toyota man Ryo Hirakawa, and actually led on countback having scored two wins this year to Hirakawa’s one.

Hirakawa eked out a one-point lead as his teammate in the #37 Toyota GR Supra, Kenta Yamashita, took pole in a qualifying session dominated by the marque.

By contrast, only one of Honda’s three Bridgestone-shod NSX-GTs made it into Q2, which was the Team Kunimitsu car of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino that went on to win the race after Hirakawa dramatically ran out of fuel exiting the final corner.

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The ARTA Honda of Tomoki Nojiri and Nirei Fukuzumi, coming off the back of three straight podiums and a victory in the previous race at Motegi, could only muster 11th in qualifying, while the Real car fared even worse as Baguette ended up 12th in Q1.

From so far back on the grid, fourth place at the finish was a commendable result for Baguette and Tsukakoshi, but it wasn’t enough for the championship.

“The first plan was to gain positions in the first laps and I did it quite well,” Baguette told Motorsport.com. “But I expected to have a better race pace than that.

“We started to have pick-up on the front tyres, and after 15 or 20 laps we had a lot of graining on the front-left. Basically, we had the wrong tyre choice compared to the #100 [Kunimitsu Honda]. They were much quicker.

“We did the maximum, P4, the three cars in front were much faster than us and deserved to be in front. The #100 deserved to win the championship. Disappointing for us, but we were on a different road and it wasn’t the right one. That’s how it is.”

Baguette actually made a very strong start from 12th, concluding the first lap seventh and then picking up another place at the expense of Daiki Sasaki’s Impul Nissan on lap two. At this stage, he was ahead of Makino in the Team Kunimitsu Honda.

But, after picking up more places at the expense of the damaged SARD Toyota of Heikki Kovalainen and the ailing Cerumo Supra of Yuji Tachikawa, Baguette was repassed by Makino for fourth place on lap 13. And, after gaining one more place at the expense of Nissan’s Ronnie Quintarelli, that was as far up the order as the Real Honda would get.

“We had three formation laps, and I did a good job warming up the tyres,” Baguette reflected. “I could feel good grip immediately. I took maximum risk at the start because I was sure the others would be struggling with the warm-up.

“I took good advantage of that, I overtook five cars on lap one, and at one point I was up to P4, so it was a really good start. But we just didn’t have the pace to fight for the podium.

“[By the time I got out of the car] I knew it was over. We didn’t have the tyres that the #100 was using available to us, so Koudai had no choice but to keep the same compound that I used for his stint. I knew from that point that we had no chance.”

#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT

#100 RAYBRIG NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

The first part of the race was very different for ARTA, as Nojiri went backwards on the first lap as he slipped behind a fast-starting Baguette, and then remained 11th after an early move on the Dunlop-shod Nakajima Racing Honda.

From there, it was a slow but steady ascent up the order to eighth ahead of the pitstop phase, at which juncture Nojiri took the lead as he was the penultimate GT500 runner to come into the pits, doing so four laps after the other Bridgestone Hondas on lap 26.

Taking no fresh tyres vaulted the ARTA car, now in the hands of Fukuzumi, up to sixth place. And that became fifth when the #14 Cerumo Toyota of Sho Tsuboi, which had also opted for a no-tyre change strategy, picked up terminal damage in a Turn 1 clash with the #36 TOM’S Toyota of Yuhi Sekiguchi while battling over second place.

Fukuzumi brought the car home in that position, only five seconds behind the Real Honda of Tsukakoshi – in turn a massive 45s down on the winning #100 car at the finish.

“We lost a lot of time at the beginning, which was painful,” ARTA chief engineer Ryan Dingle told Motorsport.com. “But I think we were the only team to get away with no tyre change, as for the #14 it didn’t really work out.

“Nojiri was saving the tyres in the first stint, but it cost us a bit too much time. Nirei’s pace in the second stint was good. It was a shame, we just lost too much time in the first stint.

“That boils down to qualifying. We should have probably been where the #100 car was, but I don’t think we could have touched the Toyotas. It was a bit less than what we hoped for.”

#8 ARTA NSX-GT

#8 ARTA NSX-GT

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

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